We all know at least one person who believes in something that’s irrational, in spite of a complete lack of evidence or logic to support their claims. But we’re all susceptible to human nature, no matter your gender, ethnicity, or education level, and our best way to combat against harmless and destructive dupes is skepticism. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, presents why and how everyone should use rational inquiry from a scientific perspective before deciding who to trust and what to believe.
As a well educated scientist, I thought this would be a interesting read, but one from which I didn’t expect to learn much. Boy, was I wrong. The first few chapters focus on why “smart” and educated people are just as likely (if not more) to believe in something if they can’t explain it, and are better able to articulate arguments that support their new-found position. We then reinforce those beliefs with cognitive biases that guarantee we are always certain we are always correct.
I am completely engaged by studies that explore how the brain works, and although there should have been more science overall, one or two chapters discuss why all humans are programmed to see patterns where there aren’t any. We all are subject to common fallacies of thought like coincidences and after-the-fact reasoning, but when we become aware of these unintentional bad arguments in ourselves, we can de-bunk the unintentional bad logic of others. The listing of many different types of biases in sequence is hard to follow and easier to forget, especially in audiobook format.
In addition to a little theory, Shermer mostly covers a wide variety of specific examples, including the methodology employed by Holocaust deniers, cultists, and pseudo-historians, as well as the scientific explanations of near-death experiences, alien abductions, and other paranormal phenomena. I love the story about Harry Houdini de-bunking a seance trick for Arthur Conan Doyle, who, despite having created the most logical man in literature, fell prey to some quite unscientific ideas.
Recommended for anyone interested in improving their critical thinking skills!
Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”