Too Many Books Are Never Enough
Books for Critical Thinkers

For Young Readers

Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics: By Dan Barker; illustrated by Brian Strassburg. Prometheus Books, 1990. Paperback, $17.98

This outstanding book offers at once an entertaining read and a necessary mental toolbox for children. It begins with a very plausible storyline: the neighborhood children are discussing a rumor that their friend's house is haunted. Readers are shown how a story can grow all out of proportion to the known facts; how a supernatural explanation can seem more exciting (and therefore emotionally preferable) to a simple earthly one; and how an explanation can be both mundane and complex.

The first half of the book is devoted to this story, related partly in text and partly in comic format. The rest is an excellent outline of the scientific method. Children are urged to check things out for themselves, rather than just taking anyone's word on important issues; to see if the claim in question can be repeated; to try to disprove a claim; to favor the simplest explanation where more than one interpretation of the facts is possible; and to be wary of claims that just plain don't make sense. Best of all, it emphasizes that a truly scientific thinker is never afraid to say, "I don't know."

Maybe Yes, Maybe No is an indispensable introduction to critical thinking, skepticism, and science at its best.

Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong: A Guide for Young Thinkers: By Dan Barker; illustrated by Brian Strassburg. Prometheus Books, 1992. Paperback, $17.98

Barker's guide to ethics and morals doesn't clear the hurdle as cleanly as his previous work did. While many of his points are skillfully presented, there's often a contradiction between the content and the intended audience.

Barker introduces important ideas in an original way. "Some people use rules to decide what is right or wrong," he says early in the book. "A rule is a command that you are supposed to obey all the time." He shows his main character (Andrea, the girl from his previous book) looking at a cluster of signs. "No Bicycles on Freeway," one of them reads. "Don't Steal," says another. Clearly, rules are important and necessary. But principles are higher. "A principle is an idea, not a command. A principle does not tell you what to do. A principle tells you how to think about what to do."

For exactly that reason, principles are more readily broken than principles, because one principle can bow to another depending on the situation.

Barker's theories and his language here are outstanding. But the examples he uses to illustrate his points aren't as strong.

At one point, the main character is told by a veterinarian that her cat can't live much longer and is in a great deal of pain. The vet offers to give the cat a lethal injection, and leaves the choice up to Andrea, though she's just a child.

Later, Barker asks the reader: "Suppose a woman you know comes to your house and says that she needs somewhere to hide because her husband has been beating her up." Again, this is a decision that would never fall on the shoulders of a child — especially one young enough to be reading this book, whose vocabulary is carefully simple and which is heavy on line drawings and light on text.

One of the principles Barker suggests is "Always try to tell the truth." He explains, "Sometimes a good way to know if something is wrong is to ask yourself if you can tell anyone about it. If you feel that you have to keep a secret, then the action might be wrong." This is well put. But as his example, Barker goes on to say, "If an adult or bigger kid touches you where you don't want to be touched, this is wrong because it does not respect your right to decide what to do with your own body." That's an idea that needs a book all its own, not just a passing reference.

The strengths and flaws of Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong seem about equal to me. I have attempted to present both in enough detail that parents can make an informed decision as to whether or not this book should have a place in their critical thinking library.

The Magic Detectives: By Joe Nickell. Prometheus Books, 1989. Paperback, $15.98

Lessons in critical thinking have never been so much fun, or so well written. Nickell's premise will remind American readers of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries so many of us enjoyed as children. A case is presented to the detective — that is, the reader — who can attempt to explain the mystery before checking the real solution.

In this book, though, the mysteries are real ones. "Real," that is, in the sense that they are all events or creatures or supernatural phenomena that people have claimed are real. Some old standards are here (Nessie, Bigfoot, the "curse" of King Tut's tomb) along with cases that may be new even to adult readers (John Stiles, the two Will Wests, the "homing coffin" of Charles Coghlan).

Nickell starts right off with a principle that should be part of every child's education: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." He doesn't specifically mention Occam's razor, but readers will soon pick up the idea that the simplest solution is most preferable and most often correct. And it's startling even to an old cynic like me just how often the simplest (and true) solution to an extraordinary claim is, "It's a hoax."

Another idea this book offers without spelling it out is that children (and adults) should resist the temptation to argue point-by-point in person with those who make extraordinary claims. Let's say someone trying to prove that reincarnation is real tells you about Virginia Tighe, a suburban housewife who spoke under hypnosis about a past life in 19th-century Ireland. This woman had never been to Ireland, but spoke in an authentic Irish brogue, gave accurate details about Irish life, and even danced an Irish jig. "How do you explain that?" this person asks triumphantly. The temptation is to argue with the details. Maybe she read about Ireland in a book. But how does that explain the brogue, and the dance?

You can't know, unless you have time to do some research, that Tighe learned to dance jigs as a child, and that her participation in some school performances included learning to speak in an Irish brogue. Tighe also grew up in a house across the street from an Irish family. You can't know, in other words, how much information is being left out of any such story you hear or read, and whether the omission is intentional or accidental. Nickell's book is an excellent introduction to the importance of seeking more information about any extraordinary claim, and of asking one's self, "What am I not hearing about this story?"

How Do You Know It's True?: Discovering the Difference Between Science and Superstition: By Hy Ruchlis. Prometheus Books, 1991. Paperback, $18.98

Written by someone who obviously adores his work, this book is a wonderful combination of science, history, psychology, anthropology, and why true skepticism must come from the best information these fields have to offer.

Ruchlis points out by good example that skepticism should not be dogmatic naysaying. In a discussion of "witch doctors," he explains, "Scientists are careful not to reject everything witch doctors do as worthless in treating illness and disease." The medications they derived from plants led to the invention of such drugs as quinine, which is used in the treatment of malaria.

The difference between science and superstition, Ruchlis explains by way of wonderful historical anecdotes and suggested experiments, is that scientific thinking is hard work. It takes time, and it doesn't take the easy way out. And frankly, it doesn't offer the surface excitement that some superstitious ideas do.

Ruchlis readily admits that science is not perfect. Scientific thinking, however, is the best thing we've got so far as tackling the world's problems is concerned. The passionate philosophy of How Do You Know can best be summarized by this paragraph, found toward the end of the book. After describing the sort of hard-won knowledge that has made it possible for us to have ordinary things like pure food and water and extraordinary possibilities like space flight, he asks:

"What part of these great accomplishments has been contributed by the superstitious way of thinking? Absolutely nothing. The belief in fairy-tale magic has blocked attempts to explain how and why things happen. Today it is a lazy person's excuse to avoid thinking about why things happen."

This is as stern as Ruchlis gets. He understands that even perfectly intelligent people will indulge in unconscious "cardstacking" — that is, the tendency to look for evidence that supports an idea one would like to believe, and to discount or fail to see evidence that directly contradicts it. This is an important concept that skeptics of all ages need to be aware of. Ruchlis does a wonderful job of presenting this and other significant ideas in a manner both accessible and intriguing.

Because the book is so excellent in general, I was disappointed by one doozy of a historical/scientific misstep. Ruchlis devotes several pages of chapter six, "Science and Freedom of Thought," to the idea that ancient astronomers didn't think the world was round, and that Columbus was crucial in proving it to be so. The book is too good to dismiss because of this single flub, but it's something to know about in advance — and may be valuable if presented to children as an example of how we should bring a healthy sense of skepticism even to the writing of skeptics.

Sasquatches From Outer Space: Exploring the Weirdest Mysteries Ever: By Tim Yule; illustrated by Keith Baxter. Prometheus Books, 2000. Paperback, $15.98

This book has an excellent premise: "Just because a claim is bizarre doesn't mean that we can automatically dismiss it." So, as Yule goes on to ask, "how do we separate the weird-but-true stuff from the just plain weird?" That's where critical thinking comes in.

Yule then tackles various odd claims and alleged phenomena with the idea of teaching young readers what kind of questions to ask. For instance, in the chapter on astrology, he gives samples of various astrological forecasts from syndicated columns and asks his readers to examine them carefully. Do they really seem specifically tailored, or are they full of flattering ideas and general good sense?

Yule then describes the work of writer and researcher Michael Gauquelin. First, Gauquelin asked for a horoscope from a famous astrologer. The result was a description of a truly lovely individual. The birth date, however, was that of a serial killer. Gauquelin then went on to place an ad in a paper, offering free personalized horoscopes. 150 people received the same "horoscope" — the one Gauquelin had received — and most of the clients raved about how accurate it was.

Yule offers his young readers the chance to take part in a similar activity. This section even has pages that can be cut out and experimented with.

This chapter demonstrates the strengths of Yule's work: engaging humor, and an eagerness to engage his young readers in active critical thinking. At times, he seems reluctant to be too skeptical himself. I was disappointed that the chapter about the Loch Ness Monster didn't mention how much of the "evidence" supporting its existence has been revealed to be completely fraudulent, and how many hoaxes have been perpetrated in the name of "proving" Nessie to exist. And he tends to say, "This happened, and then a man did that, and then he saw that," when it would be more accurate to say, "This allegedly happened, and then a man claimed to do that and see that."

But what Sasquatches may lack in hardcore skepticism, it makes up for in the critical thinking tools and the fascinating information it offers young readers. In the chapter about crop circles, Yule offers a list of factors to look for "if you suspect that you are dealing with a hoax." And the chapter about vampires offers some amazing (if occasionally disgusting) history facts about why people started believing in vampires, back when vampire belief was more common and vampires were far less attractive than they're generally portrayed as being now.

My public library's children's section contains dozens of books about Bigfoot, Nessie, crop circles, ghosts, UFOs, alien landings, and alien abductions. Not one of them is skeptical, or encourages critical thinking on the part of the reader. Sasquatches is a welcome respite from this weak fare. As Yule has a wonderful sense of humor, his book is also a terrifically fun read.

(This book is recommended for readers aged eight to twelve, but parents of sensitive children should err on the side of caution. The astrology chapter contains a short but vivid description of a serial killer's "work," and the vampire chapter has some less-than-lovely lore.)

Wonder-workers!: How They Perform The Impossible: By Joe Nickell. Prometheus Books, 1991. Paperback, $18.98

This book contains ten capsule biographies. Adults will recognize some of the names — Edgar Cayce, Peter Hurkos, Daniel Home — and of course everyone knows Houdini. But most of the con artists and honest magicians in this book will be new to readers of all ages.

The introduction to Wonder-workers presents it as sort of a sequel, or at least partner, to The Magic Detectives. "We will look at each [person] in the way that paranormal investigators do. That is, we will examine their claims in the spirit of scientific inquiry to learn whether or not they did have paranormal powers."

This is slightly misleading, since there's no "we" in this investigative process. It's a fine book, and offers valuable lessons in both history and skepticism, but Nickell might as well have admitted upfront that he's the one doing the work.

I was riveted by the "here's how he did it" dirt in the chapter about Joseph Dunninger, one of the good-guy mentalists who not only never tried to pass himself off as a "genuine" psychic but, like Houdini, worked hard to debunk the frauds. (The next time anyone accuses me of being a control freak, I will point out that Dunninger was a debunker who also wrote several books of magic tricks, yet took some of his own magic secrets with him to the grave.)

Perhaps the most valuable story for young readers in this collection is that of Lulu Hurst, a 19th-century "human magnet" who began to feel burdened and oppressed by the supernatural powers her audiences were willing to attribute to her. She retired and came completely clean, explaining how devastatingly simple her feats had been to pull off. The lesson that it's never too late to tell the truth is impressively demonstrated.

This book is a fun and educational read, especially for a child interested in the history of magic.

The I Hate Mathematics! Book: By Marilyn Burns. Little, Brown Young Readers, 1975. Paperback, $14.99

I loved this book as a child and I love it now — it's aged surprisingly well. (There are occasional references to phone booths and baby carriages that now seem rather quaint as I watch mothers with phones plugged directly into their heads whiz by, pushing their jogger-strollers.)

The title may be off-putting to those who hate the word "hate," especially in regard to a subject that's already taken plenty of abuse. However, this book is too good to miss. (Fortunately, libraries tend to carry it.) It's brimming over with mathematical riddles, activities, games, tricks, and harmless smart-aleck math fun. This book was my first introduction to pi, topology, statistics, prime numbers, and the difference between a combination and a permutation.

It isn't just about math, though. It's about taking a look at ordinary objects and situations from a whole new vantage point. The riddles are not about doing math correctly in order to come up with a numerically correct answer. Having some basic arithmetic skills helps, but the most important issue is logical thinking. Sometimes a logical answer is counterintuitive. This book can help kids learn to celebrate that idea rather than fear it.

Junior Skeptic: From Skeptic Magazine (quarterly journal, $30 for a 1-year subscription)

This publication is included in each issue of Skeptic. I hesitate to say that it would be worth subscribing to Skeptic just to get Junior Skeptic, because this would imply that the parent magazine is skippable. Skeptic is an outstanding magazine in every respect. It's a genuine journal rather than a glossy, beautifully laid out on heavy paper. Its writing is sharp, clear and passionate. It's a magazine every skeptical thinker will enjoy. And, yes, Junior Skeptic would be worth the price even if the rest of the publication were dead weight.

Each JS is a themed piece — a thoughtful, informative, and deeply entertaining essay, broken up into bite-sized pieces for ease of reading but still a cohesive whole. The writing is age-appropriate without ever slipping into condescension. The authors assume, rightly, that simple and direct language is the best way to communicate with readers of any age.

The amount of information given makes each issue a unit study all in itself. I was pleasantly staggered by the wealth of detail in the Loch Ness Monster issue: history (the first reference to Nessie, amusingly described here, dates from the seventh century); geography (the article shows Scotland on a globe, and then on a map up close to show it in relation to England and Ireland); vocabulary ("cryptozoology"); math (given the dimensions of Loch Ness, what's its volume?); lots of science (underwater photography, sonar scans, plesiosaurs), and of course critical thinking. The backstories of the most famous Nessie photos are enough to teach any child to regard photographic "evidence" of extraordinary claims with extreme skepticism.

Daniel Loxton, the editor and writer of JS, knows that the hardest aspect of critical thinking for anyone to truly absorb is the idea that we ourselves can be fooled. (Most of us are all too willing to admit that others can be.) In the outstanding issue devoted to Bigfoot, Loxton devotes the bulk of a page to the visual mistakes he made in his years as a shepherd in the wilderness of northern British Columbia. He and two other people had to keep careful watch over 1500 sheep. "It was our job to notice everything," he said. "All the same, we quite often mistook sheep for bears, stumps for bears, and bears for stumps....These illusions happen because (despite the comparison pictures in Bigfoot books) the world isn't like a police line-up." Loxton describes the factors that can affect viewing conditions — not just externals like mist, bright sun, or dust, but fatigue and the brain's tendency to make us see what we think we'll see. His stories of close encounters with sheep and dogs who turned out to really be bears make the reader grateful he survived his job — and make it easier, in the face of such egoless admissions, to admit to ourselves that maybe we could have been fooled by our own senses, too. Any child who can learn that lesson early is well on the way to making the world a smarter place.

Junior Skeptic doesn't just take on bizarre claims. One issue offers a thorough lesson in how cold-readers can seem to have genuine psychic powers. (This is also an excellent lesson in psychology and personal relations — just because most of us don't want to be con artists doesn't mean we can't learn a bit from their ability to charm victims.) Another teaches the basics of evolution entertainingly and accessibly. And another issue takes a beautifully illustrated look at why cultures all over the world have the idea of dragons.

Don't dump the rest of the magazine, as I said. But don't be embarrassed if you subscribe to Skeptic and secretly turn to the Junior Skeptic section first — or save it for last, like the treat it is. Why should your kids have all the fun?

Books from The Critical Thinking Company

Critical Thinking, Book One: The Critical Thinking Company, paperback, $22.99

Critical Thinking, Book Two: The Critical Thinking Company, paperback, $24.99

Recommended grade levels: 7–12

I was unable to get review copies of these books in time to give them a full write-up for this issue. Sample pages are available from the Critical Thinking Company's web site. The books seem to be an excellent introduction to the basics of such crucial concepts as the difference between fact and opinion and how to judge if an argument is rigorous or just loud.

Science Detective A1: By Deandra Dean-McLeod and Sharon Allain Smith. Paperback, $19.99. Recommended grade levels: 5–6 (also available for grades 3–4)

This book's own worst enemy is its cover. It gives the impression that it's a hands-on adventure course that will teach young readers to boil up strange concoctions and solve the world's mysteries. I expected to find pages that read along the lines of, "Oh, no! How will Science Detective solve this problem?" Instead, it's simply an outstanding science education resource.

A quick glance through its pages might give the impression that this is just another science workbook. However, Science Detective keeps children both relaxed and engaged with a couple of unusual strategies. Unlike "schooly" workbooks, the question section encourages readers to go back to the text and reread the material for the sake of clarification or in order to confirm answers. It also has the most dynamic form of true or false questions I've ever seen.

Here's an example, from the "Measuring Matter: Mass, Volume, and Density" chapter of the physical science section:

"True or False: Gravity affects the mass of a brick."

If a question is false (as this one is), the child must replace the word or words in bold with a term that will make the statement true. This lively mental exercise demonstrates to the parent that the child truly understands what each exercise is about.

Other kinds of questions are also creative. Some can have more than one correct answer. Some ask the child to consider his own immediate surroundings: What are some things you used today that relied on ocean resources? Prove that a doorknob is an example of a wheel-and-axle by drawing and labeling a doorknob. (We may never dissect frogs in our house, but I have the feeling that some of our doors may come under the knife...)

Science Detective covers a great deal of territory. As it's very concise, it makes an excellent core science course that can be supplemented with library books on any topic parents or children want more details about.

You Decide!: Applying the Bill of Rights to Real Cases: By George Bundy Smith and Alene L. Smith. Paperback, $26.99, recommended grade levels: 6–12

This book is exactly what it sounds like: an intriguing and engaging course in the American Bill of Rights. It's one thing to learn the words of these amendments; it's another to see what they really mean. Children read about real cases and are then asked their opinion of the cases. Only then do they read the amendment the case involves, and answer questions regarding it.

Although a great deal of the information discussed will undoubtedly stick in a young homeschooler's mind, the real value of this book is the vigorous mental exercise it gives the child an opportunity to engage in. Does she agree with how these cases turned out? Does she agree with the amendments? Why or why not?

Homeschoolers will find the very first case involving the First Amendment hits close to home, literally — readers are asked to "be the judge" about Wisconsin v. Yoder, a pivotal case in American homeschooling history in which the Amish won the right to educate their children at home as they saw fit.

Unless you're a professor of constitutional law, the instruction/answer guide (paperback, $14.99) is crucial. It offers information about the cases described in the workbook that isn't intuitive, and explains terms.

For teenagers and adults

Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make
in Thinking:
By Thomas Kida. Prometheus Books, 2006. Paperback, $19.98

It's nice to have a book whose title tells you everything you need to know regarding whether or not to buy it. If you're someone who's willing to admit that her or his thinking might be faulty in some departments — might, in fact, be like everyone else's — this book is a gentle, enjoyable guide to the tricks our own minds play on us, and how we can refuse to play along.

The six mistakes in question are: We prefer stories to statistics; we seek to confirm; we rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in life; we can misperceive our world; we oversimplify; we have faulty memories.

This book is rigorous enough to qualify as a course in critical thinking, and entertaining enough to be one of those books we annoy friends and family with by our insistence on reading huge chunks of it aloud to them. Kida knows that there's nothing more boring to read than a list of dry rules and ideas, and nothing more fun than that same list leavened with lots of supporting anecdotes. He acknowledges that he's playing to our innate tendency to listen to such stories. "Of course," he adds, "the points made here are typically backed up by considerable research."

Read this book even if your kids are too young for it. You'll have the chance to start learning some good new mental habits, and even passing them along.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts: By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Mariner Books, 2008 (reprint edition). Paperback, $15.00

I recommended Don't Believe Everything You Think; I beg you to read Mistakes Were Made. Always painfully short of reading time, I finished this book in three days (did you know that if you're really careful, you can read while you floss?).

Self-justification sounds like a comparatively small issue. As Mistakes points out, it's not always a bad thing. "It lets us sleep at night," Tavris and Aronson tell us in the introduction. "Without it...we would agonize in the aftermath of almost every decision: Did we do the right thing, marry the right person, buy the right house, choose the best car, enter the right career?"

But self-justification can take a lethal turn.

Tavris and Aronson bring up the example of Ignac Semmelweiss, who came to learn that there was some link (he didn't have enough information to figure out the details) between doctors washing their hands before helping women deliver babies and lower rates of childbed fever. I taught this to my young students in our classes about Darwin and evolution, as an example of how hard it is to change ways of thinking. Semmelweiss had statistical evidence on his side. He wasn't asking his colleagues to do something difficult, or anything he wasn't willing to do himself. And this was quite literally a matter of life and death. Yet his ideas were indignantly rejected, by people who considered themselves men of science. Why?

Because accepting Semmelweiss' recommendation would have introduced cognitive dissonance — "a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent." In this case, the doctors already had one idea: They were people who saved lives. They were, after all, doctors: educated, necessary, good. Semmelweiss' recommendation may strike us as nothing but simple scientific sense, but to his colleagues, it was introducing an idea emotionally contradictory to the first: Their actions (or inactions) led to death, not life.

Rather than adjust their ideas on scientific thinking (a willingness to discard previous theses in the light of new evidence) and what being a doctor ought to mean (putting the well-being of one's patients first), these doctors chose to cling to their first, cherished premise — that of being the good guys in the war against disease. And so women continued to die.

If this strikes you as safely once-upon-a-time territory, Mistakes has plenty of evidence to the contrary. It may not sound like pleasant reading, and sometimes it isn't. But it's riveting. And so necessary.

Too Good To Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends: By Jan Harold Brunvand. W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. Paperback, $17.95

Urban legends are so much fun to read, it's hard to believe they're educational. And if you approach them uncritically, you can read a thousand of them and be taken in by the thousand and first that comes your way. (This happened to a close friend of mine, who had read one version of a legend in another collection by this author, and believed the very same legend to be absolutely true when she heard it from a different source — same story, different celebrity's name plugged in.)

But for those who are willing to do the work, urban legends can really sharpen critical thinking skills. Newspapers run these legends as factual accounts all the time. How can you tell when a story is just that? Professor Brunvand has written several books about urban legends, and they're more than just collections — they also discuss the earmarks of an urban legend and the needs urban legends fill.

(Parents should be aware that many urban legends have horror story components, and others have some sexual content. This collection, or any of the others by the author, may be inappropriate for young people.)

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