The Gentle Debunker

by Arthur B

Arthur B reviews Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer.
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As a guy who's the founder of the Skeptics Society, is pals with James Randi, and frequently cites the less polemical books by Richard Dawkins, you might be forgiven for thinking that Michael Shermer might be slightly abrasive, the sort of guy who simply lacks patience with people's eccentric beliefs. Far from it; in Why People Believe Weird Things Shermer attempts to understand the reasons behind people adopting strange, irrational beliefs (in which category he does not include religion - although apparently he discusses it in the sequel, Why People Believe In God), and therefore comes across as less blustering and intolerant than, say, Richard Dawkins does in The God Delusion.

Shermer is in an excellent position to take his approach, having travelled all over the ideological map before becoming a rationalist sceptic - he's been a fundamentalist Christian, a keen consumer of New Age therapies ranging from acupuncture and massage to negative ion generators and pyramid power, and an uncritical follower of Ayn Rand in his time. It was the extraordinary amount of time, energy and money he wasted on the New Age therapies which seems to have prompted his scepticism; as he explains it, he simply reached the point where he couldn't keep rationalising their failure. With his academic background as a historian of science, he is also well-qualified to explain scientific ideas without resorting to scientific jargon; even if he sometimes can't quite explain why people believe particular weird things, he's always able to explain why those things are wrong.

Shermer tackles a range of targets, beginning soft targets such as psychics, alien abduction, and Satanic ritual abuse, moving on to major issues such as creationism and Holocaust denial, and occasionally turning his attention to more obscure topics, such as Ayn Rand's Objectivism and Frank Tipler's Omega Point Theory (which can best be described as a cross between The Matrix and Isaac Asimov's The Last Question, only Tipler is convinced it's real). The sections on creationism and Holocaust denial are especially good, Shermer devoting several chapters to the history of each topic, profiles of important groups and individuals, and detailed rebuttals of their major claims.

Throughout the entire book Shermer takes an attitude of rational, scientific scepticism; the "rational" and "scientific" qualifiers are important, since as Shermer points out creationists are sceptical of evolution and Holocaust deniers are sceptical of the Holocaust, but they are not rational or scientific in their scepticism. Shermer's answer to the question posed by his book essentially boils down to "people's minds are hardwired to spot patterns, but sometimes we're not very good at assessing whether those patterns are significant"; more insightful is his comparison of the creationist movement and the Holocaust denial scene, since he is able to find several similarities in their methods which he ascribes to both groups representing fringe beliefs that are making a concerted effort to break into the mainstream.

As an overview of the subjects tackled by Shermer, an introduction to scepticism and the history and philosophy of science, and a defence of rationalism Why People Believe Weird Things is excellent. It seems to have been reprinted very recently, perhaps in the wake of the success of Richard Dawkins' far less sympathetic The God Delusion and is well worth seeking out.
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