Non-Fiction Reviews


Think: Why you should question everything

(2013) Guy P. Harrison, Prometheus Books, 13.99 / US$16.95 / Can$18, trdpbk, 240pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14807-2

 

I fully welcome books criticising all the dubious unsubstantiated, non-scientific claims circulating about the paranormal, and Harrison is clearly quite happy to debunk the whole kit and caboodle from Atlantis to Homeopathy.

Harrison expects his work to be seen by new age believers who will lose their convictions that the Moon Landings were hoaxed as they progress through his perfectly valid explanations, but many of those who believe in such things are not going to read a book so clearly out to convert (or de-convert) them.

This is a fine book for complete newcomers to scepticism, highlighting many of the basic arguments and questions needed to challenge the claims being made to the credulous. It is undoubtedly going to have stronger appeal to US audiences than the British market, given the strength of Creationist and New Age beliefs in America.

There is a rather random selection of erroneous beliefs debunked one by one, ranging from Roswell, to Bigfoot, via psychics, and Erich Von Daniken, each dismissed in a few paragraphs as if that's the final word on the matter, and if only it was that easy. Such ideas, teachings and practices resurface over and over.

Harrison rightly draws attention to the dangers of gullibly accepting claims about the supernatural - people have been persecuted and killed as suspected witches even in the 21st century. Others have put so much faith in homeopathic and alternative medicines that they, or their children have died for lack of mainstream medical treatment. Snake-oil salesmen are still very much among us.

Sceptics, like myself find this kind of book to be preaching to the converted (or un-converted) and unlikely to teach us anything new. It reads like a parody of established New Age self-help literature, and often gets repetitive, with see how easy it is closing paragraph summaries, etc.

A late chapter moves entirely away from scepticism to talk of healthy eating and exercise to keep our brains going - all well and proper but really a separate topic.

A well-intentioned book that is uncertain just who it is going to appeal to, and rather too keen to show how clever a thinker Harrison is. At times he seems to try to do the reader's thinking for them, by offering off pat slick answers to common questions and assumptions, so that newly converted sceptical readers are likely to quote him rather than think of their own answers.

The very title THINK with its commanding suggestion that anyone who doesn't read it doesn't think or can't think, is problematic, and I felt as if the author was talking down to me even though I have written for sceptical journals myself.

There is a neat allegorical story of a girl who mistakes a natural phenomena (migrating birds flying in sunlight) for a UFO and ends up ruining her life and those of others as her story gets taken up and embellished, her memory adds in new detail, etc. She never lies, but her misperceptions escalate a simple observation into a colossal life-ruining fallacy.

Such rare insights aside, this is not the best book for introducing sceptical thinking to British readers. What he captures well is the tragedy of people looking for Bigfoot when biologists discover new, mostly microscopic life-forms daily. What comes over badly is an overwhelming sense of arrogant superiority over the reader.

Arthur Chappell


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