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Reality Check

A review of

Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical
Thinker’s Toolkit
by Jonathan C. Smith
Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 410 pp. ISBN 978-1-4051-8123-5
(hardcover); ISBN 978-1-4051-8122-8 (paperback). $94.95, hardcover;
$41.95, paperback

Reviewed by
David Ludden

I had saved Jonathan Smith’s Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal:
A Critical Thinker’s Toolkit for my Chicago-to-Shanghai flight.
“So, you’re interested in paranormal phenomena,” said the woman next to me, clearly
interested in what I was reading.
“This book explains the psychological processes that lead people to fall for
paranormal thinking,” I told her.
“Then you don’t believe in ghosts or ESP?”
She turned away and put on her headphones; I never heard another word from her for
the rest of the flight.
I’d had a similar experience several years ago when I offered a special topics course
called Science, Pseudoscience, and the Paranormal. A dozen students showed up the first

to be intellectually honest. On the “borderline” end of the continuum. Chapters on the fundamentals of logic and the scientific method are presented in this section as well. Here he introduces his Continuum Mysteriosum. Moreover. he examines the range of paranormal claims and explains why it is important to study them. Logic does not come to us naturally. First. we must consider the logical support for ideas. which are simply not in accord with the known laws of the physical universe. Had Smith’s text been available. which do not violate the laws of physics but lack hard evidence in support of Smith divides his book into three parts. these students were already skeptical of paranormal claims and wanted to learn how to defend their position. the critical thinker needs to evaluate the credibility of the source. as opposed to “ancient wisdom. we evaluate claims intuitively.” which is either static over centuries or else varies according to the whims of individual practitioners. even experts in the field can get things wrong. However. In Part I. Smith elaborates his Critical Thinker’s Toolkit. accepting what fits into our belief system and rejecting everything else. In that course. Then again. and the scientific merit of the claim. and the only way to avoid the pitfall of intuition is to learn the rules of logic and apply them in a conscious manner. Smith emphasizes that the skeptic should not summarily dismiss pseudoscientific claims. This tool kit consists of two components: one for evaluating support for a claim and another for generating alternative explanations. but even highly trained scientists can fall for pseudoscientific thinking when they investigate phenomena outside their field of expertise. In Part II. On the other end of the continuum are “supernatural” claims such as faith healing and life after death. he places pseudoscientific claims such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. it is in the nature of science that it changes and develops as new data are acquired. integrating this set of critical thinking tools into the structure of the text. rather. the logic of the argument. The author also explains his two-fold purpose for writing this text. many of them already very knowledgeable about ancient astronauts and astral projection. Many paranormal claims are made by laypersons. I definitely would have chosen it for the course. second. he wants to use pseudoscientific case studies to demonstrate how the scientific method provides us with a tool kit for critically examining any claim. especially those at the borderline end of the Continuum Mysteriosum. . Only five stayed for the rest of the semester. he wants to examine why some people are prone to paranormal thinking. even our most cherished beliefs. Furthermore. It has generally the same coverage of paranormal claims as Hines’s book while more fully elaborating Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit. we read Terence Hines’s (2003) Pseudoscience and the Paranormal and Carl Sagan’s (1996) Demon-Haunted World as well as materials I’d culled from various skeptical websites. In evaluating support for a claim. and he gives two examples—meteors and hypnosis—that were once dismissed by scientists as impossible but are now accepted as real.

they will find their pet paranormal phenomena debunked. and they talk about it among themselves. but the hallmark of a scientific thinker is the ability to entertain alternative explanations for an observed event. Deception. and Smith devotes five chapters to this. However. and Sloppiness). For example. people’s intuitions about probability and randomness are flawed. Sagan’s Balance (“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”) and the FEDS Standard (Fraud. he introduces two helpful tools. As they work through this text. The placebo effect and its relationship to complementary and alternative medicine are also considered in this section. This section of the book will be familiar territory to any psychologist. The approach in this section resembles that of Hines (2003). Here. people do not understand the constructive nature of perception and memory and instead trust that what they see. namely the treatment of religion as a paranormal phenomenon. parapsychology. and creationism. Likewise. The average person is not a good judge of what constitutes solid empirical evidence.It is also important to understand that. the ultimate measure of scientific validity is careful observation. Smith’s purpose is to provide a few examples of how his Critical Thinking Toolkit can be used to evaluate extraordinary claims. the examination of pseudoscientific claims as a means for teaching critical thinking skills is clever. forcing them to examine their own beliefs and attitudes. and he even includes a sample term paper examining urine therapy (the claimed benefits of drinking one’s urine). Specifically. and Smith’s active engagement of the reader makes this book superior to others in the field. Smith interrupts the text with a Reality Check box. all of which have wide currency in contemporary American society. Smith concludes the book with the outline for a culminating project in critical thinking. While it is true that many of . which serve as useful mnemonics when one is evaluating the quality of the data supporting a claim. as paranormal phenomena can usually be explained in terms of cognitive errors. For example. Each chapter is supplemented with critical thinking exercises. hear. Most people will readily accept any explanation that is intuitively sound. If there is a weakness in this text. leading them to detect patterns where none exist. while a scientific claim must be logically sound. faith healing. Smith provides a chapter on how to evaluate observational data. They are exposed to it in the media. In Part III. he devotes a chapter each to spiritualism. One of the greatest strengths of this book is its active engagement of the reader. but Smith does not cover the full range of pseudoscientific claims the way Hines does. complementary and alternative medicine. a set of discussion questions that challenge students to think more deeply about the implications of what they have just read. Smith examines five classes of paranormal phenomena. Furthermore. Every few pages. Schick and Vaughn’s (2005) How to Think About Weird Things is a solid textbook. The key here is to know where to look for alternative explanations. many college students are interested in the paranormal. or remember is accurate. thus. Error. it is one that is common to most books in this field. There are other critical thinking texts on the market. Instead. but the examples tend to be dry.

It will certainly be of interest to psychologists interested in the consequences of cognitive errors. Release 16. but they will not be left unchanged by it.the foundational beliefs of religious systems. Perhaps Richard Dawkins (2006) was right when he asserted that most people simply accept the tenets of the faith they grow up with. so popular now on American campuses. religion also serves an important social function that other paranormal beliefs. Smith’s work is a valuable contribution to the field. (2005). and it is no doubt the best textbook on the market for a course on the psychology of paranormal belief. American Psychological Association . do not. (2003). (2006). How to think about weird things: Critical thinking for a new age. Although Smith explains paranormal thinking in terms of cognitive errors. Hines. however. a qualitative difference between believing that J. there seems to be. NY: Bantam Books. To Smith’s credit. is what college is all about. at least to this reviewer. T. 55. References Dawkins. after all. And that. New York. thus. Sagan. Z. T. C. PsycCRITIQUES April 21. Schick. such as virgin birth and reincarnation. New York. The God delusion. L. & Vaughn. whose purpose is to help entering college students develop critical thinking skills. The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. Vol. his presentation of psychological issues is not technical. NY: Prometheus. NY: McGraw-Hill. Students will either love or hate this text. (1996). though. Article 1 1554-0138 © 2010. NY: Ballantine. clearly violate the laws of physics. 2010. whether in telekinesis or cryptozoology. R. he does urge his readers not to be aggressive in challenging the pseudoscientific beliefs of others but rather to ask questions in a respectful manner. Knight can channel the spirit of the prehistoric warrior Ramtha and faith that Jesus Christ died on the cross to redeem our sins in that the latter is a shared belief that binds a community together. Pseudoscience and the paranormal: A critical examination of the evidence. this text would be especially useful in a freshman seminar. No doubt many people will find Smith’s magnanimous approach more palatable than Dawkins’s evangelical atheism. New York. Amherst. never considering whether those beliefs make sense..