Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category

Have you ever wondered whether a black cat crossing your path really brings you bad luck? How about what the funniest joke in the world is? Are you really connected to Sir Richard Branson by just six degrees? And how can you tell whether someone is actually lying? Richard Wiseman seems to spend his life cogitating over these kinds of questions, but unlike all the rest of us, he then decides he is going to find out what the answer is for once and for all.

Quirkology is a fabulous collection of Richard’s experiments, many of which produce some true surprises. His book successfully brings the fun into science and makes you think about those odd little aspects of life which we take for granted or believe without question. I just love his audacity in his search to find the truth. I have seen Richard speak and watched him perform his magic tricks (he is a magician as well as a scientist) and his book reads exactly like he speaks in person. It is entertaining, engaging and informative all at the same time. It’s a tough book to put down, and if you are ever looking for fascinating after dinner conversation or trivia, this is definitely the book to turn to.

If offered a jumper which had been rubbed in dog poo but not thoroughly laundered, or one which had been worn by a serial killer and thoroughly laundered, which would you prefer to put on? What do you think the majority of people said?

The one point I laughed out loud? Soon after he had been talking about Freud, the following line appeared

“Although Freud claimed to be a scientist, many of his ideas are completely untesticle”

Freudian slip perhaps? Or a deliberate ploy to see if you were paying attention. In either case, I absolutely loved this book and am looking forward to a sequel.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 978-0-230-70215-8
Publisher: Macmillan
Year: 2007
Date Finished: 3 May 2005
Pages: 298
Challenges: 4/8 of category 6: Science and Scepticism; W from the A-Z Challenge


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I spent much of this book in a state of some confusion. I wasn’t confused because I didn’t understand the subject matter – rather my confusion came from my feelings towards it. Much of the book I agreed with strongly, but other parts I didn’t agree with at all. To be fair, this paradox lends the book its interest and ensures it is a success because it really drove my to think about why I was reacting towards it the way I was.

Steve Salerno is a journalist who discovered that the acronym of the Self-Help and Actualisation Movement was SHAM. This serves well to outline what his expose is all about. His basic thesis is that with the growth of the ‘self-help’ industry in America, the result has been a nationwide helplessness, selfishness and imprisonment in a vicious cycle of feeling awful, being given hope and then feeling awful again. He deals with the self-help movement in general and with Dr Phil, Tony Robbins and Alcoholics Anonymous in particular. Salerno identifies that all of the movements are either based on the premise that everyone is a victim (in other words, everything that happens to you in life is someone else’s fault – you are completely blameless) or that everyone is empowered (in other words, no matter what your actual talents, skills and capacity you have a right to be the best and no-one has any right to stop you). Perhaps these might have been valuable premises to start with, but Salerno argues that the result is a society which is litigious to the point of stupidity, the destruction of families due to artificial blame and the complete exoneration of any responsibility for one’s own life on the one hand, and the destruction of any kind of competition (to the point that competitive games can no longer be played in some schools), the false building up of people’s hopes and the cotton wool mentality that nothing bad can ever happen to you if you just believe on the other.

I found myself agreeing with much of this. Perhaps it is an indication of my age, but I cannot see how a total elimination of any form of competition or grading in schools can be a good thing. I also found myself growing angry as Salerno outlined the result of this mentality of “it’s not my fault, it is the fault of my family/upbringing/illness/society/the banks/my boss/my dog…”

And yet, I don’t see ‘self-help’ as all bad. What I see is bad is when it is taken to the extreme that it has been. Self-awareness and honesty is a valuable trait. Of course, I don’t see blaming the whole world for your misfortunes as being particularly honest, but I do think the understanding yourself and how you think is vital to get along in life. Salerno seemed to switch, sometimes even mid-sentence, from exposing the extremes of self-help to exposing simple self awareness as a bad thing. Unfortunately, despite the value of much of his argument, I found this weakened it somewhat and I came away not being as convinced as I could be.

The other fault I found was that this book was devoted to exposing how bad things had become, but spent very little time on suggesting some possible solutions. Granted, it may be almost impossible now to reverse the damage that the self-help movement may have caused. And more so, with the amount of money that the movement makes each year, I doubt it is going to change in a hurry. But, I have always thought “If it worked, then why would you ever need to buy more than one book?”. Fortunately for the movement, it doesn’t work, and so people will continue to spend seeking the holy grail of happiness while all the time steering themselves away from it.

It makes for disturbing reading and it definitely makes you think but a little more consistency wouldn’t have gone astray.

Rating: 5/10
ISBN: 1-85788-380-2
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 4th April 2008
Pages: 263
Challenges: 2/8 of category 6 – Science and Skepticism (I relent – I’ll use the American spelling) of the 888 Challenge.

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Why People Believe Weird Things

During the Second World War, the Nazi’s orchestrated the systematic murder of millions of Jews in the gas chambers of concentration camps around Europe. This horror known as the Holocaust is remembered and studied by students and academics alike. But there are a few people out there who, for some reason, deny that it ever happened and try and suggest that the whole thing is a big conspiracy.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a brilliant scientist called Charles Darwin finally gave a name to the scientific theory explaining life and how it came to be here today in the form that it is. His Theory of Evolution precipitated a complete change in the understanding not just of science, but of the amazing world in which we live. But there are a few people out there who spend their entire lives trying to deny that it ever happened.

These two ‘weird things’ are just several of the many beliefs which Shermer discusses in Why People Believe Weird Things. Although I only read the first edition which is now 11 years old, it was a fascinating and still very relevant expose of some of the strange beliefs that humans hold dear and why they hold them so closely.

Shermer is a sceptic (or, to use the American spelling which is presented in the book – a skeptic) which, as he explains, offers a way of examining things, not a belief unto itself. To be sceptical, one must approach each claim with an open mind and base the truth or falsity of that claim on evidence in a scientific manner. He employs Hume’s motto

That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

So essentially, if the alternative explanation (other than the miraculous one) is completely unbelievable, then one would default to the miraculous explanation. If it was more miraculous that someone could fall asleep and experience a waking dream than it was if that said person was abducted by aliens and used for alien experiments, then the falling asleep explanation would have to be discarded. However, as one can clearly see, this simple reasoning tends to assist in disproving most supernatural claims.

Shermer’s  book isn’t just a treatise on debunking claims such as alien abduction, Holocaust denial, cults, witch crazes, near death experiences and the ubiquitous creationism. It is also an examination into why people believe such things. In this he touches on psychology, human need for comfort, biology and history. Ultimately, it is human nature to look for causality and to try and find simple explanations. Because of this, all too often human allow themselves to be seduced by fallacies to the point of refusing to listen to anything else. This book causes you to take a step back and look at your own beliefs and try and test each one for its plausibility. Without realising it, we are all subjected to fallacious thinking and convincing myths and often accept them without question, despite our ability to critically think and assess evidence.

Shermer’s overarching reason, however, for why people believe weird things is that hope springs eternal. Even if there is solid proof to the contrary, hope that the pseudoscience or myth is true continues to dominate. Perhaps that is an inescapable aspect of the human condition? And really, the majority of people who do believe in ‘weird things’ aren’t doing it because of political, racial or religious prejudice, or because they lack the ability to think for themselves. The majority truly hold that hope. But Shermer demonstrates that exploration, examination and critical thinking can result in explanations which are so amazing that you feel privileged to be alive and living within it. The reality of the world in which we live is far better than hope, if people would just walk out of the door and see.

I will definitely try and get my hands on the more recent edition of this book and re-read it because there was a wealth of information and a deliciously long bibliography at the back. It was the thing I adored when I was doing my MA – when you had finished a chapter, book or article, you came away with another list of related chapters, books or articles from the bibliography that you could go and explore further. Seems my academic years will never truly leave me.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-7167-3387-0
Publisher: W.H. Freeman and Co.
Year: 1997
Date Finished: 30 March 2008
Pages: 278
Challenges: 1/8 of Category 6: Science and Scepticism

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