The Undercover Philosopher: A Guide to Detecting Shams, Lies and Delusions
by M. Philips
I’m just going to do a quick review on this book which started out promising, lost me in the middle, and ended on an up note. You may be able to pull something valuable out of it, as I did, or you may end up soured and give up.
The beginning is a walk through how we are all hostages of our beliefs. This book, states the author, is about the obstacles and hazards we face on the road to an accurate view of the world. When Philips first talks about “skeptics”, this is the first “Hmm…” moment, and I was confused. He does not have the same definition of “skeptic” as I do. He considers them general doubters. I consider skeptics as seekers – after the best evidence. Throughout the book, however, Philips does stress the reliability of evidence and why it’s imperative that it be solid and reliable before we can rely upon conclusions. We have to work pretty hard to overcome our natural tendencies to be mistaken in how we gain our knowledge.
He introduces the concept of “knowledge machines”. I didn’t like this, it felt like an incorrect analogy, too mechanical. It is referenced throughout.
The book does not flow, heading into descriptions of post-modernism (it seems like “skeptics” in his sense are considered po-mo, contrasted with rationalists), taking a diversion into Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of intuition, talking about doctors and base rates of conditions – a worthy discussion but not explained well enough for me to grasp the big picture. There are good portions about memory and perception. Unfortunately, that is marred by a glaring misspelling of the phenomenon of pareidolia as “periodolia”.
There is a great concept the author relates about hearing bad science – it’s like listening to music out of tune. So, this book sounded like a week old garage band as the author describes how acupuncture is a sound treatment, a shame scientists were so slow to accept it. This surprising take goes against the rest of the book’s call for sound evidence! The justification for acceptance of acupuncture is hollow and, for me, just kills credibility. After this point, I really can’t bring myself to be interested in the sections that follow, about behavioralism and economics, which run on too long about subjects that don’t plug in well to the premise of the book.
There are certainly gems within that I wrote down and hope to use again, such as his description of post-modernism as a “litany of epistemic pessimism,” and the ending which declares that debunkers risk a lot – they are heroes.
It really is too bad the entire book was not solid.