Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal by Lynne Kelly

It's a sad thing to be this jaded and cynical. When a useful, cogent, and entirely accessible book like The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal arrives on my desk -- which it did some time ago; it's a 2004 book that I picked at work up sometime in the three years or so after publication and finally read over this last year -- my immediate reaction was a bone-deep weariness. [1]

I did eventually make my way through this Skeptic's Guide, which is well-reasoned and always honest -- in fact, author Lynne Kelly (a teacher of math and science and member of Australian Skeptics) is more than fair with extraordinary claims, and at times goes out of her way to point out places where science can't 100% prove that something doesn't exist. I would, personally, be much more dismissive: idiots need to be told firmly that they are being idiots, and will take the slightest scrap of possibility as proof that they're secretly correct. But Kelly is more polite than I am, and clearly has vastly more patience.

This is not a work of original scholarship and investigation; it's a layman's guide to a whole range of extraordinary claims (including UFOs, Bigfeet, lake monsters, mentalism and spiritualism, crop circles, ghosts, astrology, reincarnation, various prophecies including Nostradamus, dowsing, the Bermuda Triangle, and more), which patiently explains why every single one of them is bunk. Anyone mildly familiar with the skeptical literature -- I subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer for a decade or so myself, though that lapsed back in the '90s, and read at least my share of James Randi and Martin Gardner books -- will not be surprised by anything here, but the more gullible or less-informed will find more to confound their magical thinking. In fact, if anything, Kelly is conservative and backwards-looking in her deubunkery: her spiritualism chapters are mostly about the great 19th century frauds, and there's nothing about the most recent bunkum, such as "theraputic touch,"in The Skeptic's Guide.

So this book is useful in two ways: as a reference to point the way to definitive and more comprehensive works in each of its subject areas (Kelly has good references for each chapter) for those more deeply interested in paranormal claims, or as a primer on skeptical thinking for younger or still-influenceable readers. I may try to pass it on to my two sons, in fact, in hopes that some of Kelly's knowledge and common sense rubs off. 

[1] To expand on that: do we really need to keep explaining to the idiots of the world that UFOs are not alien spacecraft, that undiscovered megafauna are vanishingly unlikely, that crop circles are all fakes, and that mentalists are all charlatans? Of course the depressing answer is "Yes;" there's always a new cohort of idiots. Even worse, they probably won't listen anyway.

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