Lena's Reviews > How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age

How to Think about Weird Things by Theodore Schick, Jr.
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Feb 24, 09

bookshelves: non-fiction, skepticism
Read in February, 2009

I've often wondered how my life might have been different if I had been given a good course in critical thinking skills in high school or college. Had I been so fortunate, this book would have been the best text I could imagine for such a course.

A lot of the information covered here was familiar to me from other reading I've done in the last few years, but this book is by far the most comprehensive collection of all of the things one needs to know to effectively evaluate the ideas we are exposed to about the world around us and how it works. It covers everything from the basics of possibility and logic, what makes an argument good or bad, different ways of knowing and perceiving, cognitive biases that can skew our objectivity and the foundations of scientific thought processes. Interspersed within the more technical portions of the text are sidebars applying the principles at hand to various popular extraordinary claims such as instances of apparent ESP and things like the Amityville haunting.

This book is an actual textbook. Though the authors do a fairly good job of making it readable by using these sidebars and other interesting examples for much of what they cover, there are still a few sections that were rather on the dry side. Though this made parts of the book a bit of a slog, what I learned from it was more than valuable enough for me to keep going.

Among the sections that I personally found most useful were the discussions of how quirks in our perceptual systems can cause us to misinterpret what's happening around us, the problems with appealing to mystical experience as a way of knowing, and the discussion of just how damaging it can be to believe things on insufficient evidence. In a chapter called "Case Studies in the Extraordinary," the critical thinking processes outlined earlier are applied to the juicy topics of homeopathy, dowsing, UFO abductions, communicating with the dead, near-death experiences, ghosts and conspiracy theories. The authors are careful to refrain from saying definitively whether these things are or aren't real, but instead show the reader how to evaluate the evidence and come to their own conclusions about which ideas are genuinely worthy of consideration. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks.

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message 1: by Richard (new)

Richard In California it is state law that a college education must contain one semester of "critical thinking". When I was in grad school I took a class that, in theory, taught folks how to teach critical thinking.

Frankly, based on that experience, you'd be much better off reading books like this and becoming curious about more. The coursework that we examined and critiqued was heavily oriented towards understanding basic formal logic. The only stuff of any real value seemed to be the examples, since they necessarily were less abstract. I think a better idea would be to aim someone at the "List of Cognitive Biases" (as I've said elsewhere, my favorite bias is the "Availability heuristic" :-) and let nature take it from there.

I still fantasize about coming across a book entitled "Uncommon Common Sense: The Heuristics from People that Know How to Think Well". But I've since remembered that the human race has made it this far with most people not being able to think their way out of a wet paper bag, and we'll probably continue to muddle along just fine.



Lena How fascinating that California requires that course. You'd never know it from the wild popularity of woo the place is infamous for, but I shudder to think what the state might be like if they DIDN'T require at least some of the population to learn about those skills, even if it sounds like they don't do a great job of teaching it.

For myself, I've gotten the sense that it's a good idea to continue reading up on the subject on a regular basis since breaking out of those patterns does seem to be swimming up an evolutionary stream, and constant reminders seem to help. At least, as far as I can tell with my own biased brain...


message 3: by Richard (new)

Richard Actually, I don't think the college course helps one iota. Like most other cognitive skills, critical thinking is going to be much more natural if the foundation is laid at a young age and continues to build.

Luckily the US educational culture is one of challenge-and-response, where students are expected to simply memorize, but are expected to actually understand. So an intuitive grasp of logic creeps in.

I taught the LSAT for several years and taught and tutored students that wanted help. Definitely smart — after all, they were shooting for law school — but no formal logic skills. They mostly understood how to arrive at the correct answers, but the intuitive logical approach is much too slow for a timed test, so they needed to see the underlying patterns of formal logic. I had my thirteen-year-old nephew take the test and he not only scored pretty high, he thought it was fun.

In theory, the craze for sudoku should help, shouldn't it? People are buying formal logic puzzles at the checkout counter and don't even realize it.

Hmmm, an LSAT prep course would also make a tolerably good college remedial logic course.


Lena I wish I felt as positive about the US educational system as you do. In my highly ranked public school, memorization was far more valued than understanding. I graduated with straight A's but no skill at all in evaluating or constructing the kinds of logical arguments I would end up needing in college.

I bet an LSAT prep course would have helped. The approach these guys take (also taken by Bryan Farha with Paranormal Claims) of using logic to evaluate things like alien visitation and ESP seems like more fun, though. Throw in Sudoku extra credit and I bet that class would be full every semester.


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