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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake
2018 | Nonfiction
A still from The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe by Steven Novella (2018)
  • B+: 4 stars (out of 5)
    on 29 Oct, 2022

    A practical guide to critical thinking in the information age. Novella and his colleagues illuminate cognitive biases and logical fallacies with understandable examples. They then apply them to assorted topics, including ghosts, extrasensory perception, assorted conspiracy theories, and global warming.

    I appreciated the pragmatic approach and the book’s attempts to avoid an “us” versus “them” mentality. To Novella’s point:

    Admit it: Up to this point in the chapter, you were probably imagining yourself in the upper half of that curve and inwardly smirking at the poor rubes in the bottom half. But we are all in the bottom half some of the time. The Dunning-Kruger effect does not just apply to other people—it applies to everyone. That’s why the world is full of incompetent, deluded people—we all are these people.

    And:

    These concepts are not weapons to attack other people and make yourself feel superior, they’re the tools you need to minimize the bias, error, and nonsense clogging up your own brain.

    The book also proffers advice for dealing with non-skeptics: be respectful.

    You don’t have to call someone a child. Just model being an adult and let the contrast stand.

    Treating non-skeptics as an out-group still creeps into some of the writing, however.

    It also drove home something I had previously observed—everyone thinks they are entitled to an opinion on certain topics, such as pregnancy and raising children, even when there are complex scientific issues at stake. Not only do people think their opinions are as good as expert reviews of rigorous scientific data, they believe they have almost a duty to share those opinions dogmatically with others, even while in costume at a comic convention.

    Notice how the anecdote started with “everyone” and “people” but shifted to “they”?

    Novella and his coauthors also condemn the media, politicians, and fraudsters. But rather than blame these folks, we should blame ourselves. Until we—the public—stop wanting nonsense, folks will continue to supply it.

    Further, while Novella distinguishes the practice of science via the scientific method from the various scientific institutions, he would have done well to address the culpability of said institutions in the current public distrust.

    Those nitpicks aside, this proves a terrific, entertaining read I’m quick to recommend. And I’ll admit: I got the vowel/even number question wrong the first time.