A crash course in Skepticism 101.
“Much of what we read should raise our suspicions,” warns Levitin (Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience/McGill Univ.; The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, 2014, etc.). Indeed, lies abound, and “bad statistics are everywhere.” Averages can be manipulated. Graphs can distort. Misinformation proliferates in books, websites, videos, and social media. What to do? Levitin says we must engage in critical thinking, and he spells out in this lucid text exactly what that means when encountering words and numbers and trying to decide what’s true and what’s not. Using vivid examples from major media, the author shows how easily—whether accidentally or deliberately—data can lead us astray. For one thing, statistics are gathered by fallible people. Have terms been properly defined? Has a representative sample been taken? Have credible experts been cited? Are the sources reputable (peer-reviewed articles, books from major publishers)? Be suspicious of all information. “You shouldn’t trust everything you read in the New York Times,” he writes, “or reject everything you read on TMZ.” The Times, after all, runs daily corrections. With common sense as a first line of defense (if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is), readers must be mindful of the scientific method, a major focus of the book. Where’s the evidence? Where’s the control group? What are the possible alternative explanations? Levitin takes pains to emphasize that once misinformation takes hold, many people can believe things that aren’t so. He details four pitfalls in critical thinking that have led many to blame vaccinations for the rise in autism rates. He also cautions against routinely accepting the information on websites, which can be biased or badly outdated. Often, he says, we become our own enemies. We blindly accept numbers that intimidate or insist on neat stories when not everything is explainable.
Valuable tools for anyone willing to evaluate claims and get to the truth of the matter.