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Review - The Skeptic's Dictionary - Robert Todd Carroll

 

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There are two sorts of book that bear the generic title style "The X's Dictionary". Following Ambrose Bierce's famous The Devil's Dictionary many of them are quite simply variants on a dictionary with funny definitions. Here's an example from Bierce's dictionary that would sit well with the Todd Carroll book:

PHRENOLOGY, n.  The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.

(You can download the whole of Bierce's Devil's Dictionary from Project Gutenberg).

This approach can be very funny, but has a distinct tendency to date - a lot of Bierce's work has the feel of old copies of Punch. You know it was funny at the time, but the response now is either simple lack of comprehension or a mild, forgiving smile.

What's more, it's difficult to know what to do with a book like this. You can't really read them from cover to cover, it would be too tedious, but equally they aren't going to be used as a true reference work. I suspect the two main things that are done with them is either to keep them by the toilet, or to use them as presents.

The good news is (after all that preamble) that the Skeptic's Dictionary isn't really that sort of book. Firstly, the entries are more like short to medium-sized essays, rather than witty aphorisms. And secondly, it's not just a set of definitions of words, but rather a summary of the strange beliefs some people hold. As the introduction to The X-Files doesn't say, the truth may be out there, but so is an awful lot of hokum. In practice this book is not a dictionary at all, it's a skeptic's encyclopedia (Encyclopedia Skeptica?)

On the whole it works. It covers all those bits and pieces of belief, pseudo science and outright twaddle that hang on the fringes of human thought. While occasionally the author clearly has a bee in his bonnet, most are addressed carefully and effectively. Of course, if you hold any of the beliefs Carroll attacks, you won't be so impressed, but if you would enjoy seeing UFOlogy, psychics, new age "philosophies", miracle cures and more being pulled apart, this is the book for you.

The only hesitation is that the encyclopedia format doesn't make for the most enjoyable read (unless you are the kind of person who enjoys reading encyclopedias, which some do). A book like Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World addresses many of the same issues but in a more readable style. On the other hand, this book inevitably covers a much wider range of strange beliefs and hoaxes. In the end, perhaps we need both.

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

 

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Last update 05 June 2007