Last few days I've been fortunate to be on vacations. And as such I used a fair amount of time reading some books I had en-queued for some time. I'm a bit sad I was not able to give the deserved attention to these earlier.
The first book is an amazing journey through the world of skepticism, inquisitive mind, and the scientific process. The importance these intellectual tools have in the development of the individual and in the building process of an healthy and functional society. Its called The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake . The book is written by a clinical neurologist and a professor of medicine in Yale university, Dr Steven Novella. The first part of the book approaches our brain, and most specifically how it is fucked up. He walks through lots of subjects in a very entertaining and educational way, as we can see from the following description of Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive cognitive bias (which is why it gets its own chapter) and its important to understand it thoroughly. Confirmation bias is 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 (ok, you get the idea)
This is a good way to resume the writing style of Dr Novella. Its clear, funny and not in a pretentious way.
The first chapter of the book its called scientific skepticism and basically explains how skepticism is an important philosophical paradigm and how it is applied in science. He shows that this same way of thinking can be applied to our day to day life and he provides compelling reasons why we should do it.
After this first introduction to the skeptic mind he follows a huge section which entails several chapters called Neurophysiological Humility and Mechanisms of Deception. Basically he introduces a dozen of ways by which our mind conspires against us, without we even knowing it. He uses all of his academic baggage to introduce the most important concepts.
- Memory Fallibility and False memory Syndrome
- Fallibility of perception
- Hyperactive agency detection
- Ideomotor Effect
- Dunning-Kruger Effect
- Confirmation Bias
- Fundamental Attribution error
- Motivated Reasoning
Memory and perception fallibility deals with the brain mechanisms responsible for memory and perception and the problems with both. Memory is a tricky bastard. Our brain is not good at logging events, instead our brain is good at creating a narrative. The sick part is that instead of the narrative be adjusted to match the events is the other way around. The narrative can, and do, change our memories and as such much of our memories are just illusions. This is as scary as true. A similar problem happens with our perception mechanisms. As an example
Our beliefs do not sit passively in our brains to be confirmed or contradicted by incoming information. Instead, they play a key role in shaping how we see the world.
Hyperactive agency detection is...
... the tendency to interpret events as if they were the deliberate intent of a conscious agent rather than the product of natural forces or unguided chaotic events
Don't know why but when I read I immediately start thinking about miracles and religion, go figure.
After a long and detailed review of all the processes by which our brain is designed to fail he went on explaining the logical rules that we are designed to not follow, the so called fallacies. He spends a lot of time explaining what they are and how the brain builds them.
After a very detailed overview over this logic analysis Dr Novella applies these concepts into a the problem of pseudoscience. It starts with a gentle introduction of Methodological Naturalism and then follow into the Postmodernism. He digs into Thomas Kuhn arguments and the main ideas behind his work on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions then he addresses some of the arguments of Postmodernism by explaining how the self correcting mechanisms built in the scientific process answer the main questions posed by Kuhn.
After a little bit of philosophy he introduces Occam's razor, also known as Principle of Parsimony, and shows how useful it is for the building of arguments as well as primary tool in the scientific process and critical thinking.
with the proper philosophical introduction and the Occam's Razor principle Novella then applies this to the world of Pseudoscience and the get deeper into the Demarcation Problem. He spends some time showing why it is difficult to draw a line between science and bullshit and what we can do to avoid the latter.
The next point was again philosophical, the cynical position of Denialism more specific the Scientific Denialism. He addresses the main issues with denialism in the context of science using the logical baggage introduced previously.
Yet in the field of pseudoscience Novella's next chapter is dedicated to the statistical concept of p-value and how this is abused to exploit to build pseudo-scientific claims.
The section ends with several chapters dedicated to other forms of bullshit, namely
The last section of the book is dedicated to a collection of bullshit that become historically well known.
Overall I must confess that was a pleasure to read this book and I really recommend it. It is worth noticing also the research work done by the authors. In a sense this book is just a beginning of a much longer and deeper journey which should be taken upon all your lifetime.