Monday, June 19, 2006

Books (Science): Voodoo Science

Voodoo science is bad science for fun and profit -- mostly profit. Bob Park's Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud is one of the best books on the subject, a great introduction to various kinds of bad science and, more importantly, the harm bad science does.

Voodoo science includes traditional pseudoscience like ESP or UFOs, but Park spends relatively little time on those subjects. These are the most blatant examples of bad science that you'll see, but not the most insidious. Park is more interested in other kinds of voodoo science -- junk science twisted to suit ideological ends, incompetent science used to prop up pet theories or sell shares in inventions, and so on.

One of the most interesting chapters in Voodoo Science is the one on the EMF scare of the 90s. In 1989 the New Yorker ran a series of articles by Paul Brodeur about how high-tension lines cause cancer. The entire premise of Brodeur's articles (and later book, Currents Of Death) was a basic piece of biased observation and mixing correlation with causation. Study after study showed that there was no connection, and Brodeur dismissed every negative study as part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth. Park reports an estimate that dealing with the fallout of Brodeur's book cost the US about twenty-five billion dollars, and nothing ever came of it. However, the mythology that Brodeur created around EMF still persists, almost 20 years later, with some new variations (the cell phone/brain cancer scare being very similar).

Another favourite target of Park's are the free-energy inventors, such as Joe Newman. Twenty years ago, Newman created an "Energy Machine" based on a basic misunderstanding of how motors and generators work, and sold "shares" in his company, which he claimed would revolutionize the energy business "very soon".

(Note another great example of how voodoo science infiltrates public consciousness: the Wiki page that "Joe Newman" links to above says that "a perpetual motion machine is regarded as (probably) physically impossible within mainstream physics". The "probably" is completely spurious: any competent physicist regards violations of conservation of energy as impossible.)

Again, even though Newman is old news, the example is relevant. Another free-energy inventor was Yull Brown, who claimed that "Brown's Gas" was the fuel of the future. It turns out that "Brown's Gas" was just electrolyzed water (water split into hydrogen and oxygen) that was then recombined to produce power. There's nothing special about this, except that Brown claimed that it was free energy: he never mentioned (maybe didn't realize) that it takes more energy to electrolyze the water than you get by burning the hydrogen.

Just this year, various news sources (especially Fox) have been running stories about "HHO Gas", a new miracle fuel. But a quick skim of the articles shows that it's just "Brown's Gas" come back to haunt us.

If you have any interest in pathological science, but don't want to read yet another debunking of Uri Geller (who's still out there, making money by scamming gullible people), Voodoo Science is a good place to start. Also check out Park's What's New column, and his interview in the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

No comments: