A Skeptical Review of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe

Published in 2018, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake is a title that seeks to promote scientific skepticism and expose misinformation, bias, myths, deception, and flawed knowledge. The book contains essays authored by several skeptics, one of whom is neurologist Steven Novella. Other authors include Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein, all of whom seek to debunk the biggest scientific myths, fallacies, and conspiracy theories. It is a book that I will argue here contains both positives and negatives. 

The Positives

Let’s first look at the positives. We can agree with the author’s general perspective, which is for “scientific skeptics” (this is the name they give themselves) to celebrate and respect truth, promote scientific knowledge and critical reasoning, free inquiry, and neuropsychological humility (p. 5-9). These we can consider as intellectual obligations if we wish to reason accurately.

Also important to me is that the book is written in a friendly tone and often evidences humility. The authors are playful and admit that they could be wrong about things, that they are too susceptible to logical error, and that positions should be accepted tentatively. Humble authors are far better to read than self-assured ones.

The authors show ample knowledge of medical practices and clearly understand the complex and nuanced field of medicine. This is because at least one author is a neuroscientist and others have investigated these areas at some length. There is a fascinating chapter on pseudoscience and many pseudoscientific practices (p. 144-308) ranging from astrology to alternative healing, homeopathy, UFO sightings and conspiracies, intelligent design, anti-evolutionism, free energy creation, ghost hunting, and more. Since I have not studied several of these in detail, these were fascinating engagements from which I learned much.

Further, several topics in The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe were particularly valuable and I made use of them. I was convinced of the book’s skeptical position on hypnagogia (p. 36-40) and its position on cold reading (p. 248-257). The former is a sleep-like experience during which one awakes feeling the presence of a ghost-like or demonic force in the room and the sensation of being pinned down on the chest (I know several people who have had this frightening experience). The latter is about persons who dupe their clients into believing that they have superhuman abilities to know things about them that they should not. The tactics of this deception are well presented and give insight into how practitioners of alternative therapies can get inside the head of clients. I in fact shared these two chapters with a relative and a friend and encouraged them to read them.

There is a helpful and lengthy chapter dedicated to logical fallacies and errors in reasoning (p. 45-134). These are well fleshed out. Helpful examples are provided and it is fascinating how we can become victims to these fallacies in our thinking lives that tend to go unnoticed. There are other fascinating sections such as one dedicated to how superstitions can lead to horrendous results including death (p. 219-225, 409-425). This seems to bring into the discussion a strong moral dimension in which superstition should be actively opposed. Superstition and pseudoscience should generally be opposed (which this book is dedicated to), especially when it negatively impacts and harms human life.

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe stops just short of full-blown scientism, which is a good thing. There is at least some respect for the place of philosophy and logic in human reasoning, “which are simply ways of thinking about things really carefully…” (p. xiv). Scientistically minded people dismiss philosophy (and all other areas of knowledge beyond science), which is not the impression I receive from this book. Indeed the authors view science as clearly superior because it provides us with the greatest possible certainty about the world, but is not the only means of knowledge. Science is the standard through which all things must be judged.

The Negatives

What are some of the negatives that can be pulled from this book?

First, the book is built upon the foundation of philosophical naturalism. Since I am not a philosophical naturalist and do not view this as a tenable worldview, I will view this as a negative. The first author does outline the differences between methodological naturalism (as the ideal scientific investigation of the world) and philosophical naturalism (the view that nature is all that there is). The authors clearly embrace both. And because they are philosophical naturalists, there is no possibility of anything supernatural (there are statements to this effect, such as when your brain dies, you die because consciousness is entirely dependent on the brain). Thus, out of the window goes the likes of substance dualism, miracles of healing, near-death experiences, and more, even when the best examples of these aren’t even engaged in the book (see more about this below). Moreover, one wonders if their philosophical naturalism predetermines their investigations under the guise of being scientific skeptics. Thus, although they claim to be skeptical on the grounds of science, they might too be susceptible to the confirmation bias they expose, which is “the tendency of individuals to seek out or interpret new information as support for previously held notions of beliefs…” (p. 94).

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe appears to be problematic at its foundation. The author of the first chapter goes to great lengths to undermine our cognitive faculties and sense perception (p. 9-40), which I think brings many other claims in the book into question. Consider the following quotes that seem to undermine memory:

“Memories are flawed from the moment we construct them, but then are also not stable over time.” (p. 12)

“Whenever you find yourself saying, “I clearly remember…” Stop! No, you don’t. You have a constructed memory that is likely fused, contaminated, confabulated, personalized, and distorted.” (p. 18)

“Of course, the moment you perceive something, it becomes memory, and we already discussed how unreliable those are.” (p. 27)

According to the authors, we fuse memories, change them, personalize them, add to them, and sometimes dupe ourselves into believing fabricated memories. But this is not all. The authors also bring into question our perception of the world. We are often susceptible to illusion and misperception:

“The fallibility of memory and perception are a one-two punch to any hubris we may harbor about the reality of what we think we know.” (p. 27)

“You have a constructed memory of of a constructed perception based on filtered partial sensation and altered by your knowledge and expectations.” (p. 23)

“There is no such thing as a reliable witness.” (p. 384)

True to their beliefs, the authors make an unusual appeal to readers at the conclusion of the book: “Don’t trust us” and think for yourself (p. 445). But I interpret this part of the book as somewhat problematic. No doubt our memories and perception are fallible and deceive us occasionally, but this can only go so far until we adopt self-refuting positions. Although the author urges readers to be skeptical and humble in light of this fallibility (p. 16, 18), he seems to go much further into full-blown skepticism. The authors go as far as to say eyewitness testimony is unreliable, even in courts of law.

But exactly how skeptical should I be? Regarding how fallible the authors argue perception is, should I be skeptical of the fact that I am holding their book in my hands and reading it? If I am to be skeptical of this basic truth, then I would have no reason to believe what the authors are trying to communicate to me. What about my memory? Perhaps my memory of reading this book is itself “fused, contaminated, confabulated, personalized, and distorted,” and therefore too unreliable. Again, I would then have no reason to accept what the authors are trying to communicate to me. If there is no such thing as a reliable witness and since I “witnessed” this book by reading it, should readers of this review reject my testimony on such grounds alone?

Moreover, should I be skeptical when the authors themselves invoke their memories to make a point? For example, the authors claim to have at some point in the past gone ghost hunting in New England (p. 357) and brought the work of a certain pair of ghost hunters into disrepute (p. 360-366). But this is based on a memory of the author. Further, in the opening of the book, the author speaks from memory about how watching certain television shows inspired his skepticism as he grew up. He even states that “When I was younger I had an intense fascination with all things scientific” (p. xi). Should we also not trust his testimony because memory is fused, contaminated, confabulated, personalized, and distorted? Evidently, the authors are seemingly less than skeptical when it comes to their own memories and perceptions. But since there is no such thing as a reliable witness, should we believe them?

The problem here is that they are just too skeptical. Nothing is ever said about how memories and perceptions can also be accurate and reliable at times, but just how they fool us. The authors also assume the accuracy of perception in places. For example, they believe science is the best means to explore and make sense of a reality “out there” beyond our subjective minds. Without at least this possibility, the entire premise of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe would fall through the floor.

Further, although I noted that the authors do urge fellow skeptics to debate charitably and respectfully with those they disagree with, I don’t receive this impression in several areas. There is, for example, a blanket dismissal of any reality to demon position in a chapter about how belief in demon possession has led to violent ends, such as in the death of people. But then the author dismisses demon possession on the claim that they have never being verified. The same can be said for near-death experiences and the subject of miracle healing. The author cities no evidence against these things, but merely provides cases where certain people have been charlatans or used these for nefarious ends. For example, in the case of miracle healing, a pastor of a church was being fed information via a headpiece from his wife offstage. The wife would communicate a person’s name and illness to the pastor and it would seem like he had supernatural knowledge when accurately calling out a certain person in the congregation and the specific illness he or she was suffering with. Of course, this was all fabrication, but this is not enough to bring the subject of miracle healing itself into question. In other words, it is not warranted to jump from a charlatan to a dismissal of supernatural miracles.

This is particularly glaring when there is seemingly strong candidate evidence in favor of these subjects that have not been engaged by the authors. There is no engagement with leading academic scholarship on these subjects. For example, I saw no engagement with philosopher Gary Habermas’s startling cases of near-death experiences (the authors merely assume it has something to do with the brain: “They are simply experiences the brain may produce during trauma or when recovering from trauma or extreme stress”). There is no engagement with Craig Keener’s massive academic tome on miracles or the established study of proximal prayer of Heidi Baker, or psychiatrist Richard Gallagher’s striking cases of encountering alleged demon possession in his clinical practice. What about the former atheist and anthropologist Bruce Grindal who witnessed a four-day-old rotten corpse come back to life during a funeral ceremony in Ghana? Without engaging these authorities, the case the authors make against these phenomena seems weaker.

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