Ten Books for Skeptics

There are probably as many paths to becoming a scientific skeptic as there are skeptics. Admittedly my framework for skepticism was in the background for decades, but it’s only been over the past several years that I’ve started to really understand skepticism as a way of thinking. It was driven by my work as a pharmacist, working in a store with a thriving “alternative medicine” section. I was asked repeatedly about homeopathy. I’d never heard of it. It’s not part of the pharmacy curriculum. So I did some research, and was stunned when I realized that there was quite literally nothing to it – homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system, and the “remedies” are indistinguishable sugar pills. Yet customers would swear by their favourite remedy. I was particularly surprised when customers would specially order specific “strengths” of the products. Attempts to discuss the evidence went nowhere. I was mystified that there could be such a strong attachment to products with no medicinal effects. Was this all placebo? I subseqently started following a new internet invention called a “blog”, beginning with Respectful Insolence. Eventually I found the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. The doors opened from there. I went to the library, took out several books on skepticism and devoured them.

With Christmas approaching many of you may be in the midst of shopping for gifts. As a tool to stimulate, foster, or strengthen scientific skepticism, books can’t be beat. Blogs aren’t for everyone. There are dozens and dozens of skeptical books out there. Here are ten of my personal favourites.

  1. The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” If you read only one book on this list, make it Carl Sagan’s classic defense of scientific inquiry and critical thinking. A true sign of brilliance is the ability to communicate with clarity, and Sagan did this with an enthusiasm for science that is obvious. If any book is essential reading for those interested in skepticism, this is the perfect place to start.  For more, see Melany Hamill’s review.
  2. Trick or Treatment -Written by Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine, and Simon Singh, an author and science journalist now infamous for being sued by the British Chiropractic Association, this 2008 book doesn’t pull any punches. “The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine” is the subtitle. The book opens with a review of the scientific method, and then dedicates a chapter each to acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, and herbal medicine. The book concludes with a discussion of placebo therapies, and their place in patient care. The appendix includes one-page summaries of dozens of alternative health modalities, with a short summary of their effectiveness. Highly recommended for everyone, particularly those with an interest in the pseudoscience of medicine.
  3. On Being Certain  From neurologist Robert A. Burton, this book makes a convincing argument that “certainty” is a mental sensation, and not evidence of fact. In fact, Burton argues that the feeling of certainty is actually independent of active reasoning. Certainty, he concludes, is not biologically possible: science is the tool we must use to evaluate data. An enjoyable but challenging read. For a more detailed review, see Jeff Orchard’s previous post.
  4. Autism’s False Prophets As I’ve noted before, I had no idea about the level of antivaccination sentiment in Canada until I started blogging about vaccines. Both online and in dialogue with patients, the “manufactroversy” about vaccines and autism baffled me. While this book is now somewhat dated (2008) it’s still an excellent summary of how antivaccine advocates deliberately mislead the autism community, and established the modern antivaccination movement. Reading it will give you a better understanding of the the movement’s roots and its tactics, which don’t tend to change. Other books on the antivaccine movement which I have not yet read, but understand are excellent are Offitt’s  Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (2011) and Seth Mnookin’s  The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear (2011).
  5. Why People Believe Weird Things – In this 1997 book, skeptic and author Michael Shermer looks at alien abduction, Creationism, psychics, recovered memories, Holocaust denial, and more. He explores why even well-educated people can hold beliefs that seem utterly baffling to others.
  6. Risk – This 2008 book from Canadian journalist Dan Gardner asks, and answers, a simple question: “Why are the safest and healthiest people in history living in a culture of fear?” Gardner looks closely at how we percieve risks, and why our perceptions are wrong. Reading it will have a dramatic effect on how you consume the news and evaluate the risks you face in your life. For a more detailed review, see this review from Erik Davis. Gardner’s follow-up book, Future Babble, which examines expert predictions, is on my to-read list.
  7. Bad Science – Ben Goldacre is a physician and columnist in The Guardian, and his 2011 book is an entertaining and engaging narrative which draws the distinction between science and pseudoscience, with a focus on exposing sloppy and misleading journalism. Goldacre’s approach is to teach the reader basic epidemiology skills in an understandable and accessible manner, using topics like homeopathy, nutritionism, supplements, “detox”, and vaccine fears as case studies to illustrate key scientific concepts. Bad Science is a great read for anyone that isn’t yet a skeptic – but should be. Goldacre’s latest book, Bad Pharma narrows his focus solely on pharmaceutical companies, and is also recommended. See my review of Bad Pharma at Science-Based Medicine.
  8. Snake Oil Science – From R. Barker Bausell (2009), this is a more technical read than the others on the list, but one I recommend to the skeptic interested in deepening their understanding of of clinical trials. Why do people believe that demonstrably ineffective treatments are effective? To answer this, we need to understand what it means to say a treatment is “no more effective than placebo”. This book answers that question, with a deep explanation of the “placebo” and how we control for it in trials. The book goes on to guide the reader in helping their own evaluation of evidence, with the red flags that differentiate “snake oil science” from credible research. For more, see my detailed review from 2010.
  9. The Cure for Everything – Timothy Caulfield’s 2011 book is a highly skeptical book that’s perfect for the for the non-skeptic, particularly one interested in sorting out the science from pseudoscience in diet, fitness, and nutrition advice.  Caulfield is a strong science-based medicine advocate and he understands and explains how complementary and “alternative” medicine advocates spin evidence and market themselves in ways to adopt the veneer of science, without the substance.  As I said in my full review, this book is an excellent entry point to science-based medicine, reinforcing the importance of making health decisions based on good scientific evidence.
  10. Thinking, Fast and Slow – This 2011 book from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman is a dive into cognitive science and human behavior that will change the way you think about thinking. It covers some of the same work of Dan Gardner’s Risk (#6, above) but focuses more on reasoning patterns. An exploration and explanation of cognitive biases, Kahenaman’s book has been widely and deservedly acclaimed. The book will also serve to caution the skeptic of overconfidence in our own evaluations of the evidence. We are not good at spotting our own errors. So be skeptical, but be humble. For more, see this extended review in the New York Times.

What skeptical references do you recommend? What should I put on my reading list for 2013? Put your suggestions in the comments.

16 Responses to “Ten Books for Skeptics”

  1. Here’s a couple to add to the list:

    Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (2007) by Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson

    and

    Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (2011) by Robert N. McCauley

    Tavris and Aronson discuss cognitive biases and how we use them to unconsciously justify our past hurtful actions.

    McCauley’s book is a much more technical read as he describes the cognitive differences between religious, technical, and scientific ways of thinking.

    Both are great reads for anyone interested in understanding how we think.

  2. Dave Kirby says:

    “Paranormality” by Richard Wiseman. A psychologist investigates paranormal claims from the perspective of what they tell us about the human mind. A fun read.

  3. Sarah says:

    I remember a book titled “everything is bad and trying to kill you”

  4. JF says:

    For those who can read French, Petit guide d’autodéfense intellectuelle, by Norman Baillargeon is a great intro to skepticism.

    • Michael5MacKay says:

      There is also an English-language version, which I own, called “A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense”

  5. Austin L says:

    Supersense by Bruce Hood

    This is a great introduction to using critical thinking and science to examine your own beliefs. I find this is a good book to give relatives and friends who don’t really understand “that skeptic thing you’re into”.

  6. Georgina says:

    I think You are not so Smart, by David McRaney is a great starting point.
    Nice list! thank you

  7. Shawn Wilson says:

    Voodoo Science by Robert Park
    It’s a bit dated, but fascinating to draw parallels between the woo of even 12 years ago and today.

    • Michael5MacKay says:

      Agreed. He also has a more recent book, called “Superstition”, which is quite good as well.

  8. Chris says:

    Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How to Sort Through the Noise Around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and Other Scientific Controversies by Sherry Seethaler

    It is a short book with lessons on how to evaluate claims in the media. It is not as amusing as the classic (and another good skeptic read) How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, but it gets its point across.

  9. Michael says:

    Flim Flam!- James Randi. A classic.

  10. Blondin says:

    “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” by Thomas Kida. One of my favorites. Also, “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes & Conway.

  11. Paul says:

    A few books to add:

    Fashionable nonsense
    The invisible gorilla
    Drunkard’s Walk

  12. john456 says:

    In particular, Bad Science emphasises the fundamental importance of evidence in validating any experiment or treatment. Goldacre is concerned both that the evidence exists in the first place and that – as far as it is possible to confirm – the data shows what it is purported to show.

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  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.