Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why People Believe Weird Things

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
2nd edition © 2002, Michael Shermer
313 pages, plus extended bibliography and index

Having been a skeptic for a few years now, I've heard this book referenced a lot in conversations with fellow skeptics -- but I just recently found it while browsing in a book store. Michael Shermer is the founder of Skeptic magazine and the director of the Skeptics Society, so his is a name I've heard a lot about. He also lectures for the Science Network.

Beyond the introductions and prologue, the book is divided into five principle sections, each section containing a number of individual chapters: Science and Skepticism, Pseudoscience and Superstition, Evolution and Creationism,History and Pseudohistory, and Hope Springs Eternal. In the first part, Shermer introduces skepticism and the scientific method: he details how he became a skeptic, and then examines twenty-five logical fallacies that result in people believing odd things as well as probing errors in scientific thinking.

In the next chapter, he deals with the paranormal, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, "immortality" science, alien abductions, witch crazes, and the the cult of personality surrounding Ayn Rand and Objectivisim. I don't know much about Rand, although I heard her speak on NPR and disagreed with what she said regarding suicide and selfishness. (The interviewer asked her why she thought giving to other people was wrong, and she retorted with "What's wrong with suicide?" I don't think there's anything wrong with either.)

The next two chapters are more cohesive, in that each deals with the same central topic: evolution denial in one and Holocaust denial in the other. In each, Shermer introduces the conflict, explores why people deny it, and then counters their arguments and explores why they believe the way they do. The section on Holocaust denial provided miniature biographies of various deniers, including David Irving. Last year while doing a paper on the Luftwaffe, I accidently picked up an Irving book before becoming aware of his reputation. Fortunately, the book I took notes from was published before he started his denial business.

Lastly, Shermer looks as why people believe weird things -- he looks at their motives. Some petential reasons he points out are immediate gratification and the power and immortality of hope and its influence on the human psyche. The book is well-written and well-organized in my estimation. Shermer never confuses me, even when he's writing on abstract or complicated ideas. I wouldn't try reading it all at once, though: I think it's a book that deserves slow and gradual consideration. I read it over a period of days, mulling over the ideas therein. I must reccommend it.


  1. Have you read: 'How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World' by Francis Wheen?

    I think you'd like it.

  2. This is the first I've heard of it, but it certainly sounds appealing, based on the title. ;)

  3. Two others I can personally recommend are:

    Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom


    Empires of Belief (Why we need more Scepticism and Doubt in the 21st Century) by Stuart Sim.


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