Voodoo Science

By: Robert Park (U of Maryland) 2000 Type: NF

75% In response to media is full of Junk science, he makes the case for proper Science.
Review : what he says makes sense.. but there does seem to be a right wing bias.. he leaves out a few things

meaning : It is an important book cos without truth you can't make good decisions, so junk science is an enemy of the people. His book explains why "good scientific practice" is important and successfully trashes a lot of wacky theories.

Synopsis : American Physics Society rep in washington - wrote some newspaper stories including a set called Voodoo Science for NY Times.
The scientific system works - it gives us good information to make our decisions on. BUT Media gives publicity to wild ideas outside normal science, showing them in an unbalanced way and it often puts a positive spin on the story. When in fact the science is bad and the machines/ideas don't work in proper controlled Scientific studies
It seems that the media and public 1. Distrust science for some reason. 2. Want to believe the dreams of some wacky theories, maybe cos if they were true the possible gains are big : they can explain things simply and clearly, instead of the slow rigorous crawl of science, which leads often to ever more complex explanations.

The problem with scientists is that often they are not able to explain things simply, so the public gets muddled and can't see the difference between science and magic and wacky theories. His explanations are 98% clear, but I think he is also guilty of this when after proving the evidence that the evidence presented is flawed he then goes off into muddling explations of why certain theories don't work when it would have been better to say if they did work the alternative scientists would be able to present proper evidence.

Analyses : perpetual energy machine, 2 Cold Fusion, 3 Washington Crime Reducing TM experiment, 4 Global warming, 5 Alternative Medicine, 6 manned Spaceflight is a waste of time and money, 7 Power Lines cause cancer - disproved 8 UFO, 9 SDI, 10 pseudoscience,

e.g 1 Joe Newman's perpetual energy machine. The idea is so ridiculous cos you can't get more energy out than you put in and 100s of people before have made similar claims, but it's always turned out to be a mistake so it's ignored by scientists.
The scientists know talking about it is a waste of their time and secondly by acknowledging the cranks they would be giving them credibility.
They tested his machine -so he said it was a conspiracy . When they offered him to name the independent lab to test it - he refused.

    Characteristics of Bad Science
  • statistics are close to the margins of error, but people don't want to believe it's error. E.g. in Telekinesis experiments.
  • No Progress They should be able to redesign experiments so the results are clearer, but they never succeed the results are still close to error margins. Sample size has to be big enough
  • Amateur Scientists ignore results not in their favour
  • A gravy train starts ..and you get vested interests manufacturers, marketers etc. who don't want to see the situation stoppped
  • The way most media works : Publicity gives it credibility - so scientists often find it does more harm than good to comment
  • so you get accusations of a cover up if it's ignored and conspiracy if most scientists poopoo the ideas
  • The waters get muddied and the public get confused, and scientists get bogged down contradicting bad science
  • Pathogical Science when scientist are overoptimistic or make mistakes fooiling themselves
  • Junk Science trying to fool people with theories of "could be", with little evidence
  • Pseudoscience Old ideas like "goblins" etc, trying to explain with scientific words
  • Fraudulant Science Might start off as foolishness or error, but the self delusion elvolves to be fraud

    Good Science = testable laws and theories
  • Professional technique.. double blind technique
  • Submitted for peer review first
  • can be replicated ..if it can't then it's probably not true

e.g. 2 Cold Fusion - the initial experiment has been disproved, but the story sticks, a handful of scientists still debate it.
Electric companies supported research Pascals wager When the payout could be so big people will take ridulous odds, but it's still a waste of money when the chances of success are almost zero. There very big differences in the type of possible .. possible you can see in the street : a dog, a lion, a dinosaur.

People want to believe, indeed humans are biologically programmed to beleive things. that's how gambling works. People past bad luck means they are due for some good luck. Statistics don't work like that, past events don't influence future luck.

Superconductors - a miracle discovery that was properly scientifically tested.

Coincidence is not the same as cause and effect

e.g. 3 Washington Crime Reducing TM experiment - TM people meditated to lower crime. Crime went up, but one study claimed it the TM kept the crime lower, but then this turned out to be all TM scientists not independent.

e.g. 4 Global warming - Temperatures have risen, CO2 in the atmosphere has increased, but there is no proven connection. It could be very important cos it could lead bigger problems such as ice melting releasing more methane more global warming etc. Even tho not proven the size of the problem could be catastrophic, so it seems wise to take precautions. In th is story cos it's a very complicated system the science has not been proven yet so so far it's upto Scientists opinions which vary. So it appears science is giving a mixed message. This doesn't mean science is confused as eventually science comes up with truths which do hold science works.

He leaves out the some things like the hole in ozone layer ! if that has not been recorded before modern times, then something modern has caused it.

Alternative Medicine

E.g. 4 Vitamin O - people are vulnerable to false advertising, cos 1. instead of making factual claims companies rely on testimonials that aren't always true and natural products and homeopathic products can be sold without proving that they work or are even safe.

In non double blind studies they can be proved to work cos of placebo effect works.

Why does placebo effect work ?

  • Some of the other treaments are worse than doing nothing
  • The body is the best cure, but it takes time so when an alternative cure is used as a replacement for some bad cure. It's the body that cures not the alternative cure. Sugar pills would work just as well.
  • The practioner believes as well, so this is convincing than someone who knows they are giving you sugar pills
Homeopathy: rubbishes it doesn't work in studies, the science doesn't hold up either. People came up with the idea that water remebers the active ingredient instead of accepting that something else like the body is the cure

magnet Therapy: rubbishes it doesn't work in studies, the science doesn't hold up. 200 years ago Mesmer's system was proved not to work in double blind studies

Normally the alternative treatments aren't so dangerous cos they usually do nothing but they can Can be dangerous : when people refuse normal treatment cos they only believe in the alternative (hence the title complementary used in the UK ). The problem is that it starts to give people strange logic.. they start to believe in dreamy bad science instead of logical good science.

manned Spaceflight is a waste of time and money

Scientists have proved machines are cheaper and more effective, but politicians interfere

Power Lines cause cancer - disproved
First study wasn't done properly no other study has duplicated the results. But the checking took time and so the story was in the media and stuck. All the studies cost billions of dollars
Problem of time lag - false news stories take years to disprove. Then people say it's a conspiracy.

Hyped up in the book "The Great Power Line Cover Up" by Brodeur

- there was never a successful prosecution cos of 2 court rulings.

  1. prosecutions have to be based on real science not junk science
  2. Judges have the right to recruit their own teams of science experts..tho some still prefer to use jurors

http://www.fumento.com/emf.html says Wind shear is one of the major banes of air travel, a killer held responsible for causing 18 crashes and 575 deaths since 1970.

Secrecy breeds scares

e.g. 1 Roswell - was just the wreckage of a observation balloon, but the secrecy caused all kinds of things to be addded to the story.

Similarly secrecy breeds scares and is a refuge for incompetence (especially political etc)

e.g. 2 SDI Was never credible

People misusing scientific words to mislead and to justify superstitions

e.g. 1 Accuses Hippy Writers like Deepak Chopra of misusing physics words to mislead the public in a book promising life without aging yet Chopra has aged. Argument is undermined by people misusing the language.

e.g. 2 Gravity seems complex, but can be proved

e.g. 4a gave 2 examples of TV reports on Precognition and Telekineis, researchers claim results, but don't use experiments which can be seen to be accurate Uri Geller can make a fair guess that the first thing you will draw is a house. This doesn't prove he's psychic just maybe he's good at psychology. Likewise Derren Brown makes no secret of the technique of by conditioning the person saying certain words to them so he is able to strongly influence what they would draw etc

e.g. 4b Astrology and Mars Effect - makes a brief comment about someone finding patterns by being very selective about the samples you choose. I don't see why he then tries to disprove the hypothis for stats he has already disproven. This is altogether a complex issue and he risks getting bogged down arguing about something he has already disproven. It should be up to the researchers to come up with unflawed evidence and then try to explain it.

His argument : Gravitational field of Moon does effect things on Earth to a minor extent as tiny compared to the Earth and it is often hypothisised that in a miniscule way the gravity field of Mars could effect a cell, but changes in temperature would be millions of times stronger. imagine particles at the bottom of the lake he says. But surely more Heat (energy) makes them move in a random way wheras a gravitaional force however small would draw them in one way. but since Earth is spinning and Mars and Earth are always moving relative to each other then the gravitational force would draw in a strange pattern not in one direction.

He seems to go into a bit about Alternative scientists abusing quantum theory and chaos "changes in levels" small changes being able to cause big changes : like one more butterfly flaps it's wings in Brazil which flips the entire weather system into a different state causing a hurricane somewhere else
e.g. 4b Water memory - (used to explain Homeopathy) : Again no scientist has shown any provable evidence it exists, but his explanation as to why it doesn't exist seems muddled and muddies the water

At times he rationally says there are no proper studies backing up the wacky theories ..which is fine. But sometimes he seems to say in an offhand way..oh of course that wouldn't work. Other times narrow minded .."the only possible thing is "

Near Touch Therapy ..Qi Gong Reiki etc - a school girl blindtested it , by asking them which hand she was holding her hand over, the therapists were sure they would be able to detect the human enrgy field. They were as successful as chance.


After writing a whole book about it he says voodoo science isn't a big problem. Some people don't want to believe moden science , he says it doen't explain everything, but it does explain a lot.

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