Sunday, November 17, 2013

Abandoned Books: 50 Popular Beliefs People Think Are True by Guy P. Harrison

I'm a skeptic of long-standing -- I read a pile of James Randi in my mis-spent youth, and had a subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer for at least fifteen years. (I think I finally let it lapse in my personal magazine-pocalypse of the late '90s, when I realized I had more than a year's worth of about five magazines sitting unread and decided I wasn't as much of a magazine reader as I'd thought I was.) So I thought I was exactly the right audience for Harrison's 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True, a recent publication from Prometheus Books, part of that same upstate New York skeptical nexus with SI and the organization I still think of as CSICOP (though now just CSI for almost a decade).

Harrison's book runs through a whole bunch of popular paranormal, pseudo-scientific, and other beliefs not overly burdened with proof, from Nostradamus and psychics to flying saucers and astrology, from homeopathy and anti-vaccination theories to creationism and the power of prayer, from ghosts and Bigfoot to Atlantis and end-of-the-world prophecies. He gives each theory five or eight pages, in a breezy, journalistic style, and explains why each of them is not, strictly speaking, true.

I read about half of it before I stopped, and I stopped only because Harrison was telling me things I already knew, and telling me them in less detail than I already knew. If Harrison was a flashier writer, or more  aggressive in his investigations, I would have read further, but it's a good basic book by someone trying hard not to alienate an audience of believers in the irrational. I am happy to see that therapeutic touch and "memory water" have been debunked enough that they don't need to be included here, though disappointed that ancient astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle are still going strong in the public mind.

This is an excellent introduction to the skeptical literature, with extensive lists of resources in each chapter and a tone that verges on the conciliatory at times; Harrison bends over backward to be fair to people who believe in stupid, irrational things for no good reason. Even the title bends in that direction: it implies but does not actually say that these beliefs are of note because they're not true.

I didn't need to finish 50 Popular Beliefs myself, but I was thrilled to see that my local library had it, and I hope it circulates widely. It's an excellent handbook of the current catalog of popular irrational beliefs, and, I hope, a signpost on the road to knowledge to many people who ignorantly believe one or more of those things. It's probably a rude gift to give to that astrology-loving friend -- and he might not read it anyway -- but it should do some good in the world, and I'm very happy to see it exists.

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