Ambivalence in Reading: Cassie-la Works Out Her Feelings for “50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True” by Guy P. Harrison

50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True by Guy P. Harrison
: Non-fiction, science, ghosts, aliens, religion, everything but the kitchen sink
: 3.456 out of 5 stars

Summary: Skeptic and journalist Guy P. Harrison explores everything from Atlantis to psychic powers, global warming, and the Holocaust. With 50 varied topics, he covers everything you ever wondered about and things you never cared to know. If you are a skeptic, you will love this novel, however if you’re looking for concrete evidence over arguments, seek for it elsewhere.

I had a lot of trouble with this book, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. When I purchased it I was genuinely interested in reading a scientific take on the paranormal and the various mysteries of the universe. The problem: I seemed to be under the impression there would be concrete evidence to support most of these beliefs, which is silly considering if there was incontrovertible proof against ghosts and cryptozoology we would have seen it. Strike one: my perception of the world. Although to be fair, I didn’t hear anything about a giant squid being captured until I saw a special on the Discovery Channel, so anything is possible.

This is where the problem lies in this novel, there are more arguments than evidence. As is touched upon in this book, it’s incredibly hard to disprove stuff. We can point others in the right direction with reason and logic, but evidence that completely says these beliefs are false is hard to come by. For example, it should be easy to prove the Loch Ness Monster is real (a body), than to disprove it, the only way to do that would be to completely drain Loch Ness and not locate a sea monster. A lack of proof doesn’t necessarily mean that something isn’t true. I am of course applying this to the more fantastical ideas, not necessarily topics about biological race, evolution, and alternative medicine.

For the most part I felt a lack of interest in the way Harrison presented the material. This is mostly because he seemed more indebted in talking about himself than using anecdotal evidence, which would have been much more interesting. Rather than hear about the time Harrison thought he saw a UFO, explored the pyramids, interviewed Olympic athletes, was a news anchor, and even watched more videos about space than most astronauts (yeah, he went there), I would have rather enjoyed specific examples from history or the news. Anyone but the author himself and how awesome and amazing and more biologically adept he thinks he is. For example, in the chapter about Holocaust deniers, why not explain why they believe it never happened versus that time you felt sad interviewing a Holocaust survivor? If I wanted to read 400 pages of self-congratulatory writing I would have read a memoir. This is not a memoir.

Another problem was that I had to slog through a lot of chapters I didn’t care about just to get to the parts I did. I didn’t buy this book to read two sections about constructed versus biological race, nor did I pick it up to read chapters that seemed to repeat themselves back to back. This felt like a huge waste of time and information, especially when more interesting sections were whittled down to only four pages. Three chapters on biological race and its fallacies, and a chapter on creationism and another on intelligent design seemed like they could have been condensed into one chapter versus several. The same can be said of each chapter on medicine other than scientific (alternative and homeopathic), where I just felt like the same information was being constantly reiterated.

That’s not to say that this book wasn’t interesting. I generally like non-fiction because the real can be more fantastic than the imagined. Without reading this novel I wouldn’t have discovered interesting tidbits such as: 41% of Americans believe in Atlantis, 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, 40% of Americans believe in creationism, and 42% of college students will never read another novel for the rest of their lives after they graduate. This last statistic probably horrified me the most considering the obvious love and reverence for reading we have on this blog. Although the statistics about creationism and the sun are disturbing, it probably pains scientists way more than me.

Even more interesting, I learned about the Bible Code (one of the few concrete examples mentioned), which when used in conjunction with Moby Dick “predicted” the assassination of Lincoln, MLK, and John F Kennedy. The Bible Code basically works by choosing a locus letter and then finding other words a certain amount of places after, above, below, etc around this locus by choosing a number. Both arbitrary options. Using this code (which feels very Dan Brown), believers have pointed to examples which they believe prove the existence of a divine being, using the Bible Code to create words like Holocaust, Kennedy, Roswell, and UFO. Skeptics took this same process and found similar words in Moby Dick, which just made some believe that Herman Melville could also see into the future. ::facepalm::

Ultimately, 50 Beliefs isn’t the success I anticipated because it relies on argument over evidence (discussed previously) but also because its scope is much too big. With 50 beliefs to cover in 40 pages, that only equates to roughly eight pages per topic, which isn’t nearly enough space to properly devote to each idea. If the idea behind this book was more limited perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so lackluster while reading and been more indebted to finishing it quicker. It was definitely a struggle to get through the majority of the material.

-Interesting and sometimes horrifying statistics
-Got a better and different view of world beliefs
-Facts I took away are great conversation starters (“Did you know…”)

-Author comes across as pompous, which is extremely off-putting
-Not enough space is devoted to larger topics, result of 50 chapters
-Certain topics (the boring ones) are spread out into multiple chapters
-Relies on arguments more than hard evidence, not entirely author’s fault
-Examples are often not included or are about author’s own life experiences

Unfortunately for me, this book started to feel like an obligation more than a desire, which I never want out of my reading. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. On the plus side, at least it was interesting and taught me a few fun facts as I read through it. And if I zoned out a few times when the same information was repeated, who can blame me?


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