The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe

How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake


By Dr. Steven Novella

With Bob Novella

With Cara Santa Maria

With Jay Novella

With Evan Bernstein

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An all-encompassing guide to skeptical thinking from podcast host and academic neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine Steven Novella and his SGU co-hosts, which Richard Wiseman calls “the perfect primer for anyone who wants to separate fact from fiction.”

It is intimidating to realize that we live in a world overflowing with misinformation, bias, myths, deception, and flawed knowledge. There really are no ultimate authority figures-no one has the secret, and there is no place to look up the definitive answers to our questions (not even Google).
Luckily, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is your map through this maze of modern life. Here Dr. Steven Novella-along with Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein-will explain the tenets of skeptical thinking and debunk some of the biggest scientific myths, fallacies, and conspiracy theories-from anti-vaccines to homeopathy, UFO sightings to N- rays. You’ll learn the difference between science and pseudoscience, essential critical thinking skills, ways to discuss conspiracy theories with that crazy co- worker of yours, and how to combat sloppy reasoning, bad arguments, and superstitious thinking.

So are you ready to join them on an epic scientific quest, one that has taken us from huddling in dark caves to setting foot on the moon? (Yes, we really did that.) DON’T PANIC! With The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, we can do this together.

“Thorough, informative, and enlightening, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe inoculates you against the frailties and shortcomings of human cognition. If this book does not become required reading for us all, we may well see modern civilization unravel before our eyes.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson
“In this age of real and fake information, your ability to reason, to think in scientifically skeptical fashion, is the most important skill you can have. Read The Skeptics’ Guide Universe; get better at reasoning. And if this claim about the importance of reason is wrong, The Skeptics’ Guide will help you figure that out, too.” — Bill Nye



There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened.

—Douglas Adams

Spock lied to me.

And it wasn’t just Spock (well, actually Leonard Nimoy as the host of the popular but dubious TV show In Search of…) who lied but the media, journalists, corporations, politicians, salespeople, and just about every adult and authority figure in my life. Some were deliberately lying, while others were fudging the truth for what they thought was a good purpose. Most, however, were simply mistaken, misinformed, or self-deluded and were spreading what they assumed was the truth but were just the lies others had told them.

We all start as children believing pretty much whatever we’re told. The gulf of knowledge and experience between adults and young children is so great that to a child, any adult is perceived as the ultimate authority on any topic. As we mature we realize that not all adults agree with each other, so some of them must be wrong. We become more sophisticated in our choice of authority figures, but we still tend to rely on others to know what to think—on experts, leaders, religious figures, celebrities, talking heads, or just “common knowledge.”

Science is another authority. When I was younger I had an intense fascination with all things scientific. Scientists simply had the best stories to tell: how gigantic dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago; how our primitive ancestors made tools out of stone; how the sun, Earth, and moon formed billions of years ago; how a single cell develops into a human; and how life evolved from simple creatures to everything we see today.

My brothers and I watched every TV science documentary we could find, instinctively knowing they were much better than any sitcom or hokey drama. Mixed in with the science documentaries, however, were what I now know to be pseudoscience or fake documentaries. This is where Leonard Nimoy comes in, as the host of the popular series In Search of…, which aired from 1977 to 1982.

In each episode Nimoy would narrate how scientists had discovered that aliens built the Nazca lines (the enigmatic drawings etched into the sands of the Nazca desert in Peru) or were on the verge of discovering a large creature living in Loch Ness. He built a compelling case (or so I thought) for the existence of extrasensory perception, Atlantis, and Bigfoot. Just like the hosts of the other science documentaries we would watch, he would show us evidence and interview experts. We ate it up.

At the same time, we were being raised as good Catholics. Looking back, it amazes me how, as a young child, I completely compartmentalized my belief in evolution and Adam and Eve. Abraham, Mary, and Joseph were historical figures to me, taught with the same authority as were the exploits of George Washington. In church, faith was taught as an absolute virtue, so being a good person meant simply believing.

This exciting world of fantastic narratives that society had built in my head—evolution, Genesis, Loch Ness monsters, and many more—was not sustainable. Eventually I had to sort out the apparent conflicts among these various narratives. The claims of evolutionary biology and a literal interpretation of Genesis could not both be true at the same time. This meant questioning and doubting. I had to figure out which narratives to believe and which ones to reject.

This is the essence of skepticism: How do we know what to believe and what to doubt?

Once you begin to ask questions like “How do we actually know anything?” our beliefs start to fall one by one. How would we know if aliens were visiting Earth or if sticking needles in special points on the body could cure disease? This questioning doesn’t always end well, as some people will choose to reject science so they can maintain their belief in aliens or miracles. Others keep questioning. This process is never done—it is an endless journey.

The question is, How far will you go, and in which direction will you head? This is ultimately a personal odyssey, but we aren’t completely alone. We are part of ever-expanding social rings with which we share our quest for knowledge and understanding. The biggest ring encompasses all of humanity. As a species, we are on a journey of discovery, trying to figure out what to believe and what knowledge is reliable.

Your travels will take you through some interesting and exciting twists and turns. It can be scary. At some point you will confront a belief you really want to be true, that may even be part of your identity, but that does not stand up to close scrutiny. Ultimately this is a journey of self-discovery, and hopefully this book will serve as a guide on that journey. In these pages you will learn about the many ways in which your brain fails, its tendency to prefer nice clean and reassuring stories, the absolute mess that is your memory, and all the preprogrammed biases in your thinking.

You will also learn about the many ways in which society fails, the imperfections in the institutions of science, learning, and journalism. It’s intimidating to realize that we live in a world overflowing with misinformation, bias, myths, deception, and flawed knowledge. We are all children and there are no adults. There are no ultimate authority figures; no one has the secret; there is no revealed knowledge; and there is no place to look up the definitive answers to our questions (not even Google).

We are all struggling through this complex universe just like everyone who came before us.

Fully realizing this essence of the human condition can make you cynical, denying all knowledge. That, however, is just another bias, another narrative to help us deal with the chaos. Cynicism is also cheap—it’s easy just to doubt or deny everything. But it doesn’t get you or society anywhere. Skepticism goes beyond cynicism. While it may start with doubt, that’s the beginning, not the end. There isn’t any definitive or ultimate knowledge (no Truth with a capital T), but we can grind out knowledge about the world that is sufficiently reliable for us to treat it as provisionally true and act upon it. We can, for example, send probes to Pluto and get back gorgeous pictures of a place that was previously entirely mysterious. If our knowledge of the universe wasn’t at least to some degree true, then our efforts to see Pluto wouldn’t have been rewarded with beautiful images of this distant and frozen world.

So, while we cannot trust the stories we are told, tradition, faith, convenient or reassuring narratives, charismatic figures, or even our own memories, we can slowly and carefully build a process by which to evaluate all claims to truth and knowledge. A big part of that process is science, which systematically tests our ideas against reality, using the most objective data possible. Science is still a messy and flawed process, but it is a process. It has, at least, the capacity for self-correction, to move our beliefs incrementally in the direction of reality. In essence, science is the process of making our best effort to know what’s really real.

Combined with science are logic and philosophy, which are simply ways of thinking about things really carefully, to at least make sure there is no internal contradiction. Valid reasoning, careful and systematic observations, recording and counting all data (not just the data we want), and trying to disprove our own conclusions is a lot of work, but it moves us forward on our journey. Skeptics combine knowledge of science, philosophy, human psychology, and all the flaws and biases of human thinking to evaluate all claims and beliefs, especially their own.

I took a major step in this direction when I watched the series Cosmos, cowritten and hosted by Carl Sagan. It was perhaps the first time I saw a science documentary that didn’t just state facts but explored how we know what we know. Sagan investigated what we thought in the past, and how new discoveries changed our thinking. In one episode he dedicated a segment to questioning the alleged evidence for alien visitation. That segment was a revelation. If there was ever a moment when I tipped over into becoming a skeptic, that was it. Here was a respected scientist carefully arguing with logic and evidence why the case for UFOs was not compelling. In fact it was utter crap. That meant that all those alien visitation documentaries (including half of the In Search of… episodes) were not just wrong, they were nonsense. I felt betrayed.

Those documentaries weren’t real science, they were what Sagan called “a cheap imitation.” They were pseudoscience. Wow—what other claims were as flimsy as the evidence for UFOs? The dominoes started to fall.

My journey took another step when I encountered creationism, the denial of evolution. This blew me away. By then I’d read dozens of books and articles on evolution, which was one of my favorite scientific topics, and I was well versed in the mountains of evidence scientists had accumulated showing that life on Earth has evolved.

Now I was reading or listening to people who denied all this evidence, denied that evolution had happened at all, or at least how scientists claim it had happened. I couldn’t help but slow down and take a close look, like viewing a horrific accident on the highway. The arguments of creationists ranged from silly to sophisticated, but ultimately they were all flawed. I tried my best to understand where they went wrong. At first I naively believed that if I could just explain to creationists (when I had the opportunity, during random in-person encounters) the flaws in their reasoning or the factual errors in their premises, I could change their minds. While this isn’t impossible, it proved far more difficult than I had imagined.

Something was going on, something I didn’t understand. I went to college as a science major struggling with all of this and my rapidly waning faith. I was well on my way on a skeptical journey that continues to this day, three decades later.

This obsession with understanding how we know what we know and how human belief goes off the rails has become my life’s work. I love the process and findings of science and working out how to explain all of this to others. When I discovered that there was an active skeptical movement of people with the same set of obsessions, I never looked back.

One day my close friend and fellow skeptic Perry DeAngelis noticed that while there were dozens of skeptical groups around the country, there were none in our home state of Connecticut. We should start our own group, he suggested, and I knew instantly we were on the right path.

We were joined by our mutual friend Evan Bernstein and my two brothers, Bob and Jay. Those are the same brothers who watched In Search of… with me as teenagers. We helped each other through those early years spent transitioning from believing all manner of nonsense to being skeptics. I still remember (well, as much as our flawed memories can record anything) the day I told Bob that I no longer thought ESP (extrasensory perception) was real. He was shocked, but a thirty-minute conversation was all it took to lay out the gaping flaws in the evidence.

Together, in 1996, the five of us created the New England Skeptical Society. We were content (sort of) to print a newsletter and host local lectures. We would have loved to be more involved, but we all had day jobs. We did go on investigations, attend UFO conventions, and confront proponents of all sorts of pseudoscience. Those were the years when we “earned our bones.” We also had the opportunity to meet scientists, philosophers, magicians, and other skeptical activists.

Then social media hit with full force. In 2005, when podcasting was a new thing, I had the idea of starting a weekly science and critical thinking podcast. We settled on the name The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (inspired by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books we all love)—SGU for short. As of writing this book, we are still going strong.

Along the way we picked up a fellow traveler, Rebecca Watson, who cohosted the show for nine years. We also lost Perry, who died in 2007 from complications of scleroderma. We were joined by a new Skeptical Rogue (as we call ourselves) in 2015, Cara Santa Maria.

Every week the five of us try to make sense of what seems like an increasingly crazy world. The internet and social media have been a mixed blessing, allowing us to teach science and critical thinking to a far wider audience but also facilitating the spread of misinformation like never before.

In the last two decades, while we’ve been fighting for science and reason, it seems like the stakes have only gotten higher. My own profession—medicine—has been thoroughly infiltrated by the pseudoscience of so-called “alternative” medicine. The very process of science is under attack. There are entire movements dedicated to denying and opposing the hard-won fruits of scientific discovery. And now it seems that truth and facts themselves are easily tossed aside as an inconvenience. There are those who think, with good reason, that humanity is stepping back from the Enlightenment to huddle in echo chambers of comfortable, or at least familiar, beliefs.

This is a generational struggle, one that will likely never end.

Like in the universe of Douglas Adams, we have created this helpful and reassuring guide, which will prove invaluable on your skeptical journey, because the world is actively trying to deceive you and fill you with stories and lies. The forces of ignorance, conspiracy thinking, anti-intellectualism, and science denial are as powerful as ever.

It’s true that we have to struggle with these incredibly flawed meat machines in our skulls. But we are standing on the shoulders of giants. A lot of smart people over a very long time have thought and argued carefully about the nature of reality and our ability to understand it. We have some powerful tools, like science and philosophy. We do know stuff, and we have ways of making sense of it all.

Don’t panic. This whole notion of thinking for yourself and questioning everything is actually quite fun and empowering. We can do this together.


Core Concepts Every Skeptic Should Know

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.

—Carl Sagan

Before you start on any journey, you need the right equipment—so we’ll grab the necessary tools, some trail mix, and a good jacket, and put on a pair of comfortable shoes. In this section of our guide we’ll load you up with skeptical gear (like a fashionable utility belt), the things that we decided were the most important for the journey, things that at least will give you options to deal with the obstacles or pitfalls you might encounter on your way.

These tools—your core concepts of scientific skepticism—can be broken down into four categories. The first set of skills comprise what I like to call “neuropsychological humility.” This category includes knowledge of all the ways in which your brain function is limited or flawed. The primary tool with which you probe and understand the universe is your brain, and we should all have a better understanding of how it works.

The second category of skeptical “gear” is called metacognition—thinking about thinking. Metacognition is an exploration of all the ways in which your thinking is biased. This has obvious overlap with the first category but focuses more on critical thinking skills than on the hardware of the brain. It would be nice if humans were perfectly logical beings, like a certain pointy-eared fictional character mentioned in the introduction, but we’re not. We are emotional, semi-rational creatures, plagued with a host of biases, mental shortcuts, and errors in thinking.

The third type of skeptical equipment has to do with science—how it works, the nature of pseudoscience and denialism, and how science can go wrong.

The fourth category of core concepts takes you on some historical journeys, reviewing iconic examples of pseudoscience and deception as cautionary tales.

All of this skeptical gearing-up is to prepare you for your adventure and get you started (or help you on your way if you have already begun). This isn’t some weekend getaway—the journey is the rest of your life.

Are you ready to become part of an epic quest, one that has taken us from huddling in dark caves to stepping foot on the moon? (Yes, we really did that.) Like all adventures, this one is foremost a journey of self-discovery. The monsters you will slay and the challenges you will face are mostly constructs of your own mind. But if you can master them, the rewards are indeed epic.

1. Skeptics’ Guide Entry:

Scientific Skepticism

Section: Core Concepts

See also: Critical Thinking

Scientific skepticism, a term first popularized by Carl Sagan, is an overall approach to knowledge that prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and scientific skeptics therefore rigorously and openly apply the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A scientific skeptic provisionally accepts a claim only in proportion to its support from valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence. A skeptic also studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

We ignore public understanding of science at our peril.

—Eugenie Scott

You are reading the Skeptics’ Guide because we advocate the overall worldview known as scientific skepticism. There can be a lot of confusion about what it means to be a skeptic, however. What do we do and what do we believe?

Being a skeptic means doubting, but philosophical skepticism is distinct from scientific skepticism and is not what we advocate. Philosophical skepticism is essentially a position of permanent doubt: Can we actually know anything? And what is the nature of knowledge itself? Before science revolutionized our thinking, philosophical skepticism was a reasonable position. Most knowledge was based on authority and tradition, so wiping the slate clean by doubting everything was probably a step in the right direction. René Descartes famously said that all we really know is “I think therefore I am.” His idea was to eliminate everything that passed for knowledge up to that point, to start fresh and then try to see what he could reason out from first principles (self-evident starting points).

Lucky for us, we don’t live in a prescientific age. There are hundreds of years of carefully worked-out knowledge leading to where we are today. Philosophers focus on how to think in a clear, precise, unambiguous, and internally consistent way. Science works within a philosophy of methodological naturalism (all effects have natural causes) and uses a refined set of methods to check our theories against reality.

We still can’t know anything to 100 percent metaphysical certitude, but we can know things. We can methodically build a set of knowledge that is internally consistent and logically valid, not only consistent with what we can observe about reality but that actually helps us predict how the universe will behave.

That’s why “scientific” skeptics are not philosophical skeptics, professing that no knowledge is possible. We are also not cynics, who doubt as a social posture or just have a generally negative attitude about humanity. We are not contrarians who reflexively oppose all mainstream opinions. The term “skeptic” has also been hijacked by deniers who want to be viewed as genuine skeptics (asking the hard and uncomfortable questions) but are really just pursuing an agenda of denial for ideological reasons.

We are scientific skeptics because we start with doubt, but we then carefully try to separate what we can and do know from fantasy, wishful thinking, bias, and tradition.

I believe that modern scientific skepticism has several facets, not only a worldview but also a body of knowledge and an area of expertise. Here are the tools and methods scientific skeptics use to help them parse reality:

Respect for Knowledge and Truth—Skeptics value reality and what is true. We therefore endeavor to be as reality-based as possible in our beliefs and opinions. This means subjecting all claims to a well-founded process of evaluation.

Skeptics believe that the world is knowable because it follows certain rules, or laws of nature. The only legitimate method for knowing anything empirical about the universe follows this naturalistic assumption. In other words, within the realm of the empirical (factual knowledge based on evidence), you don’t get to invoke magic or the supernatural.

Promotion of Science—Science is the only set of legitimate methods for investigating and understanding the natural world. Science is therefore a powerful tool—and one of the best developments of human civilization. Those of us who choose to be activists promote the role of science in our society, public understanding of the findings and methods of science, and high-quality science education. This means protecting the integrity of science and education from ideological intrusion or antiscientific attacks. It also involves supporting high-quality science, which requires examining the process, culture, and institutions of science for flaws, biases, weaknesses, and fraud.

Promotion of Reason and Critical Thinking—Science works hand in hand with logic and philosophy, and therefore skeptics also promote better understanding of these fields and critical thinking skills.

Science vs. Pseudoscience—Skeptics are the first, and often the last, line of defense against incursions by pseudoscience. In this role, we seek to identify and elucidate the borders between legitimate science and pseudoscience, to expose pseudoscience for what it is, and to promote knowledge of how to tell the difference. If I had to say briefly what our core area of expertise is, it’s pseudoscience. When countering common but false beliefs, it’s not enough to understand the relevant science, you also have to know how science goes wrong, how people form and maintain false beliefs, and how they promote those beliefs. Such expertise is generally lacking within mainstream academia, and that’s where skeptics come in.

Ideological Freedom / Free Inquiry—Science and reason can only flourish in a free society in which no ideology (religious or otherwise) is imposed upon individuals or the process of science and free inquiry.

Neuropsychological Humility—Being a functional skeptic requires knowledge of the various ways in which we deceive ourselves, the limits and flaws of human perception and memory, the inherent biases and fallacies in cognition, and the methods that can help mitigate all these flaws and biases.

Consumer Protection—Skeptics endeavor to protect themselves and others from fraud and deception. We do this by exposing fraud and educating the public and policy makers to recognize deceptive or misleading claims or practices.

In addition, skeptics tend to be a source of institutional memory. The same scams and false beliefs tend to come around again and again: Seemingly, every generation has to make the same mistakes for themselves. It’s useful to have those who study the history of scams, errors, and pseudoscience to help recognize and deflect such things when they inevitably reappear.

While activist skeptics tend to be science communicators, we aren’t just that. We have a particular expertise and niche—knowledge of pseudoscience, the mechanisms of deception, and how to counter misinformation. A generation ago, science communicators felt that all they had to do to counter belief in pseudoscience and myths was to teach science. We now know this is sadly not the case.

For example, a 2017 study by John Cook et al., confirming prior research, showed that exposing people to misinformation about the scientific consensus on global warming had a polarizing effect based on political ideology. People who already accepted the consensus did so even more, and those who rejected the consensus held more firmly to their rejection. Correcting that misinformation had almost no effect on reducing this polarization—facts were simply not enough to change people’s minds.

However, if you started by explaining to the subjects how fake experts can be used to falsely challenge the scientific consensus, the polarizing effect of this misinformation was completely neutralized.

This is exactly why we choose to promote science partly by exposing pseudoscience, and not just the false information of bad science but the deceptive (sometimes self-deceptive) tactics that pseudoscientists use. It’s not enough to just teach people science, you have to teach them how science works and how to think in a valid way. This book is meant to be one giant inoculation against bad science, deception, and faulty thinking.

No one is arguing that these are the most important issues in the world. Often we’re criticized for tackling one type of belief over another, but that’s what we call the fallacy of relative privation, the notion that what you are doing is not valuable because there is a more important issue out there that needs attention. “Don’t bother doing anything until we cure childhood cancer,” for example.

I call this “Gilligan’s Island logic.” Sure, if you are one of the few people stranded on a deserted island, you should tackle the most pressing survival problems first. But on a planet with over seven billion people, that makes no sense. People should feel free to take on whatever issues are important to them, or where they feel their talents and inclinations lie.

So when you see the word “skeptic” in this book, it means an advocate for science and critical thinking. Perhaps after reading the book you will consider yourself a skeptic too.



On Sale
Oct 2, 2018
Page Count
496 pages

Dr. Steven Novella

About the Author

Dr. Steven Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and is host and producer of "The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe" (SGU). He also co-hosts "Alpha Quadrant 6," a science-fiction review show. He is the author of the bestselling book The Skeptics Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. Dr. Novella has made multiple appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered and is a frequent guest on radio talk shows and science podcasts. His television credits include The Dr. Oz Show, Penn & Teller Bullshit, 20/20, Inside Edition, The History Channel, The Unexplained on A&E, Ricki Lake, and Exploring the Unknown. When not podcasting, he also authors the popular and award-winning NeuroLogica blog and is senior editor of Science-Based Medicine, an influential medical blog dedicated to issues of science and medicine. Dr. Novella is the founder and president of the New England Skeptical Society, a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and founding chairman of the Institute for Science in Medicine.

Bob Novella is a co-host of SGU and co-author ofThe Skeptics Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. He also blogs for SGU’s Rogues Gallery. Bob is founder and vice president of the New England Skeptical Society. He has written numerous articles that are widely published in skeptical literature and is a frequent guest on science and technology podcasts.

Jay Novella is a co-host of the SGU podcast, Chief Operations Officer at SGU Productions, and co-author of the bestselling book The Skeptics Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. Jay serves on the board of directors for the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), a yearly conference in its 14th year. He also is a producer and writer for the stage show A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance. In his free time, Jay produces and hosts Alpha Quadrant 6, a science-fiction review show.

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