Sunday, May 04, 2008

Voodoo Science

I found a cheap second hand copy of the work "Voodoo Science" by Robert L. Park at a local Amnesty International book store, and since I knew Erdos but maybe I never got an Erdos number (though I think my Wigner number is 3), so I reckoned I might well have an "R.L. Park" number of 3 or so (through the great R.G. Parr, although having read the book I am not quite sure it is the same Park). Anyway I wondered what R.L. Park had to say. O vanitas !

I knew that the term "voodoo" comes from the folk religion ("vodou") of Haiti, indeed Park's use of it in the way he does has been described as "an insult to vodou". But nowadays the related term "zombie" is getting more interest to philosophers, psychologists and other scientists, and people try to use it in a descriptive and thoughtful way - without necessarily crediting belief in zombies of course, we need not give R.L. Park an excuse to write another chapter. But "Voodoo Science" turns out not to be a book about voodoo, but some ideas which Park finds ludicrous. I have to admit that I agree with him on many of these ideas, and in some ways see Park as a worthy successor to early Martin Gardner. But I also read Mallove's article in "Critical Review" which like Park rants on, but to say stuff like "the fundamental failure of Park and so many of his colleagues in the physics establishment. They have abandoned what little curiosity about scientific experiments that they may have had at the beginning of their scientific careers: they attack data from experiments that at first glance appear to be in conflict with theory". I suppose that comment could be called true detournement.

The problem is that it is hard to know when the ranting should stop. Park's rant against Mesmer, for example, seems to stop before we get to hypnosis, which, apparently like Kosslyn and many others, I am pretty convinced does actually work, UTAP. On the other hand, on topics like cold fusion I have to agree very firmly with Park , especially as a former theoretical physics journal editor in chief, I also knew of Fleischmann well - it probably does no harm to say so.

A big problem seems to be that all these rantings at some point, probably quite an early point, transform from science - the perspective has to be much wider than physics alone - through attempts to educate the hoi polloi - to simple politics. I'll have another look at "Voodoo Science" some time and might even comment in more detail. But I certainly sympathise with Park's frustration with the simply ignorant, often in high places.

Caroline Thomson's summing up on Park in a letter to "New Scientist" on 18/11/2000 seems to have merit when she says "How many readers will realise, I wonder, that Park is sometimes highly and irresponsibly selective in his research?As he is listened to by the American Physical Society, this can have serious implications, discouraging attempts to publicise any controversial idea and stifling progress.After all, was Feyerabend so very wrong when he advocated “proliferation” of theories?" Right on.

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