Michael Shermer
Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition & Other Confusions of Our Time

This book should be turned into a high school class that students must pass to graduate. I don't think there could be a more important course offered. Unfortunately, even science classes don't offer this kind of advice on how to think. Usually they just involve the memorization of various facts. Why People Believe Weird Things does far more than this. The methodology presented by Shermer allows one to think clearly and understand why humans want to believe in so many false things.

Shermer's conclusion is very simple. People believe weird things because of wishful thinking and continue to believe in those things despite contrary evidence because they are unwilling to alter preconceived notions. The reasons for the unwillingness to shift paradigms are many. People don't want to admit they are wrong. They sometimes want something comfortable rather than something true (even if they play a game of pretend by calling their fantasies and wishes true). Racism and group think also play major roles. These weird theories are propagated through 'feedback loops' which Shermer explains by using the witch hunts as an example. Numerous other feedback loops have been created recently. The media (especially now with information being so easily exchanged on a national and global basis) has been a major player in starting and defusing these loops. The concept of 'memes' or mental viruses comes into play here although I don't think Shermer ever uses these terms.

Shermer is not afraid to debunk anyone or anything--even if it is something he partially believes in. For instance, even though he agrees with much of the objectivist philosophy, he shows how the actual movement took on a life of its own which puts some orthodox objectivists in a situation where they practice what they preach against. (I guess Shermer and I are heterodox objectivists. ;) ) He is against censorship of any form, and feels that both sides of all the 'weird' issues should be presented.

Perhaps the most interesting observation Shermer makes is with regard to the similarity in the flawed methodology that all the proponents of weird things use. His two main examples are creationists and Holocaust deniers. From my own experience, I know that Mormon apologetics also rely on this same methodology. The methodology includes these elements:

1. They concentrate on their opponents' weak points, while rarely saying anything definitive about their own position.
2. They exploit errors made by scholars who are making opposing arguments, implying that because a few of their opponents' conclusions were wrong, all of their opponents' conclusions must be wrong.
3. They use quotations, usually taken out of context to buttress their own position.
4. They mistake genuine, honest debates between scholars about certain points within a field for a dispute about the existence of the entire field.
5. They focus on what is not known and ignore what is known, emphasize data that fit (their distorted world view) and discount data that do not fit.
Finally, Shermer presents a very good look at what the scientific method can accomplish and exactly what the method is and isn't. The scientific method is broad enough to cover much more than easily testable problems. Pseudo-science, pseudo-religion, and pseudo-history can all be marginalized if more people use the tools and methods Shermer so clearly presents.

someone else writes:
How to Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick & Lewis Vaughn presents similar material in a well organized manner for purposes of classroom instruction--better than Shermer's book (IMHO).

Highly recommended by John Catalano

UFO abductions...television psychics...creationism...Holocaust denial. Faced with the rapid changes and anxiety of modern life, many people are turning to the alluring comforts of pseudoscience and the occult. In Why People Believe Weird Things, science historian Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society, explores the very human reasons we find supernatural phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing. Shermer also reveals the darker and more fearful side of wishful thinking, including Holocaust denial, creationism, the recovered memory movement, alien abduction experiences, the satanic ritual abuse scare and other modern witch crazes, extreme Afrocentrism, and ideologies of racial superiority. A compelling and often disturbing portrait of our immense capacity for self-delusion, Why People Believe Weird Things celebrates the scientific spirit and the joy to be found in rationally exploring the world's greatest mysteries even if many of the questions remain unanswered. -- 20 illustrations.

Table of Contents:
Foreword by Stephen Jay Gould
Prologue: Next on Oprah

1. I Am Therefore I Think: A Skeptical Manifesto
2. The Most Precious Thing We Have: The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience
3. How Thinking Goes Wrong: 30 Fallacies of Thinking That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things

4. Deviations: The Normal, the Paranormal, and Edgar Cayce
5. Through the Invisible: Near-Death Experiences and the Quest for Immortality
6. Abducted! Close Encounters with Alien Mysteries
7. An Epidemic of Accusations: Medieval and Modern Witch Crazes
8. The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality

9. In the Beginning: An Evening with Creationist Duane T. Gish
10. Confronting Creationists: 25 Creationists' Arguments & 25 Evolutionists' Answers
11. Science Defended, Science Defined: Evolution and Creation at the Supreme Court

12. Doing Donahue: History, Censorship, and Free Speech
13. Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?: The Denial of History
14. How We Know the Holocaust Happened: Arguments to Debunk the Deniers and Prove the Holocaust Happened
15. Pigeon-Holes and Continuums: An African-Greek-German-American Looks At Race

16. The Day the Earth Moved: Why Are Some People Open to Revolutionary Ideas While Others Resist?
17. Hope Springs Eternal: Can Science Find the Best of All Possible Worlds?


from alt.books.reviews:

Big plug for this entertainingly-written new book by Dr. Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics group headquartered near CalTech in Pasadena, Calif. and publisher of the distinguished "Skeptic" magazine.

Skeptics are not dour pooh-pooh-ers, as so often misrepresented. Real skeptics believe people would be better off practicing clear & critical thinking -- a trait, alas, increasingly squeezed out of much of the US population. Increasingly, we are influenced by the pop media toward passivity, credulity, "miracle" and mystery thinking. Not good for our scientific and industrial position in the world economy.

For example: Ever check out one of those psychic shows, where for $manybucks per hour you can get phony "readings" that are *extremely* lucrative for the TV scam artists?

Occam's Razor (sometimes spelled Ockham), is the technique of seeking the *simplest, most naturalistic explanation of a phenomenon.* Such as calling the Highway Patrol or the nearest missile site for the goods on a "UFO" sighting. Or the Holocaust deniers, who have made a career out of maintaining that the Nazis never killed people in gas chambers. And the spoon-benders, whose techniques are unveiled with ridiculous ease by professional magicians. And the creationists, who never stop pressing to dump the U.S. Constitution by demanding that their religious dogma be taught in schools alongside (or sometimes instead of!) the scientific theory of evolution.

Unlike dogmatics or idealogues, real skeptics never assert that they have the final word on anything. The scientific method of thinking always admits the possibility of change; science itself is not a *subject* but a *method* -- important distinction.

If you like to get to the bottom line; if you appreciate being armed with well-reasoned arguments to refute "weird thing" believers; if you enjoy writing that is (amazingly!) both lively and scholarly -- get this book for yourself and people you know who may need their heads reamed out. . .

from Curt van den Heuvel in response to my question, "I've heard good things about this book from several sources. Did you read Sagan's Demon Haunted World? If so, which book of the two do you prefer?":

Yes - I read Sagan's book as well. They are both very good. Of the two, I think Shermer's book is a little easier to read, and a little more succinct. On the other hand, Sagan goes into a lot more philosophical depth. I guess I would have to say that both are required reading for skeptics. They do also cover different topics, although there is some overlap. I found Shermer's chapters on Creationism especially fascinating. He covers the legal wranglings of the Creation "scientists" very well, and does a good job of explaining why it is not a science.

Did you like this book? Did it leave you wanting more? Then you should also probably read The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions, and Post-Atheism.