Weird Earth: capsule review

Book cover
Weird Earth by Donald Prothero, Red Lightning Press, 2020.

If you have been reading, for example, Skeptical Inquirer for 40 years or so, you may think you have little to gain from reading this splendid, newish book by the eminent geologist Donald Prothero. You would not be more wrong.

The book, Weird Earth, is subtitled “Debunking strange ideas about our planet,” and debunk it does. I thought I knew a lot of the strange ideas about the planet, and indeed I did. But did I know the details? Usually not. Further, I had no idea that the earth is expanding (it is not), that Mount Shasta is riddled with tunnels leading to a secret city (it is not), nor that ley lines connect various points on a map (they do not). Professor Prothero devotes 16 chapters to debunking these and other concepts in some detail. Mostly the exposition was clear and I understood it easily; only rarely did I have to grapple with a description or explanation.

The book actually contains 18 chapters. The first describes “Science and critical thinking.” This chapter briefly discusses how “[s]cience is a way of thinking about the world.” If I had one criticism, it would regard the common claim that scientists actively attempt to disprove, or falsify, their hypotheses. It is not as simple as that, though surely when good scientists find that their hypotheses have been falsified, they will react accordingly. Nevertheless, when Rutherford traveled to the south seas, he did not intend to falsify general relativity. (See my post and comments here.)

The last chapter explains why people believe weird things and introduces such concepts as motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, backfire effect, compartmentalism and cognitive dissonance, and even tribalism. Professor Prothero marvels at the existence of “smart idiots,” who “selectively bias what they learn” in order to defend their (weird) beliefs to their followers. Indeed, he argues that “the root of most of our cognitive biases is tribalism,” a claim that, if true, requires a somewhat broad definition of tribalism. He goes back, convincingly, to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan administration to explain today’s proliferation of nonsense on formerly reputable television channels. Were I writing the book, I might have combined this chapter with the first or made it the second, so that readers would more readily understand why people believed weird things, but maybe that is just a matter of taste.