Skepsis – Guide to kritisk tenkning is an introduction to skepticism compiled by Mona Hide Klausen and Kjetil Hope, two especially active members of the skeptical movement in Norway and until recently committee members for Foreningen Skepsis, Norway’s national skepticism association. Split into two sections, the book first gives a general overview of the scientific method, cognitive psychology as it relates to the reliability, or otherwise, of our perception and memory, and argumentation and logical fallacies.
The second section contains a discussion of pseudoscientific staples such as alternative medicine, psychics, aliens and conspiracy theories, each chapter written by a different author.
First a caveat/disclosure: I am someone who is slowly settling into life in Norway and sticking my fingers in lots of skeptical pies, including Foreningen Skepsis, and can consider myself an acquaintance of both the editors and most of the contributors. I have tried to ignore this and judge the book on its own merits and done my best to be good skeptic, by, just as the book advises, being critical and trying to avoid things like confirmation bias. I get that it's weird to review the book English but I'm good not good enough to write in Norwegian. I can now understand (most) of the vocabulary subtleties of the language but generating it is a whole different matter. Given that most Norwegians have a better grasp of English than me anyway, I don't think it's too much of a problem, but I will switch to writing in Norwegian about Norwegian things as soon as I can.
As a guide to critical thinking, the book starts from the bottom up, with clear explanations of what counts as science and the strength and value of the scientific method. It might have something to do with the fact that I am familiar to some degree with most of the material, but it’s worth saying that as a non-native speaker still getting to grips with the language, and particularly the idioms, I was able to understand the definitions and explanations without losing track or getting bogged down. This is quite a feat considering I have read many a book in English that try to explain, for example, logic and argumentation – and fail miserably. There is a lot of ground-work covered in the first section, with an impressive breadth, but this breadth does mean that it may well take multiple readings for all the different definitions, types of scientific studies and fallacies to sink in and make sense.
As an aside, it was a really interesting exercise keeping track of how words and phrases in the sphere of science and skepticism were carried over from English and how and when their translations to Norwegian worked. For some phrases, like ‘cherry-picking’, the literal translation ‘kirsebær-plukking’ work well, others, like ‘kald-lesing’ for ‘cold-reading’, just don’t conjure up the same imagery and meaning. In this case, ‘tenke-fisking’, meaning ‘thought-fishing’, was used, which is so good I think the same phrase should be adopted in English.
I found the second section of the book, which applied the principles outlined in the first section, a little patchier, but still very good. The chapters on alternative medicine and vaccines are good for being open and even-handed. To the question of whether alternative medicine works or not, the answer given is that we just don’t know because there is so little research, and the research that has been conducted is of such poor quality. That’s not to say that that is a wishy-washy look at alt-med; physically impossible and patently absurd ideas like homeopathy are put firmly in their place. The even-handedness comes from acknowledging the limits of ‘proper’ medicine, particularly in the excellent section that breaks down common arguments against conventional medicine, such as doctors not treating the whole patient and that they’re under the thumb of Big Pharma. For a more in-depth analysis of alternative medicine I would thoroughly recommend Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment (Bløffeller behandling in Norwegian), and Ernst’s blog for its frequent and consistently excellent articles.
I picked this chapter to single out especially because of its importance: I’ve come to see that alternative medicine and anti-vaccine movements have a depressingly strong hold in Norway. Critical thinking and understanding evidence is vitally important with medical matters because lives are literally at stake, making discussions about ghosts, UFOs, corn circles and aliens feel rather trivial in comparison.
What I most enjoyed about the book, and my strongest reason for recommending it, is the clear question and answer format adopted across all of the chapters. For seasoned skeptics it serves as a starting point to thinking about the answers to give to those questions when confronted with them in everyday conversations, for others they are a good way to critically analyse what they themselves think about something they had previously done or believed unthinkingly.
With pro-alt-med, ghosts, aliens and parapsychology continuing to pop up in the Norwegian news with depressing regularity, and infamous conspiracy theory hive Nyhetsspeilet continuing to be one of the most visited Norwegian websites, the need for a book like Skepsis – Guide to kritisk tenkning , which makes skepticism accessible to a wider audience of Norwegians, is obvious.
You can buy the book in hardback, or download the e-book for just 99 kr, from here. You can also listen to one of the editors, Mona Hide Klausen, talk about the book (in Norwegian) on the Saltklypa podcast.