Skeptics Guide to Universe - Concepts Summary

 Date: April 6, 2022
Skeptics Guide to Universe - book cover

Skeptics Guide to Universe is a great book about different mechanisms of deception and biases. After reading it I decided to summarize all the concepts from the book for the future reference. Especially because I didn’t find any good summary online.


Neuropsychological Humility and Mechanisms of Deception

  • Memory Fallibility and False Memory Syndrome - entirely false memories can be easily fabricated, sometimes by misguided therapists or by Fusion (We can fuse the details of different memories, mixing them up or even combining two separate memories into one), Confabulation (Put simply, we make shit up), Personalization (There is a tendency to shift memories from happening to other people to happening to ourselves), or Contamination (We are social creatures. Part of our social nature is that we place high value on the testimony of others.)

  • Fallibility of Perception - occur when a person’s perception does not match the sensory stimuli, which causes a misperception.

  • Pareidolia - tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern

  • Hyperactive Agency Detection - tendency to interpret events as if they were the deliberate intent of a conscious agent rather than the product of natural forces or unguided chaotic events

  • Hypnagogia - transitional state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, which can produce unusual experiences often mistaken for paranormal ones (I often think I see a person sitting on the chair when I wake up in the middle of the night…it takes me few seconds to realize it’s just chair with bunch of clothes on it)

  • Ideomotor Effect - involuntary subconscious subtle muscle movement driven by expectation, which creates the illusion that the movement is due to an external force (…)


  • Dunning-Kruger Effect - inability to evaluate one’s own competency, leading to a general tendency to overestimate one’s abilities (90% people think they are top 10%)

  • Motivated Reasoning - biased process we use to defend a position, ideology, or belief that we hold with emotional investment

  • Arguments and Logical Fallacies - invalid connection between a premise and a conclusion, where the conclusion does not necessarily flow from the premise(s) but is argued as if it does

  • Cognitive biases - flaws in the way our brains process information.

  • Heuristics - rules of thumb or mental shortcuts that are not reliably true and therefore also lead to biased thinking.

  • Confirmation Bias - tendency of individuals to seek out or interpret new information as support for previously held notions or beliefs, even when such interpretations don’t hold up to statistical scrutiny

  • Appeal to Antiquity - special form of the appeal-to-authority fallacy. In this case the alleged authority is the assumption of ancient wisdom, or the notion that an idea that has stood the test of time must be valid.

  • Appeal to Nature - logical fallacy based upon the unwarranted assumption that things that are natural are inherently superior to things that are manufactured. Additionally, it relies upon a vague definition of “natural.”

  • Fundamental Attribution Error - cognitive bias in which we ascribe other people’s actions to internal factors such as personality while rationalizing our own actions as being the result of external factors beyond our control

  • Anomaly Hunting - something that sticks out because it doesn’t seem to make sense or it appears to contradict established knowledge or scientific theory. The fallacy of anomaly hunting comes from looking for anything unusual, assuming any apparent anomaly is unexplainable, and then concluding that it is evidence for one’s pet theory

  • Data Mining - process of sifting through large sets of data looking for any possible correlation, many of which will occur by chance. While this is a legitimate method for generating hypotheses, such data are not confirmatory and the method is easily abused.

  • Coincidence - chance alignment of two variables or events that seem to be independent, especially if it seems as if the occurrence defies the odds

Science and Pseudoscience

  • Methodological Naturalism - philosophical basis for scientific methodology that proceeds as if the universe follows natural laws in which all effects have a natural cause

  • Postmodernism - philosophical position that science is nothing more than a cultural narrative and therefore has no special or privileged relationship with the truth

  • Occam’s Razor - when two or more hypotheses are consistent with the available data, then the hypothesis that introduces the fewest new assumptions should be preferred (assumption that simpler explanation is true)

  • Pseudoscience and the Demarcation Problem - claims and procedures that superficially resemble science but lack the true essence of the scientific method. In practice there is a continuum from rank pseudoscience at one end to rigorous science at the other, with no sharp demarcation line in between

  • Denialism - motivated denial of accepted science using a series of invalid strategies

  • P-Hacking - misuse of data analysis to find patterns in data that can be presented as statistically significant when in fact there is no real underlying effect

  • Conspiracy Theories - a belief system that involves at its core the claim that a vastly powerful group is carrying out a deception against the public for their own nefarious ends

  • Witch Hunts - dedicated and unjust investigation or prosecution of a person or group in which the extreme and threatening nature of the alleged crimes is used to justify suspending or ignoring the usual rules of evidence

  • Placebo Effects - apparent response to a treatment or intervention that is due to something other than a biological response to an active treatment

  • Anecdote - story or experience, often offered as evidence, that was not controlled and is therefore subject to a host of biases and confounding factors.

Iconic Cautionary Tales From History

  • The “Clever Hans” Effect - unconscious nonverbal communication of information from a researcher or agent to an animal or other subject. This unconscious communication creates the illusion of cognitive or supernatural ability.

  • The Hawthorne Effect - simply observing something may alter its behavior, thereby creating an artifact that leads to an incorrect conclusion

  • Cold Reading - a collection of mentalism techniques used to create the illusion of having gained specific knowledge about a target through supernatural means. The techniques involve use of vague statements, high-probability guesswork, and feeding back knowledge gained from the subject themselves, while the target makes connections to their own personal experience. Cold reading is used in stage magic for entertainment, but also by a wide variety of less honest practitioners to feign psychic or arcane abilities.

  • Free Energy - claim that the law of conservation of energy can be broken, that we can create some process that creates more energy than it uses

  • Quantum Woo - a hostile takeover of the success and weirdness of quantum theory to support pseudoscientific beliefs and junk science

  • Homunculus Theory - class of medical philosophy that assumes one part of the body contains a functional map of the entire organism

  • Intelligent Design - notion that the complexity of the universe can only be explained as the result of an intelligent force, a designer. Critics maintain the idea isn’t a proper scientific theory because it is fundamentally unfalsifiable.

  • Vitalism - belief that living things are animated by a life force, or “vital” force, that gives them not only the quality of being alive but also their essence

  • Dualism - the same concept applied to consciousness—that the mind is more than or separate from the physical brain

  • N-Rays - hypothesized form of radiation, described by French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot in 1903, and initially confirmed by others, but subsequently found to be illusory

  • Positive Thinking - “If you think positively, positive results will come.” (and you don’t need to do anyhing)

  • Pyramid Scheme - type of business that lures in new recruits by promising them an income from those they recruit themselves. Typically, people who engage in these businesses need to spend money to buy products or other materials related to the business. The training they receive is geared toward finding new recruits. If you imagine a pyramid, new recruits must find another bigger layer of recruits below them, and that new layer will go on to find yet another, even larger layer. Money is paid up the pyramid to those above. Math: if 6 people have to recruit 6 people, after 12 levels we have 2 Billion people.


Remember to be skeptical about this book and ideas presented in it!

I found out about this book from Elon Musk’s tweet. In his other tweet he shared awesome infographic showing 50 biases to be aware of. It is a good supplement for this book:

50 cognitive biases to be aware of

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