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SuperstitionReview - Superstition
Belief in the Age of Science
by Robert L. Park
Princeton University Press, 2008
Review by Ed Brandon
Mar 24th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 13)

Bob Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland, was out jogging in woods near his home when a large oak tree fell on him, breaking many bones.  A passing Salvadorean with a cell-phone managed to call an ambulance. Park was infected by soil bacteria that only responded to a newly discovered antibiotic that was infused via a catheter that had been threaded to his heart using state-of-the-art medical imaging.  As he says, if it were not for very recent technological inventions and scientific discoveries, and one might add, if it had happened in most other parts of the world, he would not be here to tell the tale.  He has reason to be thankful, and arguably for being optimistic.

Returning to the spot about a year later he met two retired Catholic priests who had also seen the accident.  Ensuing conversations led him to the reflections presented in this book, popular meditations on the nature of religious belief in a world increasingly disenchanted by the progress of scientific understanding.

His twelve chapters range widely over issues at the intersection of religion and science. The first chapter addresses the problem how some competent practicing scientists maintain their own religious beliefs.  Park suggests they must compartmentalize their intellectual life, and find ways of leaving space for divine existence.  He has a few negative remarks to make about the anthropic principle and fine-tuning, concluding that "it would make more sense to ask why God designed a universe so inhospitable to life" (p. 11).  And he seems to think that a future physics will tell us that what look now like the fundamental constants could not have any other values than they have, a curiously rationalistic hope for one whose basic message is the importance of empirical testing.

The second chapter focuses on Darwin and natural selection, responding to those who ask for evidence that evolutionary change is happening now by reference to the spread of lactose tolerance among human populations, and examining some of the twists and turns in the "intelligent design" controversy and its role in public education in the US.  This chapter illustrates the ironic self-undermining of popular defenses of scientific rationality in that it has to fall back on appeals to authority.  At one point  Park quotes Dobzhansky's remark that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" (p. 47) -- but he cannot provide a hundredth part of biology and its understandings here, so we have to take their word for it, with a few examples to make it palatable.

Chapter three looks at prayer, and the few empirical investigations of its causal role, starting with Galton's analysis of the life-spans of English monarchs and archbishops (people for whom the Church of England is enjoined to pray) -- Galton concluded that it made no difference.  There is some discussion also of the placebo effect, since meditation does have some effects on body chemistry that can alleviate pain and reduce tension.  The major part of the chapter is devoted to the sorry story of the Columbia prayer study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (2001) vol.. 46: 781-787, and its aftermath.

This chapter contains the first of Park's frequent appeals to the importance of randomized placebo-controlled, double-blind trials to ascertain the efficacy, or otherwise, of various treatments.  At one point he recommends similar testing in his own field, physics, to avoid premature publicizing of impossible results.

Chapter four begins with the story of the FDA's non-approval of the emergency "Plan B" contraceptive pill for over-the-counter sale, and moves on to the supposition that human persons have a soul, stem-cell research, hypnosis, and astral projection.  The following chapter looks at views about heaven and an after-life.  Park gives an interesting quotation from the present Pope, reminiscent of Bernard Williams on the tedium of immortality (see p. 103).

Chapter six explores some aspects of the problem of evil, in particular the theistic response to natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami, where Park digs up some remarkably unpleasant "rationalizations" by spokespersons for various religions.  He ends the chapter with a brief account of tectonics and the possibility of a global warning system that might prevent at least some of the pointless suffering of 2004.

Chapter seven focuses on wonder-workers such as the pseudonymous Adam Dreamhealer and tries to account for their remarkable success in imposing on otherwise sane human beings by reference to the processes of belief-formation as we know them from research on the brain. Having disposed of New Age nonsense, Park then turns in chapter eight to dispelling the mysteries some have found in the genuine science of quantum mechanics.  Here, I must say, I thought that Park takes a very simplistic view of what the theory says: if he is right, I cannot understand why the philosophy of science journals are full of long disquisitions on the significance of quantum entanglement.

Chapter nine returns us mainly to medicine, with homeopathy "as a surrogate for all superstitious medicine" (p. 160), but with a run through Benveniste's  notorious claims about "water remembering" and the attempts Park made to arrange a proper test, cut short by Benveniste's death in 2004.  The following chapter looks at what we know about pain and the ways the body copes with it, allowing further discussion of the placebo effect, and an informative account of the western "discovery" of acupuncture.

Starting with one man's challenge to the constitutionality of a monument bearing the Ten Commandments, chapter ten looks at morality, emphasizing the prevalence of ideals of reciprocity though without getting into any sociobiology, and seeking some natural basis for sympathy in the "mirror" neurons revealed by functional MRI.

The final chapter starts with the tremendous changes to the environment and the destruction of species that human beings have managed to produce in a few short years.  Park tells a story here of how he gets physics students to check the numbers for schemes such as evacuation, or just a small expeditionary trip, to the nearest star.  The last move is to work out the energy needed to get started: "many thousands of times greater than all the energy that is expended on Earth in a year" (p. 209).  So we are stuck here, and have to make the best of it, and can't expect any visits from such aliens as there might be.  Park takes on environmental skeptics such as Lomborg, suggesting that low fertility rates are not due to prosperity but rather to women's rights as revealed by their ability or otherwise to go in for family planning.  Park's last pages express an optimism that scientific enquiry can solve problems caused by overpopulation in the same way we have managed to eradicate scourges such as small-pox.  But having devoted 215 pages to a bewildering array of nonsense, much of it professed by enormously powerful propaganda machines, and admitting that the hard-wiring of our brains has probably hardly changed from the days when we were all hunter-gatherers, Park's hope that the few years remaining before we are overwhelmed by the consequences of overpopulation can be devoted "to implement basic social reforms to constrain population growth" -- neutralizing the effect of the Catholic Church, and of many males who subscribe to Islam, for starters, not to mention getting them and their dependents to think naturalistically -- seems strained beyond breaking point.  One would rather think that near the top of an endangered species list should be homo sapiens.


© 2009 Ed Brandon



Ed Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.


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