A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘skepticism’

Denying History

“Where everyone’s opinion is equal to everyone else’s opinion, no one’s opinion matters.”

Denying History by Michael Shermer & Alex Grobman

Image via Skeptic Magazine.

Title: Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?

Author: Michael Shermer & Alex Grobman

Year of Publication: 2000

Genre Keywords: censorship, evidence, free speech, history, Holocaust, Holocaust denial, ideology, logic, Nazism, neo-Nazism, scholarship, skepticism.

Summary: A smart and readable book about the phenomenon of modern Holocaust denial, written by two authors committed to the accurate understanding and portrayal of history. They begin by warning against silencing the people who deny that the Holocaust took place – instead, they argue persuasively, it’s best to place the beliefs of Holocaust deniers under a microscope, to seek flaws in logic and ideological motivations. There is a factual truth in history, and only by exposing the truth can we defeat the lies and misrepresentations of deniers.

Shermer and Grobman then go on to discuss the Holocaust denial movement’s ideological underpinnings – who says the Holocaust never happened and why they say it. (They also go into how Holocaust deniers use logical fallacies and twist the evidence to suit their purposes by outlining the deniers’ main arguments.) Then they go into the historical evidence to examine the major tenets of Holocaust denial: the ideas that concentration camps were not used for extermination, that the extermination of Jews was not a part of Hitler’s plan, and that the number exterminated was less than six million or even one million. As most of us would probably expect, they find that the majority of evidence disproves the deniers’ claims.

Who’ll Love It: Any readers concerned with the Holocaust have probably already decided they want to read this book. But more broadly, those interested in truth and misinformation – and how people with an agenda can manipulate the truth to spread bad information – should definitely look at this.

A Question for Librarians: The issue of free speech in this case is complicated enough that Shermer & Grobman could have written the entire book on just that question alone. It’s an issue that arises in library studies as well. Most of us agree with the authors’ persuasive point that misinformation is best defeated by an honest, careful study of the evidence, not by censoring deniers’ views. After all, censorship gives their ideas a power they don’t deserve. But on the other hand, would you put Holocaust deniers’ books on the shelves of your library? Would you give them a platform? And if they argued that your refusal to make their ideas accessible amounted to a form of passive censorship, what would you say?

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The Demon-Haunted World

"The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan

Image via Nullius in Verba.

Title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark

Author: Carl Sagan (my hero!)

Year of Publication: 1996

Genre Keywords: alien abduction, aliens, astrology, belief, credulity, critical thinking, culture, debunking, false memory, ghosts, hallucinations, history, human error, logic, reason, religion, science, skepticism, thought.

Summary: Brilliant popular scientist Carl Sagan takes on a culture of logical laziness in this readable and eloquent volume all about the errors we as human beings make in knowing and interpreting the world around us. He describes typical thinking errors like confirmation bias (our tendency to give more weight to information that supports what we want to believe), inconsistent logic, or confusion between correlation and causation. Along the way, he takes the American government and educational system to task for failing to create a citizen base with the knowledge required to think critically about information presented to them. He acknowledges, though, that it’s hard for governments to promote critical thought, lest they find themselves held accountable by a tough-to-manipulate electorate. For this reason and many others, Sagan argues convincingly, the world needs more skeptics, ready and willing to ask questions and ruthlessly demand the facts.

Who’ll Love It: If you’ve ever made the decision to doubt the received wisdom of any of the authorities in your world, at least some of Sagan’s words will resonate with you. Certainly he’s got a way with words and some highly amusing anecdotes. And fans of the Cosmos television series will practically hear his voice coming through the pages! But be warned – Sagan, like a proper skeptic, holds nothing sacred, and he does discuss ideas that will challenge any reader who takes anything on faith.

Carl Sagan is the reason Richard Dawkins and I agree on anything. Dawkins said in his review of the book, “My candidate for planetary ambassador can be none other than Carl Sagan himself”. Amen! (Can you say ‘amen’ to Richard Dawkins?)

Want More? If Sagan’s words resonate deeply with you, or if they whet your curiosity and you’d like to learn more, I recommend the Center for Inquiry as a great resource. I’ve been following their “Point of Inquiry” podcast, and I find it fascinating, intelligent, and appealing. And I’ve just learned they have another pocast, “Center Stage” – I’m headed straight to iTunes to sign on. Check out their website for more on the very ideas Carl Sagan talks about in this book.

Ever Wonder “What’s the Harm?”

Some people believe strange things – live and let live, right? What’s the harm? Tim Farley, creator of What’sTheHarm.net, wants you to know. Why? Because he’s committed to critical thinking, and he wants to demonstrate that, in a lot of ways, failure to think critically can actually cause harm.

Tim Farley, creator of What's The Harm dot net

Tim Farley, creator of What'sTheHarm.net - trading card courtesy of My (Confined) Space.

The cases on What’sTheHarm.net cover a broad range of failures to think critically – from the plainly absurd, like driving into a building because the GPS said so, to the truly sinister, like families torn apart by repressed memory therapy gone awry. The consequences may be directly or indirectly related to the question at hand: one anecdote tells of a family who brawled with neighbours because one family’s decor disrupted the other’s feng shui. The consequences of each incident are given in terms of financial loss, jail time, injury, or loss of life; the site estimates “368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured, and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages”.

But the real point of focus is that these consequences are not abstract; they happen to real people just like you and me. And the harm done might affect the person who’s failing to think critically, but often it also affects others, sometimes primarily. Each page repeats the same unifying coda: “Here are [x] people who were harmed by someone not thinking critically.”

From what I can tell, Tim Farley considers all the things he debunks on his website, from acupuncture to witchcraft, absolutely false and deceptive. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far in every case. Some of it – like Holocaust denial or refusing children blood transfusions – I’m absolutely with him. But are ghosts real? Could there be actual psychics? How about demons? I hesitate to say that, just because science cannot detect them, they aren’t real. After all, science deals with material things, and I believe reality goes beyond the strictly material.

Other things are grey areas. For instance, the section on chiropractic medicine lists cases in which chiropractors seriously injured patients, which is horrible. But are these valid indictments of chiropractic practice as a whole, or cases of unscrupulous or incompetent practitioners, or simply people making mistakes? The same could be said of psychics who lie or fail, and in many other areas of the site. Cases of failure or swindling do not necessarily make the practice false.

Farley acknowledges – and for the critical thinker, this is important – that his site proves nothing. It’s all anecdotal. But anecdotes can be powerful in convincing people to think carefully about the decisions they’re making and the potential effects.

Which, in the end, is all that this site is about. No one is trying to make you a non-believer: believe it or don’t. Non-believers will support the site for promoting accurate information to answer the question, “What’s the harm?” And for the true believer, weeding out the fakers and swindlers is crucial to winning credibility for the Cause, whatever it may be. Get rid of the fake psychics, for instance, and the real ones – if they exist – might be able to gain some respect.

In short, whatever you believe, you should check out What’sTheHarm.net if you have an interest in any of the following topics:

  • Alternative medicines and physical therapies
  • Autism and vaccination
  • Communication, information, and misinformation
  • Conspiracy theories, particularly [insert noun here] denial
  • Divination, prophecy, and predicting the future
  • Health care
  • ‘Natural’ or ‘organic’  lifestyles
  • Paranormal topics
  • Religions, especially those that are perhaps not-so-mainstream

Image courtesy of Western Michigan University.

If nothing else, it gives you a starting place for a fresh inquiry into whatever field interests you, and highlights the red flags you’ll need to watch out for to protect yourself from fraudsters. Even something that’s true can involve some shady characters, and the topics covered on What’sTheHarm.net have varying levels of credibility.

Critical thinking does matter, and the lack of critical thinking can cause problems. This website gives us a great starting place for talking about why.

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