Book review: “Why People Believe Weird Things”

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.

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One response to “Book review: “Why People Believe Weird Things”

  1. I just finished reading the revised and expanded edition of Michael Shermer’s “Why People Shouldn’t Believe Things I Think Are Weird”… um, I mean “Why People Believe Weird Things”. Shermer is an ex-Theology student and born-again Christian, who has been born-once-again as an agnostic and professional skeptic–which is the niche he currently resides in. When I first brought this book home I honestly thought I was in for the literary equivalent of cold, plain oatmeal–probably healthy, but dull and flavorless and hard to swallow. My bias was swiftly reinforced after reading the awful Foreword in which Paleontologist/Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould awkwardly tries to defend “debunking”, aka skepticism. Three scattershot pages filled with odd generalizations infused with misplaced certitudes such as, “Consciousness, vouchsafed only to our species in the history of life on earth, is the most god-awfully potent evolutionary invention ever developed.”. I hope Gould meant this sentence as deep satire, or a sly nudge ‘n wink insider joke, otherwise it comes across as complete nonsense. First of all, consciousness remains a deep mystery, and as a field of study is still in it’s infancy. The indwelling consciousness of animals (and even plants) remains indeterminate–neither proven or disproven. Secondly, to use the term “god-awfully” as Gould does seems ironic at best, coming from a man who does not believe in gods. Finally, the contradictions seen in a “development” of an “evolutionary invention” stands in the muck of it’s own absurdity, and needs no further comment. Then Gould goes on to declare that irrationality and romanticism results inevitably in “mob action.” Gould ends this mess with his belief that “rationality itself, tied to moral decency” are the “only two escapes” for humankind. Moral decency, huh? Based on what, exactly? Sounds like the blunt moral club used by fundamentalist religions worldwide, and stinks of the Taliban, the Inquisition, and the Third Reich. Ugh.

    However, after one of the worst possible starts, as soon as I plunged into the actual Shermer text I was pleasantly shocked. Hmm, this stuff seems insightful, entertaining, witty and loaded with sharp reason. I really liked this book… a lot. Shermer appears to be a truly open-minded skeptic, able to look at a “weird” subject from all angles, but always operating under the floodlight of reason and hard science. What’s this? A skeptic who says “there is psychological evidence that magical thinking reduces anxiety”? Shermer also believes there is medical evidence that prayer and meditation may lead to greater physical and mental health, as well as “anthropological evidence that magicians, shamans, and the kings who use them, have more power…”.
    Wow- unexpected and brave statements coming from a Director of the Skeptics Society.

    One of my few minor criticisms of this book is the way Shermer uses Gallup and other poll’s to bolster his contention that large percentages of people believe “nonsense of all sorts” and saying the results are “alarming” to him. A poll showing 19% of adult Americans believing in witches? The only “alarming” thing I see here is that the number isn’t up in the high 90%. Witches obviously do exist. The Priests and Priestesses of the Wiccan religion are called witches, and they perform rituals within a coven filled with other witches. They are real people, found in the real world. I wonder if the poll that Shermer cited qualified witches as women flying around on brooms, or a hags with talking cats? Doubt it. And what about belief in UFO’s that Shermer is so worried about? I’m certain that UFO’s exist. I see them all the time. Quite often I’ll look in the sky and spot something up there that I can’t positively identify. Was that a bird or a bat? Is that a plane or a …? Well, it’s an unidentified flying object isn’t it? I’ve never, however, observed a spacecraft piloted by an extra-terrestrial entity. And 35% of people believing in ghosts? But what do you mean by ‘ghost’? My dead great grandfather’s hovering form, or a feeling of negative energy in the house? My point being we need to operationally define these terms to get a true and meaningful result, and I’m surprised that a professional skeptic like Shermer would overlook this.

    After this small bump in the road the book zips along, offering up chapter after chapter of great stuff. Shermer confronts and deflates the Ayn Rand cult, exposes psychic frauds, and drills deep into the alien abduction phenomenon (simply a zany manifestation of pop culture?). The best chunks for me were Shermer’s relentless evisceration of creationists and Holocaust revisionists. First he brilliantly lumps the two nut groups together, and then proceeds to pounds them into a pulp before escorting them off the stage of plausibility. Using bullet points, cold logic and facts, Shermer effectively dismembers each claim or stance, dismantles their already shaky foundations, and simply removes the creationists and Holocaust revisionists from the menu. In my opinion he closes the book on the creationist and revisionist proponents, and exposes them as the walking talking human errors they are. Devastating assault, and a great victory for science and logic.

    “Why People Believe Weird Things” goes off the boil a bit towards the end, and limps to a rather fuzzy completion with this final, unfortunate and nearly incomprehensible sentence, “In other words, the belief in UFO’s and alien abductions, like that of other weird beliefs, is orthogonal to and independent of the evidence for or against it, or the intelligence of its proponents, which makes my point. Q.E.D.”
    Huh? Yes, he actually ended his book with this. Here’s what I think Shermer should have ended with, succeeding with great elegance to say what S.J. Gould failed to: “It is a different source of hope, but it is hope nonetheless: hope that human intelligence, combined with compassion, can solve our myriad problems and enhance the quality of each life; hope that historical progress continues on its march toward greater freedoms and acceptance for all humans; and hope that reason and science as well as love and empathy can help us understand our universe, our world, and ourselves.”
    Bravo Mr. Shermer.

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