This is a very useful book for anyone who has found themselves wondering how they came to accept as true a belief system that turned out to be detrimental to their well-being. Editor Bryan Farha discovered early on that it was difficult to get his students excited about the process of learning how to think critically. So he decided to expose people to the basic tenants of this crucial skill by collecting essays investigating claims of the paranormal, an endlessly fascinating subject that so often causes good critical thinking to go out the window.
The book begins with an excellent essay by Carl Sagan entitled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” In it, Sagan outlines the tools needed for good skeptical thinking and details the logical errors and bad arguments that can undermine the inquiry process. These skills are then artfully applied throughout the rest of the book as the contributors deconstruct such phenomenon as faith healing, psychics, astrology and the Bigfoot controversy.
In one chapter, Michael Shermer touches briefly on cultic issues as he discusses how influence can cause us to believe unproven things. Another chapter explains the fascinating physiological phenomenon behind near-death experiences. Yet another discusses how the widespread healing practice of Therapeutic Touch was thoroughly debunked by a nine year-old working on a science-fair project.
Towards the end of the book, well-known skeptic James Randi discusses his involvement in an ABC Primetime Live special on the Brazilian healer, John of God. Randi reveals the age-old carny trick at the center of John of God’s performances and holds him up as yet another example of those who make a living off the hopes of desperate people. But it is Randi’s discussion of how ABC chose not to use most of Randi’s skeptical commentary on this healer and instead presented a mainly sensational story about John of God that is so disturbing. It is but one of many examples that make it clear why the critical thinking skills championed by this book are so sorely needed.