Review: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe — Steven Novella

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of FakeThe Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake by Steven Novella

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes you find a book that’s just so good a 5* rating just doesn’t quite feel right. The Skeptics’Guide to the Universe is one of those books for me and easily my best non-fiction read of the last couple of years. This book not only helps you to become a true skeptic, it will also help you to deal with people who don’t believe in fact-based reasoning, something that seems to be an increasing trend these years.

Time to put on your critical thinking cap!

“Are you ready to become part of an epic quest, one that has taken us from huddling in dark caves to stepping foot on the moon? (Yes, we really did that.) Like all adventures, this one is foremost a journey of self-discovery. The monsters you will slay and the challenges you will face are mostly constructs of your own mind. But if you can master them, the rewards are indeed epic.”

This is how the book introduction ends. I couldn’t agree more. I have been challenged, and indeed, we are nothing more than bags of mostly water with an emotional flavour with our own biases and preferences. But knowing is half the battle!

The book starts off with the what the core concepts are of skepticism. The first section of the book gives you all the tools you need to learn the tricks of the trade to becoming a true skeptic. The most important lesson you will learn from the first section is that you are no better than anyone else, even if it’s easy to think you are.

For instance; the Dunning-Kruger effect is one to always keep in mind. This effect describes the inability to evaluate one’s own competency, leading to general tendency to overestimate one’s abilities. It’s not just about dumb people not realising how dumb they are, you should know that you are just as ignorant as the average person is in every area of knowledge that you are not an expert in.

Another thing that’s very important to realise is our tendency to seek out or interpret information as support for previously held notions or beliefs. This is called confirmation bias and we’re all guilty of this. We all have certain world views and beliefs and everything that supports it, we hold on firmly, to rationalise that we’re a good, moral person. What’s important to know is that this will differ from person to person, but once you see confirmation bias in action, you’ll see it everywhere. I know this section in particular opened my eyes to some discussions on the internet and where people were coming from!

“Confirmation bias is the one bias to rule all biases, the mayor of Biastown, captain of the USS Bias, the Sith Lord of the bias side of the Force (okay, you get the idea).”

One thing I really liked about this book is that it tells you to always respect other people, because you never have all the information. You don’t know where they’re coming from and that’s why you should withhold judgement and give other people the benefit of the doubt. This tendency to rationalise our own actions as being the result of external factors beyond our control, while ascribing other people’s actions to internal factors is called Fundamental Attribution Error, and it’s very easy to spot, although you should always remain vigilant when you’re guilty of this bias.

The book is very thorough on its subjects and after you’ve finished the first section (which is also the largest, by far) you will have a Swiss Army Knife of skills and knowledge you can put to use to become the skeptic you want to be! From placebo effects, to conspiracy theories, to cold reading, to pseudosciences, to all the psychological aspects. You just keep wanting to read and learn more!

People often say that science in itself is a “religion” as well, but what they tend to forget is that although science might seem to be the denial of the existence of God, or other supernatural things, science is not a religion, it’s a method. The real beauty of science to me can be found in this quote:

“The scientific method consists of the use of procedures designed to show not that our predictions and hypothesis are right, but that they might be wrong. Scientific reasoning is useful to anyone in any job because it makes us face the possibility, even the dire reality, that we were mistaken”
—Carol Tavris

The Human race has a constant need to find answers and science is one of the best ways to find answers. And if a theory is found to be flawed, or that they simply don’t hold up to extensive testing, then those theories and views will have to be altered. That’s how I want to be as a person too. If people can show me my reasoning is wrong, even if it might go against everything I hold dear, I have to face the possibility that I may be wrong. That’s the beauty of science. As the book itself states: If you learn new information, happily incorporate it into your assessment.

I really loved the first section of the book and I find it hard to shut up about this book. The other sections were equally interesting, but were mostly stories about how people put their skepticism into practice. They were lovely stories, and definitely worth reading, because they’re cautionary tales and give you solid advice on how to deal with certain situations, such as antivaxers and climate change deniers.

This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn how to think more critically for themselves. Something we can all use in this time of fake news and science deniers. 😉 This books deserves all the five stars I bestow upon it, although I would rather give it 6/5. It’s just that awesome!

I will finish this review with one last quote:
“Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how think about things so that judgements can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.”
—Richard Feynman

Final score:

Cover art: 🌟🌟🌟🌟 (reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 😉 )
Paper smell: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
Print/lettering: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
Originality: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
Information: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Overall: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Happy reading!


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