Robert Park’s new book Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (Princeton University Press, 2008) is unfortunately disappointing. I read Park’s book Voodoo Science years ago, and I remember liking it, but this new one does way too much jumping from topic to topic, which makes the whole discussion rather superficial. Some of the topics are admittedly interesting. But when it comes to important controversial issues, Park just asserts his views; there’s almost nothing by way of argument.

I can’t imagine that Princeton University Press would publish a book by a philosopher like this: it would go out to other philosophers for peer review, and they would excoriate it for the lack of arguments. In PUP’s eyes, does the fact that Park is a physicist excuse his dogmatic assertion without argumentation? To be honest, I expect better of PUP.

Here are some examples of problems with Park’s reasoning.

(1) The book starts by talking about physicist Charles Townes, who won the Nobel Prize and also the Templeton Prize. On page 4, Park quotes Townes as writing:

Understanding the order in the universe and understanding the purpose of the universe are not identical, but they are also not very far apart.

Park criticizes this:

His phrase, “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.

Look at what’s happened here. Townes has made a rather benign claim that invokes the purpose of the universe, an invocation that many theist would be happy with, because many theists believe that God does have a plan or purpose or goal for the universe. Park then tries to link that benign claim to fanaticism and the horrors that fanatics perpetrate. This strikes me as completely unfair. And it’s not like Park goes on to say more about this; he just moves on to another topic (saying that in his view, the universe is purposeless).

(2) Park goes on to talk more about Templeton, and decries the influence Templeton has had in getting people in academia to talk about the relationship between science and religion. Park writes:

anywhere there is the sound of a dialogue between science and religion, it’s a safe bet that Templeton’s people are there handing out money. (page 8)

I understand his concern about the influence of Templeton, but for the record, I find the science/religion relationship to be intrinsically interesting; I haven’t received any money from Templeton, and I doubt I ever will. I think Park is being a bit hyperbolic here. Anyway, that’s minor compared to how the passage continues:

What he has bought with his money are elaborate sound effects meant to create an illusion that science and religion are finding common ground. However, it’s an illusion that has been shattered by the muffled sound of explosions as religious fanatics blow up themselves and total strangers with the goal of replacing civilization with Islamic rule.

And that’s it; Park goes on to talk about a new topic.

This is completely unfair, isn’t it? It’s a non sequitur to claim that, because some religious fanatics are trying to violently implement Islamic rule, it follows that science and religion are not finding common ground. This should go without explaining, but Park is a smart guy, and he wrote the paragraph, so I guess I need to explain: it’s possible for some influential people to find that there are newly identified commonalities between science and religion, while at the same time some unenlightened people are trying to implement Islamic rule. I get the sense that Park is using emotive rhetoric as a substitute for reasoned criticism of the Templeton Foundation, and this is highly disturbing, especially in a book that focuses on criticizing the fallacious reasoning behind other belief systems.

(3) Park accuses intelligent design proponents of not even believing their own theory. He writes:

The great irony is that the war is over a theory [intelligent design] that neither side believes — certainly not the scientists, who overwhelmingly accept Darwinian evolution, but not even the Christian fundamentalists, who would have preferred the story of Adam and Eve. (page 29)

Park provides no evidence for this claim. It’s a rather strong claim though, isn’t it, to say that intelligent design proponents don’t even believe their own theory? Of course, it’s hard for those of us on the outside to know what intelligent design proponents really believe, but I know what they say, and many of them say that they believe that Earth is billions of years old — they aren’t in that sense fundamentalists.

(4) Park writes:

Although proponents of intelligent design see every fossil gap as unbridgeable, new fossils keep turning up. (page 39)

I’ve read a fair amount of the literature on intelligent design, and I’ve never seen an intelligent design proponent say that every fossil gap is unbridgeable. Park is setting up a classic straw man here — he’s falsely attributing an unreasonable position to ID proponents, and then making it look like he’s attacking intelligent design by attacking the unreasonable position.

Imagine if ID proponents argued against anti-ID scientists this way: “anti-ID scientists say that there are no kangaroos, but new kangaroos keep turning up.” People like Park would jump all over the ID proponents for such fallacious reasoning; people like Park would rightly point out that anti-ID scientists have never said that there are no kangaroos, and would slam the ID proponents for such an unfair line of reasoning. Park deserves no less.

(5) Park claims that past-life regression is impossible:

A reporter asked me how I could be so sure past-life regression is nonsense. “Because there is no verifiable evidence to support it”, I replied. That was certainly a true statement, but his response was to shrug his shoulders. “Maybe there is evidence you aren’t aware of. Science doesn’t know everything.” Well, that’s true too. I should have said there is no possibility of there being valid evidence to support it. There cannot be a gap in the memory chain. (page 88)

That’s the end of Park’s argument; he doesn’t go on to explain what he means when he talks about a gap in the memory chain, and he doesn’t say what his argument is for the claim that there can’t be gaps in the memory chain (whatever exactly those are). Now, I don’t believe that past-life regression occurs, but that’s a much weaker claim than the claim that past-life regression is impossible. I don’t see why it’s not possible that reinarnation is true, and that some memories carry over from one life to the next. Maybe it’s true that past-life regression is impossible, but I’d want to see the argument. Again, Park is just making controversial assertions without support.

Admittedly, I’m picking out the worst parts of Park’s book; this isn’t meant to be a fair-minded book review. But I was sufficiently frustrated by the lack of argument that I felt the need to make my complaints public.