The best books on thinking about and detecting bullshit, misinformation, and fake news

John V. Petrocelli Author Of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit
By John V. Petrocelli

Who am I?

As an experimental social psychologist, who has conducted years of empirical research on bullshitting behavior and bullshit detection, I’ve found compelling evidence that the worst outcomes of bullshit communications are false beliefs and bad decisions. I’m convinced that all of our problems, whether they be personal, interpersonal, professional, or societal are either directly or indirectly linked to mindless bullshit reasoning and communication. I’m just sick and tired of incompetent, bullshit artists who capitalize by repackaging and selling what I and other experimental psychologists do for free. It’s time the masses learn that some of us who actually do the research on the things we write about can actually do it better.    


I wrote...

The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit

By John V. Petrocelli,

Book cover of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit

What is my book about?

Bullshit is the foundation of contaminated thinking and bad decisions that leads to health consequences, financial losses, legal consequences, broken relationships, and wasted time and resources. No matter how good we think we are at detecting bullshit, we’re all susceptible to its unwanted effects. While we may brush it off as harmless marketing sales speak, it’s actually much more dangerous. It’s how Bernie Madoff swindled billions of dollars from experienced financial experts with his Ponzi scheme. It’s how Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of 36 million people from starvation. 

But with doses of skepticism and commitment to truth seeking, you can build your critical thinking and reasoning skills to evaluate information, separate fact from fiction, and see through bullshitter spin.

The books I picked & why

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How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Asking the Right Questions

By Christopher Dicarlo,

Book cover of How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Asking the Right Questions

Why this book?

If there is one book I wish I’d written myself, it is How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass. One of the things I admired most about the people who shaped my education and career path most was their ability to listen carefully and ask critical questions that uncovered even more than what was first expressed. Christopher DiCarlo’s book is a manual to practicing these traits. The book provides all of the tools needed to question beliefs and assumptions held by those who claim to know what they’re talking about, while at the same time providing practical solutions for today’s world of misinformation. The book also convinced me that faulty reasoning can be spotted by asking the right sorts of questions—what better gift to give someone? 


No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller

By Harry Markopolos,

Book cover of No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller

Why this book?

I found this book absolutely thrilling as a real-life story of one of the biggest bullshit busts in history. Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme ran for almost 18 years without much concern or investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). But, Harry Markopolos, a little-known number cruncher from a Boston equity derivatives firm, was onto Madoff after looking at Madoff’s financial records, several years before the bust made headlines. Page by page, Markopolos details his pursuit of the greatest financial criminal in history, and reveals the massive fraud, governmental incompetence, and criminal collusion that has changed thousands of lives forever-as well as the world’s financial system. All the while, no one, including the SEC, would listen. As such, the book is the quintessential example of how spellbinding bullshit can be. 


Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling

By James E. Alcock,

Book cover of Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling

Why this book?

James Alcock is the only social psychologist I know who could write a clear, accessible, and comprehensive volume on the psychology of belief—particularly how our thoughts and feelings, actions and reactions, respond not to the world as it actually is but to the world as we believe it to be. No matter how much you think you know about beliefs, and no matter what you actually believe, any reader will find surprises in Alcock’s treatise, such as why so many people cling to beliefs that are foolish, self-destructive, and wrong, believing them to be wise, self-protective, and right. Belief convinced me that faulty beliefs, arising from misapprehension about the cause of a disease, misperceptions of an enemy’s actions, misreading a lover’s motive, misconceptions about which, if any, gods are real, can lead to irrational, maladaptive, and sometimes deadly actions.


Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

By Michael Shermer,

Book cover of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Why this book?

Why People Believe Weird Things is a classic, must-read in the areas of critical thinking and skepticism. But, the reason I love Michael Shermer’s book so much is that he clearly explains why people believe the strangest of things without patronizing his opponents. In doing so, the book reaches a very compelling demonstration of how anyone’s search for meaning and spiritual fulfillment can result in the beliefs in extraordinary claims and controversial ideas. For example, Shermer explains why people may truly believe that they were held by aliens or have recovered a memory of childhood satanic-ritual abuse in terms of scientific reasoning. Shermer is a science historian with a cornucopia of examples he captivated me with the first time I read the book. The second time I read the book I realized it is a comprehensive, well-indexed, and extensive bibliography of a treatise focusing on how we can combat the development of distorted beliefs through critical skepticism and debunk the most brilliant of bullshit artists.


Everything Is Bullshit: The greatest scams on Earth revealed

By Priceonomics, Alex Mayyasi, Rohin Dhar, Zachary Crockett, Dan Abramson (illustrator), David Raether (contributor)

Book cover of Everything Is Bullshit: The greatest scams on Earth revealed

Why this book?

I found Everything is Bullshit to be so interesting that I wasn’t able to put it down once discovered in a random, one-off, used bookstore. This book is a sleeping beauty. It opened my eyes to all the scams that big companies use and how they have the money and power to keep getting away with them. The explanations for why many of our society’s most cherished traditions are actually based on bullshit reasoning are well-researched and compelling. The book helped me understand why diamond engagement rings are so expensive, why wine is so expensive, how art becomes “art”, why non-profit organizations ask us to donate our cars to them, why college costs so much, and why so many pets die in animal shelters.


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