I wonder if Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things” should have been titled “Why Do People Believe Weird Things” because it is more an exploration than an exposition. Well-researched and documented, the extensive bibliography alone is worth a look. There is no one answer for all in these pages, because the range of weird beliefs encompasses the gamut of paranormal, alien abduction, religion, etc., each of which must be addressed in a different way. It is important to understand two things about Shermer’s approach in this book: he defines a “weird thing” as “(1) a claim unaccepted by most people in that particular field of study, (2) a claim that is either logically impossible or highly unlikely, and/or (3) a claim for which the evidence is largely anecdotal and uncorroborated”, and he pointedly writes in several places that he is not trying to belittle the person or beliefs, but trying to understand. Shermer is an accomplished skeptic, but more important than that, he is a scientist and science historian and brings that research background to the matter at hand.
I am always amazed at Shermer’s prodigious reading capacity and diagnostic skills. Shermer distills tremendous amounts of information into usable bites. In one chapter, he describes preparing for a debate with Duane Gish (of creationist movement fame) by reading all of Gish’s published material as well as re-reading the entire Bible. I don’t know that I could stomach more than one of Gish’s books. It is interesting to note Dawkins and Gould both would have tried to dissuade Shermer from agreeing to the debate, not because they were afraid he’d lose, but they refuse to put non-science on the same stage as science. By debating, they feel that at least one someone in the audience would take away from the event the idea that creationists and IDers actually had a right to sit at the table of science. Shermer debated many of the “weird” in the late 80s and early 90s; I’m not sure if he still does.
The book opens with a discussion of the importance of science and skepticism and provides a list of 25 reasons of why we may be wrong about things. Subsequent sections and chapters address specific “weird” beliefs to numerous to list. The Holocaust denial discussion is a good example of how to refute that which most of us feel shouldn’t need refutation. History is a particularly challenging body of knowledge, for rarely, if ever, is it recorded without prejudice. Still, rational reasoning can be applied. He explains the principle arguments posed by the deniers, and spends an entire chapter illustrating convergence of data to support the commonly understood accounting of the events of the Holocaust.
Another good section addresses the most common creationist/IDer counter-arguments to evolution and the fallacies… While neither exhaustive nor particularly detailed, it nonetheless does give cocktail party talking points.
Shermer’s original conclusion as to why people believe weird things was in itself unsatisfying to me. He gives four broad reasons, and the one that makes the most sense, yet is the least defensible is “because they want to”. In the second edition of the book (the one I read), Shermer adds a chapter on why smart people believe weird things. I don’t think he really answers that question. He does explain that smart people are better at defending the beliefs they arrived at in a non-standard fashion. Further, smart people view their own beliefs as being based in logic and reason, yet they attribute the same beliefs in others to emotion. Telling. It is amusing to see and hear pedigreed scientists decry the pseudosciences and yet not see their own errors.
Shermer continues his study in two follow on books: How We Believe and The Science of Good and Evil.