Saturday, February 20, 2010

A skeptic bookshelf

Yesterday, I finished David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories - the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, and straight after I started on Damian Thompson's Counterknowledge - How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history.

Both of these books are obviously aimed towards a skeptical audience (or at least an audience open to skepticism), and reading them straight after each other, made me think about how a skeptic book-list could look like - and as both a blogger and a book-lover, what's more natural to try to build one and blog about it?

All of the books mentioned here are books that I have on my own shelves (though I haven't read all of them), and I would love to get recommendation for other books as well.

I've chosen to make the list alphabetic, since it's impossible to rank books dealing with such broad subjects according to each others.

David Aaronovitch: Voodoo Histories - The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.
Aaronovitch takes us through the historical examples of how conspiracy theories have helped shaping the world - one example is the usage of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to justify the "final solution" in Nazi Germany, but more modern examples are also given.

Isaac Asimov: The Relativity of Wrong.
A collection of essays by Isaac Asimov in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Mostly focused on astronomy, but with a few on other subjects as well. A lot of the stuff is quite dated, but it's still an interesting read. The relevance to this list, is the title essay "The Relativity of Wrong", which can also be found online.

R. Barker Bausell: Snake Oil Science - The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
One of several books on the list dealing with CAM. Bausell address the science behind CAM, and finds it severely lacking.

Bill Bryson: Shakespeare.
Perhaps a surprising book on the list for many, but in the world of Shakespeare, there are many who believes in alternative authors, making all sorts of wild claims why William Shakespeare can't be the real author. In his book, Bryson explains what we know and don't know about Shakespeare, why our relative sparse knowledge is not surprising, and why all the alternative theories about the authorship are far-fetched and outright nonsense.

Robert Todd Carroll: The Skeptic's Dictionary - A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions & Dangerous Delusions.
Based upon the great online resource, the Skeptic's Dictionary, it's a good reference work, where one can look up all sorts of nonsense, to get a brief introduction to it.

Nick Davies: Flat Earth News.
In this interesting book, Davies explains how news get distributed in this day and age, e.g. causing press releases to be reported as fact. Relevant to skepticism because it explains why science and medicine reporting is so bad, and how obviously falsehoods can make it int the newspapers.

Bart D. Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus - The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.
It's not great secret that I am a hardcore atheist, but I do actually see a difference between atheism and skepticism. This book just happens to cater to both audiences. Ehrman, a former fundamentalist, whose studies into the Bible turned him into an agnostic over time, explains what we know about the Bible and how it has been altered through time, in order to suit specific agendas.

Harry G. Frankfurt: On Bullshit.
The smallest and slimmest volume on my shelf, it's an essay explaining the nature of bullshit, which is not quite the same as lies (a lies knows he or she is telling a falsehood, a bullshitter doesn't care if ti's true or not).

Ben Goldacre: Bad Science.
Goldacre's book is based upon his Guardian column by the same name, and is a great introduction to skepticism. Deals extensively with things like alternative medicine and the media's reporting of medicine.

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason.
Not the greatest of books in my opinion, Jacoby does to a large degree explains how anti-intellectualism has become so widespread in the US.

Chis Mooney: The Republican War on Science.
Dated, but definitely not irrelevant, Mooney's book explained how the Bush administration tried to suppress science that didn't support their ideology. The same still goes on, though not from the actual government any longer.

Paul A. Offit: Autism's False Prophets - Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.
Taking on the whole anti-vaccination crowd, Offit explains the lack of science behind the purposed vaccination-autism link, and the dangerous "cures" being pushed to parents of autistic children. Highly recommended.

Robert Park: Voodoo Science - The Road from Foolishness to Fraud.
Another great book taking on many different issues, all based upon scientific claims so bad that one cannot in any way justify how widely believed they are.

Phil Plait: Bad Astronomy - Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax".
Plait, the Bad Astronomer, takes on the many myths, misconceptions, and conspiracy theories related to astronomy.

Rose Shapiro: Suckers - How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All.
Unread, so I can't comment on it.

Michael Shermer: Why People Believe Weird Things - Pseudoscience, Superstition and other confusions of out time.
Shermer tries to explain how and why people come to believe in weird things. Personally, I am not too keen on Shermer's writing style, but the books has been highly praised by others.

Simon Sing & Edzard Ernst: Trick or Treatment? - Alternative medicine on trial.
Unread, so I can't comment on it.

Stuart Sutherland: Irrationality.
I have heard good stuff about this book, but I haven't read it yet.

Damian Thompson: Counterknowledge - How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake hsitory.
I am currently reading this book, and so far it's a great read. Thompson takes on what he calls "counterknowledge" - misinformation packaged to look like fact.

Christopher Wanjek: Bad Medicine - Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O.
I have tried to get into this book a couple of times, but so far unsuccessful. It's not because it's bad or anything, I've just been distracted by other books.

Francis Wheen: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.
Read my book review here. I wasn't too impressed.

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Blogger Kate said...

Thank you so much for posting these! I'm definitely going to look for some of these books.

Another addition to the list you should check out: Science, Sense and Nonsense by Joe Schwarcz. I've got a review of it up here on my blog.

February 20, 2010 7:54 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Thanks for the recommendation Kate. It certainly looks like a book I'd want to read

February 21, 2010 7:12 AM  
Blogger Kaethe said...

Great list. I think there was only one I hadn't read or listed to-read, but it was good to be reminded. You also prompted me to add a "skepticism" shelf on Goodreads, so maybe I can tag a few more.

February 22, 2010 4:10 PM  
Blogger Jim Lippard said...

There used to be an awesome SKEPTIC Bibliography (from the members of the SKEPTIC mailing list) on the site, which was originally built up by Taner Edis, but it seems to be gone now.

March 01, 2010 1:57 AM  
Anonymous Dumbass said...

This is an interesting co-incidence. I'm about halfway through "Voodoo Histories" myself right now.

I have a very large collection of skeptical books. I think I'll make a list of them on my own blog. I'll recommend a few of my favourite to you here though:

Damn Lies And Statistics by Joel Best
Also "More Damn Lies And Statistics" and "Stat Spotting". All three are great books for illustrating how to think about and understand statistics.

How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich
Great book on sorting through information in order to avoid being fooled.

The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow
A fascinating book about how randomness is everywhere and how it can often fool us into making assumptions that aren't warranted by the evidence.

Charlatan by Pope Brock
An account of the historical tale of "Doctor" John Brinkley, who in the early 20'th century devised a quack surgery to implant goat testicles into patients.

The Sun And The Moon by Matthew Goodman
Another historical account, this time of a famous hoax series of newspaper articles from the 1800's alleging that a special telescope had found life on the moon. Unicorns, beaver people, and man-bats who fornicated in public. A fun tale that critical thinkers can laugh about.

Put those on your reading list, I'm sure you'll enjoy them.

March 07, 2010 6:42 PM  
Blogger Kristjan said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I'll definitely add them to the reading pile.

March 08, 2010 8:55 AM  

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