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Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science [Paperback]

Robert L. Park
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Book Description

21 July 2010

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.

Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1 edition (21 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691145970
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691145976
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,129,822 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Park writes with bemusement at human folly but also with outrage at the misappropriation of science."--Robert A. Segal, Times Higher Education

"Park uses his personal story to great effect to champion scientific thinking. He also gets under its skin, to explain how, as well as what, science delivers."--Mark Henderson, Times (London)

"For Princeton physicist Robert Park, science serves as a rapier for skewering all beliefs not sustained by empirical proof. Predictably, religion heads the list of targets . . . [Park] pits experimental rigor not only against the creeds of antiquity but also against the irrationality of New Age gurus who evangelize for alternative medicines or extrasensory perception. . . . Sure to spark sharp debate."--Bryce Christensen, Booklist

"Parks' main target in the first part of his book is Christianity, especially its creationist and so-called intelligent-design offshoots. However, the world's other religions do not emerge unscathed. . . . He takes on New Age beliefs, reserving particular scorn for those practitioners who add the word 'quantum' to unrelated topics like 'healing' to give themselves an imprimatur of scientific respectability. . . . Both religious and non-religious scientists are sure to find something of interest in the rest."--Physics World

"Genial anecdotal tales introduce each chapter, which are then followed with the cutting criticism of various pseudobelief systems. Dogmatic in his emphasis that science is the only way of knowing, Park weighs faith-based beliefs against scientific evidence and makes no allowance for other ways of knowing. . . . The controversial content should provide debate material for the high school and young college crowd as well as the general public."--R.A. Hoots, Choice

"With acerbic wit, Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland, asks why we believe weird things even when no evidence supports our claims. . . . A humanist and naturalist, Park asserts that science rejects appeal to authority in favor of empirical evidence."--Roy E. Perry, The Tennessean

Bob Park is a sceptic's sceptic, a consummate critical thinker, a no-nonsense scientist who knows baloney when he detects it. . . . Superstition is more than an entertaining romp through the weird and wonderful. It is an important contribution to the sceptical literature . . . that every scientist needs to be aware of."--Michael Shermer, Nature Physics

"Guns blazing, Park hunts down what he calls pseudo-science. . . . I found myself enjoying much of this feisty book as a kind of entertainment that raises serious questions."--Evelyn Juers, Australian

From the Inside Flap

"If a tree falls on a scientist in a forest with no one else around does it mean he wont make a sound? Not if that scientist is the indomitable Bob Park, the skeptics 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

"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

"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

"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

"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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science can present surprises but no miracles 15 Sep 2012
By F Henwood TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It grates when one hears that science is just another faith position, in the sense that there are no good grounds to disbelieve or believe the claims religion and science make. But this proposition is false. The reason why it's false is because it fails to define what it meant by faith. Park addresses this question straightaway. Faith, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is (1) complete trust or confidence or (2) strong belief in a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. Scientists have faith in the sense 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 independently of a natural cause. This defines superstition. There's the rub.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is an apposite demonstration of the scientific sense of faith. When Darwin postulated the theory of evolution by natural selection, he had no idea of the mechanism that passed on the characteristics of parents to their offspring. But he predicted that such units would be found. They were found of course - genes. This is a perfect of example of faith in the scientific sense. Intelligent Design by contrast merely asserts the god of the gaps. Yes it is impossible to disprove the existence of such a god but so what? Even if there was a god or designer, what reason do we have to believe that it is the one of the Bible and the Koran, as opposed to some nebulous cosmic intelligence? But how can you explain nature by positing something outside nature? It doesn't make sense.

If there is a god out there, then there is no evidence, not even tentative evidence, that there is any point in praying to him.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Debunks lots of nonsense 21 May 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
By Sphex
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Robert L. Park is lucky to be alive. We all are, in the sense that so offends our tendency to see the world in teleological and anthropocentric terms. Park is especially lucky to have survived a one-sided contest with a large red oak that fell on him. Among those first on the scene were two Catholic priests, whom he later befriended. His "conversations with these wise and gentle men of faith" as they walked the same trail "began the intellectual process that eventually led to this book." Does Park now believe in the power of prayer? Has his atheism turned out to be an intellectual farrago? Hardly. "I would not be telling the story had it not been for recent advances in medicine and technology." His faith in science remains rock solid, or at least as solid as the oak that tried to rearrange his
temporal lobes.

So, is science just another faith position? No. Park is a very good writer, but not too proud to look in a dictionary: "scientists use the word 'faith' to express their confidence that the laws of nature will prevail, beginning with the law of cause and effect." In contrast, 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."

Language matters. The infamous "Wedge" strategy of the intelligent design movement, for example, includes replacing "naturalism" ("the idea that scientific laws are the only way to explain the world") - a word with positive connotations - with "scientific materialism".
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