Sunday, 28 October 2007

Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer ****

Michael Shermer is probably best known as Scientific American’s resident sceptic – a man who has what seems the wickedly enjoyable job of going around finding fault with other people’s beliefs – a sort of modern day court jester without (presumably – I’ve never seen him) the funny costume and bells. In this classic, originally published in 1997 but reviewed in a new UK edition, he gives a powerful argument for taking the sceptical viewpoint.
Although along the same lines as Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, this book works alongside Sagan’s masterpiece, rather than competing with it. It focuses more on why we believe strange things, and also very usefully expands out from the paranormal and pseudoscience to include pseudohistory, a topic I hadn’t even realized existed.
Shermer is something of a convert to scepticism, so has a convert’s fervour, but none of the unpleasant aggressiveness of the likes of Randi and Dawkins. Instead he gently shows us how strange beliefs come into being, and why they have such a strong hold. Inevitably strong on the paranormal and UFOs, he is particularly good when looking at the likes of modern accusations of satanic rituals, and the remarkable cult of Ayn Rand. The section on creationism is a little weaker, partly because it isn’t quite up-to-date enough, and also because there has been so much material going into this in more depth (see, for example, Scientists Confront…)
In some ways I was most impressed by the next section on pseudohistory, in part, I suspect, because of not having really thought about this as a concept before. The chapters on holocaust denial were fascinating, and perhaps even more surprising was the self-deception of the ‘all ideas originated in Africa’ movement (again new to me).
The only reason that this book doesn’t get 5 stars is that I found the last section before getting to the summaries, on a scientific idea that its originator says gives a mechanism for a form of eternal life, irritating. It just isn’t the same sort of problem as the other topics covered in the book. Here someone is speculating wildly based on extrapolating scientific theories to the extreme – but that’s a very different game to having an unshakable belief in concepts with no support in evidence, and I think Shermer does himself and the reader a disservice by confusing the two. However, the book doesn’t entirely end on this mistake, as there are a couple of short chapters pulling together the whys and wherefores of belief in weird things, so this small glitch doesn’t destroy the flow, and certainly shouldn’t detract from the fact that overall this is a book, alongside Sagan’s, that ought to be on every thinking person’s shelf.
Review by Brian Clegg

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