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Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole Paperback – April 26, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
A philosophy professor at the University of London, Law describes eight "intellectual black holes," traps that seem to lend credence to scientifically or rationally incorrect propositions. Recognizing such black holes as "playing the mystery card" (e.g., arguing that science can tell us whether ghosts exist) will help readers identify and critique illogical arguments. One particularly interesting concept is the "blunderbuss," which cites real but irrelevant illogical elements of, say, certain New Age beliefs. Another concept is what philosopher Daniel Dennett once called a "deepity," which Law defines as "saying something with two meanings"—one true but trivial, the other false but seemingly profound. Law shows how these and other verbal sleights of hand are used in a wide variety of belief systems, including the paranormal, homeopathy, Christian Science, and belief in UFOs. Law includes an entertaining appendix of fictional letters called, pace C.S. Lewis, the "Tapescrew Letters," which recapitulate his eight logical black holes. Though he writes clearly and persuasively, this is not a particularly easy read, but his subject is important and deserving of readers' attention. Illus. (Apr.)
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"Everyone who values truth, reason, and evidence over sophistry should buy this book." --Chris French, professor and head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and editor of The Skeptic magazine.
"Stephen Law offers us not only a primer on how not to believe but about why so many people do believe-bullsh*t, despite the lack of evidence for such beliefs, or even in the face of disconfirmatory evidence. It is a roadmap to a promised land free of undue credulity, where the best ideas win and 'intellectual black holes' no longer suck people in. Believing Bullsh*t should be read by every college freshman and every person seeking public office, and its strategies memorized and put to use by every critical thinker." --D. J. Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation and host of For Good Reason
"Sadly, the people who would benefit most from Believing Bullsh*t are the least likely to read it. We all get taken in by bullsh*t sometimes, though, and if you think you don't, you definitely should buy this book. But you should anyway." --Nigel Warburton, senior lecturer in philosophy, The Open University (London) and author of Philosophy: The Basics.
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Top Customer Reviews
Early in the book, in the introduction, Law sounds very reasonable when he says that his religious examples of BS should not be taken to mean that no intelligent argument for theism exists. He is, he says, only going after those defenses of theism that employ one of the BS strategies that most of the rest of the book covers (more on that in a second). But despite the fact that Law discusses other types of BS (astrology, crystal healings, UFO cults, etc.), his focus consistently shifts back to theism and it's very clear that despite his earlier protestation to the contrary, and despite often making conciliatory-sounding comments about how there just may be some reasonable defense of theism he hasn't come across yet, Law is one hundred percent convinced that by far the most reasonable position is atheism.
And he makes the case very well, and I think he's right. And that's FINE. Maybe books like this one (the other book "like this" I read recently is Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case For Respectful Disbelief) are a backlash against some of the harsher and less compromising-sounding books by the so-called New Atheists--Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Vic Stenger and others. Maybe authors like Law were genuinely put off by the "tone" of books that just flat-out insist that there is no good reason for believing in gods, and wished to find a way to soften that message somewhat, to make it sound more soft-spokenly reasonable, less shrill and polemical. And that's not an altogether bad thing--I have some sympathy for that impulse.
But the truth is that once you remove the flannel swaddling from Law's arguments, the stone-and-steel facts of logical force still remain, and it is not kind to theism. I am convinced that Law knows this, and while I have no doubt that he's sincere about leaving the door open to other, better arguments, it's hard not to conclude that he considers leaving that door open to be like setting a place at the table for Elijah in case he shows up for dinner. Can't be absolutely ruled out, but come on. Close e-freaking-nough.
On to the contents. And a blanket statement--the entire book is extremely well-written. Without ever talking down to the reader, who Law obviously assumes will be intelligent and thoughtful, the prose maintains a popular accessibility. No descents into arcana or Latin jargon, and the examples he draws from are lively and on-point. No strutting here, just useful and engaging writing.
After the introduction, there are chapters on "Playing the Mystery Card," "But It Fits!," "Going Nuclear," "Moving the Semantic Goalposts," "I Just Know!," "Pseudoprofundity," "Piling Up the Anecdotes," "Pressing Your Buttons." For each chapter, Law explains how the BS trick is used, why it's not legitimate to use it, and provides excellent and interesting examples...which he then goes on to deconstruct with non-BS logic. It's a winning approach, and as an amateur skeptic who loves poking around various non-rational beliefs like homeopathy, Law of Attraction stuff, creationism (including intelligent design), end times prophecies and the like, I can say that every one of Law's examples is completely on-target. And his responses--devastating.
What I'm saying is that with "BS," you get a twofer. It's entertaining just as a general kind of read-for-fun book, but it's also a master class in spotting and confronting bologna, and avoiding the Intellectual Black Holes that Law rightly points out, even the brightest of people can fall into if they get trapped in an attractive bubble of unreason, spackled shut by great smears of impenetrable bovine manure.
I'll go back to my initial quibble, though. When it is abundantly clear that a few truly cogent, FORCEFUL arguments are on one side of debate, as is true with atheism, I'm not entirely convinced that feigning a wholly unnecessary and frankly patronizing "fairness" isn't itself not a form of BS.
One by one Stephen Law dissects each tool of the snake oil sales people of emotions and woo: priests, gurus and all of the same sort. With clear definitions and examples the author explains what you have to look around and listen when the alarms sound off: you are approaching an intellectual black hole. From religion to homeopathy , and from new age to ideologies, Stephen Law is very careful in position that the main problem is about the methods: that should put you in alert. He keeps the door open that however improbable, yes, last night you saw an alien, but most likely it was an illusion and because it is so unlike that we have been visited by aliens, better you have good arguments and proof. But if you use the techniques explained here: well my friend , your position does not hold. Period.
Pilling up anecdotes , going nuclear, moving goal posts, see it fits, brainwashing, all in detail.
Your survival guide in the fight for reasonable ideas: to carry out there in the jungle of religions, gurus, new age woo, post modernism relativism and all the others you will come along
"Believing BS" is an informative book that identifies eight key mechanisms that can lead ideas into an intellectual abyss. Philosopher, educator and accomplished author, Stephen Law provides an interesting book that will help immunize readers against the follies of poor thinking. It's an expose of popular rhetorical tricks used to defend BS belief system. The author provides many practical examples and shows us quite clearly how to avoid being sucked into these intellectual black holes. This helpful 271-page book includes the following eight chapters (mechanisms): 1. Playing the Mystery Card, 2. "But it Fits! and The Blunderbus, 3. Going Nuclear, 4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts, 5. "I Just Know!", 6. Pseudoprofundity, 7. Piling Up the Anecdotes, and 8. Pressing Your Buttons.
1. A well-researched and accessible book. The author has a pleasant, engaging style.
2. Despite the provocative title, I found the book to be fair, reasonable and even-handed.
3. Succeeds in achieving its main goal of providing readers with intellectual tools to defend against intellectual black holes ("systems constructed in such a way that unwary passerby can find themselves similarly drawn in").
4. Explains eight key strategies in detail by providing illustrations that clearly show how they are applied and what's wrong with it.
5. Includes many religious examples such as Young Earth Creationism and Christian Science. Young Earth Creationism debunked with just the following: "What of the seasonal layers of ice found at the poles, the drilled-out cores of which reveal a seasonal history dating back hundreds of thousands of years?"
6. Provides plausible explanations on why we are predisposed in believing in invisible agents. As an example, the Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device (H.A.D.D.). "Thus evolution will select for an inheritable tendency to not just detect--but overdetect--agency."
7. The problem of evil strikes again. "Even if God had to allow some evil for the sake of certain greater goods, surely he could have no reason to allow quite so much." "In any case, what about the countless generations of humans that suffered before the Bible was written?"
8. Many interesting philosophical questions, "Is it true that beliefs about supernatural agents, gods, powers and other phenomena are essentially immune to scientific refutation? Find out.
9. The scientific method, always a worthwhile discussion. The value of other approaches like philosophy to make reasonable refutations. "What a scientific theory requires if it is to be credible is not merely consistency with the evidence but confirmation by the evidence--the stronger the confirmation, the better."
10. Good quotes always add value to a book, "It is important to stress that what we are looking at here is not a mere absence of evidence for the claim that crystals have such effects, but rather that it is some positive evidence of the absence of any such effects."
11. I like the concept of genuine confirmation of scientific theory. "The theory must make predictions that are: 1) clear and precise, 2) surprising, and 3) true."
12. Going Nuclear as a last ditch strategy to avoid defeat that lays waste to every position. The two main variants of "Going Nuclear": skeptical and relativist. Many good examples.
13. Effing the ineffable. "What I'm objecting to is the unjustified and partisan use of this suggestion to immunize Theism against powerful counterarguments, while at the same time allowing a degree of effability whenever, say, there appears to be something positive to be said in its favor."
14. Believing something in perspective. "Perhaps the most obvious way in which you might be justified in believing something is if you have good evidence that what you believe is true."
15. Pseudoprofundity exposed. "Mockery may be both useful and legitimate if we can show that it is deserved."
16. Using anecdotes instead of significant evidence to support a supernatural claim. "What would be more impressive is if, say, after being prayed for, someone's amputated leg grew back." Agreed.
17. The power of suggestion. "Expectation strongly shapes perception." Many great examples.
18. Belief-shaping mechanisms...brainwashing. The five core beliefs behind it.
19. A very good summary of the eight mechanisms and the main nine examples.
20. Notes included and linked.
1. The book is overall a bit uneven. That is, some topics get the royal treatment while others get the gloss over. As an example, using mockery as a tool. I was hoping for a little more depth on a tool I believe is underrated in its effectiveness.
2. I didn't really care for "The Tapescrew Letters"; sure it brings everything together but it didn't do much for me.
3. No formal bibliography.
In summary, I really enjoyed reading this book. Law succeeds in providing the public with an accessible tool to defend against intellectual black holes. He defines new terms well and provides many examples that clearly illustrate belief-shaping mechanisms in practice. Perhaps a couple of missed opportunities, the power of ridicule seems to be a very effective tool that received little ink. That being said, this turned out be an informative and helpful book. I recommend it!
Further recommendations: "The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism" by A.C. Grayling, "Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism" by Richard Carrier, "The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule" and "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths" by Michael Shermer, "A Rulebook for Arguments" by Anthony Weston, "The Philosophy of Science" by Samir Okasha, "42 Fallacies" by Michael C. LaBossiere, "50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True" by Guy P. Harrison, "Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction" by Eugenie C. Scott, "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood" by David R. Montgomery, "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer" by Bart D. Ehrman, and "The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us" by Victor Stenger.