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Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life Hardcover – 4 Sep 2008
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Reviews for his first book, 'Titanic Express': "'Incredibly moving' Ziauddin Sardar, Independent 'An astonishing chronicle' Bronwen Maddox, The Times 'I have watched in growing admiration how, with dogged persistence, Richard Wilson has conducted a singular crusade, not just to bring his sister's murderers to justice, but to understand who they were and why they killed her.' Jon Swain, Sunday Times" `An enjoyable polemic against pretty much everything really, and as it rips apart our own gullibility and life in general, it also manages to highlight a lot of the basic philosophical premises that we have opted into without giving them real consideration in the first place. An enjoyable diatribe, indeed.' -- Publishing News 'Richard's Wilson's [book] has been likened to Francis Wheen's `How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.' It provides an objective and philosophical dissection of some commonly held beliefs. Almost a self-help book, this provides the reader with the analytical tools to avoid being taken for a ride, as well as being entertaining and informative.' -- Patrick Neale, Bookseller `... 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.' -- A Common Reader 'Written in lucid prose, well researched and strongly argued, `Don't Get Fooled Again' is a great little book. It has reminded me of the virtues of scepticism (as distinct from cynicism, which is unthinking negativity and expecting the worst in all circumstances). So, if you don't want to buy a pig in a poke, have the wool pulled over your eyes or be an unquestioning sheep, then this is the book for you.' -- Bookgeeks `There's so much gold in Wilson's book it's hard to pick out specific examples. Wilson explains in a wonderful aside that the brain regenerates itself every seven years - meaning in effect that you will be a completely different person by November 30 2015. He shatters the postmodern paradigm of a Western imperial Enlightenment forced upon complaining natives by discussing the developing world's substantial contributions to science.' -- Max Dunbar `Prescribed read for the hype-harassed and panic-pumped.' -- Hindu `It's refreshing to read this new book by Richard Wilson.' -- Brendan Wallace, Fortean Times `Wilson's book is a necessary and well-written guide to guarding yourself against 'being fooled again'.' -- Brendan Wallace, Fortean Times
From the Back Cover
`This is a book about expensive delusions, and how to avoid them. It looks at the myriad ways in which we can deceive ourselves - and be deceived by others. We've all been fooled at one time or another - be it in love or in business, by the media or by the promise of politicians. There are no solid guarantees that can protect us in the future. But by learning more about the human weakness for wishful thinking, the mechanisms of psychological manipulation, and the tools that we can use to separate fact from fantasy, we can at least go some way towards inoculating ourselves.'
Richard Wilson, from his Introduction
Top customer reviews
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.
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.
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