The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Part 5 of 5

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This book covers many other things such as free energy, homunculus theory, vitalism, dualism, and pyramid schemes. An important take-away from the chapter on quantum woo is that quantum effects don’t apply to anything much bigger than an atom, so don’t believe anyone who tells you quantum effects apply to your day-to-day life. The chapter on N Rays demonstrates that intelligent people aren’t more likely to be good at critical thinking, just better at coming up with rationalizations.

Interestingly, positive thinking, which some claim can make your life better, can actually make things worse. In a 1999 study, students who imagined getting good grades actually got worse grades because it distracted them from studying. In fact, research shows pessimism correlates with higher earnings, fewer marital problems, more effective communication, greater generosity, and less disappointment.

The internet contains both reliable and unreliable information, so the question is how do we tell the difference? A few things to do are consider if the source is biased, look at a variety of sources, go back to the original source, and listen to both proponents and critics. Also be sure to follow the discussion to the end after all the evidence has come in. Independently examine the arguments to discover which is best. It’s okay to reserve judgment if there’s not enough evidence for an answer. Consider what the experts have to say. Don’t just try to prove yourself right. Seek out experts who have a different opinion than you. Be willing to change your mind when new information is introduced. Your opinions should only be as strong as the evidence.

Fake news takes many forms. It can be opinion masquerading as fact, advertising made to look like news, click bait that’s made up just to generate advertising dollars, propaganda, or even just straight up lies. Satirical new sites like The Onion are sometimes confused with real news if the humor isn’t obvious enough. Ideologues will accuse legitimate news of being fake. All news outlets are going to have biases, of course, but some try harder to be balanced than others. There’s a spectrum between real and fake news with no clear dividing line between the two. We should at least do our best not to spread fake news ourselves by not sharing stories on social media until we’ve verified they’re legitimate first.

When a particular news outlet, website, or online group only allows stories that confirm what they already believe, this is known as an echo chamber. Social media and search engines actually feed you this type of news automatically because they know people like to have their own opinions repeated back to them. It’s important to actively seek out opinions different from our own to avoid wallowing in our biased view of the world.

Astroturfing is when companies and political groups pretend to be regular people on social and traditional media to create the impression something is a grassroots movement when it’s really not. However, people will also accuse genuine grassroots movements of being astroturf, so it can be difficult to tell the difference.

Journalists often strive to be balanced in news reporting, which makes sense when it comes to opinion, but doesn’t make sense when it comes to science. When the overwhelming scientific consensus favors one opinion (such as man-made global warming), giving equal time to science deniers is false balance. Unscientific fringe opinions shouldn’t be treated as being equally legitimate with well-established science.

In order to illustrate that pseudo-scientific beliefs aren’t just harmless fun, there are a few chapters detailing some of the deaths caused by pseudo-sciences such as naturopathy and exorcism. Science denier Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa from 1999 to 2008, didn’t believe HIV is the cause of AIDS. His government therefor denied his people treatment which resulted in over 330,000 deaths. Another chapter deals with a self-proclaimed child behavior expert who killed a child she was supposed to be helping.

The final chapter covers how to be skeptical in your everyday life. We should all strive to apply skepticism to ourselves and our own beliefs. We’ll never be completely free of bias or error, but we should at least try our best. Being able to change your mind is something to be proud of. Stubbornly refusing to correct an erroneous idea is something to be ashamed of. When dealing with others, consider your strategy and monitor if it works. Listen to what others say and why they believe as they do. Teach them how to think, not what to think. Keep in mind that you might be the one who’s wrong.

You can’t always change someone’s mind after one discussion, but you can plant a seed, give them something to think about. Don’t be confrontational, explore the question together. Find common ground. Everyone is skeptical of something. Find out what they’re skeptical of and build on that. You can’t take away someone’s narrative without replacing it with another one. Don’t point out when someone else is being childish, just act like an adult and lead by example.

When it comes to parenting, encourage kids to question everything. Don’t just answer their questions, teach them how to think critically. Also, don’t talk down to them, they probably know more than you think. Teaching is often the best way to learn, so you may end up learning as just as much as they do.

As an aside, Dr. Novella mentioned an encounter he had with John Rhys-Davies, the actor who portrayed Gimli in Lord of the Rings which sounded familiar to me (I’ve seen John Rhys-Davies at Comic Con before and he does tend to ramble).

Overall, a highly recommended book. A must for anyone interested in things like objective facts and truth.

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