Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

November 27, 2008

In 2000, Robert Park, a veteran physicist at the University of Maryland, published the best-selling Voodoo Science. There he exposed the gullibility of not only the public but also the US Congress to phony scientific claims. He divided voodoo science into three categories. In "pathological science", scientists refuse to concede their claims, no matter what the evidence against them. In "junk science", the justification for a claim is that it is merely possible. In "pseudo-science", a claim is couched in scientific lingo but in fact has no scientific basis.

Park continues the story in Superstition. The main cases he considers are the anthropic principle, intelligent design, the efficacy of prayer, mental cures for cancer, extrasensory perception, the existence of the soul, the existence of heaven, the memory of prior lifetimes, out-of-body experiences, New Age consciousness, the hand of God in natural catastrophes, channelling, homoeopathy and acupuncture.

Park is like an updated Martin Gardner. In his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Gardner took on Wilhelm Reich's "orgonomy", L. Ron Hubbard's "dianetics" and Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. Most of Park's targets are of more recent vintage.

Park is most incensed by outright fraud, which is to say phony science perpetuated not for reputation but for money. He abhors the expenditure of taxpayers' money on the investigation of clear nonsense.

Yet Park's main nemeses have not robbed government coffers. Financial whizz John Templeton used his own money to establish the Templeton Foundation, which tries to buy the reconciliation of religion with science. By contrast, Phillip Johnson, a retired professor of law at Berkeley, has targeted evolution. Far from seeking to reconcile mainstream science with religion, he wants evolution replaced by creationism, now renamed "intelligent design". Through the courts, his Discovery Institute, which relies on private donations, has sought to plant intelligent design in the classroom.

Park writes with bemusement at human folly but also with outrage at the misappropriation of science. Yet his diatribes are often superficial, and he is either oblivious or indifferent to serious efforts to investigate some of the phenomena he discusses - for example, ESP and the existence of the soul. He considers scientific evidence alone and ignores philosophical arguments.

Most of all, Park approaches religion from an 18th-century point of view. For him, religion is a fraud fostered by, if not priests, at least those who stand to profit from deluding the masses. He is uninterested in explaining why "superstition" either arises or lasts. Within religious studies, his focus would be judged quaint. Today the key issue is explaining why people believe in things, and doubly so when their beliefs seem self-evidently preposterous. When Park discusses the acceptance of miracle cures, the explanation of people's incredulity is obvious. But when the deluded are prepared to devote their lives to enterprises with no immediate payoff, the explanation is less obvious.

Overall, Park assumes that science and religion have perennially been at odds. In fact, they have more often been intertwined.

Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

By Robert L. Park. Princeton University Press 240pp, £14.95. ISBN 9780691133553. Published 2 October 2008

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