Voodoo Science by Robert Park, Oxford University Press, , New York, NY, 2000 (211 pages)
Prof. Robert Park, who is the eyes and ears of the American Physical Society in Washington, has put together a collection of his opinions about a number of controversial subjects in the book "Voodoo Science". While his views are shared by many people, this effort is less useful to the rest of us because of distortions and selective reporting of facts.
Science prides itself on resolving conflicts using logic and facts to provide a better understanding of nature. A nonscientist frequently has difficulty evaluating any errors and distortions because the arguments usually seem plausible and can be very entertaining, a combination Prof. Park is very skilled at providing. To make the problem even more complex, much of what Park has to say is reasonable and might be useful. As a scientist myself, I know of the difficulty in providing a balanced view of tightly held beliefs. However, I have studied some of the unconventional subjects Park has discussed while working as a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for 34 years before retiring. I would like to use this experience to separate the wheat from the chaff in this case.
I started reading Voodoo Science with the open mind of a person who shares Park's belief that bad science exists and needs to be exposed. But then I discovered Park does not even understand basic thermodynamics. Not a good start for someone who expects to repair science. Like many scientists, he uses the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics to shoot down the idea of a perpetual motion machine, in particular the device of Joseph Newman. The Newman device is a motor which is claimed to produce more energy than it obtains from the electric supply. Consequently, Park feels free to apply the Laws of Thermodynamics because these laws show how energy is converted from one form to another and prohibit such an apparent creation of energy, i.e. a perpetual motion machine. However, these laws can only be used when all sources of energy are identified and measured. For example, before radioactive decay was understood, early scientists who concentrated certain components of pitchblende, a radioactive ore, found that the material was hotter than its surroundings and remained so indefinitely. Park would argue, as did many at the time, that the observation was impossible because energy can not be created without other energy being lost, something which did not appear to happen in this case. Of course, once nuclear energy was understood, the source of the heat became obvious as the conversion of matter into energy. Only at this point could the Laws of Thermodynamics be applied. Newman does not claim his device to be a perpetual motion machine but a way to harvest a new form of energy. It is this new form of energy which Park has trouble accepting. Rather than addressing this issue, as he does later in the book, Park distorts a simple concept and sets the tone for the rest of the book. This tone rests on using distortion to discredit a collection of controversial ideas, including cold fusion and UFOs, in order to gain support from an uncritical reader for other opinions which are not so polarized in the popular mind.
An example of this approach is provided by what is conventionally called cold fusion . Eleven years ago, Profs. Pons and Fleischmann (Univ. of Utah) claimed to produce nuclear energy from a fusion reaction initiated within a simple electrolytic cell - something any high school student could be expected to duplicate. The promise was a cheap, clean, inexhaustible source of energy. Failure of Pons and Fleischmann to go through the normal peer review process, which is so loved by conventional scientists but increasingly bypassed these days, is used by Park to discredit their work. Ignored are the facts that Prof. Steven Jones (BYU) was about to publish similar findings, that an effort to reach a compromise had failed, and that the public announcement was done by the University of Utah for political reasons over their objections. You can learn more about this sorry event in the book "Fire From Ice", by Eugene Mallove (1991), which gives an accurate account. Ignored also are the hundreds of papers, many peer reviewed, which support their claims. A complete bibliography is available on line at http://kemi.aau.dk/~db/fusion/. Instead, Park continues to resurrect the old canard about how the claims conflict with observations obtained from conventional high-energy fusion using, for example, a plasma. This process called hot fusion results in extensive hazardous radiation and has been studied for decades in a failed effort to make useful energy. No one, neither believer nor skeptics, believe the fusion reaction claimed by Pons and Fleischmann is produced by the same process known to occur in a plasma. The environment is entirely different and the results are consistent with that difference. Furthermore, no deadly radiation is emitted. Park totally ignores the many theories being developed to explain the observations, many of which are not in conflict with conventional physics and are expanding our understanding of materials science. For example, the team of Talbot and Scott Chubb (Naval Research Laboratory) have proposed that a deuteron within a solid material can convert to a wave long enough to combine with another similar wave to produce helium. Other people have explored how the electron in a hydrogen atom can get sufficiently close to the nucleus to form a virtual neutron, a particle which does not have a barrier to nuclear interaction. It is almost as if Park wrote this section over 10 years ago and never bothered to bring it up to date. Unfortunately, his negative approach over the years has slowed development of this very needed source of energy, a consequence from which we all suffer. For example, in his weekly column called "What's New", he occasionally discredits many new ideas including cold fusion. This column is read and enjoyed by many people in government who respect his opinions. This respect gives Park influence when questions about these subjects require action. Such action recently prevented a conference (COFE) about this and similar subjects from being held at any government facility in Washington. At the last minute it was convened at a hotel where it was attended by over 150 scientists.
After setting up the reader in the first chapter using such distortions and omissions, one has to wonder what value this book has in revealing the voodoo in science or in anything else. Park goes on to show why some beliefs do not deserve being believed. Although many of his arguments, as I will outline, are shared by reasonable people, the style of distortion-for-effect distracts from the otherwise useful insights. Surely a controversy like global warming, which Park uses as an example, is influenced by too many variables which can overwhelm even the most intelligent mind, to say nothing of the economic consequences of any conclusion. The nature of thought based on our genetic structure also plays an obvious role, as he notes. However, Park does not address the essential issue. Why do scientists who are trained to be objective and who share a common goal, fail to accept ideas which later become obvious to everyone? What makes a person like Robert Park reject ideas and evidence with enthusiasm while equally informed and intelligent scientists find this same information believable? Surely, more is operating here than a belief-gene as Park claims.
Park goes on to point out some obvious problems with various alternative healing techniques, such as magnet therapy and homeopathy. The magnets are too weak and the active ingredients are absent in the respective examples. This being the case, all cures must be caused by the placebo effect. This undisputed effect surely plays a role, a role which many people welcome as their afflictions disappear without suffering the unpleasant side effects of modern drugs. On the other hand, evidence is being gathered showing a physical basis for these methods, evidence Park chooses to ignore. A better source of information can be found in "The Memory of Water: Hemoeophathy and the Battle of Ideas in the New Science", by Michel Schiff (1998). Once again the great complexity of modern medicine is ignored to make an entertaining and generally obvious argument. This style is used so consistently, a reader does not know which claim is clearly worthless and which might be correct, but is rejected because it lends itself to easy ridicule.
When discussing the role of human explorers in space, Park shines. This chapter uses clear and useful arguments to make the case for using robots rather than humans in space exploration, while treating the reader to an entertaining history lesson. Clearly, humans will some day have to explore space in person. The debate here addresses just when this event should happen, now or after we have discovered a great deal more using unmanned space craft. This policy decision must be based on the type of arguments Park is so good at providing.
But then Park returns to the subject of cold fusion and reveals the reason for his continued rejection of this subject. As he admits, following the famous American Physical Society meeting in Baltimore (1989) which he attended where the idea was soundly rejected by most physicists present, he stated in public that "cold fusion was dead but the corpse won't stop twitching". After going on at great length over the years about how greedy and gullible administrators and politicians wasted money on the subject, Park apparently finds it hard to admit he may be wrong. Cold fusion was dead then and will always remain dead to Park, regardless of evidence to the contrary. This is not a worthy position for someone who aspires to improve scientific beliefs.
In this same chapter, somewhat late in the book, Park does acknowledge that the Newman device is not a perpetual motion machine. Consequently, the arguments Park used in the first chapter do not apply. At the same time, another aberration of logic is created. Newman claims his machine makes more energy than it consumes. This claim can be tested and debated. At the same time, Newman has a silly explanation for the effect. He proposes the copper coils in his motor are participating in a nuclear reaction. Suddenly, the explanation becomes more important than the observation. Because this particular explanation can not be believed, the observation must also be rejected. Thus, a major flaw in modern science is revealed - a Theory is more important than an Observation. The behavior of nature is not real unless it can be explained, especially using conventional concepts. This flaw in logic is at the heart of the book and provides an explanation for rejection of these and other subjects by many scientists. New discoveries always conflict with some dearly held belief. This conflict when used to reject the claims, prevents new discoveries from being explored and properly explained. This is not to say that all "strange" ideas are correct or that all have a new and worthwhile explanation. Clearly, some should be rejected as being caused by obvious error, fraud, or simple insanity. The problem comes in deciding how much time and resource should be devoted to a search for an explanation and how the resulting facts should be evaluated. The likes of Park seem to have very little patience for this process and then use poor judgement about which claims are faulty. If science is to clean up its act, this defect in the approach scientists use needs to be addressed. A clear and extensive discussion of this general problem can be found in the book "Revolution in Science" by J. Bernard Cohen (1985) or "Forbidden Science" by Richard Milton (1994).
When Park returns to cold fusion in Chapter 6, his distortion-of-fact technique is once again in full flower. He describes how his requests for a helium analysis of heat producing palladium were put off by a claimed need for peer review. Such a measurement is important because helium is expected to be one of the nuclear products resulting from the claimed fusion reaction and its detection would strongly support the claims. As Park says, "I knew, and Brophy (a spokesman for the University of Utah) knew, the results would never be published". On this basis, Park concludes that Pons and Fleischmann "clearly crossed the line from foolishness to fraud", a serious accusation. If Park had done a little more checking, he would have found the promised measurement published ten years ago in Fusion Technology, volume 18, page 659. A series of subsequent measurements have been reported, each supporting production of helium along with anomalous energy, in the correct amount and at the same time. Anyone can read about these and other measurements in a review available at http://www.jse.com/storms/1.html. Recent, less easily accessed work continues to support the claim for helium production.
Dennis Lee of Better World Technology and Dr. Randall Mills of Blacklight Power also get the back-of-the-hand treatment. In the first case, anyone with only a modest scientific education would agree with Park. Lee makes claims for over-unity energy production which are not supported by careful scientific analysis. On the other hand, in the second case, good reasons exist to believe that Dr. Mills has discovered a new phenomenon, although it clearly does not have any relationship to cold fusion as Park claims Mills believes. In contrast to Park's view, Mills has publicly denied his process has any relationship to cold fusion. More detail can be found at www.blacklightpower.com. Park is behind the curve in claiming no evidence exists to support Mills' ideas. In fact, a patent (US#6,024,935) has recently been issued describing the phenomenon and some of its applications, and Mills has published two books in which his theory and its supporting data are clearly described. These sources are in addition to several peer reviewed papers, one in Fusion Technology which is a widely read journal of the hot-fusion field. One must wonder how much data must be available before Park acknowledges its existence.
Once again, Park invokes the Laws of Thermodynamics to discredit an idea. In this case, the antigravity claims of Dr. Podkletnov. Podkletnov claims gravity is reduced above a superconductor - a claim which if true would not only change our understanding of gravity but may make space travel easier. Park imagines using this technique to build a perpetual motion machine which would violate the First Law of Thermodynamics - hence the phenomenon can not be real. Never considered is the possibility that gravitational energy could be converted to rotational energy while the local force of gravity was reduced by an undetectable amount, thereby providing the necessary extra energy. In other words, Park has once again ignored other possible sources of energy. Naturally, gravity as a source of such energy would violate Park's understanding of gravity. Blinded by this understanding, he assumes people at NASA, who are studying this phenomenon, are so ignorant of thermodynamics not to see Park's objection. This reveals another flaw in the skeptical approach. Only the individual skeptic understands science while all people proposing new ideas are ignorant, self-deceived, or frauds. In many cases the skeptics are correct, but not often enough to justify their arrogance.
Park goes into detail about the effect of power lines and their supposed production of cancer in people who live near them. This, once again, is a subject which lends its self to rational evaluation of data and is well handled. People may choose to disagree with Park's conclusion, but to do so requires rejecting many studies based on well established methodology. Here, we do not have voodoo science but a clear conflict between two rational possibilities, i.e. do power lines cause cancer or do they not? Resolution of this conflict was necessary and was accomplished by careful research which Park describes very well. However, the approach used to resolve this question is in sharp contrast to his methods applied to previously described conflicts in science and the following analysis of the UFO phenomenon.
Existence of UFOs and the implied visitation by aliens from other star systems has always been a very controversial subject about which a large and growing body of evidence has accumulated. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world claim to have seen and photographed unusual flying craft. Many have even claimed to have been abducted. Evidence includes visual sightings by trained observers, radar sightings, and recovered physical objects and evidence. Some of this evidence is described in the controversial book "The Day After Roswell", by Col. Philip J. Corso (ret.)(1997). Yet, Park uses the Roswell Incident as his tool for rejection while leaving out of his story many known facts about this event which would make his analysis less plausible. As with all skeptics, Park assumes only his set of "facts" are correct and all other claims are false, thereby greatly simplifying his argument. However, in this case, many well documented books have been written about the subject which can be consulted for more information. For example, a much more complete description can be found in "The Roswell Incident" by Berlitz and Moore (1980) or "Crash at Corona" by Friedman and Berliner (1992). We are placed in the position of either believing Park's very simplified description of the general phenomenon or the work of many careful researchers in several fields of science working for many years in many countries. He laments a loss of public trust produced by secrecy surrounding information known by the government. A person might reasonably ask why so much of this information is kept secret if it is voodoo science as Park claims?
Next described is the Star Wars debacle including the "Mythical X-ray Laser". Both subjects are given a balanced and very understandable analysis. In this chapter Park demonstrates his skills and value to the government as a voice of reason. If only he would play this role without trying to shoot down every new idea outside the field of government policy. More than enough voodoo science exists in this field to keep a person busy for a lifetime.
This book is an example of a respected scientist using his well deserved reputation and skills to limit new ideas, the vary life-blood of science. Scientists who do this with the good intention of protecting science from fools, an approach which seems to motivate Park, do science more disservice than they can ever hope to prevent. Every view point in science will always have an advocate. No matter what the issue, these arguments must be accurate. Scientists, unlike politicians, should not fight only to win but should actually seek the truth.
Santa Fe, NM