By Robert J. Sternberg, published on March 1, 2003 - last reviewed on September 7, 2005
Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking
Robert E. Bartholomew
and Benjamin Radford
Reviewed by Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D.
Are you aware of the following life-threatening
• 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.
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
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,