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review of leading skeptic, Bob Park in NYT

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  • Eric Krieg
    People, the New York Times just had a neat article about leading skeptic Bob Park, who has a book coming out call Voodoo Science . By PATRICIA COHEN COLLEGE
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 30, 2000
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      the New York Times just had a neat article about leading
      skeptic Bob Park, who has a book coming out call "Voodoo


      COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Late one night in 1954, Robert L. Park was
      driving back to Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, N.M., on a desolate
      stretch of West Texas highway. News reports of U.F.O. sightings
      were practically a daily occurrence, but when he saw a dazzling blue-green
      light streak across the sky, he figured out precisely what it was. After all, he
      was an electronics officer, a lieutenant overseeing the installation of a new
      radar system in Roswell, and he recognized the fluorescent illumination of an
      ice meteorite plunging into the atmosphere.

      So he was feeling rather superior to the
      U.F.O.-spying hysterics when, after crossing
      into the New Mexico desert, he suddenly
      noticed a shiny metallic disc racing along the

      "I stepped hard on the gas pedal of the
      Oldsmobile," Mr. Park writes, "and the saucer
      accelerated. I slammed on the brakes -- and it
      stopped." For a moment he was convinced he
      was seeing a flying saucer. But when he looked
      a bit more closely, he realized what had
      happened: "I could see that it was only my
      headlights, reflecting off a single phone line
      strung parallel to the highway."

      Now a distinguished physicist at the University
      of Maryland, Mr. Park wonders, "What if that
      phone line ended, and the 'spaceship' just
      vanished?" Would he now consider alien
      visitors to be at least a possibility? Would he
      still be so quick to dismiss seemingly incredible

      For while many professional physicists
      recognize him for his technical research on the structure of crystal surfaces,
      to the somewhat wider audience that includes readers of his weekly
      newsletter and zany inventors of all types, Mr. Park, 69, is known as a
      gadfly, an indefatigable debunker of alien abductions, miraculous cures,
      infinite energy sources and wasteful spending.

      In congressional testimony, he has railed against Star Wars defense
      strategies, government secrecy and research into alternative medicine; he has
      ridiculed the supposed dangers of silicon breast implants and electric power
      lines. He says the powdered orange drink Tang was not developed for the
      space program.

      Last year, he revealed that a pricey new health supplement called Vitamin O
      was nothing more than salt water, causing the Federal Trade Commission to
      charge its manufacturer with fraud. And this month he wrote about another
      company hawking a similar salt water supplement for $34.95.

      He doesn't bother to cloak his attacks in diplomatic niceties. "He's more
      truculent than I am," says Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic
      magazine, who considers Mr. Park a wonderfully credible ally, even if he
      does occasionally get under the skin of potentially powerful supporters. "He
      doesn't suffer fools gladly."

      James Randi, a professional magician who exposes supernatural claims, has
      known Mr. Park for more than 10 years. "You have to hose him down every
      two hours just to keep him cool," he said with a laugh.

      Mr. Park's revelations and his confrontational style have earned him a string
      of admirers as well as litigious critics, who occasionally threaten to sue him
      for ruining multimillion-dollar business prospects or for slandering them.

      Such threats delayed for a month the publication of his first book for a
      general audience, "Voodoo Science" (Oxford University Press), which is now
      scheduled to appear in stores in May and has been written about by
      nonscience media like Salon.com.

      Sitting in the upstairs office of his home here, Mr. Parks seems unfazed. He
      is a compact man, and with his lean face, short gray hair and luminous blue
      eyes, he looks a bit like the actor Roy Scheider. "This is the most fun I've
      ever had," he says of his efforts to clue the public into scientific disputes.

      One of his favorite targets is NASA, which he says is constantly financing
      harebrained schemes.

      The projects are then quietly dropped, he goes on, because the tests are
      "inconclusive" -- a word he describes in his book as "NASA talk for 'it didn't
      work,' but if you said 'it didn't work,' you'd have to explain why you'd paid
      all that money."

      Just last year the space agency approved $600,000 for what Mr. Park
      describes as an antigravity device invented by an obscure Russian scientist
      that he says violates all the known laws of physics and that no other
      scientists have taken seriously.

      Robert L. Norwood, director of the commercial technology program at
      NASA, says the grant is part of a program specifically designed to explore
      unconventional ideas. "This is a legitimate area of research," Mr. Norwood
      said, explaining that the agency is looking for "original, exotic techniques that
      could have huge payoffs in the future. . . . If the experiment doesn't work,
      then you drop it and move on."

      Marc Millis, a NASA aerospace engineer who is responsible for investigating
      cutting-edge ideas, said he thought that Mr. Park sometimes jumped too
      quickly to conclusions about the silliness of new research. The space agency
      has a responsibility to be a leader in research, Mr. Millis said, and has a very
      systematic, step-by-step approach to check that progress is made before
      more money is spent.

      Mr. Park gets even more exercised by advocates of alternative medicine,
      which he describes as more superstition than science. He is appalled that the
      government has established a center for its study as part of the National
      Institutes for Health. In his characteristic slash-and-burn style, he called the
      center's previous director, Wayne Jonas, "crazy" because he is a

      Mr. Jonas, who is now an associate professor of family medicine at the
      Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, the military's medical
      school, said that Mr. Park "goes way outside his field and just bashes
      everything." There are legitimate reasons to question some of homeopathy's
      results, Mr. Jonas said, but he added that Mr. Park "never seems to address
      any of those. He doesn't want to or doesn't know how to."

      To Mr. Park, alternative medicine exploits the placebo effect. And while he
      doesn't deny that the mind can play an extraordinary role in healing, he says
      that only goes so far. "The mind has something do with it, but it won't cure
      baldness and it won't shrink tumors," he said. "But people with a magical
      view will start claiming that you can."

      He points to the New Age celebrity health writer Deepak Chopra, who says
      you can use the mind -- through the techniques of meditation and yoga -- to
      banish aging. Last month Mr. Park went to see him speak at a luncheon in
      Washington. "Mostly I wanted to see if he was getting older, and he is," he
      says with glee. "It was unmistakable."

      Mr. Park picked up the mindset of a skeptic at an early age, when he was a
      boy on his father's South Texas farm.

      By the time he was 12 years old, he began to question some of the verities he
      heard in Sunday school. So when a new young minister joined the Methodist
      church he attended, Mr. Park thought he could confide in him and discuss
      his questions. "I started to explain some of the things that seemed illogical to
      me," Mr. Park said. "And he interrupted me and said, 'You know, you can go
      to hell just as quick for doubting as for stealing.'

      "At that moment I realized this was not for me. I couldn't help doubting."

      It wasn't until he joined the military, during the Korean War, that he actually
      decided to pursue science. Until then, he had assumed he would become a
      lawyer and a farmer just like his father. (His father was not very successful
      at either, Mr. Park said, which was why he had to do both). But when the
      Air Force sent Mr. Park to radar school, he discovered a passion for physics.

      After he left the service and returned to his wife, Gerry, and the University of
      Texas, he finished at the top of his class and won a graduate fellowship to
      Brown University. Government work on weapons systems at Sandia National
      Laboratories in Albuquerque occupied the next 10 years, until the University
      of Maryland wooed him away with an offer to head the material sciences

      Sixteen years ago, the American Physical Society, the nation's largest
      organization of physicists, asked him to try a temporary stint as its public
      affairs director during a sabbatical. He returned to teaching but also stayed on
      at the society, writing a weekly column called "What's New," which he ends
      with the tag line, "Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by
      the A.P.S., but they should be."

      He arrives at the society's offices in Washington every morning at 6 a.m. to
      lift weights for an hour in the building's gym, later spending two hours
      running. He also runs marathons with his older son, Robert Jr., the principal
      cellist for the United States Army orchestra, and competes in triathalons with
      his younger son, Daniel, who owns a couple of bicycle stores.

      So Mr. Park has no guilt about indulging in the weekly ritual of Sunday
      morning pancakes with Gerry, the sons, their wives and three grandsons.

      He says he wrote "Voodoo Science" because he was tired of hearing
      scientists bemoan the scientific illiteracy of the public, without explaining
      what it is they should know.

      He lists five subjects or concepts that he thinks every educated person should
      understand: Darwinian evolution, the Copernican solar system, the size of the
      universe, the laws governing the conservation of energy (that way people
      would know that infinite energy sources and perpetual motion machines are
      impossible) and ratios (so people would have a sense of scale).

      "Beyond that, it is the responsibility of scientists to inform the public, and
      that's what we're not doing," he said.

      Although energetic scientific disputes can confuse the public, Mr. Park thinks
      they can be instructive so long as the combatants adhere to the scientific
      method. Global warming, he says, is "an almost perfect example of how
      science rises above the flaws of individual scientists." Both those who fear
      warming effects and those who think the dangers are overblown have a kind
      of religious fervor and are convinced that truth is on their side, he says. But
      each side is also aware that the opposition will pounce on any scientific
      mistakes; this has led to an enormous expansion of knowledge about the

      He does, however, warn that dueling experts can lead people to conclude it is
      impossible to figure out what's going on and to feel that anything can happen.
      "And that's exactly the wrong message," he declares. "The universe is not
      nearly as weird as it used to be. A strange universe is one that does
      unpredictable things. This universe is less strange because it's more

      From his vantage point, "It's not the psychics who predict the future. It's the


      Eric Krieg eric@...

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