From the Publisher
"Prometheus, the premiere publisher of skeptical literature, here issues a book that deserves to be shelved alongside the works of such giants of the field as [James] Randi, [Michael] Shermer, [Paul] Kurtz, and [Joe] Nickell. With a combination of lively prose and keen analytical reasoning, the author examines some of contemporary culture's most commonly held beliefs… A valuable, not to mention very entertainingly written, addition to the literature of skepticism."
- Booklist starred review
"This book will blow readers' minds (and it should) by making them realize how easy it is to hold a strong belief without applying either critical thinking or skepticism. Harrison…pokes gaping holes into common beliefs in the supernatural…and the tendency to believe that only personal religious tenets are correct despite total ignorance about other religious doctrine… Harrison guides us gently but firmly along an explorative path of our collective illogic, strong tendencies toward easy answers and magical thinking, and susceptibility to confirmation bias. He doesn't judge readers for buying into beliefs that have no real basis in fact and science, but instead asks them to second-guess the tendency to readily accept the unproven and the illogical as true. VERDICT: An outstanding book that is required reading no matter what you believe."
“A journalist turns a skeptical eye on beliefs ranging from astrology to Atlantis, showing that scientific discovery can be just as fascinating as myth.”
“[A]n entertaining look at why some people believe in astrology (instead of astronomy) or are still looking for Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Others believe that aliens from outer space helped build the pyramids or their bodies are stored in Area 51. Harrison says that humans are a believing species and, as such, prone to believe in things that lack any scientific proof and can be absurd.”
-Bookviews by Alan Caruba
“Rarely has a skeptic gone to battle against nonsense with the warmth and humor found in 50 Popular Beliefs….[A] grand tour though the bizarre ecosystem of irrational beliefs and extraordinary claims. Harrison deftly and compellingly demonstrates how science and reality are preferable to superstition and delusion.... It is an ideal text for an introductory Science and Pseudoscience or Critical Thinking course. It is clear, comprehensive, non-threatening yet thought provoking while remaining accessible. It’s also a much welcomed and needed addition to every skeptic’s reading list.”
“This book is a must-read for skeptics and non-skeptics alike. It will excite all critical thinkers and will get believers to reexamine many popular beliefs that they think are true. I recommend it to all who are concerned and deeply worried about the ‘gigantic cloud of danger’ looming large over our world today due to popular dogmatic and irrational beliefs.”
“[An] absolute ‘must read’… Each belief is covered with a general overview, the rational behind them and the scientific research that fails to support them, all presented with liberal witticism. Harrison champions the need for maintaining constant vigilance to avoid becoming prey to unfounded beliefs that on the face of things, probably won’t cause any harm but could well lead to falling victim to more dangerous, erroneous beliefs. Well written, thoroughly researched and entertaining, this important book teaches the importance of being a skeptic.”
-Monsters and Critics
“[I]f you do not want your teenagers growing up believing that an angel is watching over them, or the Bible contains a code that reveals the future, or that global warming is purely a political issue, then give them this book.”
-Science Fact and Fiction Concatenation
This book will blow readers' minds (and it should) by making them realize how easy it is to hold a strong belief without applying either critical thinking or skepticism. Harrison (Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity) pokes gaping holes into common beliefs in the supernatural (e.g., ghosts, horoscopes, angels, and miracles) and the tendency to believe that only personal religious tenets are correct despite total ignorance about other religious doctrine. Along those lines, for example, he debunks reincarnation by pointing out that over 100 billion people have lived on Earth but only 7 billion live today—and therefore, because of the shortage, people must be sharing bodies. Harrison guides us gently but firmly along an explorative path of our collective illogic, strong tendencies toward easy answers and magical thinking, and susceptibility to confirmation bias. He doesn't judge readers for buying into beliefs that have no real basis in fact and science, but instead asks them to second-guess the tendency to readily accept the unproven and the illogical as true. VERDICT An outstanding book that is required reading no matter what you believe.—Judith A. Matthews, Michigan State Univ. Lib., East Lansing
Read an Excerpt
50 popular beliefs that people think are true
By Guy P. Harrison
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2012 Guy P. Harrison
All right reserved.
Chapter One "I BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL AND THE SUPERNATURAL."
It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. —Thomas Paine
Every day we are confronted with paranormal, supernatural, or extraordinary beliefs. These claims find us no matter where we go. At the drugstore, homeopathic medicines are on the shelves right next to science-based treatments. The newspaper offers an astrological prediction of your future. A preacher promises that if you give him money, you will be rewarded one-hundred-fold via the supernatural hand of a god. TV commercials suggest that we can have better health with a pill or be better athletes if we wear a special bracelet. A friend swears she saw an alien spaceship in the sky last night. A family member tries to convince you that the end of the world is near. Is that strange noise you heard before falling asleep a ghost?
When weird ideas come along, we owe it to ourselves to pause and think before accepting them as real or true. Bad things can happen when people embrace beliefs for reasons no better than trust in authority or tradition, or because it "feels true." Countless people have died throughout history because they were not skeptical enough. Countless people who probably meant well have supported or participated in the exploitation, abuse, and even killing of fellow humans because they were not skeptical enough. Wherever and whenever skepticism is lacking, serious problems are sure to follow. Medical quacks and con artists cause great harm to people who don't know the difference between science and pseudoscience. How many times throughout history have unproven supernatural beliefs stood in the way of social and scientific progress? Where might we be today if we had rejected superstition five centuries ago? But the shortage of skepticism in the world today is not only a burden to advancement, it threatens to drag us back to the Dark Ages. Wait, did we ever really leave the Dark Ages? Even now, in the twenty-first century, witches are tortured and executed in some societies because people fear their magical powers. Many people still look to the stars and planets for insights into their personality and romantic prospects—even though the scientists who know more about the stars and planets than anyone say astrology is a preposterous concept. Millions believe that psychics read minds and the government is hiding extraterrestrial bodies at Area 51. As a species we are crippled by irrational beliefs. If we hope to ever shake off the costly and time-wasting habit of believing things that are almost certainly not true, then we have to embrace the scientific method and skepticism. Critical thinking skills must be appreciated and promoted widely. Progress depends on it.
Paranormal and supernatural beliefs—loosely defined as things that exist or occur outside the natural world—are not necessarily tied to intelligence or education. There may be some correlation between education level and the acceptance of a baseless claim such as tarot card reading or astrology, for example. But I warn against reading too much into that because we are all vulnerable. It is well established that intelligent and educated people can and do believe extraordinary claims that lack good evidence. Renowned scientist Jane Goodall is a Bigfoot believer, for example. I once worked with a university-educated journalist who was convinced that a girl in Russia had X-ray vision that enabled her to see inside people and diagnose internal medical problems. My colleague was reeled in, hook, line, and sinker, by an interesting but unproven claim. She isn't dumb, just short on skepticism and critical thinking skills. And she is hardly alone. When it comes to weird beliefs, accepting them seems to be more natural, or more human, than rejecting them.
According to a Gallup poll, three in every four Americans profess to hold at least one of the popular beliefs such as ghosts, astrology, and reincarnation. This is important: Most people in the United States—and throughout the world, no doubt—are supernatural/paranormal believers. In America, ESP (extrasensory perception) leads with 41 percent, followed closely by haunted houses (37 percent) and ghosts (32 percent). Clairvoyance or the ability of psychics to read minds and know the future is real, according to 26 percent of Americans. Astrology's claims have convinced 25 percent, and 20 percent believe in reincarnation. More than half (57 percent) of all American adults have at least two paranormal beliefs, and 22 percent say they believe five or more.
In Great Britain, 40 percent of British people believe that houses can be haunted and 24 percent believe astrology works. In Canada, 28 percent believe in haunted houses and 24 percent believe that it's possible to communicate with dead people. I didn't conduct a scientific survey, but my travels outside the United States leave me with no doubt that belief in claims that are unproven and unlikely to be true are immensely popular. Virtually everywhere I have visited—Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean—I came to the conclusion that an overwhelming majority of people believe in an assortment of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Without even in clud ing religious beliefs, I estimate that more than 90 percent of the world's people hold at least one paranormal belief. We are a believing species.
The easy reaction would be to just try to ignore all this irrational belief. After all, don't things like astrology, faith healing, and psychic readings make people feel good and give them a bit of reassurance in an often-confusing and scary world? Who am I to try to rob anyone of a source of comfort or amusement? It's none of my business what people decide to believe, right? What's the harm, anyway?
In my opinion, there is no choice but to speak out against irrational belief, if one has any concern and compassion for fellow humans. It doesn't require being mean or obnoxious about it, but silence is not an option. Belief in paranormal and pseudoscience claims is a chronic crisis that burdens us century after century. Those who do understand the damage caused by these beliefs every day around the world would be heartless monsters if they chose to do and say nothing. This is a matter of compassion for fellow humans and a belief that our world could be better if it were not so blinded and hobbled by superstition and unscientific thinking. I am not being mean and heartless when I explain to someone why alternative medicine is dangerous or how faith healers fool people. Keeping quiet would be mean and heartless. The proper question is not why skeptics protest, but rather how anyone can learn of "child witches" being murdered in Africa and feel no moral obligation to promote skepticism. Who can hear the story about an ill baby suffering and dying because stubborn parents treated her with homeopathic water instead of science-based medicine and not feel disgust toward all pseudoscience and medical quackery? We all share this world together and when an elected leader thinks Earth is six thousand years old or your neighbor believes that the position of a few stars determines what sort of day she will have, the stage is set for trouble. Dim thinking is dangerous thinking.
THE SHIELD OF SKEPTICISM
So how exactly does one wade through all the weird claims out there and make it to dry land safely? It's not as difficult as you might imagine. As readers will discover throughout this book, it often takes only one or two pointed questions to identify fatal weaknesses in claims that are unworthy of our belief. Constructive skepticism is compatible with open-minded curiosity, but it demands consistent vigilance and the courage to question anything and anyone.
It is important to always remember that the burden of proof is on those who make the claim. I would love for Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster to be real, but I'm pretty sure there is no such thing as a ten-foot-tall bipedal primate running wild in the Pacific Northwest or an extinction-dodging plesiosaur in Scotland. I think this because, after all these years, no one has ever presented any convincing evidence, such as bones, DNA samples, or a body. If Bigfoot believers want me to believe, they need to show me proof. It's not my job to disprove the existence of Bigfoot. How could I do such a thing, anyway? I can't look in every cave and behind every tree in North America.
Be on guard against stealth beliefs. These are partial truths that swell to include paranormal elements once you let them inside your head. For example, undoubtedly there are many cases of ancient coastal or island communities being devastated by earthquakes and tsunamis over the last several thousand years. But this is far different from the claim made by Atlantis believers who say a lost city or continent once ruled the world and was technologically advanced beyond even our time. Some UFO believers argue that intelligent life probably exists somewhere in the universe (a reasonable possibility) but then they seamlessly shift to the claim that extraterrestrials are visiting Earth regularly (unknown, unproven, and unlikely). We also have to be on the lookout for claims that are dressed up in science but are in fact pseudoscience. Just because someone—new age guru Deepak Chopra is a good example—frequently mentions "quantum mechanics" or other fancy science phrases does not mean that what they are promoting is necessarily valid or even scientific.
THE BIGGER THE CLAIM, THE BIGGER THE BURDEN OF PROOF
The smart skeptic adjusts the demand for evidence according to the scale of the claim being made. The nature of the claim being made—how outrageous or weird is it?—determines the degree of skepticism required. If my neighbors claim they saw a bird in their backyard yesterday, I'll probably give them the benefit of the doubt and believe it. No big deal. However, if they claim to have seen something far more unusual, say a thirty-ton dragon wearing leather pants and makeup, then I'm going to need to see high-definition video, footprints, and a DNA sample before I even consider believing it. Again, the quality and quantity of evidence should rise in conjunction with the claim. Although the quote did not originate with him, the late astronomer Carl Sagan popularized this important concept: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Keep those five words in mind whenever you think about ghosts, gods, astrology, psychics, intelligent design, UFOs, and other such beliefs.
Being a skeptic does not mean one is closed-minded or uninterested in everything that is weird and unproven. The history of science is filled with examples of bizarre ideas that turned out to be true. Germs were once a pretty strange idea, and were difficult to believe until Van Leeuwenhoek developed the microscope and helped establish the field of microbiology. Continental drift was difficult to accept until plate tectonics explained how it worked. The idea of rogue waves smashing ships under clear skies far out at sea seemed impossible, but we now know that they are real. What about meteorites? Rocks falling out of the sky? You must be joking—oops, it turns out that it really does rain rocks sometimes. The point is that good skeptics who understand how science works don't accept any wacky claim that comes along without evidence, but neither do they reject every wacky claim with absolute finality. The door is always slightly ajar, and if enough evidence comes forth, the door to acceptance opens.
When thinking about weird beliefs, it is important to be aware of how we perceive and assess the world around us. We know that humans are pattern-seeking creatures. Without even trying, we naturally attempt to "connect the dots" in almost everything we see and hear. This is a great ability if you are trying to catch a camouflaged bird in a tree for your dinner, trying to hear a potential mate's call amid a cacophony of distractions, or trying to spot your enemy hiding in the forest, hoping to ambush you. But pattern seeking also leads us to see things that are not there (see fig. 2), which might waste our time and maybe get us into trouble. Furthermore, our obsession with patterns doesn't stop at vision and hearing. We also have a tendency to automatically make connections and find patterns in our thinking. This is one reason that unlikely conspiracy theories are able to take root and blossom in the minds of so many people.
Former psychic-turned-skeptic Tauriq Moosa agrees that this pattern-recognition software in our heads is a primary reason irrational beliefs are so common. He saw it firsthand when his clients made absurd connections in order to support their prior belief that he was a genuine mind reader. Their minds did much of the work, making his job easier.
"We are by nature incredible at picking out patterns; but this also means we see patterns where there are, in fact, none," said Moosa. "This, to me, is the explanation behind all the supernatural or superstitious engagements people have, from UFOs to ghosts, from conspiracy-theories to astrology."
One of the primary reasons that it can be so hard to dump a paranormal belief once it has set up camp inside your skull is that we all have a natural tendency to cheat. We just don't normally think about our beliefs objectively and honestly. Instead we tend to focus on and remember anything that confirms the belief, while missing, ignoring, and forgetting everything that contradicts or casts doubt on the belief. This is called confirmation bias, and it can lead the best of us astray, so be on guard.
"The confirmation bias is one of the most insidious and persuasive bits of software in your head," declares psychology professor Hank Davis, author of Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World. "It is as much a part of being human as having two eyes, one nose, and two feet. To avoid evaluating the world through the confirmation bias, you have got to take conscious steps against it. Even then there is no guarantee you will succeed. If you allow your mental software to operate on its Pleistocene default settings, you will bring this bias into play."
Excerpted from 50 popular beliefs that people think are true by Guy P. Harrison Copyright © 2012 by Guy P. Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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