Remarkably, many “weird things” are still going strong, others resurging, others dwindling: 2012 millenarianism, astrology, moon landing conspiracy theories, crystal healing, acupuncture, urine therapy, magnet therapy, channeling, ESP, rumpology (not joking!), Holocaust denial, Creationist cosmologies (that the earth is 7,000 years old and that geology can be explained by a global flood), alien abductions, Scientology’s Dianetics, anti-aging creams, even modern flat Earth beliefs.
Wow. (Click here for a more comprehensive list.)
More importantly, however, this book explores the need to question claims and to learn how to think critically while remaining open to new ideas.
Shermer helps the reader understand that it is not so surprising after all that humans turn to pseudoscience, superstition, and the occult to make sense of the world. Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. Because of this, we all fall prey, more frequently than we’d like to admit, to cause-and-effect errors (known as Type 1 and Type 2 Errors—believing a falsehood and rejecting a truth, respectively), attribution error (attributing personal actions to rational reasons and attributing actions of others to emotional reasons), and confirmation bias (remember the hits and forgetting the misses).
A particular value of Shermer’s book is that he states that no one is immune to the natural human tendency to create beliefs and causal relationships. There are quite a few PhDs, he says, who consider themselves authorities but believe all sorts of bizarre stuff. So why do smart people believe in weird things? “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons” (Loc 5678). I felt it very fair for Shermer to warn that the higher the IQ, the greater the tendency to reject new ideas. That is, the smarter the person, the likelier he or she is to cling to what she already knows and be skeptical of new ideas. How does one filter out bad claims while being open to new ideas? This is the balance Shermer wishes his readers to seek. Additionally, just as witch hunts were based on bad reasoning (among other things), there can also be skeptics who are out on witch hunts themselves. Again, Shermer urges a balance between carefully examining claims with a healthy amount of skepticism and being open to new ideas.
While Shermer covers some topics extensively—I read more about Holocaust denial than I ever really cared to know—it is valuable to have a whistle-blower on some of these issues. He himself was rather gullible in his younger days (hope springs eternal, as he says) and even states that he had an alien encounter . . . brought on by sleep deprivation during an all-night bike race.
Shermer also subscribed to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist movement for a time, and he states the inherent problems and dangers of trusting too much in any leader. In discussing the Ayn Rand Objectivist movement, Shermer’s list of cult attributes—encouraging unquestioning loyalty to a charismatic leader, believing that morality can have a unique and objective state, being unable or unwilling to consider criticisms of beliefs or leaders, using science when it suits the group and discarding the science when it does not, not fully disclosing information to potential recruits, exploiting others financially and/or sexually, and enforcing a system of absolute truth and absolute morality with rewards and punishments, real or promised—can help people identify and be cautious of such groups.
I think a very good companion book to read with Why People Believe Weird Things is Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations, in which Sacks describes certain conditions of the brain that produce amazing hallucinations in otherwise very sane people. Sacks also makes it clear that seeing is not necessarily a sufficient condition for believing. As Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see” (p. 194). I was surprised to find so many cases where the body can deceive and the inner world does not match the outer world.
Terence, a playwright of the Roman Republic, said this in Phormio, one of his comedies: quot homines tot sententia: suo' quoique mos (line 454). “There are as many opinions as there are people: each has his own correct way.” I find that a large dose of humility in considering the possibility that my way may not be the correct way is a healthy way to approach life in its complexity. I proceed with caution.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” Graham’s Magazine 28, no. 5 (November 1875): 193–200.
Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations. New York: Vintage, 2013.
Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2002. Kindle Edition.
Terrence (Publius Terentius Afer). “P. Terenti Afri Phormio.” The Latin Library. Accessed 18 April 2014. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ter.phormio.html.