How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age.

Title: How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age.
Author/s: Schick, Jr. Theodore and Vaughn, Lewis.
Material type: Book.
Publisher/date: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages (2010).
Format: Paperback (352 pages).
ISBN: ISBN-10: 007353577X, ISBN-13: 978-0073535777.
Area and topic: Popular philosophy. Philosophy and daily life/culture/experience. Philosophical skills and methodology. Applied critical thinking. Epistemology. Philosophy of science.
Intended audience/ reading level: General/accessible.
Purchasing and information: 1) 2) 3)
Unique and/or salient feature/s: ‘How to Think about Weird Things’ ‘ helps students to think critically, using examples from the weird claims and beliefs that abound in our culture to demonstrate the sound evaluation of any claim. It explains step-by-step how to sort through reasons, evaluate evidence, and tell when a claim (no matter how strange) is likely to be true. The emphasis is neither on debunking nor on advocating specific assertions, but on explaining principles of critical thinking that enable readers to evaluate claims for them’. As the authors note in the preface, ‘this book is essentially a study in applied epistemology’.
Synopsis and/or additional information: The following information is sourced from the above links (see ‘Purchasing and information’) and the text.

  • The book consists of nine chapters. Each chapter focuses on a different area usually with reference to various (supposedly) superstitious, pseudo-scientific and/ or ‘new age/paranormal’ claims and beliefs (e.g. homeopathy, astrology and near death experience) and other supposedly anti-rational claims and attitudes (e.g. Post-modern relativism). In each case, various methods of critical analysis and evaluation are introduced which in turn are employed to debunk the given claim/theory, or to at least help the reader to foster a more critical/sceptical view towards the issue concerned.
  • Each chapter finishes with information under 5 headings: 1) ‘Study questions’, 2) ‘Evaluate these claims’ 3) ‘Discussion questions’. 4) ‘Field problem’ and 5) ‘Suggested reading’.
  • Issues covered include: what makes a claim or theory an example of knowledge instead of opinion? how do we categorize a given theory as scientifically respectable as opposed to being an example of pseudo science? Discussion on such issues include: an assessment on the various candidate sources of knowledge (e.g. mystical experience, faith, intuition, etc); discussion on bad research methods in clinical trials; discussion on the various informal fallacies that are found with regards to the supposed ‘irrational’ claims and positions being assessed here.
Strengths: The book is an excellent introduction (for teachers especially) to philosophical method when applied to various well known and commonly held claims and beliefs that circulate throughout ‘our’ current culture; notably those claims and beliefs on the fringe of common sense and rational respectability. There are a number of strengths to the book: 1) it is both an enjoyable read AND a text book; 2) the subject matter (UFO’s, mystical revelation, astrology etc) may be in a sense more entertaining than the more classic philosophical issues presented in most introduction books; 3) the presentation of the book, especially the sections at the end of each chapter (see above) allow the chapters to be quite easily incorporated into the classroom setting.
Limitations: Although the text may double as a text book, it is not created or presented for the classroom setting and therefore will require planning and various amendments to make it so. The flavour of the book is at times rather zealous. Although the authors are careful to refrain from definitive conclusions (the reader is encouraged to analyse and evaluate the evidence and reach their own conclusions) there is an underlying  sense of  evangelical campaign to ‘rid the world of irrationality’ in the name of reason and science. Notably there is little tolerance (let alone respect) for those beliefs and world views that sit uncomfortably with the modern ‘enlightenment’ and secular (even ‘atheist’) styled values and norms that are assumed (and in part) argued for here.

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