16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nonsense has a lot to answer for
You don't have to be a self-conscious sceptic to enjoy this superb book. To some, sceptics are killjoys who explain the weird noise in a haunted house as the puffing of an automatic air freshener rather than a ghost sneezing, or (in a recent Guardian piece by Daniel Dennett) just plain old-fashioned "loonies" (sorry, "moon-landing sceptics"). Richard Wilson takes...
Published on 20 July 2009 by Sphex
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for those starting to step back from the trees to see the woods
I bought this book on a whim and feel that it's probably best suited to someone who is feeling disillusioned with how things are turning out and wants to make better decisions in the future. It's in the vein of Bad Thoughts by James Whyte, although it's geared more towards UK politics (which is a good thing). Definitely not a guide to life though. Better to get out of...
Published on 11 Nov 2008 by commuterhell
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nonsense has a lot to answer for,
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This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Hardcover)You don't have to be a self-conscious sceptic to enjoy this superb book. To some, sceptics are killjoys who explain the weird noise in a haunted house as the puffing of an automatic air freshener rather than a ghost sneezing, or (in a recent Guardian piece by Daniel Dennett) just plain old-fashioned "loonies" (sorry, "moon-landing sceptics"). Richard Wilson takes scepticism a lot more seriously, for the simple reason that it can be a matter of life and death. More scepticism within the South African government towards Aids denialism, for example, could have prevented "one of the greatest man-made disasters of the modern era" (when that government "deliberately delayed the roll-out of antiretroviral drugs"). Scepticism is one of the great positive virtues we should all cultivate, not just a thorn in the side of woo.
Wilson starts the book with a scam he witnessed as a teenager (but which goes back to the Middle Ages and from which we get the expressions "buying a pig in a poke" and "let the cat out of the bag"). He was impressed that the "salesman had managed to fool the crowd completely, while speaking the literal truth", relying on haste and greed for a bargain to override the crowd's better judgement. This is hardly grand larceny of course, but no less instructive for being on a small scale. After all, we're more likely to fall victim to this kind of salesmanship than to the high-rolling Madoffs of this world.
One of the pleasures of this book is the real-world examples that get you hot under the collar (and misty eyed about trading standards and the Sale of Goods Act). Another is the serious intellectual argument against relativism. The glib catchphrase "it's all relative" is "an idea with troubling implications". "If truth is entirely subjective, then it's futile even discussing your point of view with people you disagree with. If we reject logic, then it's impossible to put together any kind of system for distinguishing good ideas from gibberish." There are many straightforward questions we can ask of any factual claim. "Is the evidence detailed and specific or vague and generalised? Does it come from multiple sources or just a handful? Is it internally coherent, or are there contradictions? Is it consistent with other well-supported facts? Are human sources named? If so, what are their credentials and what's their track record?"
Everyone can understand these principles, even if they can be hard work to follow through. "The antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably evidence from multiple sources" and Wilson himself sets a good example, with forty-nine pages of notes. Much of his source material is available on the web, which he rightly celebrates as enabling better access to a wider range of fact and opinion. Of course, such access could be counterproductive, especially if we switch off our sceptically tempered judgement.
Flexibility is key: when better ideas come along, we need to change. Science is one system that has proved spectacularly successful at revising itself, while religion has a pitiful record. The reason is simple: only religion makes a virtue of faith, of holding fast to a dogmatic core, which renders it intellectually brittle, and constantly in need of strapping delusions to hold it together. "Religion is, in a sense, the ultimate pig in a poke."
Given the overall good sense of the book, I was quite surprised to come across some isolated pockets of duff thinking. At one point Wilson says, "we have no rational way of knowing what the future holds", which seems odd after extolling the benefits of "inductive reasoning": if it's not rational to believe the sun will rise tomorrow, then all bets are off. Even in the context of our unpredictable personal lives, where he talks about having "irrational faith" in the future, I would rather think in terms of "rational hopes" (for example, planning for a rainy day by saving instead of buying lottery tickets).
I was also surprised by his perplexity at the continuity of self given the discontinuity of the materials of the brain (our cells are constantly being replaced). "Once we take the immortal soul out of the equation, even the idea of ourselves as individual beings whose existence endures steadily throughout one lifetime seems difficult to sustain..." Does it? Our thoughts are not tied to particular neurons but to the (complex) relationships between neurons, and these patterns surely survive the substitution of individual atoms and molecules. These are difficult subjects, and I could be the one who's off the mark here. Anyway, even if he is wrong on some things, I admire him for writing with clarity and transparency, for not obfuscating or making unwarranted appeals to authority.
He is right to emphasize that being a sceptic does not "necessarily mean believing in nothing" and this book will help dispel the caricature of a disengaged, cynical and generally negative person. Never before has humanity had so much access to so much learning, but along with that enhanced freedom comes the responsibility to exercise our sceptical muscles. We have the tools: the "basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence and 'inductive reasoning' are common to every human society" and are not the sole preserve of some imagined western intellectual elite. It's up to us to challenge faith, ideology, prejudice, ignorance, whatever stands in the way of getting at the truth. For Christians, "Doubting Thomas" was a failure, the person they should strive not to be. For Wilson, Thomas would make a fine "patron saint of sceptics", someone who is not afraid of asking awkward questions.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great toolbox to challenge media, marketeers and politicians,
This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Hardcover)It is refreshing to read a book like Don't Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that "things aren't quite right" and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn't believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.
Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of "meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish".
Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.
A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged "controversy" is falsely based. This can be observed every day on radio and tv programmes when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, resulting in equal weight being given to both nonsense and fact.
Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin's favorite scientist who's wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko's ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.
The chapter on "groupthink" describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity.
Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where "AIDS dissidents" have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to investigate "whether there's this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there's something called HIV". By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.
In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are "not quite right" and need to be challenged.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Genuinely Good,
This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: A Sceptic's Handbook: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Paperback)I was surprised by Wilson's book. It is not only provocative and well researched but interesting for subject matter which can often be tired or plain boring. Whilst much covered can be found elsewhere it is presented exceptionally well and I felt rewarded from after completing the 223 pages. I'd certainly recommend this to you all. Sceptical of my review? You've ever right to be, but trust me, it's a good read ;-)
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and insightful,
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This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: A Sceptic's Handbook: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Paperback)Brilliantly written and full of sound advice on how to avoid having the wool pulled over your eyes. I'd recommend to anyone who wants to develop their inner sceptic.
5.0 out of 5 stars Sceptical concerns that should concern us all,
This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Hardcover)The book's subtitle, "The Sceptic's Guide to Life", may be a bit ambitious as an aim, but the content offers excellent advice on how to check if what you're being told can be believed.
Wilson covers dubious advertising, news stories that are no more than uncritical rehashes of press releases, manufactured controversies and much else besides, all with examples and copious footnotes (so if you have any doubt you are free to check his sources -- many of which are available for free on the web).
By way of example he goes into detail about Trofim Lysenko's bogus attempts to reform Soviet agriculture, as well as examining Clarence Cook Little's initially successful efforts in the 1950's to obfuscate the growing concern about a link between tobacco and lung cancer.
There's a chapter about AIDS denialism -- the claim that there's no evidence HIV causes AIDS, and that anti-retroviral drugs actually cause AIDS. He deals with the tendency to invent neologisms to disguise and defuse serious problems, whether factual or ethical, and he goes into some detail on the religious question, in response to the "new atheist" publishing phenomenon.
He touches on corruption in high places, mentioning the secrecy surrounding MP's expenses (the book was published before the widespread scandal -- which is probably a good thing, else it would be twice the length and dominated by a single issue).
The book is a comprehensive overview of matters that should concern us all, by someone who appears to be of a generally liberal/left persuasion (something that he doesn't conceal -- nor should he). It covers a selection of sceptical subjects, but gives the overall impression that these are but a fraction of what's going on, and with which we should be engaged. In the modern world he could probably write another book with entirely different examples, and we should therefore be eternally vigilant.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for those starting to step back from the trees to see the woods,
This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Hardcover)I bought this book on a whim and feel that it's probably best suited to someone who is feeling disillusioned with how things are turning out and wants to make better decisions in the future. It's in the vein of Bad Thoughts by James Whyte, although it's geared more towards UK politics (which is a good thing). Definitely not a guide to life though. Better to get out of your routine now and again, and talk to people who don't share and confirm your own point of view.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A new perspective,
This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Hardcover)Defiantly an interesting read. The facts and issues highlighted in this book will raise eyebrows and get you questioning how the world is currently run. A breath of fresh air on human psychology.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sceptics in reality,
This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Hardcover)Sceptical view people,
It is only the fact that they agree with each other that they convince themselves they are correct in their comments.
They have no real basis of investigation or time spent learning, only off the cuff reactions to subjects of which they know nothing, or are willing to learn about.
I think it also true when asked what side of the fence they sit, the option would to be for the opposing team as this is seen as the correctly intelligent view and don't wish to be seen as non-conforming to those whom claim to know.
Amazingly these people who KNOW they are correct have no alternative to offer for their argument, merely it's all crap because I know and your daft..........,now back to the snooker..........
There has in the past been Sceptics of the highest quality intelligent minds in fact the list is endless but among them there is the likes of for instance
One of the world's most renowned physicists and far from being any kind of bloody fool
Sir William Crooks
Sir William Crooks investigated the paranormal for more than 20 years seeking to expose it for what it is.
And that is exactly what he achieved
Crookes after many ardent experiments and strict tests under impossible to be open to fraud or trickery, could come to no other conclusion other than the reality of life / death and all the related Phenomena of so called paranormal.
He was of course ostracized by the scientific community of the time for publishing his findings, because he could not support their theorised opinions as they had hoped for,but as a true Scientist could only relate the truth as he found it.
There are of course many fraudulent mediums, and Tarot card readers, astrologist etc. as there are so called qualified plumbers who flood your home. In Victorian times there were many court cases for counterfeit mediumship . Although probably not as many as for fake currency, but that did not mean however there was no real money circulating!
3 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars This one I didn't finish,
This review is from: Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life (Hardcover)I had a perverse habit of feeling a need to finish any book that I'd started, no matter how poor. This one broke the habit. I got to the "God Dilution", a really witty take (not) on Richard Dawkins' work, having skimmed through the earlier chapters, and could go no further. There are so many intelligent, informative and thought-provoking works in this field that the superficial treatment meted out by Mr Wilson fails dramatically to excite the reader. I didn't buy this book but took it out of my local library. I'm amazed that they stocked it.
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Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life by Richard Wilson (Hardcover - 4 Sep 2008)