If the design of the cover didn’t already give it away, the instruction to NOT PANIC on the dust jacket makes it clear this book is riffing on the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And just as Douglas Adams’s book was intended to be an indispensable guide to navigating the galaxy, so The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is an indispensable guide to navigating a world gone mad with pseudoscience, alternative medicine, fake news, and conspiracy theories. Don’t let the book’s bulk put you off, this is an incredibly engaging read with a most humble outlook on life.
I cannot review this book without mentioning the eponymous podcast that is run by neurologist Steven Novella and his co-authors, as it is a companion to that show explaining the many concepts that are regularly mentioned there. This weekly podcast, which started in 2005, has a back catalogue of over 700(!) episodes at the moment of writing. I was unfamiliar with this podcast, and… wait, I can see something, the mists are clearing, there is a binge-podcasting session of epic proportions in your future.
As the name implies, this podcast takes a sceptical look at superstitions, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, etc. It has featured interviews with, and contributions from a wide range of noted skeptics and scientists, such as philosopher Massimo Pigliucci (author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk), noted skeptic Michael Shermer (author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition & Other Confusions of Our Time and Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye), and magician James Randi.
Ever since terms like “post-truth” and “fake news” entered our collective vocabulary a few years ago, there has been a veritable outpouring of books that sometimes seem to border on hand-wringing (I have included a selection of relevant titles below). So, do we really need another book on the perils of pseudoscience? I would say “yes!” and there are two reasons why this book stands out.
“It is easy for sceptics to be snarky and poke fun at or even humiliate their adversaries. Understandable, but rarely helpful in engendering dialogue.”
First, it gives an accessible but almost encyclopaedic overview of the many ways in which our brains can fool us. Just over half of the book, some 230+ pages in 28 chapters deal with a long list of mental weaknesses and proclivities that lead people astray. From the unreliable nature of memory and eyewitness testimony, confirmation bias, and the powerful siren call of coincidence and anecdotes, to pareidolia (seeing patterns in random noise), logical fallacies, and appeals to nature or antiquity. It’s all there. But it also takes a hard-nosed look at science going wrong, dealing with more philosophical topics such as Occam’s Razor, p-hacking, the reproducibility crisis (see my review of Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research), postmodernism, denialism, the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem (see Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem), or the placebo effect.
The second strong suite of this book is its tone. Novella is surprisingly humble. It is easy for sceptics to be snarky and poke fun at or even humiliate their adversaries. Understandable, but rarely helpful in engendering dialogue. Instead, Novella regularly reminds the reader that we all, scientists and sceptics included, fall prey to these mental weaknesses. When discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect (the inability to gauge your own incompetence, often leading to overconfidence in your own abilities), he points out that we are all incompetent in many areas of knowledge. Perhaps nowhere does Novella articulate this sentiment more plainly and powerfully than in his last chapter, where he cautions the reader that all the concepts discussed in this book “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”.
Once the readers have been properly briefed on how to think critically, the other four sections of this book take a look at cautionary tales. This includes everything from historical blunders such as Clever Hans (the horse that could count), free energy, or N-rays; your typical New Age fair such as cold readings and positive thinking; to topics that are still very current, such as intelligent design, 9/11 conspiracy theories, or the logical fallacies surrounding the discussion about GMOs (see also my review of Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs). In all of these chapters, the authors show how faulty reasoning and sloppy thinking can lead people astray.
“[…] when we start talking anti-vaxxers or AIDS denialism it stops being fun and people die.”
Here again, science and scientists are not let off the hook and several other chapters deal with science reporting gone wrong, including the hyperbole around new topics such as epigenetics or the microbiome.
Finally, an oft-heard defence is: “what harm can it do, leave these people.” As was also highlighted in my review of Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science, when we start talking anti-vaxxers or AIDS denialism it stops being fun and people die. During their years of podcasting, Novella and his co-hosts have regularly received emails from people dealing with spouses or family members who abandon reason when falling seriously ill and go down the route of naturopathy or homoeopathy. These are not easy conversations to have, and Novella provides tips on how to best approach this.
Obviously, quite a few believers in conspiracy theories and other bunk are so far gone that they are not open to reasonable discourse. But in my opinion Novella and his co-authors (mostly) avoid preaching to the choir here. Yes, science is held aloft as a model for finding out what’s really real, but I don’t think they can be accused of scientism (see my review of Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism): they equally take aim at fallacious thinking amongst scientists, and point out the provisional nature of our knowledge.
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is a big book, but I was surprised how quickly I finished it – this is very well written and very accessible. The book’s non-combative tone and approach speak of a genuine desire to engender critical thinking skills in people. Many of the topics treated here could form classroom material, and in an alternate universe this book, together with Douglas Adams’s guide, would find its way into the backpack of every pupil.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:
Some recent books on scepticism and misinformation: