Believe It Or Not

Simon Hoggart and Mike Hutchinson. Bizarre Beliefs. Richard Cohen Books, 1996. 

Mike Hutchinson is the British representative for Prometheus Books, the CSICOP-linked American publisher; Simon Hoggart is best known as political journalist and parliamentary sketch ­writer for The Guardian. Their collaboration seems to have resulted in best of both traditions. CSICOP's hard-nosed scepticism is tempered by Hoggart's wry understanding of human gullibility; anyone who listens to parliamentary debates day after day can't be immune to the subversive attractions of sincerely believed nonsense passionately expounded.

Unlike some hard-core sceptical (perhaps better to write 'skeptical') works, the authors seem aware of why people believe in a variety of pseudo-sciences (all the usual suspects are collared here: clairvoyance, UFOs, corn-circles, mediums hip, graphology, etc.), and are aware that most practitioners of these belief systems are not out-and-out frauds looking for a quick buck. They accept, for instance, that although astrology is nonsense on stilts, astrologers largely do believe it, even though most of what they tell their clients are 'Barnum statements' - generalised comments on human nature that fit almost any circumstances. Nor do the authors seem to believe, like some critics, that the appearance of astrology columns in newspapers heralds the downfall of western civilisation.

When they tackle a particular topic their approach is fair, both sides of the controversy are outlined, and their reasons for coming down on the sceptics' side are made clear.

There is probably little that the hardened Magonian will find particularly new, or even particularly controversial, in this book. It is presented in an attractive soft-back format, with lots of illustrations, many in colour, and may attract some of the customers for the currently burgeoning 'X-File' genre. If so, they could do a lot worse. They will be fairly painlessly exposed to an alternative viewpoint from that proclaimed in other, similar looking, volumes, and may be rather relieved to find that sceptics are not always the rabid bigots that some eager-believers wish to portray them. 
  • John Rimmer. from Magonia 57, September 1996.

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