NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Falling Prey To Voodoo Science

June 12, 2000

The giant strides made in science in recent decades have one downside: the public has become increasingly vulnerable to scaremongers peddling "scientific" nonsense. Such is the thesis of an upcoming book by University of Maryland physics professor Robert L. Park.

The danger is that voters and opinion makers will be swayed toward illogical public policy decisions. It almost happened over the misperception that electromagnetic fields emanating from high-voltage power lines cause cancer.

  • Popularization of this false theory can be traced to Paul Brodeur, a reporter who publicized the charge in articles in the New Yorker magazine.
  • Although most scientists were highly skeptical of any such connection, tort lawyers envisioned massive suits against electric companies and took up the cry.

The controversy heated up with allegations that electrical workers suffered high cancer rates, that electric blankets caused miscarriages in pregnant women, that people living under power lines were prone to suicide, that cows stop giving milk and chickens cease laying eggs near power lines -- all anecdotes without any statistics to back them up.

But as results began to come in based on sophisticated scientific studies measuring power fields, the cancer link receded.

Finally, the National Academy of Sciences, after evaluating more than 50 studies, announced that the evidence of electromagnetic fields causing health risk was just not there. The National Cancer Institute weighed in with similar findings.

The power line controversy has since disappeared. But voodoo science may never disappear. It certainly hasn't in the case of bioengineered foods, say critics.

Source: Robert L. Park, "Voodoo Science and the Power-Line Panic," Forbes, May 15, 2000.


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