WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS

Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Michael Shermer

Freeman, New York, 1997.


Quite an odd selection of issues make this into a mixture of a skeptic's hand-book and a few court reports. There are certainly some valuable things here, and it can be strongly recommended, but it somehow seems idiosyncratic to go from alien abductions to Ayn Rand to the anthropic principle, via Holocaust denial.

The latter is well worth investigating, it goes without saying, and Shermer devotes a large section of the book, entitled History and Pseudohistory, to exploring what the deniers say, why they say it, and what can be said in response.

The author has done much to make this a useful book, not just an interesting one. The first section includes a chapter on How Thinking Goes Wrong, detailing 25 Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things. In the same way, the section on Creationism lists 25 Creationist arguments, with 25 Evolutionist answers.

Shermer employs a feedback diagram to help explain the witch craze, with a similar diagram for the process of the Holocaust. This approach invokes complexity theory notions of self-organization.

The co-inventor of the anthropic principle, Frank Tipler, is likened to Voltaire's character from "Candide", Doctor Pangloss, who insisted that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. A difficulty arises for Tipler's more recent proposal that, at the end of the Universe, we will all be recreated in some kind of super-virtual reality which will include our memories. Without delving into the mind-boggling physics of all this, we can see a problem in respect of the memories, which psychologists would say are constructed, and hence interpreted, from stored experiential data.

"The individual rehearses the memory and in the process changes it a bit, depending on emotions, previous memories, subsequent events and memories and so on. This process recurs thousands of times over the years... If Omega/God resurrects me with all of my memories, which memories will they be? The memories I had at a particular point in my lifetime? Then, that won't be all of me. All the memories I had at every point in my life? That won't be me either." (p.270)

On the last page of the book, Shermer issues a challenge:

"If there were only one thing skeptics, scientists, philosophers, and humanists could do to address the overall problem of belief in weird things, constructing a meaningful and satisfying system of morality and meaning would be a good place to start."


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PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEF AND SUPERSTITION



Paul Taylor 2001