November 2013 - Issue 64

Think like a scientist. Question everything.

 Exclusive Q&A with Guy P. Harrison
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 Q&A with Guy P. Harrison


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Think: Why You Should Question Everything


We all know people who hold strange and irrational beliefs. In fact, many of us may soon be hearing about some of these ideas around the Thanksgiving table. How can we gently encourage others to question their assumptions and think scientifically? How can we make sure we do not fall prey to irrational beliefs ourselves?


Guy P. Harrison's Think: Why You Should Question Everything offers a friendly and accessible antidote to superstitious and unscientific thinking of all varieties, explaining how we all can think more critically, learn to question everything, and avoid being tripped up by our own brains. Guy joined us for an exclusive Q&A.



You've written books that help people think critically about the world. What's your own first memory of skeptical thinking? Have you always been a skeptic?

Guy P. Harrison


Everyone is a skeptic. It's in all of us to doubt and ask questions. Nobody believes everything. What it comes down to is how good or bad you are at critical thinking. Even in childhood I dared to doubt. I kept most of it to myself but I was thinking and that's what matters most. I was briefly fooled by the "Chariots of the Gods" claim [alien astronauts visited the Earth in ancient times] when I was around ten or eleven. Fortunately I was able to think my way clear and didn't waste too much time on it. It was a valuable learning experience. I discovered that you can't trust everything you see on TV and even people who seem knowledgeable or authoritative can be dead wrong. We should never be ashamed of silly things we once believed. Falling for crazy claims is just part of being human. It comes with the territory. But that doesn't mean we should ignore it or surrender to it. The same human brain that so often confuses fantasy for reality can be put to work protecting us from irrational beliefs and scams.



Think is part of next year's First Year Experience program, which promotes books that are helpful for young people entering college. Why do you think critical thinking is important at this life stage?


I'm happy that this book's value for young people has been recognized, because students need to learn how skeptical thinking can enhance their lives and protect them. A person who develops good critical thinking skills early is much less likely to be a sucker or victim than the next guy. Think is a book for all ages but I feel passionate about getting it into the hands of young people especially, so I'm pleased that it has been included in this excellent program. I'll be participating in the events of the Annual Conference on The First Year Experience, February 15-16, in San Diego, CA.



But isn't it fun to think about creatures like Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle, for example? What's the problem with seemingly harmless beliefs?


Illustration by Kevin Hand

I love thinking about UFOs, Bigfoot, Atlantis and all that wild stuff. I have a full-size extraterrestrial skull in my living room right now--replica, of course. I had loads of fun researching and writing my book 50 Popular Beliefs that People Think Are True. Who can resist being attracted to these kinds of stories? But the difference between a good skeptic and a typical true believer is that the skeptic always tries to think sensibly about these ideas. You don't have to turn your back on science and surrender your ability to reason in order to contemplate the possibility of alien abductions or a giant primate running free in the Pacific Northwest. I never discourage people from considering weird claims and imagining how strange events might have occurred. Imagination is great. Contemplating bizarre possibilities is not only okay, I feel it's necessary. Part of being a good skeptic is keeping an open mind. But we shouldn't let such stories lure us into the zone of unjustified conclusions. No matter how cool or exciting something may be, we still need to do the work of confirming it before declaring that it's true or real.  Always think before you believe.


As far as the idea that these beliefs are harmless, this may be true in a direct sense for some, I suppose, but there is still reason for concern. They are all symptoms of a deeper problem. Someone who can be convinced that astrology works, for example, is probably going to be highly vulnerable to falling for many other irrational beliefs. Thinking that stars and planets control your love life may not harm you. However, believing that some new alternative medicine is all you need to treat your illness just might kill you.



You would think the fact-checking power of the internet and sites like would help our society become more skeptical. Do you think this is the case?


Thanks to the internet, a much larger ratio of the world's population is being exposed to science and skeptical thinking than ever before in history. It's never been easier for individuals to discover why others reject their beliefs. For those people in the world who are lucky enough to have access to the internet, it takes very little effort to go online and research a claim. Unfortunately, there is a huge downside to the internet as well. Too many people wrap themselves in a warm blanket of silly websites that only support their irrational beliefs. For those who fail to think like a scientist, the internet can be like one big confirmation-bias swamp waiting to trap their brains in intellectual quicksand.



Does "thinking like a scientist" mean a person needs to ignore their natural human emotions?


Absolutely not! This is one of the key messages in Think. The brand of skepticism I'm pushing is positive and constructive. There is nothing cold or inhuman about thinking clearly, asking questions, and demanding evidence. In my view, this is how humans should behave. We have a lot of brain power. Why not use it to cut through the fog of delusions and misperceptions that surround us all? I'm not focused on taking things away from people. I'm interested in giving. Reality can be a wonderful ride. Less time spent with ghosts and psychics leaves more time for friends, family, creative work, physical activity, exploration and romance. We don't need to pretend to know things that we don't know in order to find joy and passion in life. The real world and real universe provide us with plenty to work with.



Browse through nearly two dozen of our best Critical Thinking books in this handy online catalog.


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We hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Lisa Michalski

Prometheus Books