'The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe' by Steven Novella

'The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe' by Steven Novella
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EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Steven Novella's The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, just published by Grand Central Publishing.

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A logical fallacy is fundamentally an error in reasoning. Ardent practitioners of scientific thinking are probably aware of many of these fallacies and can point out when an opponent succumbs to one during a debate. However, the human mind is the irrational elephant in the room, causing many thinkers to misidentify and abuse logical fallacies over the course of a debate. Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society, pointed out a variety of these abuses in his book, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

What follows are five logical fallacies, along with descriptions of how they can be misused and abused.

1. Argument From Authority. Just because a group or person is an authority or expert does not mean that they are necessarily correct about a certain claim. To assert that something is true because an authority says it's true is a logical fallacy. However, too often people misapply the "argument from authority" fallacy to dismiss a solid scientific consensus. GMOs are safe. Vaccines don't cause autism. Earth's climate is changing and, at present, humans are the primary cause. Organisms evolved. These are all scientific facts touted by prominent scientific organizations based upon mountains of evidence. Claiming an "argument from authority" because somone referenced, for example, the National Academies of Sciences, doesn't change that... Read more at RealClearScience.

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In this handbook on applying logic and reason to everyday life, Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, expands on his podcast of the same name, assisted by the podcast’s other cast members. Seeking to give “one giant inoculation against bad science, deception, and faulty thinking,” Novella unpacks and defines false perceptions, biases, and logical fallacies while showing how emotions can overwhelm judgment and memories can lie... Empowering and illuminating, this thinker’s paradise is an antidote to spreading anti-scientific sentiments. Readers will return to its ideas again and again. Read the full review.

Excerpt: This Is the Evolutionary Reason We Often See Human Faces Not on Humans

Pareidolia refers to the process of perceiving an image in random noise, such as seeing a face in the craters and maria of the moon.

If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see diverse combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well-conceived forms. —Leonardo da Vinci

At some point in your life, probably when you were young and carefree and had more time than you knew what to do with, you lay on the ground and looked up at the clouds. Clouds are beautiful, their structures are fascinating, and they can give you a little perspective on how massive the world really is. But it’s also fun to try to find images lurking in the white vaporous billows.

While animals and faces are common patterns to see floating overhead, no one actually thinks (or should think) the detailed shapes of clouds are anything but random. We intuitively understand that when we “see” a bunny rabbit in a cloud, we are just imposing that pattern onto the randomness. But this phenomenon goes much deeper than just children imagining a sky menagerie, and it reflects how our brains process and interpret information.

The term for this phenomenon is pareidolia, which refers to the perception of familiar yet meaningless patterns in random stimuli or noise. It usually applies to seeing visual patterns, but sometimes the term is used to refer to other sensations, such as sound (in which case it might be called, fittingly, audio pareidolia). Read the full excerpt.

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