TCS Daily

Weird Science

By James Freeman - May 8, 2000 12:00 AM

Sometimes, it's easy to tell when someone's trying to con you. You get an unsolicited email promising enormous wealth for doing almost nothing. You click delete because your knowledge and experience tell you that it's bull. But what do you do when you see a TV news report claiming that an herb can cure cancer or that your cell phone is killing you? If you don't have a Ph.D. in a hard science, how do you evaluate these claims? How do you separate the hard news from the hype?

Help is on the way, in the form of a great new book called "Voodoo Science" by Robert Park. Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and past President of the American Physical Society. In the book, Park takes aim at scientific "discoveries" promoted in the media and explains how to avoid being taken in by bogus claims.

Rule number one: be very skeptical of any "scientist" who works in isolation, and whose methods are shrouded in secrecy. "Almost all wacky science is done in total isolation," says Park. "We would almost all go astray if we didn't have colleagues to pull us back, to question our assumptions, to check our work." We all love the idea of a lone inventor, bucking the establishment and pursuing a brilliant vision. But to beat the establishment you have to prove the experts wrong.

There's an important difference here between being a maverick and working in isolation. In the movie "Good Will Hunting," Matt Damon plays a night janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who turns out to be a mathematical genius. After seeing the film you might have wondered, could that really happen? Could the night janitor really be the smartest guy at M.I.T.? Well, it turns out that many important scientists had an unconventional path to greatness. Isaac Newton had an unhappy childhood and participated in plenty of schoolyard brawls, much like Matt Damon's character in the movie. And Newton, much like Albert Einstein, often did poorly in school as he pursued his curiosity in other directions.

They were different; they were mavericks, but when it came to their great theories, they didn't work in isolation. They stepped into the arena and slugged it out with other scientists who could test and critique their theories. "Einstein was very much in the mainstream. He talked to everyone," says Park. "Yes, there were disagreements, but he was not isolated. Critical colleagues are an essential part of science." Newton had a legendary temper, and bitter disagreements with many of his colleagues, revealed in open debates about his theories. In the light of day, with everyone free to test their claims, Newton and Einstein were eventually confirmed as giants of the physical sciences.

That's how the scientific process works. One scientist reports the results of an experiment or proposes something new and explains how she reached her conclusions. Then other scientists try to prove or disprove the theory by replicating her experiment or by testing the theory with new experiments to see if her conclusions are always valid. Scientists, not reporters, evaluate the claim. It's a similar story for Matt Damon's character, Will Hunting. He doesn't convince Dan Rather that he's a genius. He convinces the math department at M.I.T.

Now think about alternative medicine, a modern mania which has grown into a $27 billion industry in the United States. This is a broad field, running, in Park's words, "from the totally preposterous to the barely plausible." Almost all of these alleged therapies have one thing in common -- they have not passed the conventional test of the scientific method. After all, if you could prove through the scientific process that they cure cancer or eliminate heart disease, then they wouldn't be alternative medicines anymore. They'd be conventional medicines. Instead of publishing papers in major scientific journals and inviting others to test their claims, promoters of alternative therapies typically advance their theories through reporters and news producers.

I'm all for mavericks rocking the establishment with a revolutionary life-saving treatment. But if it really works, why do they need to call it "alternative?" Wouldn't it be really sweet for a promoter of touch therapy or some herbal remedy to bury the establishment in facts and force all the experts to admit they were wrong?

Many alternative treatments have supporters who will say, "I know 100 people who took this and they've never felt better." What we can't know, absent a controlled study, is how many people took it and dropped dead, or abandoned the real medicine that could have saved them.

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