Most helpful critical review
40 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2000
A rationalist must be intellectually "on guard" against both bunk and would-be de-bunkers. This should have been a much better book. * The author includes as evidence of superstition the well-known sports rituals such as bouncing the basketball a set number of times in a set pattern at the free throw line. He includes data on such practices in reporting the prevalence of superstition in sports, early and throughout the book. After 90 pages, he allows that "these personal rituals serve a number of valuable purposes and are not at all superstitions", citing the advantages of focus, the ritual becoming part of the context of the performance, the feedback, the value of visualization, etc. "Psychological research supports the importance of this strategy, and coaches often encourage athletes to develop a standard routine." But earlier, on page 28, he lists 14 actions labeled "Superstitions" that include "Standing in identical spot for free throw", an absolutely absurd labeling as superstition of something that is obvious common sense! (By my evaluation, 9 of the 14 "superstitions" unequivocally make good sense as psychological "anchors" or better.) * On page 90, he addresses what should have been addressed much earlier: "So when are they [routines] superstitious? A routine becomes superstitious when a particular action is given special, magical significance." He acknowledges "...it is often difficult to draw the line between superstition and useful preparation..." Yes indeed, as any sports psychologist would tell you, and why bother? But the problem is that the author has preceded this with 89 pages (and follows it with another hundred or so) of not making this distinction, or citing "data" on incidence of superstition that take no account of this distinction. How could Skinner's famous experiments, cited at length and with approval, possibly give data on the development of "superstition" in pigeons when the distinction cannot be based on "magical significance." Basketball players were not asked. * A bald non-scientific bias in his own position shows up early (page 27) when the author addresses datasets that show a positive correlation between "superstitious" acts (like free-throw rituals) and success. At this point in the book, the author has not yet acknowledged any possible non-magical value, so what is he to do with this data? A sports psychologist or coach would say it is not a superstition at all, but an "anchor", and use the data to show that it works; using a free-throw ritual improves success. But Vyse, because he has labeled all this "superstition", cannot dare to say that "superstition" leads to success. So he reverts to the only alternative when faced with a data correlation. He claims that the evidence shows not that "superstition breeds success" but rather that "success breeds superstition!" (See page 27, last line.) After the belated acknowledgment of the value of routine and rituals on page 90, he again reverts to his earlier position of no value. * Similar flawed data interpretations occur throughout the book. Some are (or at least could be) just a matter of industrial safety and prudence (not walking under ladders, pg. 48) or unpleasant associations (e.g. pg. 9) or interest in science fiction (pg. 16) or team cheers (pg. 29) or team socializing (pg. 197) or emotional state management by prayer or music (pg. 31). * A technical failure involves what should have been the most important lesson of the book, and probably still makes a worthwhile impression on readers, in spite of the fact that it is incorrectly explained. This involves the erroneous interpretation of the 2x2 outcome matrix to develop illusory correlations (page 116). * The Chapter 1 summary of sociological studies of religion and magic is excellent, and Chapter 3 on the relation between superstition and coincidence is good, and is a major aspect of the "problem" of superstition. But I would have noted that the ability of humans and other animals to recognize coincidence is part of intellect and provides the precursor of scientific work - this is the origin of hypotheses. Many of the laboratory tests cited (wherein psychologists use deception to victimize their sophomore students with frustrating tasks) that purport to show the emergence of "superstitious behavior" would show to me no more than tentatively held hypotheses and practical fuzzy logic, a subject that the author should have engaged. I see little difference between the emergence of "superstitious" behavior in Skinner's pigeons or frustrated sophomores and computer neural networks. * The treatment of expected utility theory (pp 188-195 and elsewhere) is inadequate, and obvious counter-examples to this economic "theory" are easily constructed. Throughout, the author should have distinguished not just between rational and irrational, but also arational. It is not until pg. 123 that he gives a definition of paranormal, and by it many of his previous accusations would be excluded. He admits the shortcomings of profiling a superstitious person but still presents the pseudo-scientific result (pg 55); it is largely meaningless. (And insulting - e.g., the superstitious person is female!) He makes much of an imagined distinction (pg 220 and elsewhere) between feeling "fortunate" (OK) and "lucky" (superstitious and not OK), an empty distinction not supported by thesaurus or dictionary. He fails to communicate the essential aspect of random coin tosses - they do not "even out" as he states (pg 100), rather the cumulative ratio of heads to tails only tends to approach (not reach) a limit value of 1. His call (pg 212) to teach critical thinking is welcome, but one could teach such a course using his book as a foil! * In summary, the book was worth reading, but to my disappointment I found I continually had to be "on guard" against flaws in logical inferences, prejudice in examining data, premature conclusions from small sample studies, implied guilt or innocence by association in lists, and manipulation by labeling - on guard against the same techniques used in claims of psychics, numerologists, astrologers, and herbal quacks.