Book Review: “50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True”

For Natasha, Jared, and Marissa

Always think before you believe

Paranormal belief

Paranormal belief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With a dedication like that, how could I not give this book a whirl? As a father of two now, the desire to impart the values of free inquiry and critical thinking to our children resonates deeply with me. There is an epidemic shortage of rationality in our world today despite the incredible advances of science and reason over the last couple hundred years. Alien abductions, astrology, ESP, prayer, prophecy, Holocaust-denial, global warming, the anti-vaccination movement, near-death experiences…these are just a sampling of the topics Guy P. Harrison tackles in this book about the phenomenon of human credulity.

While I thought his individual treatment of each “popular belief” was well done (if not impressively concise), I actually felt the introduction and the first section about “Magical Thinking” were the highlights of the book as there Harrison explains the prevalence of faulty beliefs and makes the general case for skepticism. From the introduction:

Skepticism is the skill and the attitude that helps us navigate our way through an often-crazy world…[it is] really nothing more than a fancy name for trying to think clearly and thoroughly before making a decision about believing, buying, or joining something. It’s about sorting out reality from lies and misperceptions…Being a skeptic means being honest and mature enough to seek answers that are based on evidence and logic rather than hopes and dreams. It also means being wise enough to accept that sometimes no satisfying answers are available…Living a life as free from illusions and delusions as possible is to value that life and to understand that not one precious moment of it should be willingly sacrificed to a lie or an unproven belief.

So how do faulty beliefs originate and why do they persist? This is a question about which entire books in the field of cognitive science and psychology have been written, but one of the primary reasons is this: humans are naturally pattern-seeking, agency-detecting creatures–often exceedingly so. Harrison writes:

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 lead us to see things that are not there, 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.

Harrison also touches on some of the other well-known reasons for faulty thinking such as confirmation bias and the brain’s role in processing perceptions and memories. Says Harrison:

Like it or not, the fact is we can’t be sure about everything we see, hear, think, feel, and remember. This has obvious implications for popular beliefs that so intrigue and entrance billions of people around the world.

Given the challenges before us, is there any hope at all at arriving at truth–at distinguishing fact from fiction? Yes, thanks to a wonderful thing called science. Science, while imperfect, is the best (if not only) way to combat faulty thinking. As Scottish philosopher Adam Smith wrote,

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition

It provides a framework–a methodology–for objectively evaluating truth claims, and its effectiveness has been proven time and time again. Everything that has improved the quality and quantity of our existence is the result of scientific inquiry. This is not to say that science is perfect or can’t be used for harmful purposes; like anything else it can be misused, but when it comes to weeding out fantasy from reality, it’s the only game in town.

Harrison’s book proceeds to look at the 50 popular beliefs under this lens, pointing out the misperceptions and biases that have perpetuated them as well as the scientific evidence that refutes them. It’s a great reference guide–a CliffsNotes of sorts for debunking myths of assorted and sundry shapes and sizes, and for each topic he provides a list of references for additional study. The next time your brother-in-law starts talking nonsense about bigfoot or the paranormal it will pay to have this baby handy.



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