Arts book review

Fifty shades of ignorance (rebutted one by one)

A leading skeptic catalogs, dissects, and destroys some very common beliefs


50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True

By Guy P. Harrison

Prometheus Books

September 2012

Guy Harrison, one of the standard-bearers of the new skepticism movement, has written a book carefully classifying and then mercilessly shredding 50 very popular — and very wrong — beliefs. Ranging in topic from UFOs to the concept of biological races, this compendium of beliefs may very well be a “who’s who” (make that a “what’s what”) of some things some people get wrong. All the usual suspects are there — faked moon landings, Roswell, Area 51, Bigfoot, Nessie — as well as many religious ideas.

Once you get past the redundant title, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True is not half bad. Depending on how many wrong ideas you have yet to shake off from your initial ignorance, reading this book can be anything from a fascinating tour of truth discovery to a boring repetition of known facts. Although it did not do much for me in terms of dispelling wrong beliefs, I do have great expectations for this book: I wish it may one day serve a bigger purpose, as the basis for a composite index to measure an individual’s gullibility.

It would work like this: the respondent would be asked to consider each one of the fifty beliefs stated in the book, and select the answer that best matches their reaction: (a) “I am convinced this is true,” (b) “I guess this may be true,” or (c) “I do not think this is true.” Then you tally the answers, weigh them and spit a single index that tells you how misinformed you are. Cool, right? Like Jenner, I applied the prescription to myself first: I did the test and I am proud to report that I scored a perfect 0, thank you very much.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have to report that, out of the 50 mistaken beliefs listed in the book, 20 of them are things I believed to be true at some point during my childhood or adolescence; 19 are things I never fully believed but was willing to consider as plausible at some point in the past; and only 11 are things I never ever believed to be true. So, even though now my gullibility index would be a 0, back in my teenage days I would have scored north of 0.75 out of the maximum 1.0 score. Ouch! Seven years at MIT do help you learn how to think.

In all seriousness, this is not a book you want to buy until you have browsed the table of contents. If you find yourself scoring high in the gullibility index then do yourself a favor and read the book. If, on the other hand, you find yourself thinking scornfully of the poor souls who would actually buy into these patently wrong beliefs, then this book is not for you. Just skip it. For the truth shall set you free if, and only if, you are ignorant enough to begin with.