How bad science can be hazardous to your health

News You Can Use 5/8/00
How bad science can be hazardous to your health
By Avery Comarow

Sales of Voodoo Science (Oxford University Press, $25) could wind up  being less than author Robert Park might On May 5, if Web postings based on  a doomsday book are to be believed, the world will end, swamped by tidal waves and torn to pieces, when the Earth, moon,  sun, and five planets line up. It's the kind of pseudoscience that Park, a  physics professor at the University of  Maryland, takes on in his book, which will be published this month.

What do you mean by voodoo science?
All bad science.  There are scientists who fool themselves, as happened with cold fusion. There are scientists who deliberately try to fool others. We see this mostly in the courts, where expert witnesses concoct justifications for all kinds of points of view without solid evidence. And there is non-science dressed up to look like science. A good example would be the books of Dee- pak Chopra, in which he writes about using quantum mechanics to keep from growing old. In my talks, I like to show his picture on the book jacket. He doesn't seem to have managed to stop the aging process.

Do people embrace voodoo science because they have too little information?
Not necessarily. Part of the problem is that while the public should have access to the latest findings, those findings haven't been digested. Fiber is a wonderful example, if you'll pardon the double-entendre. The latest evidence says the previous evidence was wrong–eating fiber does not reduce colon cancer. The public gets the feeling, why can't scientists make up their minds?

How can a bogus claim be detected?
Common sense can help, but people don't have enough confidence in their common sense.  Take homeopathy. If there's no medicine in a medicine, most people would believe taking it is not going to be effective, and that's the case with homeopathic remedies. Most of them have no detectable level of any active substance, and instead its practitioners have concocted this remarkable argument that water "remembers" what was in it. Lots of people use magnets for medical reasons. Why do you say they don't work? Put sheets of paper between the magnet and a paper clip and see how many sheets it takes before the paper clip won't hang onto the magnet. The magnetic field drops off rapidly to the point that it is no stronger than the Earth's magnetic field. Why is there so much interest in homeopathy, massage therapy, and other forms of alternative medicine?  We tend to get over whatever it is that afflicts us. If we happen to be taking prune juice when we get better, some of us will believe that it was because of the prune juice. Presto, the Prune Juice Therapy.

Are Americans the worst suckers when it comes to bad science?
Oh, no. This is worldwide. Alternative medicine is much more prevalent in Germany. Superstition is rampant inRussia, all over Eastern Europe. A lot of pseudoscience is based on stuff from Asian countries. We're certainly no worse than anywhere else.

Is voodoo science really a threat?
It's not much of a threat to science. But to the people in the Heaven's Gate cult, who died thinking they would be taken away by aliens traveling in a comet's wake, it was a serious threat. To people who rely on useless cures, it's a threat. To mothers who suffer terrible anxiety over supposed dangers to their children from electric power lines, it's a threat. It's the public that pays a price for this.

What will you be doing on May 5, when the world ends?
I have no particular plans. It's Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day. I will cheer them on quietly, at home.


This article was fisrt published by U.S. News and World Report  May 8, 2000 and then mirrored at