Book Review: Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

Superstition: Belief in the Age of ScienceSuperstition: Belief in the Age of Science
by Robert L. Park
Princeton, 2010
240 pages (paperback)

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To say that another person’s beliefs are superstitious is not to offer a compliment, and in Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science, physicist Robert L. Park does not pretend it is. Superstition is a bold book that takes aim at the human inclination to embrace the supernatural.

Park, author of Voodoo Science (2001), focuses on two main themes that are reminiscent of his previous work: the ability of human beings to fool ourselves into believing the absurd, and the power some have for defrauding others. The latter cannot work without the former, and that self-deception was my main interest in reading this book.

I’ve had this book for a while now, but I’ve been trying to find time to read it. The idea of covering the subject of superstition fascinates me. Park’s book begins with the story of an accident: a tree fell on him. The result was a chance encounter with two Catholic priests who prayed for him the day of the accident and later became his friends. The two men, whom Park respects, serve as his occasional source for the religious perspective on supernatural ideas. They appear in the book sporadically and unpredictably.

Unpredictability is a bit of the nature of Park’s Superstition. As a piece of literature, Park’s book seems to wander and connections between sections are not always as clear. Still, with a title like Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science, how could I turn it down?

I run into superstition on a regular basis. At one time, a student of mine could not explain the sudden appearance of animals on his computer screen while he listened to his class assignments. He reported that after a few minutes of listening to an assigned podcast for class, the screen suddenly had images of animals floating across it. He was perplexed and at one point insisted that it was Satan himself attempting to interfere with his homework.

It was not Satan; it was his screen saver.

But what drives the impulse to find something supernatural behind what we don’t understand?

Park examines this type of thinking. For lack of a tighter definition, Park’s superstition is anything religious, supernatural, or pseudo-scientific. He finds it in religious scientists, who have contributed significantly to their fields, but who eventually embrace the divine, which Park sees as an “easy out” to life’s difficult questions. If you can’t find a scientific explanation now, as he sees it, the easy fix is to look at God. He also finds it in the everyday, from those who look for solutions in astrology or in homeopathy. From examining healing in prayer to the pseudo-science of Deepak Chopra to the New Age Movement to UFOs, Park surveys it all.

What Park does well is get at the human inclination to draw supernatural connections where there is no reason to do so. This he sees as our way of trying to make sense of the world when solutions do not seem readily available. He notes the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. “The sharpshooter fires his six-gun at the side of a barn, then walks over and draws a bull’s-eye around the bullet hole,” says Park. This is, as he sees it, the way God is applied as a quick solution to life’s problems after the fact.

When disaster strikes and people are looking for a purpose beyond the natural, they look to God. This conclusion can have very satisfying results for those who take comfort in a divine plan. “God’s ways are not ours,” Park was reminded by his Catholic friends, in giving him a reason a tree would randomly fall on him in the park.

For Park, this is merely an opiate. When the tsunami hit along the Indian Ocean, wiping out entire villages, Park notes that some Muslims saw this as punishment from God for immodesty. “Three hundred thousand dead may seem to be excessive punishment for a few women exposing their hair,” says Park sarcastically, “but who are we to judge God?” In other words, just an appeal to God really does not alleviate the difficulty.

I found Superstition to be an interesting read, but also less satisfying than I expected. There are books on the subject that seem to take advantage of a lot of newer research from the world of cognitive science, and I found this particular book to be light in these areas. This may be intentional, perhaps for the sake of simplicity and not losing the reader in the minutia of science-speak.

Nevertheless, if this subject is a curiosity for you, then you’ll find this to be a helpful introduction to the issues skeptics have with religious thinking. The questions raised by Park are significant and should be considered by all. He covers a lot of supernatural thinking, and perhaps the irony is that even if you are not fond of having your own beliefs critiqued, all you have to do is hold out long enough and you may find him criticizing something you do see as superstitious.

Knock on wood.

In search of belief changing ideas