Michael Shermer
Cambridge University Press
2020 | 366pp | £14.99
ISBN 9781108489782

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An image showing the book cover of Giving the devil his due

‘We are all wrong some of the time (and many of us, most of the time) so the only way to know if you’ve gone off the rails is to tell others about your beliefs so that they may be tested in the marketplace of ideas.’ This sentiment, from the opening essay of Michael Shermer’s Giving the Devil his Due encapsulates not only the connecting message of the book but its importance to scientifically minded readers.

While the book is primarily a collection of previously published material from Shermer – a science historian and editor of Skeptic magazine – the opening essay describes how important rational and coherent debate is to address society’s ills; a highly relevant idea given issues currently erupting throughout our world. Shermer presents a compelling case for the importance of free speech. His ‘Ten commandments for free speech and thought’ are based around the idea that any individual’s freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to another’s – even if they hold contrary views.

The subsequent sections tackle many issues within the broader field of scepticism, including free thought, religion, politics and society, scientific humanism and controversial intellectuals. The author introduces each article by placing it historically and in context with the overarching theme. Each essay is well crafted to provoke thoughtful reflection and amply referenced for those who wish to dig deeper into each topic.

Much of the book speaks specifically to scientific issues. The essay Banning Evil contains my favourite quote: ‘The counter to bad ideas is good ideas. The rebuttal to pseudoscience is better science.’

My one caveat is that outside of the introductory essay there is very little new material. As the lion’s share of the book is a retrospective of Shermer’s musing on scepticism-related issues over the past 15 or so years, an active follower of the topics mentioned may not find much that is new within these pages – other than the convenience of having the essays present in a single volume.

However, for any reader new to scepticism, Giving the Devil his Due would be an auspicious place to start.