Tales of strange events and mysteries have been recorded around the world throughout most of human history. Some have held on for ages, some are relatively new, but all of them drive our curiosity wild. These days not only do we have mythical creatures and hexes to handle, our lives are full of sensationalized headlines, deliberate hoaxes, lies for profit, and misinformation. It can all be pretty hard to digest, let alone to figure out what’s real and what’s not. There must be someone you can call for help, right?
Enter Benjamin Radford, a skeptic and investigative researcher who’s spent years digging into real-life mysteries and helping others to do the same, both as an author and deputy editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. His new book, Big — If True: Adventures in Oddity, focuses on the latter. It’s a best-of collection from his Skeptical Inquirer column that contains Q&As from 70 topics that range from psychics and Sasquatches to toxins and conspiracy theories.
Building a mystery
Radford knows well that if there was merit to any of the claims and questions answered here, science would be fundamentally changed forever. Psychic powers, for example, would be studied and could be put to use. Evidence of Bigfoot could revolutionize the tree of life understood by biologists and zoologists. There is so much more we could learn about our world – if these oddities were found to be true.
The 70 questions, from readers and other curious parties, are grouped into eight chapters of similar interest. Each original submission is highlighted, with Radford’s response posted below. Since many topics remain evergreen, most of his responses are printed as were featured in the original column, though a few have addendums to reflect the most up-to-date information as of 2020.
Though a very diverse set of topics, in every case Radford’s responses are polite and honest. They’re not only informative and riveting to read, they glisten with a sense of passion for his work. When the submissions involve people who perceived that their lives were disrupted by unexplained phenomena, Radford handles them with absolute sincerity, clarity, and empathy, showing his genuine wish to help and provide hope.
I want to believe
That’s not to say everyone who submitted their request for help was happy with the response Radford provided. Certain people seemed extremely dedicated to their own set of views, and others refused to do any credible investigative work on their own ends. In these situations, Radford makes a point to explain further and provide closure. Sometimes he expected such a reaction, so he was able to do a quick deep dive on the psychology behind why. In other cases, he shares the follow-up correspondence from the original source of submission.
Despite books like Big — If True, countless hours of “debunking” online, website-provided fact checks, and even occasional releases of government documents, many people stick to their preexisting beliefs about “unexplainable mysteries.” Radford shows that taking an empathetic attitude and avoiding ridicule and mockery is likely the best course when dealing with stubborn people, otherwise you’ll only have soiled your own reputation and left a bad impression of other skeptical investigators. Besides, after years of working alongside believers, he’s found most tend to be honest, good people that were genuinely duped, or experienced something they truly couldn’t explain.
Our job as skeptical investigators (and science communicators), according to Radford, has always revolved around stating the facts and explaining the best that we can, not necessarily pushing someone to believe we’re right and they’re wrong. As such, we must accept the hard truths; 1) that for some people, facts and evidence will never be enough, and 2) that frauds, hoaxers, for-profit liars, and others who thrive on the chaos and discord, will likely continue to push back for years to come.
Is it good?
Big — If True: Adventures in Oddity is the perfect book for anyone that loves diving into mysteries or enjoys a good investigation. It’s a very quick read, easily broken up into chapters, or even chunks at a time. Radford writes plainly and clearly; there are a few large concepts, but nothing that really requires a lot of in-depth scientific knowledge. Radford does an excellent job at introducing topics readers may not have heard of before, with all topics and explanations accessible to all readers.
This means it would make a great book for adults and youth readers alike. In fact, I see no reason NOT to offer Big — If True right next to those fun, youth-appealing books like Strange but True! or Unexplained Mysteries of the World. It should definitely be in every school library or, at least, in the science classrooms. It’d be an excellent tool to help kids (and adults) grow their curiosity and lead them down the path of scientific and skeptical thinking.
Aside from the educational opportunities and social-emotional growth that could come from this book, it’s just, well, fun. Big — If True is littered with irresistible, cheeky humor, and the stories themselves can sometimes be so weird they demand incredulity. You can’t read this book without enjoying learning, and that’s something very few authors can accomplish. I plan to share it with my whole family, but will cherish it on my own bookshelf for years to come.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
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