Ask Robert Park if he’s a curmudgeon and the answer is swift. “Sure,” he says. “I kind of like that one.”
Perhaps “curmudgeon” sounds good because less-friendly epithets are often hurled Park’s way. Park—a University of Maryland physicist and the American Physical Society’s resident provocateur—says he has been threatened with numerous lawsuits for his just-released book, Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford). That’s not surprising, because the book is filled with invective about cold fusion, alternative medicine, cancer caused by power lines, UFOs, and other beliefs that Park labels bogus.
“If there were some way to wager money on the existence of aliens, most people would not wager much,” explains Park, 69. Rather, the high rates of belief in aliens “are a way of thumbing one’s nose at the authorities,” he says. “Americans like to stick it to arrogant authorities, and they like to remind government that it has lied to them.”
In Voodoo Science, Park doesn’t just go after the quacks and the stooges who believe them. He shames numerous members of Congress for promoting controversial scientific methods; he assails NASA for funding research he deems suspect; he criticizes ill-informed journalists who don’t realize that human-interest stories about scientific outsiders can be harmful; and he lambastes academic administrators who pump up controversial findings because they have dollar signs in their eyes.
Seemingly everyone comes in for attack—except scientists. When asked about that issue in an interview, Park lobs a few grenades toward his buddies, too. “We are arrogant,” he says. “And we do a terrible job of trying to communicate to the public. We don’t really try very much, and when we do, we do it badly. We use language people don’t understand, and we are impatient.” Scientists, Park says, usually can’t even communicate with other scientists outside their specialty.
This fall, Park will try to begin changing these realities. He and veteran Washington Post science writer Curt Suplee will lead a new program in science communication—not for science writers (that program already exists at the university), but for scientists themselves. A small step, Park acknowledges—but a step.
“Two hundred years ago, people thought science would rid the world of superstition, but it hasn’t done that at all,” he says. “Superstition today is often clothed in the garb of science. People borrow the symbols and language of science, but it’s still superstition. I just saw a commercial on the morning news for some over-the-counter drug. They said it has been used for 2,000 years. But 2,000 years ago they didn’t even know that blood circulated. They didn’t even know that 300 years ago! The idea that medical cures get better with age astounds me.” —Louis Jacobson