The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: A Book Review
November 2, 2018
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. By Steven Novella with Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Cara Santa Maria, and Evan Bernstein. New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1538760536. 512 pp. Hardcover, $19.49.
Full disclosure: After my recent interview with Jay Novella for CSI online, I took the assignment to review this book with some trepidation. I am a long-time fan of the podcast, know all the rogues, and had extremely high expectations. I want this book to be successful, so if I was disappointed by it, and felt the need to be harsh, it would have been difficult to be honest in my evaluation. In that case, I think I would have passed the review task to someone else. Happily, that did not have to happen, as I was not disappointed at all.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“Science is formalized reality testing.”
—The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
The book is organized into five sections. The first section is “Core Concepts Every Skeptic Should Know,” which begins with a discussion of the meaning of scientific skepticism itself. This introduction will be especially helpful to readers unfamiliar with this concept. “Core Concepts” is a large topic, covering almost half the book, and thus it is divided into subsections, each with a number of chapters. The subsections are:
- Neuropsychological Humility (pareidolia, hypnagogia, the ideomotor effect, etc.) These are some of the most important skeptical concepts discussed.
- Metacognition (biases, logical fallacies, anomaly hunting, appeal to nature, etc.) That last one discusses the abomination that is the organic food movement. Don’t miss it.
- Science and Pseudoscience (postmodernism, conspiracy theories, p-hacking, etc.) I generally get a glazed look in my eyes when p-hacking comes up on the podcast, but this chapter’s description of the issue was extremely helpful to understanding the basics of this complex topic.
- Iconic Cautionary Tales from History (Clever Hans, cold reading, quantum woo, N-rays, etc.) Ever hear of N-rays? They were “discovered” by science right after X-rays, but they do not actually exist. The full scope of the mistakes made at the time by scientists insufficiently applying skepticism is both appalling and instructive. Three hundred scientific papers were published by one hundred experimenters over three years, all declaring this imaginary phenomenon to be real.
The next section is “Adventures in Skepticism,” which includes six personal accounts regarding skepticism. Each of these chapters—one each from the five current podcast cohosts, plus Perry DeAngelis, an original SGU founder and cohost who died in 2007. Unlike the rest of the book, this section is written in voices other than Steve’s. My favorite chapter was Jay’s, where you will learn why Perry voted to remove him from the podcast.
Section three covers “Skepticism and the Media,” which has chapters on topics including false balance, fake news, and the problems with bad science journalism.
Section four is “Death by Pseudoscience,” which reveals some worst-case scenarios resulting from science ignorance or denialism. Topics include naturopathy and exorcism. Many disturbing cases are provided.
The final section, “Changing Yourself and the World,” provides a nice summary of Steve’s philosophy on skepticism and includes his suggestions regarding applying skepticism in your life.
Each of the book’s five sections begins with an introduction preceding the first chapter. Don’t skip over the first section! The details of the “great airship hoax” from the turn of the twentieth century (where numerous airplane sightings were reported prior to the first flight just due to public anticipation of flying machines being created) was something I had not heard of before. This tale will be helpful in future arguments with my alien spacecraft–believing friends. (They must be real if so many people report seeing them!)
Also, many chapters begin with a short description of the subject, followed by a very pertinent quote. It's sort of like the quote-of-the-week at the end of every SGU podcast, but these quotes apply more directly to that chapter’s specific content. The sporadic use of segment names from the podcast will resonate with SGU fans. Examples include the use of the phrase “Name That Logical Fallacy,” and a “What's the Word?” sidebar is used to explore the meaning of “begging the question.” (“What's the Word?” is Cara Santa Maria’s segment on the podcast where she explores interesting words or phrases involving science or skepticism.)
The book is well referenced and has an extensive index, making it easy to find any detail one may wish to locate. By the way, my single favorite line from the book—besides learning that Perry wanted to throw Jay off the podcast—comes at the end of Chapter 33, the chapter on quantum woo. Regarding Deepak Chopra, Steve says “I think he is the mayor of Quantum Woo Land. Someone give him a sash.”
I actually “read” this book using an audio download. Being a long-time podcast fan, having Steve voice the book made sense to me—with one exception. Jay told me that the cohosts all contributed rough drafts of different sections of the book and then Steve put it all into his own voice (he “Steve-ized” it). But the chapters in “Adventures in Skepticism” were the exception. As Jay explained, the original authors’ voices were all maintained there. Unfortunately, this was not literally the case in the audiobook, and having Steve voice the chapters for his four cohosts seemed odd to me.
So, why didn’t I just actually read the print version?Well, perhaps it was just too big to lug around with me. To again quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the inspiration for the name of The Skeptics’ Guide podcast and book:
“The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component [substitute “audio download” in this case] is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.”
Seriously, this book is massive. I simply didn’t have the time to read it and meet the CSI online publishing deadline. However, I did have enough commuting time to listen to its sixteen hours. Barely.
Does all that mean I think the book is too long? Absolutely not. For the two weeks I was listening to it during my daily commute, I couldn’t wait to get back in the car every weekday to pick up where I left off. I am definitely looking forward to seeing (or hearing) what the SGU rogues come up with next.