Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, by Robert L. Park
ISBN: 0-19-513516-6, $25.00 Hardcover, 256 pp.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Review by Eugene F. Mallove
from Infinite Energy #30, March/April 2000

[This review is of a pre-publication galley proof sent to Infinite Energy with a press release on Oxford University Press letterhead mocking cold fusion.]

Historians of science may well look back on this book as a dying ember from the funeral pyre of late twentieth century establishment physics, which hurtles toward a supposed “theory of everything,” while being blissfully ignorant of profound cracks in its very foundations. But author Robert L. Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, is now riding high. For some years he has been the darling of editors seeking crisp commentary from the chief representative of the American Physical Society (APS), a position he has held since 1982.

Whether railing against manned spaceflight, anti-ballistic missile defense, alternative health care, ESP research, UFO investigation, or his  favorite whipping topic, cold fusion, you will find Robert Park in top mud-slinging form on the Op Ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. His politicized weekly “What’s New” internet science column (www.opa.org/WN) is remarkable in that it is tolerated at all by the APS. Especially since Park, with insufferable chutzpa, ends each column with a fake disclaimer: “Opinions are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the APS, but they should be.” That’s pure Park, who hopes that his audience will come to see the world through the filter of the scientific certainties that he and many of his arrogant physics colleagues claim to possess.

Dr. Park has now compiled his wisdom in a short volume, in which he claims to have discovered a new kind of science—”voodoo science”—the title of his book. His definition of voodoo science is encapsulated in the subtitle, “The Road from Foolishness to Fraud.” There is a progression from “honest error” that evolves “from self-delusion to fraud,” he says. Further elaborating the definition: “The line between foolishness and fraud is thin. Because it is not always easy to tell when that line is crossed, I use the term voodoo science to cover them all: pathological science, junk science, pseudoscience, and fraudulent science.”

This is how he says he discovered voodoo science. In the course of his PR work for the APS he “kept bumping up against scientific ideas and claims that are totally, indisputably, extravagantly wrong.” He is that certain, three adverbs worth, that many of the things he calls voodoo science cannot be right. More often than not, he draws his conclusions from fundamental theory that is supposedly sacrosanct. Therein lies 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, about which they have concluded one of two things:

1) The theory can’t possibly need fundamental modification, which might allow the phenomenon to occur or
2) It is inconceivable that existing theory can be applied to allow the phenomenon.

It takes a special kind of arrogance to conclude affirmatively on both those points, particularly when both experimental data and theory for an anomalous phenomenon trend strongly against the doubters, cold fusion being a prime example.

Park thinks he knows what he and the physics establishment are doing, but he does not. He writes, “. . .no matter how plausible a theory seems to be, experiment gets the final word.” For Park, theory rules which experiments he will even look at. Revealing complete ignorance of the bloody battles over paradigm shifts in science (of the very kind he is obstructing!), Park claims, “When better information is available, science textbooks are re-written with hardly a backward glance.” Baloney!

In Voodoo, Park dismisses cold fusion at its very first mention, referring to it as “the discredited ‘cold fusion’ claim made several years earlier by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann.” He says that a “dwindling band of believers” continue to gather each year “at some swank international resort” in an attempt to “resuscitate” cold fusion. He asks, “Why does this little band so fervently believe in something the rest of the scientific community rejected as fantasy years earlier?” He speculates later, “Perhaps many scientists found in cold fusion relief from boredom.”

Park works himself up about cold fusion throughout the book and tells us what he really thinks of cold fusion: “On June 6, 1989, just seventy-five days after the Salt Lake City announcement, cold fusion had clearly crossed the line from foolishness to fraud.” He states that Fleischmann and Pons “exaggerated or fabricated their evidence.” (He only speculates whether cold fusion researcher Dr. James Patterson of Clean Energy Technologies, Inc. may have “crossed the line from foolishness to fraud.”) He complains that no helium-4 results were forthcoming from Fleischmann and Pons by June 1989, ergo, cold fusion is a fraud. Since at least 1991, Park has been informed by fellow APS scientists, such as Dr. Scott Chubb, about helium-4 detection in cathodes and in the gas streams of cold fusion experiments. These independent experiments have been published in the U.S. and Japan in peer-reviewed journals. There is no doubt that Park knows this. Voodoo contains no mention of this data, an egregious fraud by Park on journalists and the general public.

Park has not troubled himself to study the very data which he demanded many years ago as proof of cold fusion, e.g. the helium-4 nuclear ash data, even after this data made it into the peer-reviewed literature. “You don’t have to worry about the heat if there is no helium,” was his statement to me in the spring of 1991, recorded in my book, Fire from Ice. On June 14, 1989, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Park opined, “The most frustrating aspect of this controversy is that it could have been settled weeks ago. If fusion occurs at the level that the two scientists claim, then helium, the end product of fusion, must be present in the used palladium cathodes.” Apart from his gross error of ignoring the helium that might be in the cover gas coming from surface reactions (such cold fusion helium had been detected in 1991 and later), it is notable that Park has never mentioned any of the published literature on helium in cold fusion experiments.

On the issue of cold fusion Park has traveled, in his lexicon, from foolishness to fraud. Though he has not troubled himself with inconvenient facts, such as experimental evidence of robust character that supports cold fusion, he states preposterously: “Ten years after the announcement of cold fusion, results are no more persuasive than those in the first weeks.” He rewrites cold fusion history with ludicrous bloopers designed to entertain: “How, I wondered, could Pons and Fleischmann have been working on their cold fusion idea for five years, as they claimed, without going to the library to find out what was already known about hydrogen in metals?” Electrochemist Fellow of the Royal Society Martin Fleischmann not knowing a lot about hydrogen in metals? A bit much to suggest, even for an unethical obfuscator like Park. Park is the one who should have gone to the library.  He would have discovered that leading cold fusion scientists like Fleischmann and Bockris wrote the textbooks about hydrogen in metals. Fleischmann’s outstanding research in this area earned him a Fellowship in the Royal Society, arguably the world’s most prestigious scientific society.  In other contexts Park claims allegiance to established theory and the expertise of leading authorities; in this case, he does not even realize who the authorities are.

If Park doesn’t get his information about cold fusion from technical papers, the normal approach in science, from where does he get it? Apparently he is briefed by fact-resistant critic Dr. Douglas Morrison of CERN, who has attended the international cold fusion conferences where he asks mostly obtuse questions, proving that he, like Park, has not read the cold fusion literature. Morrison has “kept an eye on cold fusion for the rest of us,” as Park puts it. The result of all this is to have Morrison, the prime purveyor of the “pathological science” theory of cold fusion, passing misinformation to Park, who then jazzes it up with snide remarks suited to the Washington beltway crowd.

Morrison is the only skeptic to actually publish a paper that attempts to come to grips with quantitative issues of cold fusion calorimetry and electrochemistry.  Every paragraph in his paper included an elementary mistake. A few examples: he subtracted the same factor twice. He claimed that Fleischmann and Pons used “a complicated non-linear regression analysis” method—which they did not use. He recommended another method instead—the one, in fact, they did use. He confused power (watts) with energy (joules). He claimed that hydrogen escaping from a 0.0044 mole palladium hydride might produce 144 watts of power and 1.1 million joules of energy, whereas the textbooks say the maximum power from this would be 0.005 watts, and a simple calculation shows that the most energy it could produce is 650 joules. This is the “expert” Park relies upon for news of cold fusion!

And Park well knows the propaganda value of turning a serious subject into a joke. In his account of the early days of cold fusion he observes, “Cold Fusion was becoming a joke. In Washington that is usually fatal.”

After assaulting the main body of cold fusion research, Park singles out for attack Dr. Randell Mills of BlackLight Power Inc. (see Infinite Energy coverage, Issue No. 17 pp. 21-35 and Issue No. 29, pp. 40-41). He says that Mills did not offer “any experimental evidence” for his claims of excess energy caused by catalytic hydrino formation. Park does not discuss the multiple channels of experimental and astrophysical data that Mills has cited to defend his theory. He covers up the serious, positive results that the NASA Lewis Research Center published in its official report on the Mills replication. But Park, at his core, argues mainly from theory: “But those who bet on hydrinos are betting against the most firmly established and successful laws of physics.” Mr. Certain asks rhetorically, “What are the odds that Randall [sic] Mills is right? To within a very high degree of accuracy, the odds are zero.”

Though I expected Park to bash scientific anomalies, I was unprepared to discover the depths of his ignorance about spaceflight and its future. Commenting on his early 1990s testimony before Congress in support of unmanned space missions, he recalls, “I wanted to explain why the era of human space exploration had ended twenty-five-years earlier and was unlikely ever to come back.” No future for human presence in space? Is Park for real? He ends his myopic refrain with inept poetry bearing an absurd message, “America’s astronauts have been left stranded in low-earth orbit, like passengers waiting beside an abandoned stretch of track for a train that will never come, bypassed by the advance of science.”

Amateur astronaut Park offers an amazing blooper, “If there was gold in low earth orbit, it would not pay to get it.” Astonishing! He apparently does not understand such elementary concepts as the small propulsion energy cost of de-orbiting with rockets and aero-braking, when he makes this and other claims. In the emerging era of commercial space transportation, this Park faux pas will be remembered as a late twentieth century howler, on par with statements by astronomer Simon Newcomb earlier in the century that heavier than air flight was likely to remain impossible.

In Park’s crusade against manned spaceflight, he even goes after astronaut hero John Glenn: “Both Ham [a chimpanzee aboard an early U.S. space flight] and Glenn would end up in Washington: Glenn in the U.S. Senate, Ham in the national zoo. Ham died a short time later without ever returning to space.” He attacks “messianic engineer,” Robert Zubrin, who has put forth concrete, well-researched proposals for cost-saving space missions, in his book The Case for Mars. Park says that Zubrin started “his own cult—the Mars Society.” Park mocks the aspirations that led people like Dr. Robert Goddard and so many others this century to work toward the manned exploration of space: “Zubrin had learned his lessons well. The focus is on the dream. His followers feel their feet crunching into the sands of Mars, while the most daunting technical challenges are swept aside with simplistic solutions.”

On the book jacket Park singles out “magnet therapy” and cold fusion as the epitome of “foolish and fraudulent scientific claims.” In the only “experiment” that he actually decides to personally conduct to test any of his opinions, he launches a misguided effort to disprove the alleged therapeutic effectiveness of magnets in contact with the human body. He bought some athletic magnets from a local store, then stuck one on a steel file cabinet. He then inserted sheets of paper under the magnet, finding that at ten sheets the magnet fell off. He exults, “Credit cards and pregnant women are safe! The field of these magnets would hardly extend through the skin, much less penetrate muscles.” Park had merely found the point at which static friction (caused by the magnetic force) is insufficient to hold the magnet against the force of gravity. On this basis he concludes that magnetic field would not penetrate into skin! This is completely wrong, as sophomore physics students at MIT, and presumably at the University of Maryland, would know. Park gets an F-grade on that one. “Not that it would make any difference if it did penetrate,” he says. Park always has some a priori theoretical insight about why something “can’t be.” This PR agent for the American Physical Society needs a refresher course in Science 101.

Given Park’s incompetent assessment of cold fusion and his failures in elementary scientific methodology, we cannot expect a useful appraisal of other controversial areas, such as whether or not there are loopholes in or extensions to classical thermodynamics, whether low-level electromagnetic fields can affect biological systems, the “memory of water” question, or the scientific foundations of alternative medicine. Regardless of their individual merits, Park gives these questions the same brush-off he applies to cold fusion. It is not that one might never find areas of agreement with Park. For example, some of the charlatan-like antics of Dennis Lee of Better World Technologies, which Park chronicles, are appalling and have nothing to do with the serious scientific investigation of anomalous energy phenomena. And Park states that “there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that we ourselves can affect Earth’s climate.” Some scientists would agree with that; I don’t happen to. I side with those atmospheric scientists who believe that computer models do not yet come close to an adequate representation of all the factors that affect climate.

On the other side, Park is rather forgiving about such things as government spending for tokamak hot fusion, which is widely regarded as a financially wasteful research boondoggle even by those who have nothing to do with cold fusion. He says absolutely nothing about the ill-fated Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), which was begun and then cancelled, before it could waste even more taxpayer money. We do not hear of the scandalous recent cost overrun at the ICF weapons simulation laser fusion device, which was led by a physicist who was not even honest about his academic credentials. To Park, this waste is apparently “all in the family”—the kind of money that the white collar welfare, government-funded physics community can be forgiven for wasting.

It is tempting to speculate that Park may be suffering from a psychological problem known as projection, or possibly cognitive dissonance.  At some level, this confused man with all his years of schooling must realize that he is out of his element in evaluating the cold fusion evidence. He doesn’t really know whether the evidence is good or not. Obviously he has not studied it except superficially, yet he has gone far out on a limb in attacking it—he can’t bring himself to turn back. Among other problems, admitting he had been very wrong would call into question his many other judgments, from manned space travel to magnet therapy. He expected that cold fusion would have gone away years ago, but it hasn’t. So he creates the myth that the cold fusion field consists of “followers who see what they expect to see.” In truth, it is Park who is seeing what he wants to see—lack of evidence where there is evidence! The following grand assessment by Park of “voodoo” others pertains most properly to him: “While it never pays to underestimate the human capacity for self-deception, they must at some point begin to realize that things are not behaving as they had supposed.” It will be cosmic justice for this profoundly foolish, mean-spirited flack for the physics establishment when in the light of scientific advance the bigotry and lies he has turned against others expose him for what he is.