on 5 March 1999
My first impression upon finishing this book is that the title is wrong. Though Dr. Shermer addresses some issues about why people believe weird things, for the most part this book is more about the weird things people believe, and not so much about the reasons they believe them. For a better discussion about why people believe weird things, I suggest Thomas Gilovich's book "How we know what isn't so."
Shermer devotes all of chapter one to expanding on the definition and characteristics of a skeptic, and all of chapter two to describing science. This lays the bedrock for his future discussions about pseudosciences such as creationism, and helps to make clear the reasons these pseudosciences and superstitions fail to meet the demanding requirements of science. He explains that a skeptic is not synonymous with a cynic. Instead, a skeptic is someone who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. As such, skepticism is an essential part of the scientific method.
Chapter 3 is a jewel. It describes 25 ways in which thinking goes wrong. Reading this chapter left me wondering if these rules for fallacious reasoning are not encoded somewhere as the rules for participation in some of the more notorious Internet newsgroups devoted to various mythologies.
The second part of the book examines claims of the paranormal, near-death experiences, alien abductions, witch crazes, and cults. Although these stories make interesting reading, they are same examples of debunking we have seen for years. I, for one, would appreciate a fresher skeptical approach that is not so (apparently) reluctant to challenge the claims of institutionalized religions. Is transubstantiation any more credible than claims of the paranormal? Are alien abduction stories any less credible than the Book of Mormon's claims about a large, literate Hebrew society in America 2,000 years ago, that used horse-drawn chariots and steel swords? Are witch crazes any more significant than some Christians who let their children die rather than bringing them proper medical treatment? I think not, and I believe it is time for skeptics to broaden their portfolio beyond the usual array of paranormal activities and alien abductions.
Shermer devotes chapters 9 through 11 to the conflict between creationism and evolution. This section of the book has a wonderful summary of the legal battles fought to keep the religion of creationism out of public schools. Chapter 10 has an excellent description of what is evolution, and a very brief summary of 25 arguments used by creationists against evolution, along with counter arguments used by scientists. Interestingly enough, Shermer offers very little in the way of direct evidence against creationism - of which there is a tremendous amount - and focuses mostly on how to defend evolution. Unfortunately, he has truncated his 25 arguments so much that they are of little practical use - especially against more polished debaters. Shermer admits this at the beginning of the chapter, and does offer an excellent bibliography of more detailed references for the reader.
Shermer's defense of evolution bogs down when he encroaches on the idea that evolution is not a threat to religion. [This is how I interpreted Shermer, though he is not entirely clear about his personal feelings regarding this matter.] Science most certainly is a threat to some religions - creationism, for example (and Shermer argues throughout his book that creationism is a religion - which is why it should not be taught in public schools). It seems obvious to me that sometimes science does threaten religion (more some than others) - but that is religion's problem, not science'. Scientists should stop apologizing for that fact.
In trying to sooth the potential conflict between science and religion, Shermer quotes Stephen J. Gould (one of my favorite authors). Interestingly, Gould (uncharacteristically) offers a spectacular example of some of the bogus reasoning Shermer discredits in chapter 3. Gould says (page 132):
"Unless at least half my colleagues are dunces, there can be - on the most raw and empirical grounds - no conflict between science and religion."
Here, Gould violates Shermer's rule 19 (overreliance on authorities - Gould's colleagues in this case). Then, Gould leaves us wondering if, instead, we are to consider the other half of Gould's colleagues (the half that apparently do not agree with him) as dunces.
To his credit, Shermer provides a definition of religion on page 145 (though he offers no definition of God). I am not sure he makes the matter any clearer by doing so, however, since his definition of religion (as a method) places it as the antithesis of science (also defined as a method). Yet, I got the impression from his book that Shermer agrees (on a fundamental level) that there need not be any disagreement between science and religion.
Part 4 discusses racism and pseudohistory in the case of holocaust deniers. This part seemed out of place in the book primarily because Shermer spends comparatively little time discussing the weirdness of the opposing camp, instead focusing mostly on his perceptions. Though I agree with him on most points, I could no shake the feeling the chapters belong in a different book with a different title.
In the last section (section 5) Shermer gets back on track and finishes with an interesting view of the societal role science plays, and the roll it will play in the future. Shermer holds hope for the human race, in spite of its sometimes-overbearing tendency toward mysticism. He also gives a wonderful summary of why people believe weird things: because it feels good. Though I would like to know more about why it feels good, I cannot argue with his conclusion.
Overall, this was an excellent book. Dr. Shermer is a clear thinker. His ability to focus on the central issues and facts makes this book refreshingly illuminating. His personal touch, brought through stories of actual life experiences, adds to the pleasure of reading his book.
on 28 October 2003
This is the best book I have read in the search for rational thinking. The author clearly describes the reasons why "smart" people are prone to believe things that are "weird". Unless you regularly practice your critical thinking skills anyone can adopt weird beliefs without acknowledging how strange they may actually be.
In my experience people have a strong desire to believe what they want to believe, to an extent, even when evidence might be pointing to the opposite of a belief. I myself used to be unaware of the level to which I believed things without any good supporting evidence. This book is great for opening your eyes to the false notions that are projected around contemporary society and to help you spot them.
People who hold beliefs very strongly have a strong influence over people as convictions held with confidence are contagious. In any theory you here throughout your daily life, analyse it using the methods described in this book, and remember it doesn't matter who says it or how they say it, it's what they're saying that's important.
I strongly reccomend this book and believe that it will help YOU as it helped me, overcome the immense amount of horse manure that society throws at you which is claimed to be the TRUTH.
After reading this book I find myself analysing newspapers and television reports aswell as what influential people in my life say CRITICALLY and AUTOMATICALLY. If you want to reduce the confusion in your life caused by irrational beliefs this book is a great place to start. However if you like to hold on to beliefs like a comfy old sweater then you may find it a hard read.
on 21 April 1999
This is an essential and fairminded book which vigourously argues the principles of scepticism and scientific method as a strategy for defending rationality against claims of the paranormal, psuedo-science and - unusually - psuedo-history. He does not flinch from criticising the use of irrational arguments as a debating tool against irrational arguments, pointing out that this is often counter-productive as well as a betrayal of the principles of scepticism. The book contains two long sections dealing specifically with the spurious claims of creationism to be considered a science, and with the Holocaust denial. I found these particularly interesting as neither controversy has been aired much in Britain. The list of twenty-five false arguments of creationists, exposing the logical errors underlying their claims, is very useful both in itself and as a more general illustration of the type of errors one encounters on a daily basis in the media and elsewhere. It astonishes me that anyone should feel it necessary to include a chapter on 'How we Know the Holocaust Happened'. The fact that Shermer does include this chapter is, I suppose, in itself an illustration of the dangers of psuedo-history and other forms of sloppy thinking. In summary, this book is not so much about why people believe wierd things - although he does go into that too - as how to know that the things they believe are wierd.
While this book might better have been titled 'What weird people believe', Shermer addresses many of the North American emotional aberrations with wit and clarity. The geographic limitation omits haunted castles in Britain, elephant tusk powder for potency in China, or papal infallibility, but none of these interest his immediate audience. As an American skeptic, Shermer is here seeking to expose irrational beliefs, presumably in the hope better education will result in fewer aberrant ideas. By showing readers what some people believe, spending pages exposing the fallacies in those beliefs, he's challenging us all to take up the cause in his behalf. That's an admirable quest, deserving attention and applause.
Discussing the transmission of weird ideas, Shermer traces expansion of one of the European 'witch crazes' during the 17th Century. This topic is one worthy of further pursuit. Many modern delusions follow patterns often discounted as 'mob hysteria'. In a modern episode, he cites the Satanic Cults of this century in showing such events recur. Shermer's book shows the importance of plumbing these occurrences in the hope of applying some preventive medicine. The medicine is rational thinking, which this book shows isn't limited to the educate elite. If Shermer can attract more people to take the time to understand and care about what is happening in their society he's done what he set out to do. What you, as a reader, must do is extend his appeal - tell the media loud and clear that you don't want them to enhance belief in 'weird things' by spending so much time on them.
Some reviewers have complained this book lacks depth. The 'why' of these errant ideas is incomplete or lacking, but the book isn't intended as a deep psychological study. There are references in the bibliography for that topic. This book is an appeal for awareness - readers will learn the strange ideas his subjects have and who else believes them. Shermer can only be admired for his courage in exposing these mythologies. Shermer's call for reason deserves a wide and attentive audience. Join us and support his book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 29 July 1998
Shermer presents an excellent analysis of the differences between science and pseudoscience, and reveals in clear terms the underpinnings of the scientific method. Anyone who can read this book and fail to understand the differences between objective science and its antithesis isn't reading very deeply.
Following this introductory material Shermer presents us with a number of concrete examples, including Holocaust denial, UFOlogy, and the "recovered memory" phenomenon. All are presented with clarity, wit, and purpose and illustrate the book's primary topic extremely well.
on 21 March 2002
It is of course unwise to judge a book by its cover, but it seems judging this one by its title would also be a mistake. Others have commented on this already, but it needs a stronger emphasis: in a book of three hundred pages, only five, in the final chapter, seem properly devoted to answering the question posed by the title. Even more perplexingly, Shermer's conclusions are not at all original, and the answers he gives could have been listed by anyone given a piece of paper and one minute to imagine a few reasons for belief in the paranormal.
Even so, this does not make the book a bad one. Far from it: I enjoyed it very much, and devoured it all in two days. Following a short foreword by Stephen Jay Gould, professional Sceptic Michael Shermer gives a personal background and his own perspective on the beliefs of those he is about to investigate. He then looks, chapter by chapter, at the beliefs he considers weird, including alien abductions, near death experiences and the Objectivist "cult". Creationism gets the next three chapters, followed by three more for Holocaust denial. Then, before the conclusion, two seemingly misplaced chapters cover the Bell Curve and the search for evidence of God in physics. Some chapters I found better than others, but it is perhaps fair to say that each was insightful and certainly well researched. There was very little waffle and no ranting, so he makes his points well. Shermer is endearingly kind to those he investigates, repeatedly emphasising their intelligence and their pleasantness. This also gets across an important point to the reader: that he himself is not immune to the same superstitions that are evident in Shermer's subjects, and the book is as much a warning as a freak show. The narrative and writing is amusing and the topic matter, being based on the weird and wonderful, is naturally enjoyable.
My main problem with the book, apart from that of a title that does not fit in with the contents, is that Shermer appears reluctant to distinguish people who believe weird things from weird people who have fairly humdrum and ordinary beliefs that he happens not to share. He describes in detail in Chapter Eight how the movement centred around the philosophies of Ayn Rand has become a sort of cult, revering Rand and believing her to have been infallible. But does this make her ideas themselves "weird"? Judging from Shermer's own account, no. He takes her to task for the "intolerance" of moral objectivism, and believing in right and wrong as a matter of truth rather than as subjective opinion. This seems not only counter to common sense but counter to the purpose of his career, which is debunking myths like Creationism and Holocaust denial. If the search for truth really makes one "intolerant" of falsehoods, as he claims of morality, then he too is being intolerant in looking for objective truths in historical and scientific matters and debunking what is wrong. Similarly, to look for intelligent design in the universe (ie. for God) using cosmology, is difficult for a fair-minded person to classify as "weird", even if an atheist would deem it a complete waste of time.
I think this illustrates a problem with the book, and with the Scepticist ideal, which is in so many other ways admirable. The ease with which Shermer and those like him sometimes seem to dismiss ideas and anecdotes that challenge their world-view, on the basis that belief in them is more incredible than belief in any alternative explanation, just does not fit in with the claim of "critical thinking". Thinking critically should mean being open to the possibility that your explanation is not always the correct one as much as ignoring what seems unlikely.
"Why People Believe Weird Things" is a good book: a literary Louis Theroux-like look at the peculiar ideas that some have, as well as the compelling evidence for their falsehood. If you really do want a good explanation for why people believe weird things, this is not going to be much help. Assuming that is not your only reason for wanting this book, it is a worthwhile read. Flawed but fun, it is a light and interesting work on a fairly novel topic.
on 17 May 1999
As noted in other reviews, one problem with Mr. Shermer's book is that he spends little time discussing precisely WHY people believe "weird things"; in writing this book he evidently spoke directly with at least a few proponents of, for example, creationism and Holocaust denial, and presumably he could have easily spared a few minutes in his conversations to ask them "why?", but such answers are not given. While most of the subject matter is fairly interesting, Mr. Shermer's coverage is rather uneven. He devotes little attention to such subjects as Edgar Cayce (whose life involved much more than ESP tests, regardless of how skeptically one regards it) and false allegations of satanic cult abuse (a subject I was really interested in hearing more about from an objective perspective), yet gives three chapters each to creationism and Holocaust denial (without, as noted, using this space to provide much insight or, in the case of these latter two, most dangerous doctrines, the ultimate costs of allowing them to spread unchallenged). The penultimate chapter, dealing with religio-physics, seemed to come out of nowhere; it might have been better dealt with in conjunction with creationism, a line of thought which, although I do not subscribe to it, I am sure has somewhat more depth to it than is shown here. A lack of depth characterizes most of Mr. Shermer's discussions, in fact; going into further detail about memory regression, alien abductions, and other such phenomena (including the New Age religion(s), which Mr. Shermer criticized (calling them "nonsense," a word I don't think he would have applied to most other religions) but never actually DISCUSSED) would have made the book more than just another primer on such topics and possibly cast some new light on, as the title says, "why." I could never regard any book that provided me with previously unfamiliar information (I didn't know that the Nazis had considered forcing the Jews to emigrate to Madagascar, for example.) as completely without merit, but WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS did not live up to what it could have been. Sagan's THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD and Gardner's FADS AND FALLACIES handled the task better.
C. P. Snow once wrote that the sciences and the arts represented `two cultures.' He missed out a third culture: belief in pseudoscience and other confusions.
The United States epitomises these three cultures: it publishes the largest number of cited scientific papers on the planet, its liberal arts colleges are world-class but vast numbers of Americans still believe in creationism, as many as 40 per cent according to one Gallup poll in December 2010.
Michael Shermer, a well-known American sceptic, has his work cut out for him. He surveys a range of bizarre beliefs, such as alien abductions and near-death experiences, to creationism and Holocaust denial.
In dealing with accounts of the fantastic and paranormal, Shermer holds David Hume's foolproof maxim foremost in mind:
`[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish ... `
Thus you cannot disprove a claim such as a man rose from the dead 2000 years ago or that aliens have abducted millions of Americans. But given what we know about the world - i.e. that when a man dies, he stays dead, and that faster-than-light space travel is ruled out by the laws of physics - it would be unwise to accept either belief. Therefore it's reasonable to surmise that the person making such a claim seeks to deceive, or has been deceived.
The demand to disprove an extraordinary claim is an example of an ad ignorantium fallacy, i.e. if you cannot disprove a claim then it must be true. This is one fallacy among 25 others that Shermer describes that underpin belief in weird things. There are others: the fallacy that the minority view must necessarily be the right one, the fallacy that a coincidence proves a cause, and such like that underpin those who accept weird beliefs.
Shermer's tone is informed by Spinoza's admonishment, not to ridicule but to understand why people hold strange beliefs. He gives his subjects their due, setting out the arguments of creationists and Holocaust deniers before turning to refute them. His style is a lot less showy than Hitchens or Dawkins but loses nothing on account of that.
I found Shermer's chapters on pseudoscience (i.e. creationism) and pseudohistory (Holocaust denial) especially penetrating critiques of both movements. But what is the difference between pseudoscience and real science? Science is dedicated to formulating hypotheses that can be tested against data. Even the most robust theory is tentative. It could be invalidated by fresh data. Compare that with creationism, which anchors its authority in the inerrancy of scripture. Its foundational premise is therefore beyond argument or dispute.
Science looks for naturalistic explanations behind phenomena but by definition supernatural explanations, posited from outside nature, cannot be assessed, tested or measured. So for instance it is averred that the `irreducible complexity' of the eye can only be `explained' by positing the existence of a supernatural designer. Not only can this not be demonstrated (it relies ultimately on the ad ignorantium fallacy as its foundation) but science can demonstrate, with real world examples, the evolution of the eye, in part by the existence of a plethora of eyes at various stages of developments among various species.
Shermer is right to bracket Holocaust denial with creationist science. Just as evolution is proved by the convergence of evidence from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology and other scientific disciplines, the fact of the Holocaust is proved by the convergence of various strands of evidence. Deniers tend to concentrate on weaknesses in their opponents' explanations, seize on disagreements among scholars and quote these out of context, focussing on what we do not know rather than what we do. Falsifying one detail (such as soap being made out of human fat) is held to falsify all other details. But the fact of the Holocaust does not rely on the veracity of a single claim - it relies on over a dozen strands of evidence converging on one conclusion: it happened.
The laws of science do not rule out a claim that the Holocaust never happened. But the evidence as it stands supports the claim and makes it a strongly credible one, stronger than the claims of those who seek to deny it. The question is not whether you can disprove or prove beyond all reasonable doubt, but whether the quality of evidence adduced stacks up for or against a claim. History cannot be described as a hard science per se but it involves formulating hypotheses that are then tested against the data.
Where perhaps the book is weaker is the modest attention given to answering the question why people believe weird things. It's more than a `how' than a `why' people at arrive at bizarre beliefs. For Shermer it's a combination of confirmation bias (the tendency of human beings to look for evidence to confirm a view they have already accepted independently of any evidence to support it) and attribution bias (the tendency to attribute the basis of your beliefs to reason, and hence rational, but the beliefs of others to emotion, hence irrational). But can't this be said of all beliefs? Certainly not in the case of science or history properly practised, whereby the process of peer review minimises bias even if it cannot eliminate it altogether.
Scepticism is not nihilism. It is about assessing the degree to which claims can be supported by evidence. It is a positive exercise in helping us make well-founded statements of truth about the world in which we live. I thoroughly commend this book to anyone who takes this exercise seriously.
on 2 January 2013
Human reasoning can be easily trapped in fallacies.
The strongest part of this book is the overview of the different flaws in human reasoning.
One remark: I missed a section on what assumptions people make, and the number of assumptions people make.
You always have to assume a number of things in explaining the world around you.
By making enough assumptions you can prove everything.
The difference between science and pseudo science is also the number of assumptions.
Science is most likely what required the smallest number of assumptions.
Pseudo science is what requires more assumptions.
This is in line with the Ockham's razor, as well as the theory of Lichtenberg.
A reference to this principle would have improved the completeness and quality of this book.
on 31 January 2009
I am by nature a doubting Thomas, and I also doubted whether this would actually be a worthwhile read, or just full of dogmatic right-wing garbage.
I was pleasantly surprised by the book's thoroughness. It covers a lot of ground without being too light, and it even has a chapter devoted to Ayn Rand's cult.
It's a great starting point for beefing up your arguments, be it at dinner parties or fighting the good fight on Internet fora.
It does not cover environmentalism and climate change. Which is a bit of a let-down, but at least you can learn how to hammer a few truths home to your local chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Well worth the time and money.