How to Know What’s Really Real

Review of book: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, by Steven Novella et al.

There are many classics of skeptical literature. We often hear how someone became a skeptic because they read a book by Carl Sagan, James Randi, Michael Shermer, or some other luminary of the skeptic world. Those books will never grow old; they are still invaluable. Did we really need another book? Steven Novella thought so; he saw a need to augment the old arguments with new findings from research about human psychology and with guidance about how to cope with the era of “fake news.” The result was an instant new classic, more comprehensive than the preceding ones, covering science, critical thinking, skepticism, and much more: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake News, by Steven Novella and his colleagues from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

Steven Novella is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine who has made a name for himself as a consummate communicator of science and critical thinking to the general public. His accomplishments are too many to list here; they can be found in the Wikipedia article about him. One of his greatest accomplishments was the 2005 creation of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, an award-winning weekly 80-minute podcast addressing current issues in science, critical thinking, and pseudoscience. His co-hosts are Evan Bernstein, Cara Santa Maria, and his brothers Jay Novella and Bob Novella. They have now recorded over 700 episodes. The show is informative, educational, and highly entertaining due to the informal banter between the hosts and their sparkling sense of humor. It has attracted a huge audience of people who want to know how to separate truth from fiction in the avalanche of available information, including many young people who might not have been exposed to skepticism otherwise.

The book is a distillation of Novella’s accumulated experience, knowledge, and wisdom, augmented by input from his co-hosts, presented in an easily accessible format. It is a remarkable tour de force, starting with a book-length section on “Core Concepts Every Skeptic Should Know.”

The section on Core Concepts is alone well worth the price of the book. Novella starts by saying “Spock lied to me,” and shows how we hear stories that contradict other stories. So how do we know what’s real? How do we “know” anything? There is no definitive knowledge, no Truth with a capital T, but “we can grind out knowledge about the world that is sufficiently reliable for us to treat it as provisionally true and act on it.” The tools to do that include the scientific method, logic, and critical thinking skills.

The first and most important lesson is “neuropsychological humility.” Recent research has shed light on the many ways our brain function is limited or flawed, producing illusions, biases, mental shortcuts, and errors in thinking. We need to understand that our perceptions are constructs of our brains, and our memories are malleable. “I know what I saw” – no, you don’t. “I clearly remember” – no, you don’t.  We can’t rely on the evidence of what we perceive or remember. The book explains change blindness, false memories, pareidolia (seeing nonexistent patterns in random noise), hyperactive agency detection, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, the ideomotor effect, Dunning-Kruger, motivated reasoning, logical fallacies, cognitive biases, heuristics, confusing correlation with causation, confirmation bias, conspiracy theories, and much more.

Methodological naturalism is the cornerstone of science and skepticism. If scientists were to discover evidence that something supernatural exists, it could no longer be called supernatural: it would have been demonstrated to be part of nature. Novella says “supernatural” is untestable magic.

The book explains what science is and what it isn’t. Pseudoscience is hard to define because it’s on a spectrum with science and there are many ways that science itself can go wrong. The book lists these characteristics of pseudoscience:

  1. Working backwards from conclusions
  2. Hostility toward scientific criticism, claims of persecution
  3. Making a virtue out of ignorance
  4. Reliance on weak evidence and dismissal of more rigorous evidence
  5. Cherry-picking data
  6. Basing fundamental principles on a single case
  7. Failure to engage with the scientific community
  8. Claims often promise easy and simplistic solutions to complex problems
  9. Scientific-sounding but meaningless language
  10.  Lack of humility
  11.  Claiming to be years or decades ahead of the curve
  12.  Attempting to shift the burden of proof away from themselves
  13.  Rendering claims non-falsifiable
  14.  Violating Occam’s Razor; failing to consider competing hypotheses
  15.  Failure to challenge core assumptions

Various foibles of science are covered with examples. The discussions of placebo effects and p-hacking are particularly valuable. Cautionary tales from history are presented, including the Clever Hans effect, the Hawthorne effect, and N-rays. Other subjects covered include postmodernism, witch hunts, conspiracy theories, intelligent design, vitalism, free energy, quantum woo, homunculus theory (complete with the infamous “butt reflexology” diagram), and even pyramid schemes. It’s hard to think of anything in the world of skepticism and critical thinking that they didn’t cover.

In a section on “Adventures in Skepticism,” each co-author tells a personal story about how they applied critical thinking to a controversial subject.

In a section on “Skepticism and the Media” they cover fake news, the post-truth era, false balance in journalism, poor science reporting, and much more.

The section on “Death by Pseudoscience” is a poignant depiction of the harm that can come from misinformation, sloppy thinking, and belief in nonsense. It describes unfortunate deaths due to naturopathy, exorcisms, HIV/AIDS denial, and child abuse by parents misled by false beliefs.

The final section covers how to apply the principles in the book to your own life. It clarifies “This is not a f***ing self-help book.” It reminds the reader that “you will never achieve the goal of ridding yourself of bias and error” but you can remain vigilant and work hard to minimize errors. You can try to communicate skeptical principles to others. You can be a skeptical parent. You can foster curiosity and a love of science. The final thought is “Don’t trust us.” They don’t want to be followed; they want readers to think for themselves. 

This book is many things. It is a user’s manual for the brain, a textbook of skepticism and critical thinking, a compendium of valuable information and wisdom about everything from cold reading to GMOs, and a darn good read. It is every bit as entertaining as it is informative. I wish everyone would read this book. If you are not already a skeptic, it might make a skeptic of you. Even if you are already skeptical, it will challenge you to think and question some of your most cherished assumptions and beliefs. If you are already a member of the skeptics’ community, you will want to keep a copy on your bookshelf for reference. Buy it, or beg, borrow, or steal it. Read it. You won’t regret it.

PS. No, I’m not really advocating stealing. That was meant as a figure of speech.

This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.