How to Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick

Strange and upsetting things have been happening in the world recently. A great many people are believing weird things and acting on them. Conspiracy theories such as Q-Anon (QAnon – Wikipedia) abound, whilst the consequences of irrational motivations can be terrible.   

Theodore Schick has offered one of the best primers I’ve come across for developing clear thought. The concise and engaging text teaches the basic principles of good reasoning by examining widely held beliefs about the paranormal, the supernatural, and the mysterious. By explaining what distinguishes knowledge from opinion, science from pseudoscience, and evidence from hearsay, How to Think about Weird Things helps the reader develop the skills needed to tell the true from the false and the reasonable from the unreasonable. Desperately needed in an age of corrosive ‘relativism’, ‘fake news’, lies, ‘alternative facts’, religious dogmatists and delusional fools.

Follow up with the following:

Believing Bullshit by Stephen Law (reviewed by me here

Continue the theme by reading further why people believe the irrational. Michael Shermer ( has offered explanations why people jump to, and cling to, nonsense in The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths (2011).  Reviewed by me here

This should be followed immediately with Shermer’s Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye (2016) (reviewed by me here )

Go on to Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) by Daniel Dennett.  American philosopher and cognitive scientist Dennett shows how religious belief could have evolved, despite being irrational, because it has adaptive advantages. It binds people together around a single totem and ensures social control. Also, ascribing agency to aspects of the natural environment is a survival tool. For example, it’s better to jump to the conclusion that the rustle in the long grass is a lion rather than just the wind. Generalised and formalised, this tendency leads to the illusion of supernatural beings (gods).

One of the pervasive delusions is about the apocalypse. This is dealt with admirably in Living at the End of the World (1998) by Marina Benjamin (reviewed by me here The root fallacy in all these expectations is to believe humans are special, and have some special destiny in the narrative of history. This is the equivalent of a child thinking its bedroom is the nicest bedroom ever, and that its Mummy is the best Mummy in the World, ever.

In Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (2008) Robert L. Park asks why people persist in superstitious convictions long after science has shown them to be ill-founded. He critiques the supernatural from religion and the afterlife to New Age spiritualism and faith-based medical claims. He examines recent controversies and concludes that science is the best way we have of understanding the world.

Read an entertaining account of historic superstitions in Black Cats and Evil Eyes: A Book of Old-Fashioned Superstitions (2012) by Chloe Rhodes. Most of them have foundations in our ancestors’ efforts to ward off evil, which they blamed for hardship, illness and injustice. For most of human history life has been nasty, brutish, short and unpredictable.

Along the same lines is Simon Hoggart’s Bizarre Beliefs (1995) (reviewed by me here )

How Do You Know It’s True? Discovering the Difference Between Science and Superstition (1994) by Hy Ruchlis provides younger readers with an understanding of the basic nature of science, not just as a body of knowledge, but as a method. Ruchlis addresses the main theme by contrasting the Cinderella fable with the way scientists establish facts; he describes the scientific method and how it has been applied to increase human knowledge. The author demonstrates the unobservable nature of superstition, illustrates the dangers of magical thinking using the example of the Salem witch trials, explores the contradictions of such elaborate superstitions as astrology, and shows how astonishing events can be analyzed and explained using reason.

A more grown up read is Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-first Century (2006) by Stuart Sim. This offers an excellent historical account of the various forms of scepticism from the Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus to the present day. Well aware of the self- defeating character of compulsive scepticism, Sim strongly argues for a balanced sceptical and questioning mind set. This is the only defence against the pervasive dogmatisms that are getting a frightening grip around the world in our time.

Check if this excellent primer is in stock at your local library.

352 pages in McGraw-Hill Education

First published 2013

ISBN  978-1259095511

Theodore Schick
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