I’d like to thank Ed Brown for his great selection of books as part of the 10 Great Books series. Ed Brown is the host of Science on Top, a weekly podcast discussing some of the latest news in science. Through it he hopes to draw attention to the wonder, complexity and importance of scientific research.
Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
Without question, Demon-Haunted World is one of the seminal works of modern skepticism. Opening with the adage “it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness”, Sagan shines light on many of our deeply-held superstitions: UFO’s, the Loch Ness Monster, ESP, faith-healing and many more. The title chapter – and perhaps my favourite – details the history of demons and witches in the middle ages as an illustration of what superstition and ignorance can lead to. The whole book is brilliantly written – it’s almost impossible not to read it in Sagan’s slow, thoughtful, passionate voice.
The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson
I have long believed that an oft-overlooked aspect of skepticism is activism. Skepticism isn’t just a way of thinking, it’s about making the world better through scientific reasoning. And one crucial area that’s crying out for scientific reasoning, argues Henderson, is politics. “Precisely what politicians think,’ he writes, “is less important than how they think.” But The Geek Manifesto is not just a tale of woe (although there is a lot of woe). It’s a call to arms. It’s an observation that the ‘geeks’ – the scientifically literate, the curious, and the social-media aware – are stirring and we’re starting to make ourselves heard. An observation beautifully highlighted by the successful online campaign to get members of the public to buy and send a copy of The Geek Manifesto to every UK Member of Parliament.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson
We’ve all met people who, no matter how much evidence is presented that contradicts their world view will refuse to change their mind. Most people, in fact, double-down on their beliefs when directly challenged. Mistakes Were Made looks at the vaccinations, WMDs, criminal investigations and lots of other examples that show how cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and false memories lead to self-justification. It’s a great book for learning not only how our own thought patterns can be limiting us, but also for understanding why other people believe the things they do even when they’re shown to be clearly wrong.
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal by Lynne Kelly
A very easy to read summary of some of the more common phenomena. Ghosts, Nostradamus, the Shroud of Turin, astrology and ESP are just some of the 27 paranormal subjects Lynne Kelly shines a scientific light on. Learn how to ‘read minds’ with the cold reading lesson, find out how spoon bending is done and how fire-walking works. Important lessons, in a fun and easy-to-read book!
Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine by Dr. Simon Singh, Professor Edzard Ernst
We all know people who see chiropractors, acupuncturists or homeopaths. The evidence (or lack thereof) for these alternative medicines is clearly laid out in Trick or Treatment. But while the thorough analysis of the published medical literature is useful, the very first chapter is what grabbed me. An invaluable introduction to the scientific method, and it’s importance in assessing medical treatments and claims.
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Not really about skepticism, it’s more of a popular science book. But it’s definitely worth a read. It’s probably one of the key books that got me interested in the wonders of science as a teenager, and I’m sure that was mainly because it’s so funny. If you want a light-hearted (yet reverent), detailed summary of how the universe began and everything that’s happened in it until now, this is the book for you.
The Science Of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen
I’m kind of cheating here, because this is really two books in one: a collection of fascinating science stories interwoven throughout a hilarious fantasy romp. Bumbling wizards living on a flat, disc-like world (which flies through space on the back of four elephants all standing on the back of a giant turtle, which makes sense) observe an even stranger world, a spherical world where things on the bottom are upside down but don’t fall off. And by alternating between fiction and non-fiction, the Science of Discworld explores the origins of the universe, ideas of creation and lies-to-children – the half-truths and factual inaccuracies we use to teach broader truths.
Merchants of Doubt How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway
Despite the deluge of scientific evidence warning of the dangers of climate change, a few scientists with links to politics and industry are working to foster the appearance of uncertainty. The same tactics, in fact, that were used to challenge the dangers of tobacco smoking. Merchants of Doubt is a fascinating and worrying look at how politics can hijack science, and how bad science can hijack politics. It’s a big book, and at times a rather heavy read, but it’s worth it.
Humans are not solitary creatures: we have evolved in tribes, and that has led us to a ‘tribal’ way of thinking. In Tribal Science, McRae explains how our social nature influences our decision making, pointing to historical events where otherwise intelligent people make bad choices. It also has one of the best accounts I’ve read of what happened to Einstein’s brain after he died (it was stolen by the scientist who did the autopsy). An easy, fun read.
Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait
I’m a space nut, so I find most things Phil Plait writes to be wonderful! This is a skeptical look at common astronomy myths and inaccuracies, as well as conspiracy theories and general space knowledge. Everyone’s wondered, at some point, why the sky is blue. One of the best explanations is in Bad Astronomy, as well as a superb point-by-point refutation of the moon-landing hoax.