Voodoo Science

Review of skeptic Robert L. Park’s book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford University Press, 2001

Dr. Robert Park, author of Voodoo Science, is professor of physics at the University of Maryland. He also runs the Washington office of the American Physical Society and is a regular contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post. His views on science are thus of public interest.

In Voodoo Science Robert Park brings an indictment against what he sees as a modern tendency towards junk science and New Age crackpot thinking. He detects this tendency in the media, in advertising and commerce, in medicine and in science itself.

Park brings forward a score of examples of such beliefs and presents them in an entertaining way. His book has been a hit in some sections of the scientific community, especially with commentators like Richard Dawkins, who says, ‘Professor Park does more than debunk, he crucifies. . . You’ll never again waste time or your money on astrologers, ‘quantum healers’, homeopaths, spoonbenders, perpetual motion merchants, or alien abduction fantasists.’

In each of the book’s ten chapters, Robert Park reviews in some detail a case of junk science or pseudoscience that is so preposterous that anyone can see the perpetrator is either a fool or a knave. But he then generalises his findings from this undoubted case of charlatanism to cases in the same field of research but about which much remains unknown, and asserts that these must be equally false — without troubling to offer any scientific evidence as to why these other cases are equivalent to the case he has demolished.

Take for example, the chapter entitled ‘Placebos have side effects.’ Park begins with a salutary tale of a US laboratory that advertised ‘Vitamin O’ capsules for $20 a phial. What is ‘Vitamin O’? The adverts claimed they were ‘stabilised oxygen molecules in a solution of distilled water and sodium chloride’ — simple salt water. Through Park’s intervention, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in, stopped the advertising campaign, and compelled the laboratory to return customers’ money.

Most people would agree that this advertising was a scientific abuse and that Park’s intervention was welcome. But having established his credentials as a White Knight in the murky field of alternative medicine, Park then turns his lance on homeopathy. It is worth studying his analytical methods in some detail, because they are the same methods employed throughout the book. (I should add here that I have no personal interest in or connection with homeopathy other than as a writer on science).

Park gives a brief biography of homeopathy’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, and describes the ideas of treating like with like, and of extreme dilution of homeopathic treatments. He then brings the story up to date with an account of Jacques Benveniste, who he writes off as ‘a French homeopath’ (Dr. Benveniste is, in fact, a molecular biologist who was head of research at France’s National Institute for Health & Medical Research, and an international expert on immunology, and thus might be expected to be better informed on this subject than Dr. Park, a crystallographer).

Park ridicules Benveniste’s research saying, ‘Homeopathists, however, continue to cite Benveniste’s paper as proof of the law of infinitesimals and to concoct vague theories to account for this amazing result.’

Park concludes his survey of homeopathy by remarking, ‘If the infinite-dilution concept held up, it would force a reexamination of the very foundations of science. Meanwhile, there is no credible evidence that homeopathic remedies have any effect beyond that of a placebo.’

This statement is inexplicable if Dr. Park’s book really is a scientific survey of its subjects because it means that Dr. Park did not trouble himself to make even the most superficial search of the scientific literature on homeopathy. Had he done so he would have discovered the paper published in the British Medical Journal in 1991 by Dr. Paul Knipschild, professor of epidemiology at Limburg University (BMJ 302:316-323). Limburg University is Holland’s centre for control of epidemic diseases (equivalent to Atlanta or Porton Down) and Knipschild is its director.

Homeopathy is widely practised in Holland and the Dutch government came under pressure from adherents to make homeopathic remedies available under the Dutch National Health Service. Dutch skeptics vocally opposed any such use of public funds on what they regarded as quackery.

To settle the question, the Dutch government commissioned a study of clinical trials of homeopathy by medical scientists at the department of epidemiology and health care at Limburg. Their task was to analyse clinical trials that had been done on homeopathy and say whether the investment of public money was justified by the evidence.

The team analysed 105 published studies. They found that 81 trials demonstrated positive results compared to a placebo, while 24 showed no positive effects, and concluded that ‘there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homeopathy, but only by means of well-performed trials.’

Further evaluation, however, is not what Dr. Park has in mind for homeopathy. It seems to me that the case of homeopathy is a particularly interesting one because it also illustrates how scientific intolerance can result simply from a failure of scientific imagination — even when the facts are visible to all.

Dr. Park, like many scientific rationalists, dismisses homeopathy because he cannot see how a liquid such as water can ‘remember’ having dissolved an active ingredient once it has been diluted so much that not even a single molecule of the solute remains. He says, ‘The reputed “memory” of water is only the first of a string of miracles that would be necessary for the law of infinitesimals to be valid.’

Yet Dr. Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate and professor of experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, pointed out in the New Scientist that:

‘ . . . criticisms centred around the vanishingly small number of solute molecules present in a solution after it has been repeatedly diluted are beside the point, since advocates of homeopathic remedies attribute their effects not to molecules present in the water, but to modifications of the water’s structure.’

‘Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.’

More simply, anyone who has ever used a mobile phone or laptop computer with a liquid crystal display has already seen concrete evidence of the ‘memory of liquids’ in their everyday lives. This presumably includes Dr. Park, (whose field is crystals) yet, like the rest of us, he fails to connect this everyday experience with an anomalous phenomenon until the obvious is pointed out to him by an investigator with a truly open mind.

What is true for homeopathy is true for many other fields of anomalous study. Park rounds up the usual suspects: cold fusion, over-unity devices, zero-point energy, and sets out to debunk them.

Park reserves his greatest scorn for Drs. Fleischmann and Pons who he depicts as beaten and depressed at the failure of their cold fusion experiment to be replicated by any respectable institution. He also cites the usual objection of lack of fusion products (excess helium, neutron emission, tritium) as evidence of failure.

What Park failed to say was that more then 100 institutions in the United States and Japan have reported successful replication of Fleischmann and Pons’s original experiment, once the correct experimental conditions were established. Dr. Michael McKubre and his team at Stanford Research Institute say they have confirmed Fleischmann-Pons and indeed say they can now produce excess heat experimentally at will. Other U.S. Laboratories reporting positive results include the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, (these were the two U.S. research establishments most closely involved in developing the atomic bomb) Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Weapons Centre at China Lake, Naval Ocean Systems Centre and Texas A & M University.

Dr. Robert Bush and his colleagues at California Polytechnic Institute have recorded the highest levels of power density for cold fusion, with almost three kilowatts per cubic centimetre. This is 30 times greater than the power density of fuel rods in a typical nuclear fission reactor. Overseas organisations include Japan’s Hokkaido National University, Osaka National University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Nippon Telephone and Telegraph corporation. What Park also failed to say is that all the expected fusion products have now been detected in the expected quantities.

Selection or omission of crucial evidence is not the only cause for concern. The level of debate to which Park sometimes descends would be worrying in an undergraduate. In a professor of physics it is alarming. After castigating those responsible for what he considers to be ‘voodo science’ for their lack of rigour, dependence on anecdotal evidence, and generalising from a single example, he tells us why belief in UFOs is pathological. Park explains how, as a young Air Force Officer, in 1954, while driving near Roswell, he saw what he took to be a flying disc. He stopped his car and found the disc was no more than a reflection of his own car headlights. The implication is clear: because he was once mistaken, it follows that all other reports of flying discs are also mistaken. No scientific investigation is needed. Park has settled the matter.

One question remains in all this, and it seems to me to be an important one for science. Dr. Park is a distinguished scientist, a leading member of his profession. His integrity is unassailable and no-one doubts his motives. Yet despite this pedigree and his obvious intellectual gifts, Dr. Park has permitted his views of certain phenomena to be informed not by evidence (such as Dr. Knipschild’s) but by something else which he values even more highly. The question is: what is this something else? Whatever it is, it takes precedence over all Dr. Park’s scientific training and a lifetime of experience as a physicist. The something else, it seems to me, is a philosophical commitment to scientific rationalism as a principle in its own right: a way of looking at the world.

To understand the origin and meaning of a book like Dr. Park’s, one has to understand the significance of a single word. When Dr. Park, and those who think like him, say ‘. . . there is no credible evidence that homeopathic remedies have any effect beyond that of a placebo.’ the crucial word is ‘credible’. When confronted by evidence and experiment, it remains possible for Dr. Park to retain his scientific integrity while, at the same time, rejecting the evidence of the laboratory because it is to his mind ‘not credible’. Dr. Park thus joins many other ‘skeptics’, like Dr. Jonathan Miller, who was so incautious as to say on Channel Four TV, ‘Even if you showed me the evidence for homeopathy, I still wouldn’t believe it’.

The importance of this book, therefore, is that it is likely in future to become a classic psychology text for students of cognitive dissonance in gifted minds.

Dr. Marcello Truzzi, co-founder of CSICOP, coined the handy term ‘pseudoskepticism’ to denote what is becoming an increasingly common form of scientific fundamentalism and vigilantism.

‘Parkism’ could well become an even more useful shorthand for this same phenomenon.