Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

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by Robert L. Park

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From uttering a prayer before boarding a plane, to exploring past lives through hypnosis, has superstition become pervasive in contemporary culture? Robert Park, the best-selling author of Voodoo Science, argues that it has. In Superstition, Park asks why people persist in superstitious convictions long after science has shown them to be ill-founded.

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From uttering a prayer before boarding a plane, to exploring past lives through hypnosis, has superstition become pervasive in contemporary culture? Robert Park, the best-selling author of Voodoo Science, argues that it has. In Superstition, Park asks why people persist in superstitious convictions long after science has shown them to be ill-founded. He takes on supernatural beliefs from religion and the afterlife to New Age spiritualism and faith-based medical claims. He examines recent controversies and concludes that science is the only way we have of understanding the world.

Park sides with the forces of reason in a world of continuing and, he fears, increasing superstition. Chapter by chapter, he explains how people too easily mistake pseudoscience for science. He discusses parapsychology, homeopathy, and acupuncture; he questions the existence of souls, the foundations of intelligent design, and the power of prayer; he asks for evidence of reincarnation and astral projections; and he challenges the idea of heaven. Throughout, he demonstrates how people's blind faith, and their confidence in suspect phenomena and remedies, are manipulated for political ends. Park shows that science prevails when people stop fooling themselves.

Compelling and precise, Superstition takes no hostages in its quest to provoke. In shedding light on some very sensitive--and Park would say scientifically dubious--issues, the book is sure to spark discussion and controversy.

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Editorial Reviews

If superstition is a mind poison that tastes good, Bob Park, "the skeptic's skeptic," is the best antidote. In this book, the man who Skeptic editor Michael Shermer praised as "the Ralph Nader of nonsense," serves up scathing critiques on supernatural beliefs, parapsychology, homeopathy, intelligent design, reincarnation, astral projection, the power of prayer, the existence of heaven, and much more. He shows how people's blind faith and eager acceptance of pseudoscience limit their possibilities and endanger lives. Devilishly good debunking.

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Princeton University Press
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Belief in the Age of Science
By Robert L. Park

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2008 ROBERT L. PARK
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13355-3

Chapter One


In which we discover scientists of faith

Emerging from the limousine, Charles Townes might have paused for just a moment if his eyes, still sharp at eighty-nine, had caught the characteristic flutter of a butterfly's wings. Years of butterfly collecting trains the eye and the brain to pick out that distinctive movement among the clutter of images carried by the optic nerve-and Townes had collected butterflies since he was a schoolboy in South Carolina. It was early spring in London and it would not be surprising if a Camberwell beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) had sought a perch on the west face of Buckingham Palace, where it could bask in the afternoon sun. Butterflies generate too little internal heat to fly. They spend time basking in the sun with their wings spread to collect the heat needed for flight.

Usually the first large butterfly seen in the spring, Nymphalis antiopa stirs the heart of every lepidopterist. It's a signal to get out the net and keep it close at hand in case a good specimen is spotted. Called a mourning cloak in North America because of its resemblance to the traditional cloak worn at funerals, the dark wings of Nymphalis antiopa are bordered with ivory. Field guides list it among "black" butterflies, but up close in sunlight the dark wings are a deep reddish-brown with a row of tiny blue dots beside the ivory borders.

As a boy, Charles had imagined becoming an entomologist and collecting every butterfly on earth. His father was a lawyer, but the family lived on a small farm on the edge of Greenville, South Carolina, and when his chores were done, Charles often wandered the woods and fields with a butterfly net on his shoulder. However, as he approached college age, Charles recalls, he decided that "my older brother Henry was so much better at it than I that I thought I had to do something else." Henry did go on to become a noted entomologist, while Charles turned to physics, inventing the maser, which in turn led to the laser. Although he still collects butterflies for pleasure, Professor Townes, already one of the most honored scientists in the world, was not at Buckingham Palace to collect butterflies, but for the formal awarding of the Templeton Prize by the Duke of Edinburgh. The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities is the largest annual financial award given to an individual for intellectual accomplishment.


The monetary value of the prize, now about $1.5 million dollars, is adjusted annually to ensure that it is always larger than the Nobel Prize. According to the John Templeton Foundation, that reflects Sir John Templeton's conviction that research directed toward spiritual realities could bring even greater benefits to humankind than technology-directed research. It also reflects his conviction that money makes things happen.

It certainly works for Templeton. Frequently described as a humble man in spite of his staggering wealth, he can afford to be humble. He became a billionaire by pioneering the use of globally diversified mutual funds. He was born into a middleclass family in the Bible-Belt town of Winchester, Kentucky; his parents, devout Presbyterians, emphasized the virtues of thrift and compassion. He learned both lessons so well that in 1968 he renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved to the Bahamas, becoming a British citizen to avoid the U.S. income tax. He was knighted by the Queen in 1987 for his philanthropies. Sir John Templeton still resides in the Bahamas, and of course he still pays no U.S. taxes.


Perhaps the most honored scientist of our time, Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize for fundamental discoveries in quantum electronics, culminating in the development of the maser and the laser-inventions that have had an enormous impact on science and society. He was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and has gathered numerous other awards and prizes.

Born and raised in a devoutly Baptist household in a Bible-Belt town not unlike Templeton's home town, Townes, like Templeton, remained devout his entire life and still begins and ends every day with a prayer.

A graduate of Furman, a local Baptist college, Townes was from the beginning drawn to science. But the amount and quality of the science offered at Furman was limited, so he took a degree in modern languages and went on to Duke for an MA in physics. At Duke his extraordinary ability in physics was recognized, and he was encouraged to go on to Caltech for his PhD. At Caltech he endured a certain amount of teasing for his religious beliefs, not only from fellow students but from William Smythe, his thesis advisor. In an interview with Tim Radford of The Guardian sixty-five years later, he recalled being chided by Smythe, "Charlie you can't know that Jesus was the son of God." Townes resented it-and he still does.

A few years later, by now a faculty member at Columbia, Townes joined the Men's Group at the famed Riverside Church in New York. Since few scientists ever attend church, he was asked to talk to the group about his views. He titled his talk "The Convergence of Science and Religion." The editor of Think magazine, published by IBM, heard the talk and liked it so much he published it in the April 1966 issue. The editor of the MIT Alumni Journal a nonscientist like the editor of Think, liked it so much he reprinted it. But while magazine editors may have liked it, many of their scientist readers did not, and it drew complaints from scientists and prominent MIT alumni. Half a century later, in a statement at the Templeton Prize news conference, Townes recalled these slights: "It reflected a common view among many scientists at the time that one could not be a scientist and also be religiously oriented. There was an antipathy towards discussion of spirituality."

The antipathy has not softened. Indeed, with the rise of religion-inspired terrorism and antiscience religious fundamentalism around the world, antipathy toward religion among scientists has hardened into direct confrontation. By 2006 there was at least one antireligion title by a prominent scientist in the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list every week.

"The Convergence of Science and Religion" was cited by the judges in awarding the Templeton Prize. Their report quoted a single line: "Understanding the order in the universe and understanding the purpose of the universe are not identical, but they are also not very far apart."

They are a universe apart. Science and religion are on divergent paths, growing ever farther apart as knowledge expands. Most religious scientists consciously partition their lives, relying on scientific reasoning on one side of the partition and revelation on the other. Townes appears to partition his life the same way, but without quite being aware that he's doing it. On the science side he applies logic and reason to great effect. But on the religion side, since Scripture provides the answers, he ends up redefining words to make the two views of the universe appear to be coming together.

His phase, "the purpose of the universe," moreover is rather scary. "Purpose" conjures up images of fanaticism. Once people convince themselves that they have been put on Earth as instruments in some divine plan, there seems to be no limit to the horrors they are willing to commit to carry out that plan. In his beautiful Dreams of a Final Theory, Steven Weinberg, another great Nobel-laureate physicist and an avowed atheist, expressed quite a different view: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."

Many nonscientists have criticized Weinberg for this line; scientists, however, generally find a purposeless existence to be wonderfully liberating-we are free to establish our own goals and to venture across any intellectual boundaries without looking for no-trespassing signs. Humans are free to decide what kind of world we want to live in, and science has given us the tools to set about the business of building that world. Naturalism is the idea that scientific laws are the only way to explain the world. As we enter the third millennium, naturalism is the dominant philosophy of scientists. But it is not the philosophy of Charles Townes.


"Many people don't realize that science basically involves faith," Townes said in his Templeton Prize news conference. Townes had made that point many times before. On questions of laser physics I would happily defer to Townes, but this is a matter of the English language. Here we must defer to the dictionaries. He is confusing two very different meanings of the word "faith." Pick your dictionary; they all list at least two quite different meanings. In the Concise Oxford English Dictionary that I keep on my desk:

faith n. 1 complete trust or confidence. 2 strong belief in a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

Some dictionaries break it down into finer variations, but these two meanings are all I need to make my point: scientists use the word "faith" to express their confidence that the laws of nature will prevail, beginning with the law of cause and effect. The religious use of "faith" implies belief in a higher power that makes things happen independent of a physical cause. This defines superstition. The two meanings of "faith" are thus not only different, they are exact opposites.

Science is conditional: when better experimental evidence becomes available, scientists revise their picture of the universe to fit the facts. Our senses may at times deceive us, as when we see a mirage in the desert. A scientist would say the way to avoid being deceived by a mirage is to understand the laws of optics, enabling us to invent instruments that let us see more clearly, perhaps a polarized lens. Much of the work of science consists of refining the methods of observation to avoid being deceived, including self-deception. Nature is the only arbiter. Religion, by contrast, may call on the faithful to deny the evidence of their senses if it disagrees with Holy Scripture. It's hard to imagine that anyone as careful as Townes could have confused the two meanings of faith over and over again without consulting a dictionary.

Nevertheless, the scientist in Townes is clearly dominant. He places Darwin's theory of natural selection above Genesis as an explanation for the origin of humans. While he may think of himself as a Baptist, pray twice a day, and attend church every Sunday, as a scientist he recognizes that the authors of the Bible could not have understood the scientific implications of their words. To make the Bible agree with his scientific conclusions, Townes interprets the Bible metaphorically, as do virtually all religious scientists. Southern Baptists who are nonscientists, however, are inclined to interpret the Bible quite literally.

Townes was not the first physicist to receive the Templeton Prize. Before 2001, however, the name of the prize was simply the "Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion," and the winners were mostly celebrities drawn from the religious world, beginning with Mother Teresa in 1973. Predictably, the evangelist Billy Graham was a winner, receiving the prize in 1982. Even Charles Colson, whose celebrity status came as a result of his conviction in the Watergate scandal, was awarded the prize in 1993 as the founder of a prison ministry called the Prison Fellowship. The first real physicist to win the prize was Paul Davies in 1995. An Australian, Davies is best known for his science popularizations, including The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World in 1992.

Templeton's thinking about the prize seems to have been evolving. It went to another physicist, Ian Barbour, in 1999, and two years later the name of the prize was changed to the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. Most of the recipients since have been, as Richard Dawkins scathingly put it in The God Delusion, scientists who "say something nice about religion." Most of them have been physicists or cosmologists.


Ian Barbour's PhD was from the University of Chicago, where he was a teaching assistant to Enrico Fermi, the great Italian physicist who fl ed fascist Italy with his Jewish wife at the start of World War II. Fermi carried out the first atomic chain reaction beneath the university of Chicago stadium, ensuring that the United States and not Nazi Germany would build the atomic bomb first. Barbour completed his PhD in 1949, and seemed headed for a career as one of the leaders of American physics along with other scientists from the Manhattan Project. But two years later he enrolled in Yale Divinity School, earning a divinity degree in 1956. He became a professor in both physics and religion at Carleton College in Minnesota, and was highly regarded in both fields. Like virtually all religious scientists, Barbour flatly rejects the literal interpretation of the biblical story of Genesis by the creationists, seeing it as clearly metaphorical. He is credited with having created the contemporary dialogue between science and religion.

The importance of Barbour's dialog was recognized by Sir John Templeton from the beginning. While Templeton may genuinely believe the Christian myth, he also respects science. Why shouldn't he? The scientific revolution, after all, led to the fantastic growth in the world economy that made him a billionaire. Perhaps Templeton believes God has chosen him to show the world that, as he put it, theology and science are two windows onto the same landscape. It would follow that if scientists could be persuaded to delve into religion, it would benefit both religion and science. How then should he go about convincing scientists of this?

Why not just buy the dialog between science and religion? Templeton proceeded to do exactly that. After all, there's no point in being super rich if you can't throw your weight around. It was easier to buy the dialog than you might imagine. The machinery was already in place. The John Templeton Foundation had been created in 1987 to serve as catalyst for scientific studies into the "Big Questions." These are questions about such things as the nature of consciousness and the origin of life that seemed unanswerable in 1987. They form the basis of Barbour's dialogue. The Foundation now gives away about $60 million in research grants each year. Recipients often feel moved to express their gratitude by inventing some sort of common ground between science and religion, thus reinforcing the myth of convergence. The Foundation even bought a magazine, Science & Spirit, and devoted it to publicizing the dialogue.


Excerpted from SUPERSTITION by Robert L. Park Copyright © 2008 by ROBERT L. PARK. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Michael Shermer
If a tree falls on a scientist in a forest with no one else around does it mean he won't make a sound? Not if that scientist is the indomitable Bob Park, the skeptic's skeptic, the Ralph Nader of nonsense, the man who rose from the (nearly) dead to pen this uncompromising critique of superstition and the beliefs that follow once you abandon science and reason. Read this book. Now.
Michael Shermer, publisher of the "Skeptic" and author of "Why Darwin Matters"
Val Fitch
You may have the impression that mythology expired with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Far from it, mythology has only evolved into another perhaps more pervasive form. It is an insidious force in the modern scene. Park slays the modern dragons with authority and acerbic wit, whether it is ESP or intercessory prayer. The book is a delight.
Val Fitch, Princeton University, 1980 Nobel laureate in physics
James Randi
Bob Park has done it again. His lucid, humorous, style—the envy of those of us who fancy themselves writers—gets through the pervasive nonsense that he finds everywhere, from the 'afterlife' delusion to intelligent design. He rightly and joyously celebrates how science has led us from the Dark Ages to the brink of understanding a myriad of mysteries that we should contemplate with a reverence that was once reserved for priests and witchdoctors. No one knows better than Bob—personally—the real miracles of medical science surpass anything offered by religion. As he says in this provocative book: 'Science is the only way of knowing—everything else is just religion.'
James Randi, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation
Yves Gingras
Opinionated and well-informed, this is a lucid promotion of rationality in a world of rising superstition. We can disagree with the author but he forces us to think harder.
Yves Gingras, University of Quebec, Montreal
Superstition is yet more evidence that Bob Park is always worth reading. At times funny, at times acerbic, always thoughtful, Bob Park is not one to 'go with the flow.' There is a lot to think about in this book, as usual.
Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education

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Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Willp More than 1 year ago
Robert L. Park is professor of physics at the University of Maryland and author of Voodoo science: the road from foolishness to fraud. In this brilliant book, he examines and debunks many popular illusions: intelligent design, parapsychology, spoon-bending, reincarnation, astral projections, extra-sensory perception, homoeopathy, acupuncture, magnetic healing, crystal healing, pyramid healing, life after death, the existence of souls, the efficacy of prayer, and the notions of hell and heaven. He also wittily proves that inter-stellar travel and time travel are impossible. He shows that these are all products of wishful thinking, or of outright fraud (spoon-bending, for goodness' sake!). Some are cultural relics from a pre-scientific age, others are misunderstandings, wilful or not, of scientific advances (for example, ignorant notions of 'quantum' healing). Some are superstitions learnt in childhood. He describes how people developed randomised controlled trials so that they could sift sense from nonsense and impose checks on their perceptions. By thorough testing, we have made great progress in science, especially in medicine. He praises Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as one of the greatest steps forward in our understanding of the world around us. . Using science's skills, we have moved from purging, cupping and bleeding to anaesthetics, antibiotics and surgery. We have ended smallpox and could end polio and malaria were it not for the resistance of ignorant imams and greens. We have progressed from a belief that disasters are God-given (to punish sinful mankind) to understanding how to predict and cope with disasters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago