Natural born scientist

By Phil Plait | June 22, 2012 8:30 am

Guy Harrison is a skeptic and author — he wrote a book called 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True, which is really quite good. It’s a readable and fun tour of a pile of popular misconceptions with, of course, their antidotes.

I was honored when Guy asked me to write the foreword for it, and I happily complied. The book came out recently, and shortly thereafter I received a lovely email from a reader. He was a Mormon but recently lost his faith, and he said that "being a non-believer often results in ostracizing and a loss of identity. When one is trained their whole life to believe, and then that belief is shattered, one often ends up with a hole in their soul, an emptiness."

This hole, he went on, was helped by the words I had written in the foreword. I was so moved by this I asked Guy if I could put the entire foreword here on the blog, and he happily agreed. So here it is; I hope you like it, and that the words resonate with you as well.


No one is born a skeptic.

Kids are natural scientists, though. They love to soak up knowledge, explore, experiment, name things (I can still remember my very young daughter, all those years ago, asking me to name the stars in the sky, one after another).

I suppose not all of that is really science, though. Memorization and categorization are important, and the foundation of being able to understand relationships between objects, but they’re not science. The basic property that makes science science is that it’s self-checking. You don’t just make an assumption; you test it. You see if it works the next time you use it. And you don’t assume that just because it did, it always will.

And the most important thing, the one aspect of science that sets it apart from all other methods of knowing, is that science isn’t loyal. You can rely on an idea for years, decades, but if something comes along that proves the idea wrong, boom! It gets chucked out like moldy cheese.

Well, not always. The other thing about science is that it builds on previous knowledge. If you learn something works pretty well, and then something else comes along that does better, a lot of the time you find out the second thing is just a modification of the first. Einstein didn’t trash Newton; relativity updated Newton’s mechanics, made it work better when objects are traveling near the speed of light, or where there’s lots of gravity.

It was the accumulation of knowledge, of fact, that modified Newton’s ideas. Hard-won, too, with experiments that contradicted centuries of "common wisdom". But that knowledge, when it’s correct, builds over time. It all has to work, like a tapestry. And it does.

Still, it’s hard to let go of an idea even when you know it’s wrong. Sometimes the idea is stubborn (or its holder is). Sometimes it’s comforting to have a warm, fuzzy idea. I bet that most of the time, though, it’s ego, pure and simple. We identify with the ideas we keep, and if that idea is wrong, then that means some part of us is wrong. That’s a difficult issue to deal with.

And that’s why kids can be natural born scientists, but terrible skeptics. And that’s OK; sometimes kids need to just do stuff "because I said so", and you don’t want them always questioning you. The real problem comes when they grow up and don’t let go of that characteristic.

We all do it. Believing is easy. Being skeptical is hard. It’s the road less traveled, rough-hewn and difficult. There are pitfalls everywhere, scary dark places, things that would be so much easier just to wish away when we close our eyes.

But reality, as author Philip K. Dick said, is what doesn’t go away when we stop believing in it.

Reality doesn’t care what you believe, what you do, for whom you vote. It just keeps on keeping it real. And since that’s the case, isn’t it better to see it for what it is? When you believe in something that’s wrong, other beliefs glom onto it, getting more complicated, getting harder and harder to balance and reconcile, like a pyramid built upside down. You build up more and more nonsense until the contradictions get so glaringly obvious your only choice is to either completely ignore them, compartmentalizing your beliefs, or to let it all come crashing down.

You have to face reality.

In this book you will read about many such heels-over-head pyramids. Aliens. The Moon hoax. Bigfoot. Some are larks, fun little tidbits of silliness that on their own don’t do much harm.

Others are dangerous. "Alternative" medicines that not only don’t help, but keep people from seeking real medicine, making them sicker. Intercessory prayer, which is proven not to do anything, but which people sometimes employ instead of seeking real help. Self-proclaimed "psychics" who prey on the bereaved and grieving. And of course creationism, which shuts down curiosity and turns a blind eye to the true, and very ancient, nature of the world.

Science kicks over that pyramid, and sets it on its stable base. The best thing about science – and its mulitpurpose toolkit, skepticism – is that they show you how the Universe really is. Yes, it can be scary, dark, and impersonal. But that’s OK because it’s also complex, deep, marvelous, profound, wondrous, magnificent… and above all, beautiful.

That beauty is out there. All you have to do is stop believing in it, and start understanding it.

MORE ABOUT: Guy Harrison

Comments (30)

  1. I see the typo on the cover is still there. :D

    Some of the crank reviews on Amazon make me sure that we need to just cull some of those folks from the gene pool. I enjoyed the book, and will make sure to sereptitiously place some in coffee shops and other reading areas.

  2. Mark

    Outstanding Phil! I am absolutely in awe of the last paragraph… Magnificent!

  3. Very nice forward, Phil! Clear, concise and straight as a laser beam!

    I’m not sure what the typo is, though… Help! :^D

  4. Chris

    I glanced at the table of contents and yikes, sad people think those are true. A lot of those I figured were more good campfire stories, but the sad reality is people actually believe those things. I think 20 years ago it was easier to believe in some of these pseudoscience things because technology was evolving and maybe we’d be able to actually find something (Also I was in grade school at the time), but sadly as I got older I realized all those stories were bunk. And I say “sadly” because who here wouldn’t think visiting aliens, ghosts, magic and psychics would be totally cool. But we are grown up now and have to accept reality.

  5. Ru

    Love the last line –
    “That beauty is out there. All you have to do is stop believing in it, and start understanding it.”

  6. @ Richard (#3)< on the title page it says:

    UFOs are vistors from other worlds

    Missing an i in visitors. :)

  7. Wow. I read over that a dozen times & didn’t see it! Good eye! I was so busy checking the spelling on reincarnation that I missed it entirely!

  8. Bob Robinson

    A most eloquent statement on what it takes to be a skeptic. Thank, Phil!

  9. Nice one. :] Gotta check out the book now too, thanks Phil !

  10. Joe G

    Any chance this would become available on the Apple bookstore?

  11. Bill

    Derek Colanduno had a fun interview with Guy Harrison on Skepticality ahwile back. You can catch the episode here:

    http://www.skepticality.com/odds-popular-beliefs/

  12. mike burkhart

    Did he say anything about the bermuda triangle? What if I said I beleve in some of these things but in a rantional way. For example I think UFOs may be exparimental aircraft in some cases. Hoaxs and pratical jokes in others . I was reading a ufo book I found that I bought as a kid , one of the reports is about a family that saw a ufo fly overhead , then saw creatures walking all over there property ,they shot at them to no efect , they piled into a car and arived at a Sherifs station in a compleat hysterical state . The sherif went to the house and found nothing , the family returned home and the creatures returned leveing some time before morning. Alien encounter? I thought so as a kid , but in thinking about it I now think this family was the victm of somebodys rather elebrate pratical joke. Hears why I think so :1 The family was not making this up according to the sherif they were scared out ther minds when they arived I doubt they were good actors 2 the cretures disappered when the sherif whent to the house aliens would’nt know what a sherif was but kids would. So hears what I think happened : The Ufo was a flare or a remote controled airplane painted with luminous paint, the “aliens” where the jokers in costume now why the gun shots had no efect was I think they fired warning shots hopeing to scare the creatures off but didnot aim directly at them (maybe thinking what I am) when they got in the car and left the jokers hid and whated for them to return witch they did. When this thing got into the news the jokers became scared to reviel themslefs and destoryed the evidence. The only question I can’t answer is why this family was the target of this? This explation makes sense to me. By the way I would like to appeal to the ones who pulled off this joke to come forward ,and confess This family can take no leagle action at this point and I think confassion and an apioligy would put there mind at ease.

  13. Justin

    I definitely just found my hammock-reading material for the weekend. I have a suspicion that this is going to involve a lot of yelling in the house to my wife, “Oh, my god. Honey! Did you know that…”

    Really looking forward to it, the fact that you wrote such an eloquent forward just makes it all the better.

  14. Chris A.

    Phil Dick quote FTW! Good on you, (other) Phil!

  15. Inti

    Sounds like a fun and useful book. But “50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True” may be the most redundant title I’ve seen in a while :D

  16. Matt B.

    I’m disappointed to see that there’s a chapter titled “Biological Races Are Real”. On the Gene Expression blog last year, Razib Khan showed that it is quite easy to find genetic differences that correspond to racial aspects of phenotype. Just because there are genes that don’t correspond to race doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist. And just because race does exist doesn’t mean it has to be used as the basis of discrimination or mistreatment. It strikes me as very Stephen Colbert-ish to adopt the stance of denying the existence of race in order to fight racism. It’s fighting the wrong battle. The point should be that the mere existence of racial differences doesn’t recommend treating people differently. That attitude can then be used for other areas like religion and gender.

    @13 Inti – Good point. It could have been “50 Widely Believed Misconceptions”.

  17. MKS

    also I’ve noticed that in my culture (which includes Canada & America), single persons are usually credited with their ideas, so Einstein ‘invented’ GR & Newton ‘discovered’ the laws of gravity when, really, they were more part of a knowledge gestalt…

    I guess that’s because our cultures are so focussed on the individual? and looking at reality as separate objects influencing each other as opposed to a more relational view, that of everything being processes?

  18. C Murdock

    I’m afraid I have to be a grump here, but this book seems like a huge missed opportunity to me. “50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True” sounds like it would be a collection of misconceptions that people have. Why a book like that would be great is, every field it seems has its fair share of myths and misunderstandings that most nonspecialists– even otherwise intelligent ones– believe. Speaking for myself as an amateur linguistics afficionado, I can tell you that there are things that everybody, even Dr Plait, gets wrong almost all the time regarding how languages work. My friends who are mathematicians, biologists, and historians of religion could also name similar gaffes that otherwise smart people very often make. Instead, this book seems to be aimed at debunking only stuff that the very bottom of the barrel thinks– “Hey, did you know that the paranormal is bunk?!?!” Gee whiz, thanks for that…

    I suppose I shouldn’t criticize a book (much less one I haven’t read yet) for being what it is instead of being what I wish it had been. I just have to wonder: at this point, do we really need yet more pulp and ink spent on telling people that the pyramids weren’t built by aliens? At what point have you sorted all of the wheat from the chaff, and are left trying to convince the unconvinceable?

  19. Thameron

    Neither the universe, the material that composes it nor the laws that guide it are inherently beautiful (nor ugly for that matter). They simply ARE. Beauty is entirely an anthropomorphic interpretation of those things. It is an opinion, not a fact. Those people who view the cold, uncaring, mechanistic universe as hideous and utterly bereft of meaning are equally right. What possible evidence for the beauty of the universe can be brought forward that doesn’t boil down to “Because I think it is”?

  20. Pat Kelly

    That PKD quote concludes all of my work emails. That along with the following: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!,” but “That’s funny…” Isaac Asimov

  21. Based on the excerpts I read on Amazon, the forward is the most well-written part of the book. I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff in there, and it may even do some people some good, but the sections I read, on fine-tuning for example, I found to be really shallow and disappointing.

    Edited to add: I’m really not trying to be a wet blanket about something Dr. Plait clearly liked, but I am genuinely disappointed in what I read. Maybe the samples at Amazon are a poor selection. I wish the author the best of luck with it.

  22. Peter Beattie

    Beautiful, Phil. Thanks!

  23. Violet Hour Muse

    What about intercessory prayer that has been proven to be effective after people have received appropriate treatment, and whose recovery Western medical science cannot explain?

    Nice forward.

  24. Owen Gay

    That was great. I just purchased the book

  25. I disagree. Kids are all naural skeptics until adults make them believe.

    It’s why kids are the worst audience for magic shows.

  26. Peter B

    Violet Hour Muse said @ #23: “What about intercessory prayer that has been proven to be effective after people have received appropriate treatment, and whose recovery Western medical science cannot explain?”

    Could you please provide a source for this claim.

    Thank you.

  27. Avi Chapman

    @25 I disagree with your disagreement. :)

    Kids are wired to believe anything their parents or tribal elders tell them without question. They’ll ask tonnes of questions, but they’ll believe the first answer they get. As long as the adults use a serious voice, they can tell them that water is wet, that fire burns and that the rain will not fall unless we sacrifice a goat at the full moon. All of these will be believed.

    As for dealing with magicians the way you’re describing, I’ve only ever seen teens do that. What you say is true about teens. Questioning is a natural part of the transition into adulthood. And it is that questioning that some adults squash and others nurture.

  28. sHx

    Blind leading the blind.

    Dear Phil

    What makes you think you are qualified to write the foreword for “50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True” while you are firmly in the believer’s camp with regard to the ‘looming climate catastrophe’, the 51st popular belief that people think are true?

    Oh, right, your fellow ‘skeptic’ asked you to do it. Guy Harrison, eh? I think I’ll ignore the book.

  29. Peter B

    sHx asked @ #28: “What makes you think you are qualified to write the foreword for “50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True” while you are firmly in the believer’s camp with regard to the ‘looming climate catastrophe’, the 51st popular belief that people think are true?”

    I’d like to offer two answers to this question.

    Firstly, if Dr Plait happens to be wrong in an issue on one topic it has no effect on whether he’s right in other topics. I know very little about the geology of Ganymede, but that doesn’t stop me from being reliable on issues such as Project Apollo.

    Secondly, my understanding is that Dr Plait bases his views on climate change on a scientific consensus. The problem I’ve experienced with climate change skeptics is that they offer no consensus on what’s happening. I’ve heard climate change skeptics (all in the one group) provide the following explanations: (a) the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist, (b) the greenhouse effect does exist, but the Earth is cooling, (c) the Earth is warming but humans are playing no part in this, and (d) humans are warming the Earth but it’s too late to stop it so we’re better off adapting. My experience is that when a group of people who are opposed to something can’t offer a consistent counter-narrative, they’re likely to be all wrong.

    I don’t know enough about climate science to hold an informed opinion either way, so I accept the consensus. As this consensus is based on straightforward science (burn a lot of fuel, release a lot of carbon dioxide, warm the planet) I find it uncontroversial.

  30. Jack

    Wait, I don’t get the “you’re either born smart or you’re not”. Is this going to end up being some “LOL because ‘smart’ means accumulated knowledge, tricked you!” stupidity? That would just piss me off more than enlighten me. It would take some serious proof otherwise, because you’d have to somehow make the case that although people are born with clearly differing potentials in practically every other observable aspect of their bodies, they all have the same intelligence potential. If it is what I think it is, though, I don’t find it very clever to trick me into reading something only to have you just point out that the commonly accepted usage of “smart” isn’t the dictionary definition.

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