Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time


At various times in the past, Shermer has believed in fundamentalist Christianity, alien abductions, Ayn Rand, megavitamin therapy, and deep-tissue massage. Now he believes in skepticism, and his motto is "Cognite tute--think for yourself." This updated edition of Why People Believe Weird Things covers Holocaust denial and creationism in considerable detail, and has chapters on abductions, Satanism, Afrocentrism, near-death experiences, Randian positivism, and psychics. Shermer has five basic answers to the implied question in his title: for consolation, for immediate gratification, for simplicity, for moral meaning, and because hope springs eternal. He shows the kinds of errors in thinking that lead people to believe weird (that is, unsubstantiated) things, especially the built-in human need to see patterns, even where there is no pattern to be seen. Throughout, Shermer emphasizes that skepticism (in his sense) does not need to be cynicism: "Rationality tied to moral decency is the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known."

While I agree with others who've noted that the book is deceptively titled (Shermer spends only the last four pages speculating about the "why" of his topic), this volume remains a useful and entertaining introduction refuting a random assortment of anti-scientific claims, ranging from the silly to the scary.

In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer takes us through a well reasoned, insightful analysis of many of the social phenomena -- superstition, UFOs, Cult, Holocaust Denial -- which perplex and at times plague contemporary western society.

But he does so in a way that is neither blatant nor condescending. He does not argue that people who deny Evolution, see UFOS, or propagate pseudo-science are suffering from neuropathological condition (as some people seem to have expected Shermer to argue in this book). He also argues that "rationalist" philosophers are always subject to their own errors in reasoning (see the chapter on Ayn Rand and her "cult"). Hence, Shermer attributes such beliefs to problems in people's reasoning and way of seeing the world -- eg., their "baloney detection kits" -- which can be understood in lieu of various flawed assumptions, logical errors and methods of argumentation. (See Chapter 3's "25 Fallacies").

Shermer is thorough, but clear in his style and presentation, as seen in his illustration of Creationist arguments and their proper responses. And for those philosophers of science out there, Shermer even deals with some of the problems raised for the "culture" of science -- a la Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- in way that is satisfying to the scientist and casual critical thinker alike.

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