Title: How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age
Author: Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn
• Organized like a text book, useful both for classroom teaching and private education
• Provides more general information than most skepticism books
• Best starting point for becoming better at basic critical, skeptical thinking
• None, except that it would be nice to have more!
• Basic explanation of skeptical thinking and refutation of credulous thinking
• Covers basic critical thinking skills, basic logic, and logical fallacies
• Provides numerous, practical examples of each skeptical principle
Why is credulity rampant? Well, skepticism is dangerous — it directly challenges the established institutions, traditions, and power structures in society. If we teach our children to be critical and skeptical of the things told to them by authorities, they might not confine their questioning to used car salesmen, advertisements for alcohol and newspaper astrology columns.
What if people start asking questions about our current political, religious and economic institutions? Where would we be if they didn't accept the status quo we're handing them? What if they actually start to question their parents and teachers? That's probably why skepticism and critical thinking aren't taught in schools in any explicit manner.
There are lots of books out there which address belief in UFOs, astrology, channeling, ESP, homeopathy, hauntings, demon possession, creationism, etc, but most focus on specific refutations of the arguments used by adherents of specific beliefs. There is real value in this, because they show the reader how to tackle the particular issues involved.
At the same time, though, there is an even greater need for books which adopt a more general approach to critical thinking, skeptical principles, and how to deal with any weird claims, whatever their nature. Of the available titles, the best is probably How to Think About Weird Things Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn. It includes plenty of refutations of specific claims, but only as examples of the larger principles (34 in number) they are attempting to convey.
One of the principles which is of real benefit is that logic and rationality are not the same thing. Other books have either argued or assumed that they are, but this book offers a much richer and nuanced notion of rationality and does it in a way which is not simply theoretical; instead, it shows you how to apply rationality in practical situations.
A particularly useful tool which brings together several basic principles is the SEARCH rubric:
State the claim
Examine the Evidence for the claim
Consider Alternative hypotheses
Rate, according to the Criteria of adequacy, each Hypothesis
The first is necessary because we won't be able to reasonably and critically examine any claim before we understand exactly what it is. For that reason, it is necessary to have the claim stated as clearly and specifically as possible. Many claims are too vague or incoherent to bother with. Once we know exactly what the claim is supposed to be we can try to figure out what reasons there might be to accept it. Are there any logical or empirical arguments which give us cause to believe it?
The third is more difficult because it is hard for believers to seriously consider the possibility of some other hypothesis explaining the evidence, but it is critical to try and set aside our biases in order to allow for the chance that a hypothesis other than what we currently believe serves to explain the data before us. Just listing the evidence for each hypothesis isn't enough to distinguish which of them is the best and most worthy of belief. There are other factors which we need to consider and which will go a long way in helping us make our decisions, which is why we have to rate each hypothesis according to the criteria of adequacy.
Those criteria include: testability, fruitfulness, scope, simplicity and conservatism. The best hypotheses are the ones which can be tested and possibly falsified; which are "fruitful" in that they provide new information and new places to look; which have a wide scope and explain many different things; which are relatively simply and do not add unnecessarily to our conceptual landscape; and which are consistent with known facts.
Most paranormal and supernatural claims would fail to meet any of the criteria of adequacy, which means that other naturalistic explanations of the phenomena, real or alleged, will necessarily have to rate higher when compared alongside.
Sometimes the fact that this book is organized and structured like a textbook may turn off readers who are expecting a more essayistic structure like in Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World, but this book is not aimed solely at an academic audience. If I were teaching a class on skepticism and critical thinking, this would be the primary text I would use. It covers all of the issues which such a class would have to address, from basic logical fallacies right up to principles of science and philosophy. Contrary to some prejudices, skepticism isn't the same as cynicism. It is a method leading to the provisional acceptance or rejection of claims based upon sound reasoning.
This is the first book people should read on skepticism. The more specifically-oriented books should come next, because then people would see how the more general principles are used. Indeed, this is the sort of book which every high school student should be required to read before graduation - this kind of skeptical thinking is not a skill which should be limited just to claims of the paranormal. These abilities will benefit anyone examining the claims made by politicians or those trying to sell commercial products. A skeptical public is a better informed public, and is less likely to be led astray by those in power, or those seeking power.