Oct 02 2018

SGU Book Releases Today

If you will allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion – my first book releases today:  The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. (You can find places to purchase the book, reviews, and a schedule of live book-signing events here.)

This has been a two year project, and was as much work as I thought it was going to be. It took about a year to write from first conception, and then another year to go through the publishing process. My final task was recording the audio version, which took two weeks, and I completed just two weeks ago.

The book is intended to be both a primer for someone new to the world of scientific skepticism, and also a thorough reference even for experienced skeptics. We tried to make it as light and fun to read as possible, while also being dense with facts and concepts. Early reviews suggest we were reasonably successful.

I say “we” because I have four co-authors on the book, my fellow rogues at the SGU. They provided some of the first drafts of chapters, although I did the final edit to keep the book in a consistent voice and narrative.

Regular readers here will certainly find the subject matter familiar. The book is largely based, in fact, on this blog, and I thank the many regular commenters here for contributing to the conversation that has informed my writing over the years. Writing a book, however, is very different from writing a blog, I found. Blog entries are stand-alone essays. This book is not a series of essays, as some books are, but rather walks the reader through a continuous narrative. It is framed as an intellectual journey, reflecting on my own journey towards skepticism.

The bulk of the book covers core concepts – things that we thought every skeptic should know. I deliberately included as many topics as I could that I have never specifically discussed previously, to keep it fresh. But it also had to cover some familiar territory, from cold reading to science denial. We then go on to each tell a story from our own “Adventures in Skepticism.” Finally we pull it all together with a series of chapters on how to deal with the media, the harms of pseudoscience, and how to live as a skeptic.

The theme of the book should also be familiar to readers here – the world is not only a horrifically complex place, but in many ways it is actively trying to deceive you. We all struggle to figure out what’s “really real” with our limited and flawed brains, and it’s important to do so. Fortunately we are not starting from scratch. We can “stand on the shoulders of giants” and take advantage of philosophy, science, and critical thinking. The smartest of us have been laboring for centuries to sort out how to think clearly, and separate fact from fiction. It would be silly not to avail ourselves of the fruits of their labor.

But at the same time we have to think critically for ourselves. Even just accessing the collective wisdom of billions of people gathered over millennia can be tricky. There is no one definitive source. There are competing narratives and conflicting perspectives.

As is often the case when I lecture on this topic, the book is simultaneously sobering and optimistic. Understanding the world may be orders of magnitude more complex than it may naively seem at first. We are also burdened with biases, cognitive errors, constrained patterns of thought, and a variety of strengths and weaknesses. We can’t even really trust our own memories.

We also, however, have developed some incredibly powerful intellectual tools to compensate for all these weaknesses. That, in my opinion, is what scientific skepticism is – a gathering together of both knowledge of our limitations (neuropsychological humility) and of all the tools we can use to transcend them (logic, science, and philosophy).

It is an endless journey, but one that is fascinating and incredibly empowering. When you think about it, what’s the alternative? To be at the mercy of our own neurobiology, and the machinations of others who want to manipulate us (to vote the way they want, to believe what they want, or simply to buy something).

It is also not just personally empowering, but collectively so – for our family, our society, and our entire civilization. We face some pretty complex challenges, but we also have a history of meeting our challenges with creativity and even brilliance. Things won’t just sort themselves out, however – we have to make it happen. But that requires seeing things as clearly as possible.

Examples are endless, from alternative medicine to global warming. We obviously could not cover more than a tiny sampling of specific issues in this book, but the book is not about exploring specific issues. When it does, it uses them as examples. As we often say – our mission is not to tell people what to think, but to teach them how to think. Teaching is also simultaneously a learning experience – we are all learning and teaching at the same time.

Critical thinking in particular is also a conversation. That is the strength of social media. We tried to make this book as conversational as possible also, but of course by necessity this is one long side of a conversation. But we look forward to our live events, to discuss the book, and to get the feedback from readers. We also plan to continue the conversation online, including on our book webpage we are building to accompany the book. That will be a place to give feedback, but also for us to publish updates when new science comes in.

If you have read this far, thanks for indulging me. I feel that this book is the culmination of literally >20 years as a skeptical activist. After all the writing I have done, I’m pretty excited to have published an actual book. Hopefully there will be more coming.

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