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Believing Bullshit by Stephen Law

1/12/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Believing Bullshit in the USA - or Buy Believing Bullshit in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 271 page small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP16.99 (UK), $19.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-411-1).

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

Usually, I tend to wonder about how people can go into a record shop and ask for a CD over the counter with a title made up of bad language when they can’t find it on the shelf. It’s rare to see a book, let alone a non-fiction doing that. Of course, with so many people buying over the Internet, that particular problem is resolved these days.

The actual content of ‘Believing Bullshit’ comes from its sub-title, ‘How Not To Get Sucked Into An Intellectual Black Hole’, even if you have to think about what that means. Essentially, Stephen Law’s book explains how belief can get in the way of facts and gives eight pointers as to how easy to you being subverted.



With Science Fiction, we play with the borders of this all the time but rarely does any writer point out what is deemed as fantastic as the truth. Only two have done that and we all know who they are, don’t we? Understanding a bit more of the mechanism of manipulation, whether it is intended or misguided is a useful case study for us all, regardless of our interest. Indeed, after reading this book, if you weren’t a cynic before, you’ll soon become easily qualified.

Law’s opening introduction includes ideas that have even been used in the lowest echelon of SF and not hard to recognise their sources. I do wish he would explain more about the mechanism of why people are taken in but Law is a philosopher not a psychologist. From my perspective, people are either going to believe in something in its entirety or not at all. There is no middle ground. Mostly anyway. I suspect it’s part of human nature to have some level of gullibility or we’d never accept some form of leadership or there wouldn’t be some form of herd instinct kicking in. If you’re going to carry some belief that something is possible into a story, I’ve often found that it works if you blend what we know of our reality to the fantastic and so it/s harder to spot the join. I suspect that is how the con artists work as well.

He does make a lot more sense of how any theory can be justified if you apply a little imagination but that’s equivalent of lawyer talk in covering any explanation. There’s a lot about the Bible’s tales that are implausible. A child might enjoy the idea of Noah’s ark being able to take a pair of each animal but as Law points out the size of the boat makes that clearly implausible unless Noah had a shrinking ray or God supplied him with one. Like a lot of things taught when young, they tend to be ignored as we grow older. Well, for many, anyway.

I will take him to task as to saying two British schools teach creationism. As a Brit himself, Law should know have about 26600 schools over here. That isn’t even a significant percentage compared to the 15% in the USA that teach it. We’ve had religious studies and sciences taught in different classes but they are kept very much separate over here. I hardly think using the UK is a good example and just a touch running off at the mouth, although granted this book is for sale principally stateside. Maybe Law is testing the level of his book title?

Having said that, Law does go to town in attacking former President George Bush’s gut instinct for doing things that will make you wish that all political leaders should do some form of intelligence test before being allowed to stand for office. Instincts are all well and good but without knowledge to back it up can be a very dangerous pastime.

Law in the chapter, ‘I Just Know’, points out the techniques that religions and brainwashing share in common in recruiting their supporters. There really should be a real law against some of the techniques being practiced in the name of religion, mostly because it is against free will.

In the ‘Conclusions’, Law addresses the belief in alien abduction and what aliens look like, forgetting that the Greys appearance was re-enforced by Steven Spielberg’s film, ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’.

There are some areas that I wish Law had explored more, especially with how to break the spell of being taken in by such things or better still, why? Then again, as I pointed out at the beginning of this review, Law is a philosopher not a psychologist. I do think belief is in the nature of the human psyche and that it does take education to ensure people are swayed by knowledge than instinct in the modern age. Having said that, I think the book should have been called ‘Not Believing Bullshit’ and if you want to re-enforce cynicism, then this book is highly recommended.

GF Willmetts

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