In the 2005 pilot episode of Stephen Colbert’s nightly Comedy Central series, The Colbert Report, the satirist coined the term “truthiness” to denote the belief that a particular claim is true based on a general sense that it feels right to the believer, regardless of facts, evidence, or logic.
And though humanity has never known a time when mass segments of the populace haven’t found themselves driven to believe ideas and whole ideologies derived from total nonsense, Colbert’s expression has often been described as a prescient and perfect descriptor for our particular era in history. Indeed, as phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” have become ubiquitous in our everyday discourse, an essential question is raised: How can we distinguish what’s true from what isn’t?
This question is at the heart of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, the new book by Steven Novella, with Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein. Steven Novella (a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine) and his fellow “rogues” host the popular, eponymous science podcast, and this book serves as a culmination of their work exploring flawed thinking and dubious claims, while teaching their audience how to think critically.
Seemingly picking up where the late Carl Sagan left off in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, which attempted to inoculate the public from all manner of questionable grand conspiracy theories and bogus paranormal beliefs, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe goes even further.
Not only do Steven Novella et al break down systematic methods for best judging the reliability of the claims of others, they don’t let the reader off the hook, either. One of the key lessons is what Novella calls “neuropsychological humility.” In addition to challenging the unsupported beliefs of others — be it supernatural phenomena like psychics and ghosts, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, or “alternative medicine” pseudoscience — we must always be vigilant of the myriad ways our own thinking goes wrong. These include understanding the weaknesses in our memories and perceptions.
The book also explores the many ways in which our biases corrupt our thinking, and it’s in this emphasis on mindfulness and mental self-discipline over merely arming its readers with counterarguments that gives scientific skepticism an almost Buddhist quality. It’s also what makes this book so essential in these times of loudmouth political pundits and news shows giving equal time to both scientists and unqualified, tin foil hat conspiracy theorists who deny science.
The Skeptics’ Guide includes sometimes hilarious stories of logic gone wrong but is never content to just point and laugh. This is most clear in a chapter discussing the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a phenomenon that describes the tendency of those with the least knowledge to fool themselves into believing they are most knowledgeable. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance–it is the illusion of knowledge,” historian Daniel J. Boorstin is quoted, to open the chapter. Novella drives the point home:
The Dunning-Kruger effect is not just about dumb people not realizing how dumb they are. It is about basic human psychology and cognitive biases. Dunning-Kruger applies to everyone.
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is a much-needed survival manual in the age of spin, a comprehensive look into the psychology of false belief and the lengths our minds will go to convince us we’re right, regardless of the evidence. This isn’t just about teaching readers how to avoid quacks and charlatans — it instructs how to apply logic and reason to one’s everyday life. It’s a book everyone should read because we could all stand to be a little more skeptical.
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