Book Review #4: “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” by Steven Novella

THE SKEPTIC’S GUIDE TO THE UNIVERSE started as a critically acclaimed podcast that catalogued the experiences and information of the growing community of skeptics, featuring well-know skeptics like Michael Shermer and others.

This book caught me a little by surprise. I mostly read this book because I have been aware of its existence for many years, but I avoided it. I assumed it would be filled with sanctimonious condemnation of faith-minded people like myself, and I am happy to say that this is not necessarily the case. The book definitely may feel challenging for those that keep a faith of any variety, but as someone that holds scientific inquiry among many of those values held dear, I do think there is plenty to appreciate here.

This book contains a good deal of compassion and humanity, and it stems from humility. The first part of the book focuses exclusively on the many ways in which a person can find themselves engaged in fallacious and skewed thinking, but it reminds the reader throughout that this is not intended to give someone a sense of moral superiority over anyone else. The most important reason for learning about flawed thinking is not so that you can show people how smart you are and how dumb they are. Instead, the book encourages readers to constantly evaluate his or her own thinking first and to be better. It also encourages a generous approach when dealing with those who exhibit flawed thinking by constantly pointing out how easy it is to fall into the trap.

If I had to pick one thing from this book that I will always take with me, it is learning about the charity principle. It suggests that whenever someone makes a claim that you think is false, it is always better to assume the position that the most charitable interpretation is the one they intended. Even if a person meant something horrible, you should assume that they didn’t and ask qualifying questions first. This one concept is definitely something I will continue to apply in my life, especially now.

There are many other things in this book that offer a critical look at cognitive biases, flawed perspectives, and all the rest. The section on GMO’s was particularly interesting, since that was offered as a case study by one of the authors that required much investigative reasoning. If you are at all interested in sharpening your critical thinking skills, this book is a must read.

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