TOK Book Review: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

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Published just last month, this book stands out as an excellent resource on critical thinking for teachers of Theory of Knowledge.  Do you already know neurologist and science educator Steven Novella? You may, like me, already be a fan of his keen analysis, clarity, and skill of combining vast knowledge with a light touch.  He’s now pulled together threads of critical commentary into a book I recommend most highly: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

What does Dr. Novella mean by “skeptic”?  In applying “skepticism”, Dr.Novella presents an ideal of examining evidence critically, with an open mind and awareness of one’s own fallibility, and with the goal of drawing the best-grounded conclusions possible at any given time.  He is a scientist himself, an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University and both founder and Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine. His NeuroLogica blog and Skeptics’ Guide podcast  discuss and model critical thinking.

Dr. Novella clearly gives support to our own educational aims in Theory of Knowledge.  In his podcast, blog, and now his book, he treats topics that are essential to understand for teaching our course well.

Among the initial parts of “Section I: Core Concepts Every Skeptic Should Know” he includes the following topics, among others, under “Metacognition”:

  • Memory Fallibility and False Memory Syndrome
  • Fallibility of Perception
  • Pareidolia
  • Motivated Reasoning
  • Arguments and Logical Fallacies
  • Cognitive Biases and Heuristics
  • Confirmation Bias
  • Data Mining
  • Coincidence

In the section “Science and Pseudoscience”, the book treats ten topics, among them being:

  • Pseudoscience and the Demarcation Problem
  • Denialism
  • P-Hacking and Other Research Foibles
  • Placebo Effects
  • Anecdote

Other sections strikingly relevant to TOK are “Skepticism and the Media” and, in providing stories of scientific failures, “Iconic Cautionary Tales from History”.

But does Novella, with his co-authors, really give us a guide to the entire universe, as the extravagant title suggests?  The title and retro look of the cover of his book, with the opening allusions to Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), give a humorous entry to a serious subject that does range far – but stays within our world!  Throughout, the book is wholly accessible.  The chapter divisions and headings make it appealing to open at many points, so that it’s possible to snack on short chapters.  The writing is very clear, often even breezy.  One of the captivating features, too, is the use of examples and real life stories to illustrate points: the general ideas, interesting in themselves, gain an additional impetus to make us want to keep turning the page.

Finally, the conclusion of the book is worth taking to heart.  “Remember,” says Steven Novella, “all the cognitive biases, flaws in memory and perception, heuristics, motivated reasoning, the Dunning-Kruger effect – it all applies to you, not just other people.  Really let that sink in.  These concepts are not weapons to attack other people and make yourself feel superior, they’re the tools you need to minimize the bias, error, and nonsense clogging up your own brain.”  (p. 411) He recommends being humble, nurturing, and courageous when interacting with other people and their views, and gives advice on creating positive exchanges, even in the often-harsh context of social media.  As Novella places critical thinking within communication that aims for civility and understanding, I am won over completely.  I was already a fan when I started reading the book, but I’m even more so as I lay it aside.

The dust jacket blurb directs the book toward an audience interested in navigating a world full of misinformation – and yes, I’ll certainly be giving this book as a gift to interested friends.  However, I think the book’s ideal readers are teachers of the International Baccalaureate, especially those of us teaching Theory of Knowledge.


Steven Novella with Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.  Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2018.