Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review - Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer

Short review: Some people believe in odd, weird, and downright crazy things like UFO abductions, creationism, psychic powers, and holocaust denial. Almost all of their ideas are wrong, and this book explains why.

Belief in weird things
May be unexplainable
Shermer still tries to

Full review: Why People Believe Weird Things probably should have been titled Weird Stuff People Believe, and Why They Are Wrong. On the other hand, the subtitle of the book, Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, pretty much sums up what the book describes. Through the book Michael Shermer systematically debunks pseudoscience and superstition while making what seems to be a mostly unsuccessful attempt to explain why people are so persistently attached to beliefs such as holocaust denial and creationism that are simply demonstrably wrong as a matter of fact.

In his forward to the book, Stephen Jay Gould explains the need for skepticism, and the dangers of accepting pseudoscience as fact, drawing a connection between Michael Shermer's efforts and Carl Sagan's similar body of work. With that preliminary out of the way, Shermer begins the hard work of trying to unravel what it is about superstitious nonsense that draws fervent believers. Shermer opens by discussing his own credulous acceptance of various "weird things" that he indulged in to bolster his efforts at competitive cycling, detailing his various efforts to gain a competitive advantage. At one point, he and a group of cyclists sent several samples of a single person's blood for "cryptoxic blood testing", and in response received as many different diagnoses as they had sent samples. Finally, Shermer was working with a nutritionist who told him massive doses of megavitamins would help him win, and placed him on a regimen. The pills nauseated Shermer, so he began simply spitting them out when his nutritionist wasn't looking. At that point, Shermer realized that perhaps taking all claims at face value wasn't a particularly good idea.

Shermer uses the next section to sketch out what skepticism is, and how it relates to science. He then turns to defining pseudoscience and pseudohistory, explaining how each one respectively differs from real science and real history. A particularly notable example concerns attempts by an actual historian to point out the fallacies engaged in by a proponent of an Afrocentric pseudohistory that culminates in her dean telling her that "everyone has a different equally valid view of history", and that it didn't matter that what the Afrocentrist was claiming was physically impossible. Pseudoscience and pseudohistory start with their conclusions and seek out supporting evidence, real science and history start with the evidence and draw conclusions from that, no matter how uncomfortable or painful those conclusions may be.

Following on his description of what science is, and how it differs from pseudoscience, Shermer provides twenty-five fallacies describing how people fool themselves. Three are problems with scientific thinking, and which a careful scientist (and an honest skeptic) has to be on guard against. Eleven are common fallacies that are used by pseudoscientists and pseudohistorians to bolster their unreliable claims. Seven are common logical fallacies, and the remaining three are psychological problems with human cognition. In each case, Shermer explains what the fallacy is, how to identify it when it is used, how it affects human perception, and describes how to avoid falling victim to it, both in one's own thinking and when evaluating claims made by others. This chapter, more than any other, does the job of explaining "why people believe weird things". Or more accurately, how people fool themselves and others into believing weird things.

At this point the book shifts to specific examples of the weird things that people believe, and the reasons their beliefs are simply unfounded. One by one Shermer takes on E.S.P., near death experiences, cryonics, alien abduction stories (including a near surgical dismantling of the "alien autopsy" video), witch crazes both in the medieval period and the modern day, including an analysis of how accusation webs perpetuate and an examination of the "recovered memory" phenomenon, and the bizarre personality cult that has sprung up around Ayn Rand. Shermer then devotes a substantial portion of the book to debunking creationism and holocaust denial, in the process pointing out the parallels between the two systems of pseudo-belief. Along the way he dissects twenty-five common creationist arguments, most of which are still used by shills for creationism despite these arguments having been discredited years ago. As debunking holocaust deniers is Shermer's specialty, he spends an entire chapter of the book comprehensively demolishing their claims and demonstrating exactly how their claims of being unfairly persecuted as anti-Semites simply don't hold up to scrutiny. As detailed in the book, they are anti-Semites, and their claims that the holocaust was fabricated are simply unsupportable.

Although Why People Believe Weird Things is only somewhat successful at its stated objective of explaining why people continue to adhere to superstition and pseudoscience despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is a brilliant deconstruction of the various confused and illogical positions espoused by those people. Each of the pseudo-beliefs addressed in the book are thoroughly and completely debunked with ruthless efficiency. If one is not so much concerned with why people believe silly things, but is instead interested in why they are wrong to do so, this is a brilliant book. Even if one's primary interest is "why" this is still a worthwhile book, and well worth reading.

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  1. Perhaps baseball is a pseudo-science. Baseball players and fans are extremely superstitious because the outcome of games can be inexplicable. Do you know what I mean?

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: That is an interesting observation. I read some analysis of baseball superstitions a while back, and the interesting thing was that for most players the superstitions are overwhelming related to batting. They have lucky bats, they wear particular pendants, go through particular rituals, eat particular foods, and so on, all to try to get luck when batting.

    But almost no superstitions involved fielding. Players just went out and fielded their positions. And what this illustrated is that superstitions seem to arise when there is a lack of predictability. As has been famously noted, even the best batters fail six or seven out of ten tries. But a fielder usually makes ninety-five percent or more of the plays that they handle. Many superstitions, it seems, arise out of desire to control that which is beyond our control.