How to Think

Robert Todd Carroll, the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, has a new book out: The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary: Biases, Fallacies, and Illusion and what you can do about them. Since some of our commenters and most of the CAM advocates we critique are constantly committing logical fallacies, a survey of logical fallacies is a good idea both for us and for them, and this book fits the bill.

When I received the book in the mail, I set it aside, thinking it would be a somewhat boring listing of things I already knew. When I finally got around to reading it, I was surprised and delighted. It held my interest, reminded me of things I had forgotten, explained other things I had never heard of, and provided entertaining stories to illustrate each point. Best of all, the bulk of his examples are taken from medicine and relate directly to the topics we discuss on SBM.

Carroll is well-qualified to write about logical fallacies: he is a retired professor of philosophy who has long promoted skepticism and taught classes in critical thinking, and he writes in an entertaining, accessible style. He started The Skeptic’s Dictionary website in 1994 with 50 articles and it has now grown to several hundred articles. It attracts more than a million visitors a month, and some of its entries have been translated into more than a dozen languages. It has become a go-to reference for anyone seeking the facts on questionable claims about everything from crop circles to homeopathy. Its articles are thorough and well documented with lots of references and links.

I am partly responsible for this book, as he explains in the acknowledgements and Preface. I reviewed his e-book Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed! for Skeptical Inquirer in 2012. The original version of that book included a list of 59 fallacies, biases, and illusions that readers could learn about on their own. I suggested that he add a short description of each fallacy rather than simply listing their names, and he did. This led him to expand on the descriptive paragraphs in a blog, addressing one each week for 59 weeks. The new book is a re-organized and improved version of those blog posts.

He starts with a case study of an anti-vaccine activist, Stephanie Messenger, who wrote the unfortunate Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, a book that teaches unvaccinated children to welcome childhood diseases. He tells her story with insight and understanding. She had a child who became ill after vaccination and eventually died. She was desperate to understand why and to have the power to protect her other children from a similar fate. The specialists caring for her child suspected Alexander disease, a rare genetic neurodegenerative disease, but for some reason she rejected that possibility and became convinced that vaccines were responsible. Carroll details the series of fallacies and illusions that misled her and reinforced her convictions: the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, confirmation bias, community reinforcement, the reverse halo effect, the illusion of understanding, and the illusion of control. He makes it very easy to understand why she thinks as she does. Hers was a very natural human response, but with education in critical thinking, we can hope to overcome those natural tendencies and avoid the kind of errors she made.

In a discussion of the ad hominem fallacy, he says something that I wish our critics would read and take to heart before assaulting us in our comments threads:

To refute my argument, you must show that my evidence is insufficient, that it is based on false or questionable assumptions, that the evidence I present is irrelevant, that I’ve omitted important evidence, or that I’ve given improper weight to various piece of evidence.

It’s not enough to accuse us of bias, financial gain, or pimping for Big Pharma; you have to address what we wrote rather than who we are, and show that what we have written is wrong (with credible references, please!).

His description of how his article on EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) was attacked is typical of what we have repeatedly seen here on SBM. His critic:

  • asked if all his books were critical of something he knew nothing about
  • said EMDR had worked for her (anecdotal)
  • explained that there were exercises to do between sessions (which actually confirmed Carroll’s point that EMDR was essentially cognitive behavioral therapy)
  • complained that he should have taken EMDR training before he wrote
  • argued that he couldn’t possibly understand because he hadn’t experienced the agony of PTSD for himself
  • called him names
  • said his logic skills were atrocious and wondered how he ever got a professorship
  • said he doesn’t benefit anyone by saying EMDR doesn’t work (he didn’t claim that it doesn’t work, he claimed that it was a deceptive way of packaging cognitive behavioral therapy; she was attacking a straw man position that he did not hold)

He uses the NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine claim that 38% of Americans use alternative medicine to illustrate the ad populum fallacy. He illustrates other fallacies with examples from medicine. He discusses fears about cellphones and vaccines, testimonials, placebo effects, the appeal to tradition (“acupuncture is thousands of years old”), the appeal to authority (“Dr. Jay Gordon says vaccines aren’t safe.”) and how “authority” is not the same as expert scientific consensus.

He illustrates the availability heuristic with an experience Dr. Jerome Groopman had. He misdiagnosed a patient suffering from aspirin toxicity because her symptoms were compatible with the many cases of viral pneumonia he had recently been swamped with, so that the viral pneumonia diagnosis was readily available to his mind while aspirin toxicity was not.

In begging the question, the conclusion of the argument is entailed in its premises: abortion is murder, murder is illegal, so abortion should be illegal.

He covers a lot of recent psychological research into phenomena like change blindness, priming, the backfire effect, and many, many others.

He discusses the illusion of skill and the illusion of understanding (We can relate to that: we’ve seen many examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect among our commenters).

The clustering illusion: several cases of cancer in a neighborhood can occur by chance and don’t necessarily mean the inhabitants are being exposed to carcinogens in the soil or water. Communal reinforcement is when a claim becomes a strong belief through repeated assertion by members of a community. Confabulation: we all do it; our memories sometimes mix fact and fiction to recall things that never happened, and on a daily basis we invent reasons to explain how we feel.

Selection bias: Edzard Ernst tells how, as a young doctor, he gave mistletoe injections to cancer patients and was impressed by the results until he realized that his hospital was known throughout Germany for its approach, and desperate patients went there because they wanted that type of treatment and had high expectations.

Under causal fallacies (correlation is not causation) he covers the problem of multiple endpoints in small randomized controlled trials, where spurious correlations are expected due to the laws of chance. He also tells how doctors were interpreting signs of disc disease on MRI scans as an indication for back surgery until someone thought to do MRIs on patients without back pain and found that 2/3 of those showed the same changes.

I already knew the word pareidolia, but apophenia was new to me. It means the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena, the tendency to find personal information in noise, seeing patterns where there are none, the kind of subjective validation that cold reading exploits.

This is only a brief taste of the profusion of riches in this book. I highly recommend it to everyone. Whether you are a novice who needs a primer to learn about detecting logical fallacies or are already a seasoned pro, you are certain to learn something from The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary, and you are sure to enjoy the experience.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking

Leave a Comment (86) ↓

86 thoughts on “How to Think

  1. goodnightirene says:

    This is exactly what I have been looking for! I have learned a great deal here at the blog, and had a good basic education in college, but certainly lacked practice and specific training. I’ve been looking for a good basic compilation of logical thinking and its pitfalls–and here it is! Many thanks as usual.

    I tend to be skeptical by nature, but have certainly had moments of complete failure in applying critical thinking. A sick child seems to be a common springboard for this–although I have no data and freely admit that that is simply an observation. :-)

  2. Sawyer says:

    Melanie’s Marvelous Measles. *Shudder*

    I ‘m trying to avoid outright ad-hominem attacks after Harriet already mentioned them, but I’m always suspicious about Stephanie Messenger’s level of naivety. Someone once pointed out to me that the title is reminiscent of George’s Marvelous Medicine, a children’s book by the author Roald Dahl. And here’s the kicker: Dahl was an staunch advocate for childhood vaccinations after his daughter died of measles. If Messenger was not aware of this connection surely one of her editors or publisher must have known whose grave they were dancing on.

    I’m sure Carrol’s book will reveal that I packed some logical fallacies into that paragraph, but I had to get it out of my system. My memories of Roald Dahl books will not be sullied by anti-vaxxers!

    1. ConspicuousCarl says:

      Ad Hominems are only fallacious if you imply that a person’s personal characteristics are the reason why they are wrong.

      So if you want to say that Stephanie Messenger is a clueless and dangerous idiot, go for it.

  3. stanmrak says:

    Skeptics are some of the most amusing people around. They claim to use critical thinking to come up with their conclusions, but it’s clear to some of us that skeptics make up their minds first, then cherry-pick the ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ their belief. Isn’t this plainly obvious? Any contradictory evidence is ignored or declared to be invalid for any silly reason the skeptic chooses. Skeptics are NEVER wrong! EVER! In truth, they are perpetrators of some of the biggest hoaxes and myths ever.

    Robert Carroll is one of these. He’s right part of the time, but you don’t know which part!

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      “you don’t know which part!”
      Do you know? Please tell us, and back up your claim with the evidence he supposedly left out in his cherry-picking. One example would do. By the way, I noticed at least 3 logical fallacies in your comment. Since you are so smart, you will know which ones I mean.

    2. Sawyer says:

      Skeptics are NEVER wrong! EVER!

      Every once in a while stan accidentally blunders his way through an interesting question without realizing it. Too bad he can’t take his foot off the accelerator and do some real investigation.

      I’ve often wondered if you made a big list of the conclusions that skeptics are fairly confident about how many of them will turn out to be wrong in the future. I’m sure we could amass at least fifty conclusions from the pages of Science Based Medicine alone, with varying ranges of confidence from 95-99%. Statistically, it would be a good bet to suggest that ONE or TWO of those conclusions are going to be overturned in the next century, but it’s not going to be twenty of them. And which ones are going to be disproved? Should we just pick a couple at random and move forward assuming we’re wrong? Might there be some negative consequences to this?

      It’s a fun thought experiment but I doubt stan has the patience or honesty to go through it, let alone propose how we would implement it in the real world.

    3. Frederick says:

      LOL In your case we will call it “projections” you are describing, in this post, exactly what you are doing in every post you ever made here.
      Nobody here as never said “we are always right”. That is your own interpretation base on you own biases, that you demonstrate you not even able to shake off.

      Thank you For being a good Example of how “NOT to argue”, and how “NOT to think”

    4. Chris says:

      Stan: “Skeptics are NEVER wrong! EVER!”

      Oh, rats. And I just apologized for misinterpreting someone else. I guess either I am not a skeptic, or Stan is wrong.

      1. MadisonMD says:

        I thought I was wrong once… but I was mistaken.

  4. stanmrak says:

    Allow me to debunk this charlatan. Here is his skeptoid explanation for crop circles (taken from his website) allegedly made by extraterrestrials -which any skeptic knows is impossible:

    “Most, if not all, crop circles are probably due to pranksters. For example, Doug Bower and David Chorley admit to hoaxing approximately 250 circles over many years.”

    We don’t know if these 2 guys actually made more than one crop circle because that’s all they proved – that they COULD make ONE. However, their crop circle was very sloppy, not anywhere near as precise as real crop circles. The 2 old geezers also were unable to explain the complex mathematical equations that are found in other crop circles, which have been discovered by expert mathematicians.

    Yet the author assumes their story to be proof that crop circles are all hoaxes – without any further investigation – just as a true skeptic would! In fact, crop circles have been investigated thoroughly enough for us to know that they cannot be hand-made by humans, so they’re filed under “unexplained” phenomenom, which in skeptic language means it must be a hoax, because they can’t come up with any other explanation.

    No one has been able to explain the abnormally high levels of radiation present at these crop circles, either, or how the plants are bent in such a way that the stem doesn’t break or crack, only bends. Or how the stems of the wheat are braided and weaved together in such a way that it would take a human working around the clock for probably months to arrange them in such an orderly fashion – if they even could. Or how hundreds of these have appeared overnight at the same time all over the countryside, not just in one location, and tens of thousands of them have appeared all over the world, not just in England as Carroll claims. There must be an international gang of crop circle builders working in collusion!

    Crop circles display other anomalies that have no earthly explanation, so skeptics make something up because they can’t fathom that they might be wrong. They never really investigate the anomolies that they can’t explain, because they’re skeptics. They already know.

    If Carroll is so blind about something this simple, imagine how many other inaccuracies you’ll find in his book.

    1. MadisonMD says:

      So Stan,
      You find that crop circles are irrefutable proof that intelligent aliens exist, traveled to earth basically unseen, bent some corn to make cool mathematical patterns, dropped some radioactivity just because (which isotope?), then left without any other trace? This alien explanation to you, is a far more likely explanation than a few hoaxers doing it at night?

      Feynman himself addressed this very question with regard to the UFO craze:

      I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

      This would apply equally to crop circles. [Mitchell and Webb also addressed the alian conspiracy-- hilariously.]

      or how the plants are bent in such a way that the stem doesn’t break or crack, only bends

      Yes, that was such a mystery to me…. until I turned 3 and walked through a field of tall grass. Outstanding, Stan. Simply, outrageously, outstanding! You just made my day.

      Wow, you really are a looney! And I thought you were just a marketeer…

      1. Andrey Pavlov says:


        I think this is as much response as is needed to those who claim crop circles must be extra terrestrial in origin.

        1. MadisonMD says:

          Outstanding, Andrey.

        2. AlisonM says:

          That is getting shared on facebook right now. Love it.

      2. windriven says:

        At first I thought stan was engaging in a bit of satire. Then I realized he was … the word chokes in my throat … serious!

        An alien intelligence can find a workaround for the speed of light and travel great distances, elude the bristling array of radars and telescopes looking for everything from Flight 069 to E.T., all to play a huge practical joke by mushing down some corn stalks in geometric patterns.

        Must be alien teenagers. Next thing you know they’ll be drunk dialing stan after a hard night of partying at that funky little after-hours place on Alpha Centauri Bb.

        1. Calli Arcale says:

          Ford Prefect, explaining how he got to Earth in the first place:

          “I got a lift with a teaser. Teasers are rich kids with nothing to do. They cruise around looking for planets that nobody’s made interstellar contact with and then they buzz them. They land next to some unsuspecting soul whom nobody’s going to believe and then strut up and down in front of them making ‘beep beep!’ noises. Rather childish, really.”

    2. nancy brownlee says:

      “We don’t know if these 2 guys actually made more than one crop circle because that’s all they proved – that they COULD make ONE.”

      The fact that they signed their initials to many of the circles is considered to be an important clue.

      1. stanmrak says:

        So they couldn’t have forged their signature on an already-made crop circle? Where are your critical thinking skills?

        1. nancy brownlee says:

          A lot of years ago, shortly after (within a couple of years of) the debunking provided by Bower and Chorley, I spent a happy few weeks with a group of giggling crop-circlers, artisans of the highest order. We made big ones, little ones, simple ones, complex ones- and so did dozens of others mostly twenty-something students, all over the US and the UK. It was and is astonishingly easy to turn out a huge, apparently complex figure in a very short time- usually less than an hour- with quite primitive equipment. Claiming that it’s “impossible” is idiotic, because people do it all the time, and it’s not a secret. The figures have gotten more and more complex- and beautiful- in the decades since. The process goes on, and on, and on, and the makers have documented their works in process, in videos, all over the world.

          1. windriven says:

            “The figures have gotten more and more complex- and beautiful- in the decades since.”

            I wonder if the farmers appreciate the beauty? ;-)

            1. nancy brownlee says:

              The circles we made – and those made and documented recently- are almost always made with the permission of the growers. When circling is done to dry, ready-to-harvest hay crops, they’re not ‘lodged’, but can still be cut. My hazy memory of the ones I helped with is that some were sown but fallow fields, destined for harrowing.

            2. nancy brownlee says:

              Well… the documented circles are made with the owner’s permission, usually in hayfields that are ready for cutting. When it’s done on dry, mature hay, it’s harmless. That’s my hazy memory, anyway. Some of the fields were ready for disking, so it didn’t matter.

              1. nancy brownlee says:

                oops… sorry. Got a message that I assumed meant my comment failed- obviously I was wrong.

        2. Andrey Pavlov says:

          Of course they could but why dig yourself into an extra step that is completely unnecessary? Special pleading, anyone?

          Gee… they proved they could do one so all those others they could have just gone over and forged their signatures on crop circles made by not-humans and not-aliens instead of, oh, I dunno…. just making the other ones like they friggin’ said they did?

          And you have the amazingly stupendous lunacy to ask where our critical thinking skills are?

    3. ConspicuousCarl says:

      “However, their crop circle was very sloppy, not anywhere near as precise as real crop circles. ”

      Did their rope magically change length as they walked?

      I don’t think you have the slightest clue about how this works. Making a perfect circle is the easiest part of it.

    4. Lytrigian says:

      “The 2 old geezers also were unable to explain the complex mathematical equations that are found in other crop circles, which have been discovered by expert mathematicians.”

      That’s because many of them are made by expert mathematicians.

      Why these woo-woo panderers are so pessimistic about what human beings are capable of when they set their minds to a problem, I have no idea.

      “In fact, crop circles have been investigated thoroughly enough for us to know that they cannot be hand-made by humans, so they’re filed under “unexplained” phenomenom, which in skeptic language means it must be a hoax, because they can’t come up with any other explanation.”

      In fact, crop circle “investigations” find exactly what the investigators expect to find. Nothing more, and nothing less. And the guys who made the circles are sitting back in the pub laughing their asses off at guys like you.

      “There must be an international gang of crop circle builders working in collusion!”

      No, it’s just something of a fad. They don’t update as often as they used to, but there’s still some impressive examples there. Every single one is man-made.

      1. nancy brownlee says:

        Thank you for it is beautiful!

    5. LOL… Because aliens!

      I’ve yet to see crop circles anywhere else but Earth, and I like to travel. Something must be wrong.

      Really though, do we have any evidence of anything like a crop circle anywhere else in the solar system?

  5. CC says:

    I will have to see if I can find a paper copy. I don’t have an e-reader and my library doesn’t have it.

    It sounds like it’ll be a good read to follow “You Are Not So Smart” (cognitive biases) which I read a few months ago.

  6. stanmrak says:

    If you’ve ever seen a closeup photo of a crop circle, you’d instantly realize that they could not have been done by human hands. The wheat is not just bent; the shafts are intricately woven together, similar to the braiding of hair. The stems are not broken or cracked as you would expect. Just observing the intricate weave makes it obvious that it would have taken someone months if not years to create this effect by hand, certainly not overnight — if they even could. Then there’s the changes in the molecular structure of the plants themselves, that can be seen under a microscope – all of which has been documented. Of course, skeptics never bother with details like this – too much evidence that only confuses their critical thinking processes. The comments here only reveal the truth; that skeptics don’t bother with the evidence, they already know.

    BTW, I don’t think i ever mentioned aliens, did I?

    1. Andrey Pavlov says:

      So now Bigfoot did it? LOL.

      According to some if you take a close look at a living organism you’d instantly know that it couldn’t have evolved but must have been created by something. Forgive me if we don’t find your protestations and arguments from incredulity convincing evidence.

    2. MadisonMD says:

      Then there’s the changes in the molecular structure of the plants themselves, that can be seen under a microscope

      So Stan, what type of microscope lets you see the “molecular structure” of plants?

      BTW, I don’t think i ever mentioned aliens, did I?

      Even better. Please tell us who did it Stan! Something more intelligent than humans, but not aliens. Dolphins maybe? I am simply awed by the critical thinking skills you are displaying here!

    3. Harriet Hall says:

      Like braiding hair?
      1. I doubt that. Can you provide links to any pictures of that?
      2. Braiding like hair would be more consistent with a hoax than with any other explanation.

      1. Calli Arcale says:

        Yeah, since after all, humans definitely don’t braid anything.

        BTW, I’ve recently taken up a form of Scandinavian embroidery I’ve never done before. It’s called “tvistsom”. It’s sort of like a more efficient and denser variant of cross-stitch. I mention it here because a good long row of tvistsom looks all the world like a braid, but is amazingly quick to produce.

        I definitely call BS on the claim that a braided appearance is signs of an intelligence beyond that of a prankster.

        I also think stamrak massively underestimates the lengths to which bored college students will go with their pranks.

    4. AlisonM says:

      “could not have been done by human hands” clearly rules out extraterrestrials, which you did mention, which, by the way, is totally not another word for aliens.

  7. Harriet Hall says:

    For crying out loud! You can’t even read. Carroll says
    “Most, if not all, crop circles are probably due to pranksters.”
    That does NOT mean he “assumes their story to be proof that crop circles are all hoaxes.”
    It is up to the believers to show convincing proof that there are crop circles that couldn’t possibly be hoaxes. They have not done so.
    Talk about cherry-picking! You conveniently ignore the investigations of anomalies and the natural explanations that have been proposed. For instance this experimental approach:

    1. stanmrak says:

      Your example only proves my point… Their man-made crop circle doesn’t have any of the characteristics of most of the unexplained ones… all they proved is that you can create a hoax that will fool 99% of the public that has never investigated crop circles. Their “investigation” conveniently ignores all the parameters for legit crop circles that would expose their silliness.

      1. Andrey Pavlov says:

        Ah, the old “No True Crop Circle” fallacy. An oldie but a goodie.

      2. MadisonMD says:

        Who made the true crop circles, Stan? Please do tell. Who?

      3. Harriet Hall says:

        What about the crop circle “experts” who confidently declared one example “real” before the hoaxers confessed? They were the other 1% and they were fooled.

        1. Lytrigian says:

          I tend to resist the label of “hoax” on crop circles. The guys who make them don’t make any claims for them at all. They simply make them and then step back, and allow the “investigators” to come to their own amusing conclusions.

          I prefer to think of them more as guerrilla public art.

          1. nancy brownlee says:

            “I prefer to think of them more as guerrilla public art.”

            Right on.

          2. mousethatroared says:

            Stan isn’t a troll – He generally pops in to make 1-4 comments then pops out again.

            That isn’t trolling, it’s just voicing an opposing opinion.

      4. windriven says:


        It probably won’t come as a surprise that some of us here question your rationality. But even you must recognize that being a crop circle nut nudges you perilously close to the event horizon of ‘barking mad’, yes?

        Why don’t you share with us your hypothesis regarding how the crops circles were made.

        1. MadisonMD says:

          Now where has Stan gone? I want to hear how these crop circles were REALLY made, and he won’t tell.

          Is it a super-advanced race of mathematically inclined cryptids?
          Is it a pack of flying chemist dolphins, who delicately flap their fins across the cornfields to keep the stems intact yet alter the molecular structure of the plants?
          Perhaps a race of timid extraterrestrials, secretly marking our planet for destruction?*
          Well, then of course, there are ghosts, goblins, demons, elves, gnomes; it certainly could be any one of those magical creatures.
          Mermaids from Atlantis? I hear they are facile at braiding.

          Any other ideas on what it could be? (Stan, please come back and tell us what you know!)

          * Obviously a race of extraterrestrials distinct from those that built the pyramids and distinct from the nasty ones that abduct people for kinky alien sex. Yet, if this new group is marking earth for destruction, they might do well to select a more indelible medium than crops.

      5. Chris says:

        Some interesting crop circle links. Forgive me, but now this site is not allowing me to post links, and anything with HTML is put into moderation. So I had to mung addresses. You should be able to figure it out. Though it is better than having every single one of my posts being put into moderation!

        Here goes:

        doubtfulnews DOT com/2014/01/salinas-crop-circle-was-nvidia-promotion/

        thehighgatevampire DOT co DOT uk/leavesthatwither/2014/01/10/the-slow-burn-of-embarrassment/

        dub dub dub DOT circlemakers DOT org/qi DOT html

  8. stanmrak says:

    So here we have a bunch of skeptics making an argument for something which none of them have ever investigated, but are all certain that they are right because other skeptics told them so. This is a true definition of skepticism.

    1. Sawyer says:

      Oh come on stan, you can do better than this. Are you really going to pigeonhole yourself into the nihilism/solipsism camp of not knowing anything you didn’t personally experience? Do we need to hold your hand through a “I’ve never seen the pyramids” example to show you this is a self-refuting argument?

    2. windriven says:

      Expanding on Sawyer’s excellent comment above, science is built by many hands. I have not investigated the claim that HIV causes AIDS. I lack the skills in biology to even if I wanted to. But I absolutely accept that best evidence is that HIV causes AIDS. That is the scientific consensus. It is trustworthy because of the the checks and balances inherent in science.

      There is a set of all crop circles ever made. A subset of these are known to have been made by pranksters. One might posit that another subset was made by some unnamed intelligence or that they occurred naturally. But such a suggestion would require significant evidence as it would be an extraordinary claim. So the default assumption is that crop circles are made by pranksters barring significant evidence to the contrary.

      Now, you do have significant evidence to the contrary, don’t you stan?

      1. MadisonMD says:

        I think he was attempting to do so by claiming radioactivity, microscopically visible changes in plant molecular structure, plant bending without breaking, and that the patterns are so intricate and super-advanced mathematical they could not possibly emanate from the human mind.

        Of course, as usual with Stan there are some issues:
        (a) no citations
        (b) nonsensical claims (viewing molecular structure with a microscope)
        (c) ridiculous claims (people can’t possibly bend a green blade of grass or hay without it breaking!)

        Stan: Here is something you are certain is impossible! Yes, be amazed, and expand your mind! You can thank me later.

        1. Andrey Pavlov says:

          They do it in snow as well. Never mind that some guy called “Simon Beck” is taking credit for it. Clearly, too complex and much too cold for humans to have done them.

    3. Frederick says:

      Next step the chem-trails and Shapeshifter Lizard who live on the moon!

  9. Adam Morrison says:

    Hey Stanmrak,

    You’d probably convince us with more awesome stories. How about ‘Aliens built the pyramids you stuhphed skeptics’
    ‘Nazca lines were by angels because there’s no possible way for humans to make lines in the dirt!’
    ooohhh how about;
    ‘Stonehenge was built by the lizard people of Mu! Clearly no ‘HUMANS’ could have ever stacked stones on other stones!’

    Really, this has probably been the worst trolling you’ve done yet.

  10. Frederick says:

    Anybody Know about a good equivalent in french? or of it as been translated? That a Guy In Québec who wrote “le petit guide de l’autodéfense intellectuelle” ( I have not read it yet) . But i don’t think it is as complete as this guide is.

  11. Ed Whitney says:

    It appears that in order to read this “book,” you have to go and buy a Kindle! What ever happened to books on paper? The Kindle can make books disappear (as they did some years ago with Orwell’s 1984, of all books), but if you have a physical book you can keep it safely unless a burglar breaks in and steals it.

    What is going on here??

    To hell with Amazon and its drive to eliminate anything that catches fire at Farenheit 451.

    1. Adam Morrison says:


      Paper copies are, in fact, available;;jsessionid=4FF4EA37D5D242191C107E2540EE8DFA?mid=cjaffiliate

      Maybe Amazon doesn’t have it yet, or something else, but there’s also a number of free Windows based ereaders and I think there’s a few you can print from as well (if you don’t want to buy from Lulu for some reason).

      1. Harriet Hall says:

        No need to buy a Kindle. I downloaded a free Kindle app to my iPad and my iMac. There are also free versions for PC’s and phones. See

      2. Chris says:

        I have a Kindle app on my MS Surface tablet. Though I have not used it yet.

    2. Andrey Pavlov says:

      You can also download an app for your laptop or a plugin for chrome to read kindle books you buy. If you can view this blog you can read the kindle version. It may not be your particular preference, but it is possible.

    3. Calli Arcale says:

      I believe you can keep copies of your Kindle books off the Kindle. You might have to buy them to be transferred via computer (one of three methods by which you can put your purchases onto your Kindle — there is Whispernet for the 3G-compatible devices, WiFi otherwise, and as a last resort, USB from a computer). So if you are worried about Amazon nuking your library, just don’t keep it in their cloud. Keep it on your computer, which you can back up regularly. ;-)

    4. windriven says:

      @Ed Whitney

      As Winston Smith said near the end of 1984, “I love you, Jeff Bezos.”

  12. Marion says:

    Why is anyone discussing crop formations (not just circles) here?
    This subject, along with Bigfoot sightings, are completely OPPOSITE of subjects like

    individual human psychic power
    crystal power
    healing bracelets
    whatever the opposite of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is called
    (GWCBCBH Theory = Global Warming Can’t be Caused by Humans Theory)
    HiV-doesn’t-cause-AIDS theory
    big-bad-evil-drugs-kill-millions theory

    The extraordinary claims made for these latter subjects CAN be falsified and HAVE been proved false.

    By contrast, you can’t reproduce random, totally unexpected UFO/USO sightings or BF sightings.

    First, BF is just a hypothesize animal. It does not even fall into the category of supernatural. Even Jane Goodall supports the existence.
    Yeah, yeah – I know, she has not PROVED the existence of a BF.
    My point is: there is NO fundamental law of nature (conservation of mass? energy? momentum?) that Bigfoot contradicts.

    Here, incredibly, stamrak gets it right.

    Here, the advanced-technology alien hypothesis IS currently the best (consistent with observed data) unifying concept (we’re talking about a wide variety of phenomena that would NOT make sense without the alien hypothesis, the same way a wide variety of paleontological, geological, astronomical, biological phenomena would not make sense without the grand unifying theory of evolution).

    Sorry – this is where far too many of my fellow atheists show how cowardly they are, because they don’t want to do a REAL debate (debates are bullshit, of course, and that goes for ANY topic, including politics, but for those who worship debates) on a genuinely DIFFICULT topic. They would rather play it easy and debate easily debunked faith healers or creationists.

    And just because a TON of bullshit (e.g. aliens work with our gov’t, illuminati, CIA, zionists, jews jews jews jews jews) is said related to aliens does NOT change the strength of the core hypothesis.

    The alien hypothesis is 100% consistent with evolution – both biological & technological & social – of a species, working together over millions of years to create new technology together. This is the complete OPPOSITE of individual humans claiming some special technological power, such as psychic, which thousands of human engineers have not (yet) figured out.

    1. Chris says:

      One of the best places to read and discuss those subjects is at Doubtful News.

      1. Frederick says:

        Yeah i love that site, there is also a site name Ghost theory, The editor of the site want to believe in alien and ghost, but really want to do it With sound science and hard evidence,A skeptic site but specialize in Alien and stuff, it can be entertaining . :)

        That’s the place i’ll go if i wanted to discuss those topic.

  13. Captian_a says:

    I may be wrong*, but I’m going to guess that Stan is not a believer in non-human origins of crop circles but rather that he was trolling using the crop circle nonsense as bait to demonstrate a point.

    And the point being that Skeptics are guilty of the human trait of group think and piling on and are quite happy to argue a skeptical viewpoint even when they are uninformed on the subject at hand.

    As expected the sharks have in fact circled and closed in for the kill. I’d have to say he has made his point.

    *On the other hand he does seem to have a rather in depth knowledge of the impenetrable mysteries of crop circles and arguments for their non-human origins.

    The best trolls don’t make their trolling obvious.

    Now back to crop circles. It is interesting to note the parallel arguments made by the Intelligent Design crowd. Look at this wondrous thing! I cannot fathom how it could have been made by human/natural processes, therefor it wasn’t.

    No readily available natural exploration? No problem. Supernatural to the rescue. It does make problem solving so much easier, doesn’t it.

    Did I just call religion a cop out?

    1. garuno says:

      @captian_a: “And the point being that Skeptics are guilty of the human trait of group think and piling on and are quite happy to argue a skeptical viewpoint even when they are uninformed on the subject at hand.”

      It’s quite hard to make head or tail of any of your post, but this comment makes me wonder, just how “informed” ought we to be about crop circles? Your supposition is that the skeptics commenting are uninformed. My opinion is that as a fairly uninteresting “phenomenon” to start with (some basic geometric shapes made by flattening wheat), and one with a very simple, plausible, and verifiable explanation, there isn’t much to actually be informed about.

      Wheat got flattened, someone flattened it. That’s about it, really. There are more interesting (and useful) questions to ponder, and life is short.

    2. windriven says:

      @captain a

      “I may be wrong*, but I’m going to guess that Stan is not a believer in non-human origins of crop circles but rather that he was trolling using the crop circle nonsense as bait to demonstrate a point.”

      You credit stan with far more subtlety and cleverness than he deserves. He’s been around SBM for a while and is capable of playing only three or four notes. Poster boy for all things credulous is one and the most common.

      As to crop circles there isn’t much to know and little incentive to learn more. They have been investigated ad nauseum. Shall people spend their time on the many medical, economic, social, and political issues facing us or on the antics of narcissistic fools playing in the corn?

      1. Chris says:

        “He’s been around SBM for a while and is capable of playing only three or four notes. Poster boy for all things credulous is one and the most common.”

        And we have made educated guesses about his education, or lack of education. I think we can now surmise that he did not take high school geometry if he cannot figure out a couple human beings are perfectly capable of using a rope and board to create a circle in a field.

    3. MadisonMD says:

      And the point being that Skeptics are guilty of the human trait of group think and piling on and are quite happy to argue a skeptical viewpoint even when they are uninformed on the subject at hand.

      OK, Cap’n. Maybe he was trolling– no surprise there. But how in exactly what way were the responses uninformed?

      When saying folks posting here are uninformed on the subject at hand (without pointing out where specifically one is wrong), you are echoing the very logical fallacy that Harriet wrote about in this post:

      [The critic]…asked if all his books were critical of something he knew nothing about

      Perhaps you would be so kind as to re-read Harriet’s post.

  14. ORazer says:

    I guess I’m kind of at a loss when I read this post. I’m not really understanding what the point of this blog is and who the intended audience is. I’m reminded of a saying that my logic professor had, “You can use logic to evaluate an argument, you shouldn’t use logic to argue with your wife(or partner for a more neutral word).”

    I would ask the authors on this blog, what is the purpose of medicine?

    Is medicine not only a science, but also an art?

    For whose sake are you writing? Your fellow practitioners? Logicians? Patients? Anybody who will read them?

    1. nancy brownlee says:

      “I would ask the authors on this blog, what is the purpose of medicine?

      Is medicine not only a science, but also an art?

      For whose sake are you writing? Your fellow practitioners? Logicians? Patients? Anybody who will read them?”

      Click on ‘About SBM’ at the top of the home page.

      And- if you shouldn’t use logic to argue with your partner – or anyone else- what should you use?

      1. mousethatroared says:

        Well, it’s considered to be poor form to offer a logical argument to suggest that someone’s emotions should change, are wrong or are disingenuous. This tends to be the kind of logical argument that shouldn’t happen between spouses.

        Of course, One could argue that it’s not only poor form, but generally not a good logical argument, since these kind of arguments tend to focus on the quantifiable evidence and avoid the not easily quantified or understood mechanisms of human emotions. (cherry picking as it were).

        This situation is acerbated by the common misperception that emotions are not logical and therefore don’t belong in a logical argument. This is somewhat similar to saying that weather is not a logical element and therefore shouldn’t be incorporated into logical arguments.

        As an example I will can use an exchange I had with my father. (Because my spouse and I never argue ;))

        Dad: Let me show you the basement of this house (my recently deceased aunt’s rental property soon to be sold).
        Me: Looks like there’s a lot of spiders, hanging from very low beams, I’m afraid of spider, no thanks Dad, let’s check out the kitchen.
        Dad: Those spiders are not poisonous, they can’t hurt you, therefore you shouldn’t be afraid of spiders. Let’s go in the basement.

        Of course science shows that fear responses may be moderated by positive or negative thoughts, but conditioning is also a large component. Since I was eighteen I’ve had intense nightmare about spiders. That, I think, have conditioned my brain to react with fear to spiders. I’m actually intellectually pro-spider, but I still get all those very uncomfortable fear responses when I get near a larger spider. When a large spider drops on my head, I tend to scream and flail about and it’s really an awful feeling. That fear response is still there in spite of any conscious thoughts.

        So my dad’s logical argument was based on ignoring some evidence and focusing on other evidence.

        One actually could have a logical argument that incorporates ALL the evidence, but since emotions are subjective, there has to be a willingness to trust that the participants are accurately reporting their emotions. Having seen Andrey Pavlov’s post for awhile, I don’t doubt that they are much more similar to this approach than my dad’s.

        Perhaps the professor was just protecting the students from a common mistake, much like one doesn’t send a novice skater off to do a triple sow cow.

        1. Andrey Pavlov says:

          Having seen Andrey Pavlov’s post for awhile, I don’t doubt that they are much more similar to this approach than my dad’s.

          Thanks Mouse!

          Yes, I absolutely agree. Emotions and feeling are a facet of evidence that should be incorporated into any discussion. The irrationality of an emotion may be true, but so is the actual emotion itself regardless of the irrationality. I would tend to try and bring a rational element in to defuse the hyperactive response since, I think you would agree, you would rather not be deathly afraid of spiders if you could. But until that actually happens it should be included in the calculus of decision making and conversation.

          And yes, emotions are 100% internal qualia. I cannot evaluate whether you are truly having an emotion or not. So, the default assumption should be to take you (the royal you, as in vous) at face value when you claim an emotional state until I have heaps of evidence to prove otherwise. That is, IMHO, a big part of why emotional manipulation is so incredibly horrible and should never be practiced by anyone with a brain.

          Over time we can develop a sense of trust about a person and their emotions, but we can also have some objective criteria for when to evaluate the truth statements of a person. I’ve had patients tell me they are in agonizing 10/10 pain that absolutely and definitely needs [opiate of choice]. All whilst calmly sitting comfortably in a chair, with completely normal vital signs (no increased heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, no sweating). That makes me think the person is not relating their subjective experience accurately. But I also know very well that certain people are rather stoic and perceive pain differently and have seen people with fractures complain of just a nagging 3/10 pain and the only reason they came in was because it just wouldn’t go away.

          So you must temper your assessment and, when in doubt, always hedge on believing the person who is telling you their subjective experience.

          1. mousethatroared says:

            Andrey “I’ve had patients tell me they are in agonizing 10/10 pain that absolutely and definitely needs [opiate of choice]. All whilst calmly sitting comfortably in a chair, with completely normal vital signs (no increased heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, no sweating). ”

            Have I mentioned how much I hate those pain scales? ;)

            I guess, we all just hope that we are not in the situation were the above person is our spouse. :( – But the need to prescribe narcotics safely is a very important factor in that conflict, much more than my dad’s need for me to see the basement. It’s all a balancing act.

            As an aside – I agree that I’d rather not be deathly afraid of spider. I do actually regularly deal with the household spiders, carefully edging them on to pieces of paper so that I can put them outside, or killing them when they enter my son’s room (sorry spiders, no mercy after the welts you gave him). I even let a lovely huge apricot colored spider dangle outside my studio window for a couple days, until she moved on. Beyond that, I’ve got other issues to deal with that are my priorities. I won’t be badgered into exposures with folks who don’t respect my boundaries. Not unless it’s genuinely a worthwhile cause..if a crying kitten was in the basement or something.

            1. Sawyer says:

              “Have I mentioned how much I hate those pain scales”

              It amazes me when people that work in such a complex area of research/treatment claim pain scales are “objective” because they are “universal”. I flipped out last week when someone cited the infamous Vickers meta-analysis for acupuncture. They wouldn’t accept the fact that pain scales can’t automatically be pooled from different studies. Heck, I don’t even think you can reliably compare scores within one study. Yet time and time again, we see the same people who constantly bemoan science suddenly do a complete 180, and endorse the idea that pain scores are absolutely perfect when they show some therapy produces a tiny positive effect.

              1. mousethatroared says:

                Objective, no. They just happen to be the least worst approach, that I’ve heard of, when you need to compare the symptom of pain in an individual before/ after an intervention. Although I’d think reports on the ability to do household, work tasks and recreational activities are also useful (subjective) measures.

                Something to consider, chronic pain is often not intense pain. I was consistently rating my pain at 2 during my cervical radiculapathy therapy (Various reasons I don’t have time to cover). but now, at generally 0, I’d say my interventions helped a huge amount. 2 to 0 doesn’t sound like much, though. It’s wacky.

                Can’t say I understand at all how the medical researchers sort through it all.

    2. Andrey Pavlov says:

      “You can use logic to evaluate an argument, you shouldn’t use logic to argue with your wife(or partner for a more neutral word).”

      I’d have to say that I disagree with your logic professor. And so would my partner. We both find that the process of conflict resolution is typically more important than the actual outcome. And for us, logic, reasonableness, rationality, and evidence is the only way to communicate. When we have our worst fights is when we throw logic and rationality out the window in a fit of emotional blindness. We both agree afterwards it was poor form, apologize to each other (yes, sometimes my lovely is wrong and she actually takes the initiative and makes the effort to apologize, as do I), and admit to each other that it was a succumbing to our intrinsic human irrationality and abandoning of logic and reason that led to the issue becoming overblown. And yes, when the topic is amenable to it, we both take a break to go do quick lit searches and present our evidence to each other. Funny enough, we are both smart enough and critical thinking enough that almost all the time we have the most vehement disagreements both of us are right and wrong and we both learn something new to refine and improve our understanding of the topic.

      And we are not geeky robots either. She is the one that got me interested in art – painting and photography, specifically. I’ve gotten much better at my photography than painting though.

      I would ask the authors on this blog, what is the purpose of medicine?

      That’s an interesting question. And I reckon there are multiple valid answers but they all will generally tend to cluster around the theme of helping improve the quantity and quality of as many lives as possible.

      For me personally, I view my role of the physician as an expert in a particular field of knowledge. I am the guide to tell my patients what is and is not possible within the confines of reality, and to do my best to help them make a value judgement as to which option suits them the best. I am also an advocate for my patient (and as a skeptic for all people) in that I feel my highly specialized and significantly more than the average non-physician level of knowledge imparts a responsibility on my part to protect the interests and welfare of my patient to the best of my ability with the utmost of intellectually honesty and integrity using the highest standard of scientific evidence to support my decisions and suggestions.

      Is medicine not only a science, but also an art?

      Medicine is, in and of itself, not a science. However, as the title of this blog indicates it is (and we vehemently argue should be) firmly anchored in science.

      I’ve thought long and hard about what the “art” of medicine means. If there really is an “art” to it and what that is and is not, and what is commonly thought of when people say the “art” of medicine.

      I believe that in general the “art of medicine” is used as a cop out and can be readily substituted for “whatever I damned well think is right, regardless of anything else.” Not always, but many times this is the case. Particularly when it is a so-called “alternative medicine” apologist.

      But what I think is the true art of medicine (and I am happy for the commentariat here to eviscerate me on this) is two fold.

      #1 is the art of communication. Being able to read subtle clues in language, tone, and body language. Being able to communicate complex ideas effectively to people with no background in the relevant field. Finding the unique way to be comforting and confidence inspiring to the individual sitting in front of you at that very moment. Being able to accurately convey risk and benefit in a way that is meaningful to the person sitting in front of you.

      #2 is working with incomplete information. This is the big one and this is where the term “clinical judgment” fits in. This is both incomplete information about your patient (either because they are unable to provide a full history, unwilling, or – like most people – omit salient points for any number of legitimate reasons) and incomplete scientific knowledge. Thankfully as we get more knowledge there come to be conditions where the plan of action is well known and very straightforward. Management of diabetes, for example. But in many cases we simply don’t have sufficiently good (or sometimes any) actual scientific knowledge to directly answer a question necessary for the treatment and care of the person sitting in front of you. So you must resort to rigorous adherence to first principles, work with the knowledge you do have at all levels, and then integrate a decision at the end. This decision may or may not be right, the confidence in it commensurate with the amount and quality of evidence behind it.

      We here take things a step forward in the rigorous aspect and say that thanks to well established first principles while we may not be able to definitively say what will work in a certain case, we can say that certain things definitively won’t work. And it is our professional and ethical onus to eschew these false options in order to maximize the likelihood of a good outcome in our patients, to the best our current state of knowledge and our personal human ability will allow.

      For whose sake are you writing? Your fellow practitioners? Logicians? Patients? Anybody who will read them?

      All of those. And more.

      To get a repository of good, well thought out, well referenced, easy (-er?) to digest information. To at least attempt to counter the veritable tsunami of really bad information out there on the web, as we will is our professional onus (you’ll note that the majority of authors here, myself included, are physicians but additional relevant professions are represented here).

      Before I co-wrote a piece here on Vitamin C and abortion, the only thing that came up when you googled it was completely ludicrous websites saying it was effective. Now, my post shows up in the google search. How is someone without any relevant expertise supposed to think anything else when a google search only shows the same pseudoscientific consensus on a topic? At the very least there is now a specific counterpoint so at least people have a better chance of making a truly informed decision in their best interest.

      We also take things a little bit further to encourage critical thinking and understanding ways in which we can fool ourselves and be fooled by others. The old “teach a man to fish” parable in action. We don’t just want to give people the individual fish of knowledge about specific claims, but to also try and teach how to do your own truth testing to filter out the endless number of ridiculous claims out there (particularly in medicine and health care).

      Anyways, probably a longer response than you’d anticipated, but hopefully helpful. Those are my thoughts as a junior physician and occasional contributor and often commenter here at this blog. I think most here would tend to agree, but hopefully add some more nuance, detail, and of course we thrive on intellectually honest disagreement around these parts.

      1. Tony says:


        How is someone without any relevant expertise supposed to think anything else when a google search only shows the same pseudoscientific consensus on a topic?

        As just such a person (I’ve no scientific expertise in any area), I must say thank you. 5 years ago, I knew nothing about evidence based medicine, logical fallacies, or skepticism. Although I’ve been an atheist for over a decade, it wasn’t until recent years that I came to understand skepticism and how to apply it. In the beginnings of my search to understand how to evaluate claims (an ongoing process) I stumbled across sites like Quackwatch and The Skeptics Dictionary. Both sites were influential in teaching me how to fish (if I can borrow your metaphor). I’ve since gotten better at evaluating truth claims, searching for evidence, spotting logical fallacies and more. I’ve only visited this site once or twice in the past, and this is my first comment here, but with everything you said, I just wanted to thank you and people like you for what you’ve done. There is a glut of information out there, and weeding out the truth can be difficult for the uninformed (or even the mildly informed). Sites like this make the search for the truth just a bit easier for laypersons like myself.

        1. Andrey Pavlov says:


          Thank you for the kind words!

          We all have a common goal, at the end of the day. I don’t think too many people really and actually want others to suffer and society to crumble. We just often disagree on what is the best way to get there and what is real and what isn’t. My argument (our argument) is that our method, our process is the best and has the best track record for demonstrating that. That method, of course, is rigorous scientific inquiry. Which doesn’t mean the same exact things are done in each field, but that the same process is used with the best and most methodologically sound means applied. I believe that I believe this for good reasons and, given the chance, so could others.

  15. Dave says:

    I would add a third part to the “art” of medicine and that is of tailoring treatment recommendations to the individual patient to arrive at the safest plan. There are many examples of situations where the studies and guidelines obviously support a given intervention, which might be inadvisable for an individual patient. A very common example would be full anticoagulation for stroke prevention in atrial fibrillation in a patient with a high CHADS2 score. This might be fine for most patients but what if the patient has vascular malformations in the GI tract which bleed frequently, or has had a recent intracranial hemorrhage, or gets stinking drunk every weekend and is constantly seen in the ER with head trauma due to falling and brawls, or is a ranch hand and is at risk from the types of trauma that people who work daily with large unhappy animals frequently sustain, or loves martial arts and refuses to give up kickboxing despite the risks involved? Studies are often done on “pure” subjects with few confounding comorbid conditions, quite unlike the real-life patients seen in the community. This in my mind is what “holistic” medicine is – knowing the nuances and personal situation of the patient, and adjusting the treatment plan to those nuances, except we don’t call it “holistic” but refer to it as the “art” of medicine.

    1. Andrey Pavlov says:

      Very well said Dave and I completely agree. I was trying to see how I could shoehorn that into my two broad categories and I think I could contort it to fit into the “working with incomplete information part” but I’ll concede it is probably good enough to be a third category.

      It is, in fact, what “personalized medicine” actually is and should be. To draw upon what we do know to tailor it in a rational and logical way that will work for the person sitting in front of you.

    2. Great example of practice-based evidence.

  16. Newcoaster says:

    Thanks for the review, Harriet. It is my first kindle download now that I got the app for iPad. The Skeptics Dictionary was one of the first skeptical books I ever bought on Amazon and is well thumbed. I don’t know what the equivalent for e-books is.

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