Saturday, June 12, 2010

Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

Superstition, a truly exhilarating and engaging piece of literature by Robert L. Park, explores the scientific side of superstition by applying logical reasoning to the resilient (and somewhat foolish) beliefs that many people share. He boldly points out that many people confuse pseudoscience with science; and emphasizes that science is supported with empirical evidence, while pseudoscience is mainly sustained through anecdotal evidence. He also argues that science is always eagerly advancing and rewriting itself, while religion and superstition strongly resist change. What is remarkable about pseudoscientific issues like superstition, and what Park baffles over, is that they somehow persevere even past their unsuccessful attempts at being proven by science. His viewpoint and novel can be summed up in one powerful sentence, “Science is the only way of knowing- everything else is just superstition.” This is, in fact, the ending line of his book; and is the underlying principle in his examination of long-lived superstitious beliefs that have clearly been proven faulty by modern science. It is a very provoking investigation that is strong and assertive; and Park is not bashful in expressing his true feelings about the seemingly dubious (at least to scientists) superstitious issues that he covers.
In his novel, Park reviews many superstitious questions, like the effectiveness of alternative medicine like homeopathy and acupuncture (that are still practiced today); the power of intercessory prayer; the theory of intelligent design; the possibility of reincarnation and the existence of heaven; and other phenomena like astral projection and out-of-body experiences. The truth of the matter for many of these superstitious questions, is that since they have not and cannot be scientifically proven, there is not much validity to them. Park emphasizes that many “studies” which claim to show evidence of such phenomena are barely statistically significant, and much of the information has been “cherry picked;” in other words, the information that supports the theory is given central focus, while unsupportive evidence is overlooked, or simply pushed to the side. Despite all this, superstitious beliefs somehow stand strong through the test of time and even failed scientific confirmation. However, Park holds his ground that science trumps many of the superstitious beliefs that are instilled in us as children; and it would be to our advantage as a society of people to embrace that. He insists, “What science is learning about the laws that govern the universe gives us the power to transform the world into the closest thing to paradise that any of us will ever see. This knowledge did not come from sacred texts, or the revelations of prophets.” Science is where the answers come from.
I really enjoyed a brief section in Park’s novel which discussed the success of our species, Homo sapiens, and our subsequent rapidly growing population on Planet Earth. He asks, “What do we do now?” He deems the obvious answer to be the use of birth control; but reasons that many strict religions around the world would consider such a practice as unacceptable. He makes what I believe to be a very daring, but nonetheless, notably true statement that, “The end result is inevitable unless we overcome our religious objections to birth control. This is the point at which superstition goes from being a harmless indulgence to a threat to the human race.” I was in awe when I read those lines; not only because of their utter truthfulness, but because they made me realize how strong the power of superstition really is. People tend to tightly adhere to what is “safe and comfortable,” but perhaps do not realize the larger repercussions attached to some of their beliefs. Why are we all so afraid of change in this aspect? Especially when it can lead to the advancement of our species, just as modern science has shown. This novel was a unique and enlightening experience that has truly made me view pseudoscientific issues in a new light.

Check out this link to watch a 7-part dialogue by Robert Park, speaking at a National Capital Area Skeptics event about his novel, Superstition.

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