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Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud
by Robert Park
Oxford University Press, £18.99, ISBN 0198507453
This is an extremely enjoyable and readable book. Robert Park is Professor of Physics and former chairman of the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland. He also directs the Washington office of the American Physical Society. In addition to his output in scientific journals, he also writes regularly for the Washington Post and New York Times, and this is no doubt where he honed his skills as a fine writer of popular science.
This book presents an engaging account of Park’s encounters with various aspects of what he calls “voodoo science.” He uses this term to collectively cover four varieties of bad and bogus science.
The first is pathological science, during episodes of which even eminent scientists can be prone to self-delusion which leads them to proclaim a great scientific breakthrough on the basis of flimsy evidence. A failure to appreciate the biasing effects of wishful thinking upon judgement often lies at the heart of such episodes.
Secondly, there is junk science, often to be found in the testimony of expert witnesses in the courtroom.
Given that trained scientists can be susceptible to pathological science, it should not surprise us that untrained jurors can be easy prey for the practitioner of this brand of voodoo. There is no clear dividing line between junk science and pseudoscience, in which there really is not any scientific evidence at all to support the theory in question. Instead, the practitioners adopt the trappings of science (such as technical jargon) without understanding the central concepts of the scientific method. Finally, there is frankly fraudulent science, often evolving from the other varieties.
This book engagingly provides examples of all four varieties and a lot more besides. It deserves a place on your bookshelf.