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The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Book Review

Amanda Chesworth

Volume 27.6, November / December 2003

For almost a decade now, the online Skeptic’s Dictionary at www.skepdic.com has provided a beacon of light to cyberspace dwellers of all shades and flavors. Journalists, educators, students, doctors, lawyers, itchy-bum chiefs . . . we've all visited and returned time and again, dipping into the a-through-z of the bizarre, unusual, and fantastic. Robert Carroll’s creation has served the virtual community well, becoming a valuable aid in research and understanding. The Web site has become a reliable guide in navigating the gobbledygook that has accumulated through millennia of human history and continues to pervade our civilization.

Now, care of John Wiley & Sons, Carroll has turned his masterpiece Web site into a book-typed words on paper, illustrations sprinkled about the pages, bound together and portable-with great gift possibilities.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions came out in August 2003. From acupuncture to zombie, readers will be entertained and enlightened with hundreds of topics from the paranormal, the supernatural, and the pseudoscientific; from the fields of logic, science, philosophy, and skeptical investigation.

Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other collections of this sort usually just sit on bookshelves collecting dust, taken down for a quick reference check or to refresh our understanding of a specific subject. The Skeptic’s Dictionary certainly allows for these possibilities but it is also a surprisingly good read all on its own-for those moments we have set aside to relax and enjoy an interesting book. The rich and diverse subject matter is presented in informative and digestible chunks, written with great clarity of language. Sources for further reading are given with most entries, and the bibliography provides a collection of some of the best in skeptical literature. From the budding teenage magician to the retired physicist wondering why on earth we remain so scientifically illiterate, The Skeptic’s Dictionary spans generations and is accessible to all ages.

Dipping in at random we discover that veterinarians who use alternative medicine on their patients have been labeled “animal quackers,” we are introduced to the bizarre practices of exorcism and trepanation, as well as the unusual characters who have made the occult what it is today. We learn about how our perception can be fooled by illusions and the many cognitive fallacies we face. We are entertained by the hoaxes perpetrated on mankind, frightened by the large number of cults existing today, and frustrated by the continued appeal of conspiracies and the success of cold-reading techniques.

Little nonsense has escaped Carroll’s eye, and he has not only woven a web but a book that should be a staple of everyone’s diet-part of the package we are given at birth to help us avoid the dangers and pitfalls of living in a world riddled with bad ideas and empty promises...

Amanda Chesworth

Amanda Chesworth is the former educational director for CSICOP