Book Review: Bizarre Beliefs

-- a book review by Tom Napier

Books on skeptical subjects tend, with a few notable exceptions, to fall into two categories. One is, "This belief is wrong and here are two hundred tedious pages full of footnotes proving exactly why there is no justification for it." This may be useful reference material for the serious skeptic but it's not going to convince the believer (nothing will) and it's going to bore the undecided to tears. The other is, "Let's poke fun at all the silly people who believe in UFOs, astrology, channelling, or whatever." While there are some beliefs which deserve all the ridicule they can get, this type of book may turn off the non-skeptic.

I've been looking for a beginner's guide to skepticism. A book one could give to a novice skeptic without qualms. A book which straightforwardly describes the range of beliefs which skeptics address, which shows how they can be investigated and which explains why, in the end, they are not justified. A readable format and a good selection of glossy illustrations would be a plus.

Bizarre Beliefs by Simon Hoggart and Mike Hutchinson (ISBN 1 86066 0223) is that book. I picked up my copy from Prometheus Publishers for $17. A 7x10 trade paperback, it was published last year in Britain by Richard Cohen Books. Each chapter comprehensively covers one of fifteen topics, from the Bermuda Triangle to the Curse of Tutankhamun, divided neatly into four categories, The Outer Limits, Foretelling the Past, Matter over Mind, and Things That Go Bump. Each chapter describes a belief, relates its historical context, illustrates, mostly with British examples, the press and public attitudes toward it, tells what skeptical investigation reveals, and leaves the reader to come to a conclusion.

The authors lean over backwards to be non-judgmental. Here is their conclusion about astrology, "Many astrologers believe in what they are doing, and the warm and admiring feedback they get from clients helps encourage them. This is why they don't feel the need to explain how it works; they simply know that it does." However, this conclusion was immediately preceeded by an illustration of how astrologers were made to look foolish by giving them a natal chart, ostensibly of singer Petula Clark. Their personality assessments were "bubbly, amiable and outgoing" despite the chart having actually been prepared for Charles Manson.

The illustrations, almost all in color, range from posed chapter introductions, through news photos of psychics, to historical illustrations, magazine covers, and cartoons. Time-Life would be hard put to do a better job should they ever convert to skepticism.

The authors have done their homework. (Both have fire-walked, which seems to be de rigour for skeptical authors.) The text bears the signs of much reading of the Skeptical Inquirer. Phil Klass, Sue Blackmore, James Randi, and Joe Nickell crop up, and a number of well-known skeptical works are listed in the bibliography.

I can heartily recommend Bizarre Beliefs as a comprehensive, educational, but enjoyable book suitable for any budding skeptic. This would be an excellent book to give to anyone from a teenager upwards who wants to find out what skepticism is all about.

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