Friday, June 11, 2010

Robert Park: Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud

In his book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Robert Park examines multiple examples from fairly recent history that demonstrate the ways in which even the most intelligent and well-intentioned scientists can be led astray to believe and support what he deems voodoo science, or pseudoscience. Some of these examples focus on less assuming individuals, but some also focus on scientists who are highly certified, trained, and educated in various branches of their field. By using a variety of types of individuals, Park effectively communicates the idea that anyone can be led astray from foolishness to fraud by the power of belief and desire to prove the value of his or her work and ideas.

One of the most prominent examples was Park’s discussion of the scientists who adamantly support cold fusion. At the University of Utah in 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, both of whom were well respected individuals of the scientific community, claimed to have discovered a new process by which energy could be indefinitely produced. This process, which claimed to use fused deuterium nuclei, became what is now known as cold fusion. However, the two men did not actually discover a new way to create an indefinite energy source, and the way in which they went about presenting their ideas to the world displayed key characteristics of pseudoscience (such as the ones mentioned in Timothy J. Lawson’s book).

For one thing, the men based their arguments on extraordinary claims that were not supported by well-researched, scientifically peer tested evidence. Furthermore, they took their ideas to the media before they offered them to the rest of the world’s scientific community for verification, which is a key component in testing a new idea in the scientific world. With an idea as big as cold fusion, something that could potentially solve humanity’s energy problems and eliminate the use of oil, it would have been logical to have those ideas tested by other scientists before claiming they were proven discoveries. The only access other scientists had to information regarding cold fusion came to them from the media, which was not a significant enough source to run further tests in other laboratories that could have reproduced or disproved the same results. However, because both men were well regarded scientists at the time of their “discovery,” the media and public were happy to run with the idea that cold fusion was, in fact, a possibility. After all, these men’s name held some significant weight, which is another tactic that pseudoscience often uses. Needless to say, the idea eventually came to be considered impossible.

The most astounding thing, however, is that there are people in the scientific community who still feverishly defend cold fusion to this day, even though it is now refuted by a majority of the scientific community. These people are not ignorant or unintelligent, but rather are devoted to the belief that we are on the verge of a huge discovery. They are not, however, steered by science, but by faith. Like anyone who falls for the pseudoscientific claims of today, be it Q-Ray bracelets or aromatherapy, individuals of the scientific community are just as prone to be led astray by a strong belief and desire for something to work, even when all other signs point to the fact that it doesn’t. In short, it is not a lack of intelligence or good will, but a desire to find solutions that leads people to believe in pseudoscience, and so we must all be careful not to believe everything we read.

No comments:

Post a Comment