Superstition and Reason: A Response

Steuart Campbell
Magonia 33. July 1989.

This article is a reply to Ralph Noyes’ contribution in Magonia 32.  Whatever Ralph Noyes is skilled at it is not using dictionaries! Although he looked at several dictionaries he quotes only the Concise Oxford Dictionary and then not the latest edition. If he had looked at the 1978 Concise he would have found an additional and important definition, viz. ‘widely held but unjustified idea of the effects or nature of a thing’.

If he had looked at Chambers’ Twentieth Century Dictionary he would have found, inter alia, the same idea: ‘a deep-rooted but unfounded general belief’. This seems to be the sense in which we are using the word ‘superstition’ in this journal. Nevertheless, Noyes abandons the dictionaries and invents his own definition, ‘persistence in a belief in the face of contrary evidence’.

The difference between Noyes’ definition and that of the dictionaries is profound. In the first place the dictionaries claim that the belief has to be widespread. Noyes allows a single person to hold a superstitious belief! The ancients who held that the world was flat were superstitious but if a modern person holds that belief he is merely being perverse.

Astrology always was (and is) superstitious. In short, Noyes’s definition takes no account of the extent to which a belief is held. The conviction by a persistent smoker that he is not damaging his (or others) health is not a superstition; it is just a refusal to face facts. On the other hand, the widespread belief that a monster lives in Loch Ness is a superstition. But in the latter case where is the ‘contrary evidence’? There is just no evidence for Nessie and Noyes’ definition has nothing to work on.

Then Noyes’ definition requires there to be ‘evidence’, and moreover that it should be seen to be ‘contrary’. The problem here is that one person’s contradiction is another’s confirmation! Evidence is in the eye of the beholder! Nessie buffs see the results from various explorations at Loch Ness as evidence for the existence of nessie. Sceptics like me claim that whatever they have got is is not evidence for Nessie. They have misinterpreted the data as evidence. Consequently Noyes’s definition will stumble over this question of evidence.

Belief in UFOs is a space-age superstition; it is both unreasonable and at odds with the experience of the scientific community
The problem of defining ‘superstition’ is the inverse of the problem of defining ‘science’, a matter that has troubled philosophers of science for a long time. It is now fairly generally agreed that science consists of a set of beliefs, not a set of facts. Facts are just not available, or in other words, ‘truth’ is unknown. What science does is to adopt beliefs about truth knowing that the beliefs are not absolutely correct. A scientist’s problem then is to determine which of various beliefs is closer to the truth. In some cases he has to accept that he will never know the truth and must operate with an approximation, or a model with which he can work. Newton’s laws of gravity are a simple model of gravity, on the basis that it is a force. Einstein’s model of gravity has no forces, instead it is a field effect. Modern ideas suggest that gravity acts via particles called gravitons. Scientists do not ask themselves which of these is correct; they ask which will take us furthest in our exploration of the universe.

For the above reasons I define science as ‘a set of beliefs justified by reason and experience’. They may be justified today but not tomorrow. There must be a good reason for the belief and the experience of scientists must agree with the belief. Conversely I define superstition as ‘a belief not justified by reason or experience’. The symmetry of these two definitions is very satisfactory and helps to determine whether or not a particular belief is or is not a superstition.

CSICOP is certainly correct in claiming that belief in psychokinesis is a superstition; it is unreasonable and there is no accepted evidence for it. Noyes’s claim that there is ‘overwhelming’ evidence is preposterous and the Journal of Scientific Exploration is hardly a reputable journal (its editors are people who all accept the existence of one or more anomalous phenomena). Similarly, belief in UFOs is a space-age superstition; it is both unreasonable and at odds with the experience of the scientific community. Where is the ‘contrary evidence’ that a UFO buff is refusing to face in his persistence? He would point to mountains of what he regards as confirmatory ‘evidence’ on which his belief is based. Noyes’s mistake is to regard evidence as unequivocal and science as a set of known laws. C’the laws of nature’).

Every observation is open to more than one interpretation and here are no laws other than those we invent from time to time. Because we shall never truly understand the operation of the universe it is all the more important hat we can distinguish between justified and unjustified beliefs, between science and superstition. One will take us forward, the other backwards. It is of concern that Noyes does not know whether he is coming or going.