Journal article

Why People Believe Weird Things

Shermer M ...see all

Psychiatric Services, vol. 49, issue 10 (1998) pp. 1363-1369

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In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society and editor of Skeptic magazine, takes on the task of educating us about pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. In the foreword Stephen Jay Gould writes, "Skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities—like garbage disposal—that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration. Yet the activity has a noble tradition." Shermer lives up to this "noble tradition" with both a macroscopic and a microscopic examination of his subject. In part 1, the overview section, the author provides operational definitions. A scientific law is "a description of a regularly repeating action that is open to rejection or confirmation." Scientific progress is described as "accumulative growth of a system of knowledge over time, in which useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned, based on rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge." Something is pseudohistorical if it is "without supporting evidence and plausibility and presented primarily for political or ideological purposes." And something is most probably pseudoscientific "if enormous claims are made for its power and veracity, but supportive evidence is scarce as hen's teeth." Shermer reminds the reader that "dressing up a system in the trappings of science by using scientific language and jargon… means nothing without evidence, experimental testing, and collaboration." Having set the stage, Shermer moves on to cover pseudoscience, superstition, and such other confusions as psychic power, altered states of consciousness, alien abductions, extrasensory perception, near-death experiences, satanic cults, recovered memory, Ayn Rand followers, fire walkers, UFO-ologists, creationists, Holocaust deniers, and extreme Afro-centrists. As this list indicates, the book moves from some topics that many would endorse as pseudoscience or pseudohistory to other topics that are much more controversial. Shermer does not shrink from taking potshots where he thinks they are warranted. For example, to the question "Who needs satanic cults?" Shermer answers "talk show hosts, book publishers, anticult groups, fundamentalists, and certain religious groups." Nor does he shrink from specifying what characterizes the phenomenon he discusses. For example, Shermer informs us that a cult is characterized by veneration of the leader, the leader's inerrancy (the leader cannot be wrong), the leader's omniscience, persuasive techniques, hidden agendas, deceit, financial or sexual exploitation or both, absolute truth, and absolute morality. In the book's conclusion, Shermer provides some answers to why people believe weird things. First, they want to, it feels good, it is comforting, and it is consoling. Second, the belief provides immediate gratification. Third, the belief offers people a morality and a meaning that they can embrace and that does not appear to them to be cold, brutal, infinite, uncaring, and purposeless, as does science. And fourth, the belief gives them an opportunity to live in an environment where hope springs eternal. Why People Believe Weird Things is an excellent basis for understanding a cornucopia of what many would consider bizarre beliefs and happenings. One criticism is that Shermer briefly covers many subjects but spends disproportionate time on what must be two of his favorite topics: the debate about evolution and creationism, and the debate about whether the Holocaust ever happened. He does provide an excellent background for pursuing further readings in pseudoscience and other confusions as described in many of the other books reviewed here. Shermer's writing certainly reinforced for me David Hume's maxim, as quoted by Shermer: "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."

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  • Michael Shermer

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