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Sunday, July 14, 2002

A while back I wrote about the bizarre theories of human history proposed by author Graham Hancock. In that post I hinted that I would sometime post some recommendations for books on skepticism, something which is in short supply these days as belief in UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, contact with the dead, and other such ideas abound while basic scientific knowledge generally atrophies. Here are some of the better books and other sources for skepticism and the scientific outlook that I have found. (I should note that I am not talking about "Skepticism" in the epistemological sense, but rather skepticism as an outlook.)

:: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan. Sagan was known as a critic of pseudoscience and anti-rationalism all his life, and this book is his crowning achievement in those areas. The book, written in 1995, creates a sense of alarm that in an age where so many facets of American life -- entertainment, business, medicine, national defense -- are dependent on science, scientific ignorance is on the rise rather than on the decline. It seems to Sagan as if the country has made a conscious decision to turn away from science: for instance, at the time of his writing Congress had just eliminated its Office of Technology Assessment, the only organization specifically charged with providing scientific and technological information to the members of the House and Senate. Throughout the book Sagan decries the rise of fuzzy thinking that has accompanied the decline of science and questions the priorities at the heart of our society that have led this way. Sagan's tone in The Demon-Haunted World is grumpier than in his other works; he employs grumpier language than the flights of near poetry that appear in such books as Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot. The tone is real, and warranted.

:: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer. The title of this book is something of a misnomer; the issue of just why people do believe weird things is not actually addressed until the book's last chapter. That said, the book is a decent primer on skepticism and critical thinking. Shermer illustrates the difference between science and pseudoscience, and in one particularly useful chapter he illuminates a series of errors and fallacies that can creep into our thinking, polluting it, as it were. Much of the book directly addresses specific pseudoscientific claims, such as alien abductions, near-death experiences, and the like; he also devotes a substantial amount of space to defending evolution in the face of creationism and to addressing historical revisionism, particularly with respect to the Holocaust. Sagan's book is better, but Shermer's is also valuable.

:: Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud by Robert Park. This is another survey of pseudoscientific claims and investigations into why scientific thought is so often derailed by wishful thinking and poor reasoning. He concentrates in particular on perpetual motion, cold fusion, and homeopathy. The best parts of the book involve his disappointment in the news media; many news outlets continue reporting on people whose pseudoscientific claims have been long-since debunked, ignoring the debunking completely and justifying the continued coverage of outrageous claims under the rubric of "human interest stories".

:: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. This book is only tangentially about skepticism and critical thinking, but it is illustrative about how accurate knowledge and a systematic approach to that knowledge can be derailed by political concerns. Loewen describes many ways in which history texts are promulgating blatant errors, but more pernicious is the fact that many textbooks deliberately omit events and trends in history that do not promote a popular view of America. The aim, according to Loewen, is to produce pupils who view America as the protagonist in world history; for good or ill, this aim on the part of educators and textbook producers -- Loewen casts aspersions on both -- has had the effect of dulling historical knowledge and convincing legions of students that history is at best boring and at worst irrelevant.

Here are some sources on skepticism from the Web:

:: The James Randi Educational Foundation. Former magician James Randi is a professional debunker of odd claims, and as such he is a treasure. If you want to win a million dollars and you don't want to risk losing to one of fifteen other people on Survivor, Randi is your man: all you have to do is demonstrate a paranormal power. Easy, eh?

:: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP is a well-known organization that applies scientific investigation into putative events of paranormal activity. Their website is loaded with resources, and they also produce a periodical journal, The Skeptical Inquirer. (They are also based in Amherst, NY -- a suburb of Buffalo. They get high marks on that basis alone.)

:: The Skeptics Society. To quote from the mission statement: The Skeptics Society is a scientific and educational organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, professors and teachers, and anyone curious about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas and the promotion of science. Our mission is to serve as an educational tool for those seeking clarification and viewpoints on those controversial ideas and claims. The Skeptics Society also produces Skeptic Magazine.

:: The Critical Thinking Consortium. An organization devoted to promoting critical thinking.

:: Snopes.com: The Urban Legends Reference Pages. If you're wondering if there is any truth to such claims as a suicide caught on camera in the background of The Wizard of Oz, or Phil Collins writing the song In The Air Tonight as a response to witnessing a drowning (and then performing the song for some guy who had been in a position to stop the drowning and did nothing), or that Nostradamus predicted the attacks of 11 September 2001, go to this site. It is one of the most comprehensive such sites on the Web. (None of these claims is true, by the way.)

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