Book semi-review: Exuberant Skepticism

The book reviews on this blog have been more of a personal recommendation list, rather than a critical review of new releases as one might expect, for a couple of reasons. I don’t go through too many books at a time, and not many new ones, and as one might have noticed, there are certain topics I tend to concentrate on. So what’s been seen here before has been positive. Until now.

Exuberant Skepticism is a book that I picked up out of interest in the topic, and the reputation of author Paul Kurtz, who is the founder of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council of Secular Humanism, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a longtime contributor to Skeptical Inquirer magazine – seemed like just my cup of tea. Yet, it defeated me, and after numerous attempts over an extended period of time, I could not finish this book; thus the post title. While I have avoided chastising certain publishers of reviewed books regarding their cover art choices (mostly the complete lack thereof,) this one might have held a hint, as Kurtz looks out from the cover in undisguised contempt of those damn kids on his lawn, daring the potential reader to make any connection to the book’s title.

Part of the reason for my abandoning this book may be that it is not written for a specific goal, but is rather a collection of essays and lectures for a variety of audiences, largely academic; Kurtz is professor emeritus of philosophy from SUNY Buffalo, and some of the chapters were lectures targeted towards the philosophical community, where the academic style is often dry and abstract. It is this abstraction that allowed one of the greatest disservices to the ideas within the book, since Kurtz seems to feel that analogies or examples are to be avoided at all costs. Even when I identified with the points he was making, I found difficult to make a connection between the abstract statements and any real-world manifestation. Whereas many lecturers and academicians might make a statement of importance in broad terms and follow it with a breakdown of its meaning, Kurtz simply proceeds to the next statement. I found myself re-reading paragraphs and even sentences three or more times to parse the message within, a tedious process at best.

In the first 140 (of 226 total) pages that I managed to slog through, I found not the slightest hint of humor within, no anecdotes, no historical process, and barely even anything in support of the statements that Kurtz was making. The content is painfully dry and lifeless, about as far from “exuberant” as possible, causing me at one point to actually wonder if this was supposed to be satire. The tone throughout lacks any vestige of humanity, instead seeming to strive for Inscriptions of Great Import, as if each sentence is a thought of undeniable depth. There appears to be no effort to reach an audience, but simply to record truths.

This, all by itself, in effect denies a skeptical stance. Aside from the subtle connection to the Appeal From Authority fallacy, where statements are judged for value only by the status of those who issue them, there seems to be no recognition that the overriding idea behind skepticism is to seek rational support for holding a particular view. Little to no reasoning at all is given within this book; it is apparently assumed that the truth is self-evident. Now, anyone can find a proverb to support whatever position they prefer to hold – and with a little more effort, one to completely contradict it. The strongest points are made by building the case and demonstrating the usefulness within, showing how it applies effectively to our lives, decisions, attitudes, and so on. Simply offering a statement, even when completely correct, requires the reader to make any connections on their own, and to do this, they have to feel motivated to prove the truth of the statement to themselves. This is asking a lot from most people, which is something that critical thinking also addresses, since too many people skip such efforts in favor of whatever supports their immediate emotional needs. In other words, this book appears targeted towards those who need it the least.

And then again, it is almost condescending in tone, reading like a lecture from the head of a university to the assembled faculty, expounding on the school’s mission statement and the underlying values they all must strive for. In fact, this demarcation is frequently evident, in that there is an “I” and “you,” and Kurtz’s entire audience is “you.” There is no effort, and apparently no desire, to join the reader in a common goal, to point out that we are motivated by the same things, or to communicate with the reader as equals. While it is more subtle than I am about to put it, the book has a constant sense of, “me talk, you listen,” with engagement and maintained interest being either assumed or considered unnecessary.

I am more than a little hard on philosophy, so knowing that this was Kurtz’s field of expertise, I recognized that this might be emphasized distinctly within his book. Yet, I cannot even see the value from a philosophical standpoint. Philosophy virtually requires the development of a line of reasoning, a path that demonstrates a logical superiority over alternatives. This actually isn’t hard to do with skepticism, yet this was assiduously avoided, for reasons I cannot fathom.

Carl Sagan, James Randi, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Cox, among others, show that exuberance in skeptical pursuits is entirely possible, and it is almost certainly this exuberance that does so much for the idea of critical thinking in the first place. Even Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens produce some of the most incisive commentary on belief systems, and while it doesn’t seem quite appropriate to call their approach “exuberant,” they nevertheless nail their topics so thoroughly to the wall that detractors almost invariably have to attack a parody of their points (or even the tone, as if this suddenly became relevant,) since arguing their actual points is so difficult to do. George Carlin is remembered for his biting, satirical views, presented with humor yet still getting his message across. There are many ways to promote skepticism, and to make it more savory and entertaining than the cynicism with which it is often confused.

This book is not among them. I have no problem with saying that it is assuredly one of the best ways to chase people away from the idea and practice, and convince them that skepticism is, at the very least, emotionless, pedantic, and tedious. It is not enough to derive items of importance to society; to be of any use, one must also be able to communicate them as well, preferably in a memorable way.