Friday, October 23, 2009

Who do voodoo?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

He looks a bit of the curmudgeon, someone who doesn't suffer fools lightly. But also a kindly person, with a twinkle in his eye. Honest and fair. I'd buy.

It's Bob Park, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Maryland, former Executive Director of the American Physical Society, and author of Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. A veteran debunker of pseudosciences of every sort.

I just read his newest book, Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. A jolly romp of a book, poking a finger in the eye of everything from intelligent design, to prayer, to homeopathy, to quantum mysticism, and beyond. Familiar territory for someone like me who regularly reads Skeptical Inquirer, but lots of fresh background tidbits. An economy pack of spicy peanuts. A bit of the curmudgeon, yes, but honest and fair.

What will tick off many people is Park's summary sentence: "Science is the only way of knowing -- everything else is just superstition."

Fair?

What are the sources of knowledge? Direct sense experience. Intuition. Tradition. Authority. Revelation. Science.

By "science" I mean the whole suite of methodological tools that have evolved over the centuries. Institutionalized skepticism. Quantitative observation. Reproducibility. Double-blind experiments. Publication that makes no reference to the religion, politics, emotions, or any other personal aspect of the investigator(s). Peer review. Mathematical analysis. Consensus building. And so on.

The other ways of knowing -- unfiltered sense experience, intuition, tradition, authority, and revelation -- yield as many versions of truth as there are persons to believe. Science defines itself by consensus.

Of course, science is not a sufficient guide to the chilling and thrilling woods of life, but I wouldn't want to enter the woods without it. I would modify Park's final sentence to read: "Science is far and away the most reliable way of knowing -- everything else is fraught with subjectivity and self-delusion.