How to Think about Appealing Claims
Think: Why You Should Question Everything. By Guy P. Harrison. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61614-808-9. 240 pp. Softcover, $16.95.
You are almost certainly familiar with the old saw, “Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.” This adage comes to mind when reading Guy Harrison’s terrific, useful, well-written, and just plain entertaining new book, Think: Why You Should Question Everything. In its application here, we might rephrase it to: “Debunk a pseudoscientific claim and you might disabuse your reader of the validity of that particular claim for a day. Teach your reader how to think critically, provide him or her with the intellectual tools necessary to assess assertions or claims about how the world works, and you can inoculate that reader against nonsense on a far broader and deeper level and for a lifetime.” Think does precisely these things, and does so in an entertaining fashion.
Think is not a debunking book at its heart. Sure, Harrison does an admirable job of briefly deconstructing all of the usual suspects: ancient astronauts, astrology, Atlantis, flying saucers, ghosts, homeopathy, Nostradamus, and a host of others. The many sections of Chapter 3 succinctly accomplish much of that heavy lifting. But Harrison’s approach—and his realized goal—extends far beyond setting up and knocking down an extensive checklist of pseudoscientific claims. Think, as you might suspect from the title, is about, well, thinking.
Harrison does not set himself up as an authority on all things paranormal, occult, extreme, and extraordinary and then debunk the claims one by one. Instead, his focus is on how to scientifically—and yes, skeptically—assess any claim or hypothesis, extraordinary or otherwise. Time and time again in the book, Harrison agrees that he can’t necessarily disprove extreme claims, and that he won’t rule out the possibility that evidence may one day be collected that supports the validity of ESP or the historicity of the ancient aliens hypothesis. Further, he concedes, time and time again, that it would be exceptionally cool if any such proof were to be produced. A giant, bipedal primate prowling the deep woods of the American Northwest? Bring it on! Your deceased ancestors returning in spectral form to share their stories with you? Awesome! Extraterrestrial aliens visiting Earth in antiquity and playing an active role in the technological progress of past peoples? Beyond cool! The question is not, as Harrison maintains, whether such hypotheses are interesting or engaging or intriguing. Of course they are. The important question remains: Is there any credible evidence to support such claims? Harrison does not simply say “No.” He explains how the evidence supplied (at least so far) is woefully insufficient to support these claims.
There is another important thread running through Think that should be lauded here. Skeptics are often viewed by the less skeptically inclined as, essentially, prissy party poopers. Skeptics are forever raining on everyone else’s parade when it comes to intriguing, game-changing views of history, zoology, the human mind, mortality, and even reality itself. We’re fuddy-duddies and curmudgeons, naysayers and rejectionists. We’re out to ruin everyone’s good time because we simply don’t want to believe this stuff. We want the world to be predictable, boring, and mundane. Harrison debunks this libel against skeptical scientists when he points out that, in reality, the folks who would be the most jazzed by proof of extraterrestrial visits, Sasquatch, ESP, and the like are the very professional scientists whose fields of study would be most directly impinged upon by that proof. Because of an abiding interest, both professional and personal, in human evolution, a fascination with apes, and an obsession with the movie Planet of the Apes Harrison asserts that no one, not even the most fervent cryptozoologist, would be as thrilled as he by the discovery of a real live Bigfoot.
I think Harrison is spot on about this. Though I never had the privilege of meeting Carl Sagan, I have read most of his books, watched Cosmos (about ten times!), and have seen many of his television interviews. And I am dead certain that though he was highly skeptical about it, no one would have been more tickled than he would have been had definitive proof been presented that extraterrestrial aliens were joyriding around our planet in interstellar spacecraft.
It is abundantly clear in Think that Harrison understands and explicitly admits that the claims he entertains are enormously interesting and gigantically appealing. He also understands that for this reason people are drawn to such claims and, let’s face it, may be less critical and less skeptical than they ought to be about them, because they would really like it if there was a remnant population of plesiosaurs swimming in a Scottish lake, or if disease could be cured by drinking what is, effectively, water, or if we are the descendants of creatures from another planet. Harrison understands, however, and Think is predicated on the fact that as much as people (and scientists are people, so we are included here) might want to believe these things, they don’t want to be fooled into believing that which is not so. His enumeration of the ways in which our brains can be fooled or misled in Chapter 2 (under the heading “Your Bizarre and Biased Brain”) is, all by itself, worth the price of admission. I think the most significant gift that Harrison provides in Think is a skill set that enables us to avoid being fooled.
Harrison ends the book with a chapter that amounts to a love letter to the fascinating, captivating, surprising, and sometimes just plain weird universe in which we live. It’s an extraordinary and lovely way to show how science doesn’t suck the mystery out of life; rather, it celebrates it. Think is a book that should be on every skeptic’s bookshelf, and, more importantly, the bookshelf of anyone who is not yet convinced that science is the best way to know.