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Books: How To Think About Weird Things

Mr. Companion, my eighth grade social studies teacher, was convinced that aliens had build the Egyptian pyramids. "They know for a fact that it was aliens," he informed us, "because in the middle of the biggest pyramid there's a room, and in this room there's statues of all the races on man -- Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, Eskimo, all of them. And since the Egyptians had obviously never seen Eskimos, it must have been been aliens. You see?" He also helpfully stocked the shelves in his classroom with copies of Chariots of the Gods, and encouraged us to "check them out".

I thought about him a lot while reading this book.

How To Think About Weird Things is a primer on critical thinking skills. And by "primer," I mean it is suitable for someone just begining to fully appreciate their faculty for reasoning, such as a high school student or college freshman. So how did I wind up reading it? Beats me. I don't even remember putting a hold on it. But when Nice Librarian Lady handed it to me last week, along with my stack of other reserved books, I figured that a refresher course in critical thinking couldn't possibly be a bad idea.

As it turns out, Weird Things was an enjoyable read, even if repetitious and too basic to be of much use to me. The author, Theodore Schick Jr., explicates critical thinking in three broad sections. First, he spends a few chapters reviewing why we humans are so susceptible to logical pot-holes. One of the main reasons, Schick postulates, is our inability to intuitively grasp probability, which leads us to routinely over- and underestimate the likelihood of various events. You think of a friend and, 10 minutes later, that friend calls. What are the odds? It must be ESP, right? Well, the "odds" aren't that bad, Weird Things points out, when you calculate how many times a month you think of your friends, and chart that against how many phone calls you receive from friends in a given 30-day period.

Another font of problems is our unreliable perceptions and memories. The human brain, when faced with random or unknown input, does it's best to make sense of the data, and this sometimes leads it to "see" or "hear" things that aren't there. You look at a crater on Mars and you see a smiley face, or a cat yowls next door and you hear your late grandmother calling from the foyer. Furthermore, human memories are infamously unreliable. (Less than a month after the 9/11/01, studies showed that many people who had watched the attacks unfold on tv were already confusing the chronology of events, claiming, for example, that the Pentagon had been hit first.)

If we can't trust our own eyes and recall, what can we rely on? Schick reassures us that there are things we can ascertain, facts that can be discerned by studious application of the scientific method. You state a hypothesis, you amass evidence, you apply the data and see if it confirms or negates the initial proposition. This isn't just the formula white-coated astrophysicists at NASA should be using, these are the tools that each of us should be hanging onto our belts every morning as we head out the door.

Schick then examines (and eviscerates) a number of popular parapsychological topics, ranging from Homeopathy to UFOs to Near Death Experiences. In each case he rigorously applies his recommended criteria and finds them wanting.

It's fair to call How To Think About Weird Things a treatise on skepticism. But while chary of topics such as dowsing and channeling, Schick does not employ the all-too-common double-standard and call such things 100% false. He acknowledges that stating with certainty that Astrology is false is just as faith-based as believing in it wholeheartedly. But Schick makes a very convincing argument that we do ourselves a disservice when we put stock in beliefs bereft of supporting evidence. Astrology may not be false, but given the preponderance of evidence against it you would be foolish to embrace it.

As Weird Things is clearly intended to be a textbook, it is somewhat difficult to read recreationally. For one thing, he tends to tell you what he's going to tell you, tell you, and then tell you what he told you -- useful when preaching to a student who is reluctantly plowing through your book, but terribly redundant for those who are reading out of an interest in the topic. Furthermore, no depth is plumbed too deep. He mentions a smattering fallacies in the appendix, for example, but doesn't detail them in the way that, say this book would. But as a general introduction to the principles of critical thinking, How To Think About Weird Things is an fine work. I honestly believe that the world would be a better place if a book such as this was required reading for every high school student. And Mr. Companion.

Posted on October 14, 2002 to Books


Dude, I was just thinking about James Randi and how he's always encouraging Skeptical Inquiry into parapsychological phenomena a little while before reading this entry. What are the odds?

Posted by: Eric on October 14, 2002 8:24 PM

I agree that students should have to read this book. A simple reading isn't even sufficient, in my opinion... critical thinking should be a part of the core curriculum from early on. For that matter, why don't they teach classes on money management, effectiveness, human nature, etc? This stuff would be very helpful to the students personally and very beneficial to society, whereas knowing the date the Magna Carta was signed really isn't at all.

Posted by: rich on October 15, 2002 6:02 AM

You want to know what's REALLY weird? The other day I was thinking about a Subway club sandwich on honey oat with all the veggies except jalapeno, and like, ten minutes later I was at lunch eating a Subway club sandwich on honey oat with all the veggies except jalapeno.

Posted by: Lost Poke on October 15, 2002 9:09 AM

Briefly, skeptical thinking walks hand in hand with knee jerk reactions. Thinking for some is a strained ordeal at best and couch potatoing at worst. As someone once noted 98% of the world is asleep and the other 2% are shaking their collective heads in amazement.

Posted by: Georj on November 3, 2002 1:04 PM