PT's Take on the Latest Books

Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking

(Prometheus, 2002)

Robert E. Bartholomew

and Benjamin Radford

Reviewed by Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D.

Are you aware of the following life-threatening “facts”?

• Koro, a disease identified primarily in Asian countries, can shrink or even totally remove your genitals. People in these regions have been observed clutching their at-risk organs, lest they be caught unawares when Koro creeps up.

• A mad gasser, also known as the “Anesthetic Prowler” and the “Phantom Anesthetist,” once terrorized Mattoon, Illinois, spraying a noxious gas into homes and forcing many residents to flee. The gasser was never apprehended.

• Black helicopters of unknown origins and destinations have hovered above communities across England and probably elsewhere.

These are just a few of the supposed truths awaiting you in Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias. The subtitle, Why We Need Critical Thinking, reveals the authors' major goal of promoting more regular in-depth analysis. Each of the book's 15 chapters is followed by a list of critical-thinking questions, designed to help readers evaluate what they have read, in addition to notes detailing further information and a bibliography. Despite these academic qualities, the book can be read for sheer entertainment value. Regardless, you are certain to be amused and amazed in equal parts.

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Specifically, the book points out how mass delusions have plagued humankind from early times, illustrating that such thoughts are not limited to far-off places or times but instead extend right up to the present day. Those who believe that it shows how gullible other people are will be missing the main point: We are all susceptible to falling for falsities. Most of the examples provided are relatively benign, but it is important to remember that some of the worst mass delusions—such as those perpetrated by the Nazi leaders of the past and the terrorist leaders of today—can have frightening consequences.

Though the authors strive to be nonjudgmental, this laudable goal at times gets them into trouble. For example, they attempt to understand the 1978 mass “suicide” of approximately 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana, suggesting the event be viewed as “exemplifying conformity to group norms like hara-kiri among Japanese pilots during World War II... ”. But might we better understand this event if considered in the way the authors do not want us to—that the situation was, in fact, crazy? Indeed, the authors hint at “evidence that some members refused to commit suicide and were shot by other followers or forced to drink the poison.” If that's not crazy, what is?

All told, you wouldn't be crazy for not reading Hoaxes, Myths and Manias, but you would be missing an entertaining and enlightening book.

Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D., is IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise. He is also president of the American Psychological Association and author of Practical Intelligence in Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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