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book recommendations

Although the other resources in this Resource Center are free, we cannot make these books available at no cost. We recommend them to you based on the required readings for the many course syllabi professors have shared with us.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods
to Politics and Conspiracies

This book was required reading for the following courses: (1) “Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Without Being a Geek)” taught by Michael Shermer during the fall 2011 and (2) “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2012.

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies -- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (book cover)

In this, his magnum opus, Dr. Michael Shermer presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. This book synthesizes Dr. Shermer’s 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. In this book Dr. Shermer is interested in more than just why people believe weird things, or why people believe this or that claim, but in why people believe anything at all. His thesis is straightforward:

“We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.”

Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process Dr. Shermer calls patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation. Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.

Interlaced with his theory of belief, Dr. Shermer provides real-world examples of belief from all realms of life, and in the end he demonstrates why science is the best tool ever devised to determine whether or not a belief matches reality. —Shop Skeptic

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Michael Shermer gave a lecture on this book at the California Institute of Technology.
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The Better Angels of our Nature:
Why Violence has Declined

This book was required reading for the following course: “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2011 and 2012 semesters.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (book cover)

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

This groundbreaking book continues Pinker’s exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind’s inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society. —Amazon

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The Greatest Show on Earth:
The Evidence for Evolution

This book was required reading for the following course: “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2011 and 2012 semesters.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (book cover)

Richard Dawkins transformed our view of God in his blockbuster, The God Delusion, which sold more than 2 million copies in English alone. He revolutionized the way we see natural selection in the seminal bestseller The Selfish Gene. Now, he launches a fierce counterattack against proponents of “Intelligent Design” in his latest New York Times bestseller, The Greatest Show on Earth. “Intelligent Design” is being taught in our schools; educators are being asked to “teach the controversy” behind evolutionary theory. There is no controversy. Dawkins sifts through rich layers of scientific evidence—from living examples of natural selection to clues in the fossil record; from natural clocks that mark the vast epochs wherein evolution ran its course to the intricacies of developing embryos; from plate tectonics to molecular genetics—to make the airtight case that, “we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random selection.” His unjaded passion for the natural world turns what might have been a negative argument, exposing the absurdities of the creationist position, into a positive offering to the reader: nothing less than a master’s vision of life, in all its splendor. —Amazon

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Richard Dawkins gave a lecture on this book at the California Institute of Technology.
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Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

This book was required reading for the following course: “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain” taught by Michael Shermer during the spring 2011 and 2012 semesters.

Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (book cover)

Beginning with a historical introduction, the text logically progresses by discussing adaptive problems humans face and ends with a chapter showing how the new field of evolutionary psychology encompasses all branches of psychology. Each chapter is alive with the subjects that most occupy our minds: sex, mating, getting along, getting ahead, friends, enemies, and social hierarchies. Why is child abuse 40 times more prevalent among step-families than biologically intact families? Why, according to one study, did 75% of men but 0% of women consent to have sex with a complete stranger? Buss explores these intriguing quandaries with his vision of psychology in the new millennium as a new science of the mind. Anyone with an interest in the biological facets of human psychology will find this a fascinating read. —GoodReads

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Legends, Lore, & Lies

This book was required reading for the following course: “Composition” taught by Mark Gifford during the fall 2011 semester.

Legends, Lore, and Lies: A Skeptic's Stance (book cover)

Legends, Lore, and Lies: A Skeptic’s Stance presents intriguing readings in five sections–urban legends, alternative medicine, the media’s role in public gullibility, psychics and the paranormal, and pseudo science–to demonstrate the importance of critical examination and the differences between an opinion or assertion and a supported claim. Legends, Lore, and Lies offers a wealth of features, including: (1) Explorations of the powers and limits of skepticism in understanding topics like urban legends and pseudoscience that often are awarded uncritical acceptance in our culture. (2) An excellent explanation of skepticism, along with a number of tools that every reader can use to become a critical consumer of information. (3) A handful of “believers” point-of-view readings, which students are encouraged to examine with the tools they acquire throughout the text. (4) A variety of pedagogical tools including brief author biographies and questions preceding and following the readings that function as writing and discussion prompts. (5) End-of-chapter synthesis questions that provide writing suggestions for longer research and inquiry papers. —Amazon

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The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal

This book was required reading for Martin Bridgstock’s course, “Skepticism, Science, & the Paranormal” taught at Griffith University.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal (book cover)

Can a human being really spontaneously burst into flames? Just how deadly is the Bermuda Triangle? And what’s the real story behind all those alien abductions? The answers to these and many other questions lie within the covers of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal. Guaranteed to liven up any dinner party, this delightful, highly readable book offers color photographs and scientific case-by-case explanations for twenty-seven phenomena that appear to defy known science, including ghosts and poltergeists, the predictions of Nostradamus, and yogic levitation, among many others. Speaking directly to the reader, and always with respect for those who believe, Kelly gives us a bite-size, nonacademic approach to debunking hugely popular superstitions and mysteries. Did you know that you, too, can bend spoons and read minds? This book will show you how. —Publisher

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Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal

This book was required reading for Martin Bridgstock’s course, “Skepticism, Science & the Paranormal” taught at Griffith University during the spring 2011 semester.

Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal (book cover)

Whether ghosts, astrology or ESP, up to 80 per cent of the population believes in one or more aspects of the paranormal. Such beliefs are entertaining, and it is tempting to think of them as harmless. However, there is mounting evidence that paranormal beliefs can be dangerous – cases of children dying because parents rejected orthodox medicine in favour of alternative remedies, and ‘psychics’ who trade on the grief of the bereaved for personal profit and gain. Expenditure on the paranormal runs into billions of dollars each year. In Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal Martin Bridgstock provides an integrated understanding of what an evidence-based approach to the paranormal – a skeptical approach – involves, and why it is necessary. Bridgstock does not set out to show that all paranormal claims are necessarily false, but he does suggest that we all need the analytical ability and critical thinking skills to seek and assess the evidence for paranormal claims. —Amazon

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Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims
of the Paranormal

This book was required reading for the following courses: (1) “Weird Science” taught by John Donovan, (2) “The Psychology of Reasoning and Problem Solving” taught by Michael Cassens, and (3) “The Sociology of Belief” taught by Bryan Farha.

Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit (book cover)

“Smith’s work is a valuable contribution to the field. It will certainly be of interest to psychologists interested in the consequences of cognitive errors, and it is no doubt the best textbook on the market for a course on the psychology of paranormal belief. Although Smith explains paranormal thinking in terms of cognitive errors, his presentation of psychological issues is not technical; thus, this text would be especially useful in a freshman seminar, so popular now on American campuses, whose purpose is to help entering college students develop critical thinking skills. Students will either love or hate this text, but they will not be left unchanged by it. And that, after all, is what college is all about.”
—(PsycCRITIQUES, April 2010)

“I am astonished by the excellence of this book. Smith has produced a highly readable and very entertaining yet critical examination of virtually the entire gamut of paranormal claims, and he demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the field in doing so. While drawing extensively from psychology, physics, logical analysis and history, he always manages to keep things clear and straightforward, so that one is never lost in complexity. Moreover, the tone is light-hearted throughout, and never becomes pedantic or condescending. And the book offers much more than an evaluation of extraordinary claims. It provides a refined set of critical thinking tools that the reader will find invaluable in everyday life. I strongly recommend this book to everyone who values the pursuit of truth in all things. And I can only wish that those who know that they already have the truth would read it as well, for they need it the most.”
—James Alcock, Professor of Psychology, York University

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Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens

This book was required reading for Jeffrey Brookings’ course, “Why We Believe Weird Things: Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology” taught at Wittenberg University during the fall 2010 semester.

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (book cover)

They are tiny. They are tall. They are gray. They are green. They survey our world with enormous glowing eyes. To conduct their shocking experiments, they creep in at night to carry humans off to their spaceships. Yet there is no evidence that they exist at all. So how could anyone believe he or she was abducted by aliens? Or want to believe it?

To answer these questions, psychologist Susan Clancy interviewed and evaluated “abductees”–old and young, male and female, religious and agnostic. She listened closely to their stories–how they struggled to explain something strange in their remembered experience, how abduction seemed plausible, and how, having suspected abduction, they began to recollect it, aided by suggestion and hypnosis.

Clancy argues that abductees are sane and intelligent people who have unwittingly created vivid false memories from a toxic mix of nightmares, culturally available texts (abduction reports began only after stories of extraterrestrials appeared in films and on TV), and a powerful drive for meaning that science is unable to satisfy. For them, otherworldly terror can become a transforming, even inspiring experience. “Being abducted,” writes Clancy, “may be a baptism in the new religion of this millennium.” This book is not only a subtle exploration of the workings of memory, but a sensitive inquiry into the nature of belief. —Amazon

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Susan Clancy gave a lecture on this book at the California Institute of Technology.
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Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries:
Science & Pseudoscience in Archaeology

This book was required reading for Jeffrey Behm’s course, “Fantastic Archaeology” taught at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh during the fall 2010 semester.

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology (book cover)

Committed to the scientific investigation of human antiquity, this indispensable supplementary text uses interesting archaeological hoaxes, myths, and mysteries to show how we can truly know things about the past through science.

Examples of fantastic findings support the carefully, logically, and entertainingly described flaws in the purported evidence. By placing wildly inaccurate claims within the context of the scientific method, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries demonstrates how science approaches fascinating questions about human antiquity and, in so doing, shows where pseudoscience falls short. —Amazon

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

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Wisdom of Harriet Hall

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

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The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

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Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

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The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution

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If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

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Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
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Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

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5 Cryptid Cards

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