Books books books

Oh, the reading. I’ve currently got ‘The Hollow Men,’ ‘Oddzone’ and ‘Absolute Power’ on the go (and that’s just the Aotearoa Conspiracy Theory material).

Vicki Hyde’sOddzone‘ (New Holland, Auckland, 2006) is, for me, a mixed bag. I probably know just a little too much on the subjects it covers for this to be useful; I either know more detail than the chapters cover or the critical thinking material is just a little too thin (for someone who, in the words of the FHG, is a ‘professional critical thinker’).

I also have some small but niggling issues. On what is really a very minor matter Hyde claims that UFO just means Flying Saucer (p. 36), which isn’t a given (although I do approve of her using UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena)). On a far more important issue I think she a bit of sneaky trick. It’s towards the end of her introductory critical thinking chapter.

Hyde presents what appears to be a logic puzzle and then states that amongst all the answers people have come up with to it, virtually no one ever claims the answer is that she is either lying or mistaken (p. 28). I don’t think this is a particularly fair trick to play on people; if you pose a conundrum (her label) most of your audience is going to think that it is solvable (even if it requires a piece of clever thinking). Psychologically, I think it is fair to say, we write off the possibility that the person posing the conundrum is lying (that there is an answer); indeed, the way the conundrum is posed makes it look as if it can be answered. A response of ‘You’re lying’ doesn’t seem to solve the puzzle.

(The other response she thinks should be offered, ‘You’re mistaken’ also seems to be psychologically locked off because, at least in her case, if you’ve asked someone to come along and give a talk to your group you’re not expecting them to be (overly) mistaken in their thinking…)

Now, Hyde is right to say that we should be sceptical (at some appropriate level) in regards to the utterances of others (we should, at least, admit the possibility that some testimony is false), but the conundrum she poses isn’t the right kind of example to teach this important lesson. This is because the conundrum doesn’t solicit the principle in the right way; people who hear it are, I suspect, going to feel just a little cheated by its solution. Which is a pity, because, overall, the chapter is quite good as an introduction to some core principles of critical thinking and if I decide to teach another introductory course on scepticism in the near future I’d be keen to use it.

(I’m also somewhat curious as to whether Hyde really thinks the example belongs in that chapter; it’s printed as an aside and part of me wonders whether it is there to fill the book out rather than as an illustration vital to the discourse. Then again, this might just be a reflection of my prejudices about layouts coming to the fore.)


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.