APS News

That Voodoo That You Do

Robert Park (right) confronts an exponent of Voodoo Science (left).
Robert Park (right) confronts an exponent of Voodoo Science (left).
Skewering practitioners of so-called "pseudoscience" is a perennial hobby for APS director of public affairs Robert Park, and many of his favorite targets are featured in his first book for a general audience, due out this spring from Oxford University Press. Three years in the making, Voodoo Science seeks to debunk many of today's most foolish and fraudulent scientific claims: magnetic therapy - whose sales topped $2 billion in 1999 - cold fusion, the Podkletnov gravity shield, free energy, and movements to build colonies in space, such as the notorious L5 Society. In the process, Park seeks to answer such questions as how otherwise respectable scientists can end up committing scientific fraud; how our evolutionary heritage makes us want to believe in an era when belief is a hindrance rather than a protective mechanism; and how the public can better distinguish pseudoscience from genuine breakthroughs.

Not surprisingly, many of the pseudoscientific examples detailed in the book are drawn from Park's prolific activities on behalf of the APS Office of Public Affairs, based in Washington, DC. In 1999 alone, he made 11 television appearances and 17 radio appearances on subjects ranging from Ballistic Missile Defense and polygraph testing to alternative medicine, space exploration and creationism. He also authored four opinion pieces for the New York Times, two full-page stories for the Washington Post, and delivered eight speeches or colloquia around the country - all in the name of educating the public about pseudoscientific foolishness and occasionally outright fraud.

In some cases, his efforts even resulted in government action. For example, when USA Today carried a full-page ad for the mysterious "Vitamin O," Park was the first to expose the product as nothing more than a solution of salt water in his weekly electronic newsletter, What's New. A subsequent interview on National Public Radio raised enough public pressure to cause the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. Last March the FTC charged the supplier with fraud and ultimately closed the company down. Similarly, Park's efforts to expose the fraudulent claims of free energy schemes - a movement which has achieved nearly cult-like status - led to the removal of State Department sponsorship of a free energy conference last April, and an investigation of the Patent and Trademark Office, resulting in the dismissal of the U.S. patent examiner who organized the conference.

And for all those pseudoscientists fond of citing Newton and Galileo as similarly misunderstood role models, Park has a typically pithy rejoinder: "It is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo: that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment. You must also be right."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette