Skeptical Book Review: Reading Outside of Your Discipline, or A Psychologist, a Magician, and an Archaeologist Walk Into a Bookstore

If a very literate thief were to break into my apartment, I like to think he would take a moment to browse and appreciate my bookshelves. It’s a varied collection, which includes a massive collection of cheap paperbacks I picked up for my masters and doctoral exams, a huge number of obscure lit books by well known authors which are only ever read by professors, books of theory and poetry, a lot of science books, a collection of primary sources photocopied at cost from the finest archives around the world, a shelf of WWII memoirs and histories, a pony-load of anthologies, rhetorics piled out the wazoo, and a heap of books that can only be described as “flaky to the nth degree” (think of the ouvre of Jenny McCarthy). This ne’er-do-well, just before my cats mauled him beyond recognition, I like to think, would be slightly confused by my collection, which serves the bastard right for breaking into my apartment in the first place.

Our thief, as the cats flayed him alive with their razor-sharp, serrated tongues, would in his dying moments probably wish that I would come home from my vacation, but in all likelihood I’d be too busy playing tourist. I’m as pleased as punch to wear a stupid Hawaiian shirt and wander the streets of an unfamiliar city gawking. I also like to pick up souvenirs when I travel, specifically, I like to buy a book in each town I visit. It gives me something to do during downtime, and I can always recall what I was interested in at the time I was traveling. For instance, the last time I was in New Orleans (CSICon excluded), visiting the D-Day Museum with my grandmother, I bought the collected short fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald at the airport bookstore. That’s presumably when I started using the phrase “a _____ as big as the Ritz” in everyday conversation.

Anyway, my recent trip to CSICon in New Orleans was no exception. Not only was the solar-fusion yellow Hawaiian shirt in full effect, but I also returned with three more books than I arrived with. What struck me about this particular collection of reads was the variety of disciplines they touched on. At the CSICon book display, I picked up The Truth about Uri Geller, the classic work of flair-trousered debunkery by magician James Randi, and 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jon Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. (Scott, I should mention, was my conspiracy theory session’s chair.) Down the street from the conference hotel, at Crescent City Books, I picked up Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, 6th ed., by Kenneth L. Feder.

These books, together, only make sense on a skeptic’s bookshelf, which is one of the reasons I am so attracted to skepticism as a methodological framework for scholarship–it gives one a large set of tools that can be applied to widely divergent areas of study. While I have chops in a couple of disciplines, I also have the flexibility to begin to assess the contents of novel claims, even if I am not an authority in all areas.

The value of these books, to me at least, is how each contributes to my mental map of my own limitations, which is important to know if you want to avoid making unwarranted, unsupportable and silly claims. The subjects of these books span the range of topics from deliberate deception, in the case of Geller, to inadvertent yet pervasive misinformation, in the case of popular psychology.

James Randi’s The Truth About Uri Geller is a skeptical standard, as is anything written by James Randi. Besides being a magician, Randi also has to be a bit of an acrobat, one the one hand laying bare that Uri Geller, the 1970s spoon bending Israeli, was little more than a stage performer, all the while protecting the secrets of the craft and so forth.

Much of the book is documentary, culled from sources reporting on Geller’s rise to prominence in the US. Randi spends a lot of time showing how the media was fooled, and how misremembering and misreporting fed into the Geller myth. Occasionally, Randi illustrates precisely how a trick was accomplished by publishing evidence of Geller’s mistakes. My favorite was Geller’s attempt to take a “psychic photograph” on a camera that still had its lens cap on. This “test” of Geller’s abilities was performed in a private residence, and illustrates how a patient and talented performer can multitask. In this case, he said that the photograph had been taken (it had not), but then later in the test, he had his test administrators leave the room to write something on a slip of paper. While they were out of the room, he removed the camera and snapped a photo. Randi can confidently assert this because Geller did not realize that the lens had an extra-wide field of view and caught his FACE in the shot, thoroughly debunking himself! Randi replicates effect, and the conclusion is undeniable.

You walk away from the book admiring Geller’s skill as a magician and manager of illusions, but with no respect for him as a person. Geller’s talent for peeks, distraction, and causing confusion is undeniable. But his trickery, which seems inexplicable to the untrained eye, withers under the scrutiny of his technical equals and moral betters.

Next is Kenneth Feder’s Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. I read the sixth edition. Feder provides a general guide to distinguishing good archaeology from not-as-great archaeology. Feder pays special attention to a number of hoaxes and sensational claims about civilizations past. In doing so, he builds up models of how archaeologists treat and interpret evidence.

Personally, I think that much pseudo-archaeology, including ancient alien hypotheses and so-called biblical archaeology (which seeks to establish that one’s own literal interpretation of the Bible is the correct one), do not meet nearly enough informed criticism in the popular press. Feder lays bare what we would expect to find if these extraordinary claims are found to be true and how news evidence fits into a much larger body of evidence about humanity’s past.

The most important warning that Feder delivers, it seems to me, is to be especially wary of those claims that give you exactly what you most expect or hope to find. Many of the hoaxes and instances of scientific fraud Feder takes the reader through, like Piltdown, succeeded because people embrace agreeable finds. While it may seem staggeringly obvious in hindsight, the satisfaction of expectations and justification of prejudices seems to be especially compelling to the public. At the same time, those most memorable, earth-shattering claims are the most likely to be repeated in the media and repeated. An understanding of the standards of practice and the process of archaeology is an important safeguard against embracing impossibilities. Critical thinking exercises at the end of each chapter drive home the important points and encourage readers to consider the implications of issues raised in the chapters.

As questions at the end of chapters usually do. (Sigh.)

The final book that I brought home from New Orleans was 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by…a whole lot of psychologists. Fine, I’ll type them all out: Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jon Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein (abbreviated to  “L.L. RuBe”). L.L. RuBe looks at a large number of popular popular misconceptions about how our minds work. The topics covered, from the idea that we use only 10% of our brains to the idea that people commonly repress traumatic memories, are those sorts of things that have seeped into the culture. Again, the explanations for why these ideas are popular vary, but often they seem to patch over gaps in actual knowledge, and L.L. Rube does an excellent job filling those in with solid science.

An interesting and unexpected feature is a list of topics that the authors, numerous as they were, simply did not have time to cover. At the end of each chapter, they remind you that they have only scratched the the tip of the volcano. Uhhh… That metaphor slipped away from me like a slippery thing. I can easily see using this book in my writing about science and pseudoscience class as an invention source for first-year research questions, for instance.

Review Questions:

1) Can you tell where Bob forced together two versions of this post? If not, check to see if you have a lobotomy scar.

2) At what point did Bob simply run out of steam?



3 Responses to Skeptical Book Review: Reading Outside of Your Discipline, or A Psychologist, a Magician, and an Archaeologist Walk Into a Bookstore

  1. Pacal says:

    Ah so this is the column that you had up for a nano second a while ago and then removed.

    I’ve read The Truth about Uri Geller, when it was called The Magic of Uri Geller and yeah it shows quite clearly that Uri was a fraud. Although when Uri sued Randi and CISCOP for libel a little over 10 years later that should have been the the final proof of fakery. Given that why didn’t Uri if he was for real simply prove he really had such powers rather than try to shut a prominant detractor by suing him?

    The obvious aim was to shut Randi up by suing Randi until he Randi ran out of money. Considering that at th time Uri was vastly more flush with cash than Randi it is clear this was an attempt to stifle criticism by lawsuit.

    What was also clear from Randi’s book about Uri is that in many respects Uri was NOT a good close up Magician. Many of his tricks were poorly done and not that clever. What was clear was that so many of Uri’s fans so wanted him to be real that they allowed him to get away with crap an audience of an actual Magician would NOT allow a magician to get away with.

    As for Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, I have the third edition and I esspecially find it useful fort its dissection of hyper-diffusionistic nonsense and it is excellant concerning other issues in archeaology also.

    The amount of woo and utter crap in archeaology annoys me to no end. The two chief cultures victimized by this out pouring of pure unrefined shit are the Egyptian and the Mayan. Given that the Mayan culture has been for over 20 years the one of particular interest to me and the fact that the culture in many respects has survived to the present day I find all the 2012 and other woo really a trial. The ancient Maya and the modern Maya deserve better.

    Oh and the so called ‘establishment” is actually doing something, various institutions are starting to train a whole new generation of Maya to be Archeologists etc. That many of the next generation, ( A few are now), of Mayanologists will be actual Maya is a necessary part of the process of restoring to the Maya their past. So much for hide bound establishment keeping people down.

    I wonder in this 6th edition does Feder talk about “Post Modern” Archeology?

  2. Bob says:

    Not really. In fact, I’m not aware of such a thing…Trying to think how that would work, other than badly. Just throw..whatever interpretation you like at the artifact? :/ Sounds awful.


    • Pacal says:

      Actually there is “Post Modern” Archaeology. I have in my possession an article by a Cornelius Holtorf, who actually has a real bonifide degree in Archaeology from a real institution, but apparently got a severe case of Epater le Bourgeois and became infatuated with extreme Post Modern crap. In 2005 he had a piece published in World Archaeology, (V. 37, No. 4, pp. 544-551), called “Beyond crusades: how (not) to engage
      with alternative archaeologies”. The piece trots out every Post Modern cliche imaginable, such as all interpretations are valid, that telling Allternatives that their nonsense is nonsense is a Police action, policing the boundaries of discourse and should not be done etc. Of course what Prof. Holtorf is recomending is to use a Post Modern expression is “Policing the boundaries” of “orthodox” or “scientific” Archaeology so that certain forms of “discourse”, such as ridicule or denouncing Alternative Archaeology as false / absurd are no longer allowed. Thus “scientific” Archaeology will have its “discourse” policed and Alternative stuff will be allowed to spout off because in that case ridicule /condemnation would be oppressive and a police action but of course doing the same thing to “scientific” Archaeology would not do the same thing but would be liberating. Double standard anyone!

      A taste of this article’s nonsense can be gleaned from the abstract:

      “Archaeologists have often felt uneasy when encountering alternative (fringe, cult, fantastic, pseudo-)archaeologies. Some have suggested that alternative approaches and their results must be disproved, while others have been calling for better public understanding of science. My contribution takes a
      different point of view. I emphasize the social and cultural needs that both scientific and alternative archaeologies address and suggest that the main significance of archaeology does not lie in the specific insights gained about the past but in the very process of engaging with the material remains of the past in the present. Critical understanding and dialogue, not dismissive polemics, is the appropriate way to engage with the multiple pasts and alternative archaeologies in contemporary society.”

      I note that a fair bit of this sounds reasonable but a lot of it is coded to mean much more extreme stuff which only becomes apparent when you read the whole article.

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