Recommended Skeptical References

I’m a voracious reader, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite books over the past year that have challenged, inspired, or enriched me. Whether you’re a health professional or not, I strongly recommend you put these on your reading list. They’ve helped me a lot in refining my philosophy about pharmacy practice, and improving my skeptical viewpoint.

The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark – If you read only one book on this list, make it this one.  It is Carl Sagan’s challenge to us to fight pseudoscience. The book describes the scientific method as an awe-inspiring method of discovery.  It will encourage a skeptical and critical mindset, and challenge you to think carefully about your own assumptions. Some of the book is spent discussing logical fallacies, which has helped me improve my criticism skills.

On Being Certain This is a great book that deals the feeling of certainty that we have about things. Written by a neurologist, the book makes a convincing argument that “certainty” is a mental sensation, and not evidence of fact. In fact, Burton argues that it’s actually independent of active reasoning. Certainty, he concludes, is actually not biologically possible. We must use science as a method to evaluate data according to its likelihood of being correct.  An enjoyable and challenging read. Here’s a review at Science-Based Medicine.

Snake Oil Science This book does a fantastic job of explaining the rise of alternative medicine, as well as how health professionals are challenged to avoid making logical inferences. But the finest section of the book deals with the placebo effect – it’s the best explanation I’ve ever read. The book concludes with a dissection of systematic review of alt-med, and illustrates what high-quality systematic reviews really say about various complementary and alternative practices. Highly recommended. Here’s a review at Science-Based Medicine.

Autism’s False Prophets Until dealing with H1N1 this year, I had no idea about the level of antivaccination sentiment in Canada. And the “manufactroversy” about vaccines and autism baffled me.  I watched Orac battle the antivaxxers almost daily, but didn’t have a good sense of how this irrational and dangerous cult became established. For a succinct summary of how different organization and individuals have mislead the autism community, and established the modern antivaccination movement,  this book is a fantastic resource. Having read this book, you’ll understand the history of the antivax movement, and have a better understanding of their tactics. I believe it should be mandatory reading for every pharmacist. I also highly recommend you also read Amy Wallace’s recent article in Wired magazine, where Offit is profiled in the article “An Epidemic of Fear”.

Fooled by Randomness This book, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, deals with luck and chance: How we understand it, and how it shapes our decision-making. Taleb, a mathematical trader “obsessed with uncertainty”, is a natural skeptic. The book focuses on different type of what he calls “thinking deficits” and makes a persuasive case for how we favour the visible and the personal, and minimize or ignore the abstract. It’s why one anecdote can convince someone of the value of an intervention ( like “homeopathy worked for me“) despite persuasive evidence that it’s placebo.

Trick or Treatment -Written by Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine, and Simon Singh, an author and science journalist now infamous for being sued by the British Chiropractic Association, this book doesn’t pull any punches. “The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine” is the subtitle. It’s a fantastic read. The book opens with a review of the scientific method with some interesting historical facts. The book then dedicates a chapter each to acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, and herbal medicine. The book concludes with a discussion of placebo therapies and their place in patient care. The appendix includes one-page summaries of dozens of alternative health modalities, with a short summary of their effectiveness. Highly recommended for everyone. Here’s another review from Science-Based Medicine.

How We Know What Isn’t So Why do people believe in the absurd, like homeopathy, despite all evidence? This book will help answer that question. Another good overview of critical thinking, this book outlines how human reason is fallible, and what to do about it.  While the books is over 15 years old, it’s still completely relevant. This book will likely force you to consider your own thought processes and beliefs -it did for me.

Why People Believe Weird Things – This book by skeptic Michael Shermer, looks at alien abduction, Creationism, psychics, recovered memories, Holocaust, and more. He explores why even well-educated people can hold beliefs that seem utterly baffling to others.



Those are my recommendations for anyone interested in pseudoscience, skepticism, and critical thinking. If you have any related books you’d recommend as a must-read, please list them in the comments. I’m compiling my “to read” list for 2010.

5 thoughts on “Recommended Skeptical References

  1. I just finished reading Snake Oil Science and I’m not sure that I’d rate it so highly. I think, overall, “Suckers” did a better job than Snake Oil Science and, definitely, I enjoyed Trick or Treatment. The treatment(no pun intended) of the placebo effect in Snake Oil Science was the best yet. I think that R. Barker Bausell, however, beats the systematic reviews to death. (And maybe that is because I read the three books back-to-back-to-back)

    I’m currently reading Voodoo Science and, so far, I’ve found it really interesting (I’ll withhold judgement until I’m done – and since I’m not Christian, I can judge!).

    The Drunkard’s Walk and Flim Flam should be added to your list as well.

    I was surprised to not see “Bad Science” listed in your book selection though it makes the top of your list under blogroll (I know, I know, alphabetical order…).

    (This is my first visit to your blog so I apologize if you’ve already covered it but I must give a 3 thumbs up for Quackcast by Mark Crislip. It’s great to see it at the top of your list (again for reasons other than why I think it should be there)!)

    I found your site via Skeptic North (which I found via Swift which I was directed to by ScienceBlogs).

    Keep fighting the good fight – we appreciate the effort.

    • Snake Oil Science is more technical than the others, for sure. I appreciated the author’s critical appraisal of the Cochrane database – it reinforces the importance of considering prior plausibility before undertaking any systematic review. I haven’t read Bad Science yet, I didn’t know it was available in Canada. Flim Flam is an excellent book – I focused my book suggestions on those that are more related to topics covered at SBP. I’ll add Voodoo Science, Suckers, and Drunkard’s walk to my list for 2010.

  2. Currently reading Snake Oil, really digging it. Next on my reading list is Trick or Treatment. I don’t believe Bad Science is available in Canada, last time I checked anyways.

    For Pharmacists, MDs or NPs looking for an academic reference, Ajetunmobi’s Making Sense of Critical Appraisal just might be the most useful reference for how to properly read a medical paper. It’s clearly written and easily understandable. From retrospective cohort studies to RCTs to Meta-analysis, the author details how to correctly interpret the most common and important statistics from these these different study types…It was the require textbook when I was in school and I’m very thankful that my prof made it so. I seriously can’t recommend it enough. It should be mandatory for every pharm student everywhere.

  3. No, for whatever reason, Bad Science is not available here. I got it through ebay and I have to say it is amazing (as is Suckers).

    The list is very good (I have yet to read On Being Certain and Fooled by Randomness) and I agree with the books on it especially starting with Sagan who introduced so many of us to skeptical thinking. I would still recommend the oldie by goodie “Health Robbers” and the Canadian examination by MacPhail “Spin Doctors: The Chiropractic Industry Under Examination”

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