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Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time Paperback – September, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

Few can talk with more personal authority about the range of human beliefs than Michael Shermer. At various times in the past, Shermer has believed in fundamentalist Christianity, alien abductions, Ayn Rand, megavitamin therapy, and deep-tissue massage. Now he believes in skepticism, and his motto is "Cognite tute--think for yourself." This updated edition of Why People Believe Weird Things covers Holocaust denial and creationism in considerable detail, and has chapters on abductions, Satanism, Afrocentrism, near-death experiences, Randian positivism, and psychics. Shermer has five basic answers to the implied question in his title: for consolation, for immediate gratification, for simplicity, for moral meaning, and because hope springs eternal. He shows the kinds of errors in thinking that lead people to believe weird (that is, unsubstantiated) things, especially the built-in human need to see patterns, even where there is no pattern to be seen. Throughout, Shermer emphasizes that skepticism (in his sense) does not need to be cynicism: "Rationality tied to moral decency is the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known." --Mary Ellen Curtin

From School Library Journal

YA?Dedicated to Carl Sagan, with a foreword by Stephen Jay Gould, this book by the publisher of Skeptic magazine and the Director of the Skeptics Lecture Series at California Institute of Technology, has the pedigree to be accepted as a work of scholarly value. Fortunately, it is also readable, interesting, and well indexed and provides an extensive bibliography. The author discusses such topics of current interest as alien abduction, near-death experiences, psychics, recovered memories, and denial of the Holocaust. Never patronizing to his opponents, Shermer explains why people may truly believe that they were held by aliens (he had a similar experience himself) or have recovered a memory of childhood satanic-ritual abuse. He clearly explains, often with pictures, tables, or graphs, the fallacy of such beliefs in terms of scientific reasoning. While teens may find the first section of the book about "Science and Skepticism" a bit too philosophical and ponderous, the rest of it will surely captivate them. Read cover to cover or by section, or used as a reference tool, this book is highly recommended for young adults.?Carol DeAngelo, Garcia Consulting Inc., EPA Headquarters, Washington, DC
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 306 pages
  • Publisher: W.H. Freeman & Company (September 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0716733870
  • ISBN-13: 978-0716733874
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (234 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,418,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine ( and the Director of The Skeptics Society. He is a Visiting Associate at the California Institute of Technology, and hosts the Skeptics Lecture Series at Cal Tech. He has authored several popular books on science, scientific history, and the philosophy and history of science, including Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, and Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (with Alex Grobman). Shermer is also a radio personality and the host of the Fox Family Channel's Exploring the Unknown. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

424 of 455 people found the following review helpful By Duwayne Anderson on March 5, 1999
Format: Paperback
My first impression upon finishing this book is that the title is wrong. Though Dr. Shermer addresses some issues about why people believe weird things, for the most part this book is more about the weird things people believe, and not so much about the reasons they believe them. For a better discussion about why people believe weird things, I suggest Thomas Gilovich's book "How we know what isn't so."
Shermer devotes all of chapter one to expanding on the definition and characteristics of a skeptic, and all of chapter two to describing science. This lays the bedrock for his future discussions about pseudosciences such as creationism, and helps to make clear the reasons these pseudosciences and superstitions fail to meet the demanding requirements of science. He explains that a skeptic is not synonymous with a cynic. Instead, a skeptic is someone who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. As such, skepticism is an essential part of the scientific method.
Chapter 3 is a jewel. It describes 25 ways in which thinking goes wrong. Reading this chapter left me wondering if these rules for fallacious reasoning are not encoded somewhere as the rules for participation in some of the more notorious Internet newsgroups devoted to various mythologies.
The second part of the book examines claims of the paranormal, near-death experiences, alien abductions, witch crazes, and cults. Although these stories make interesting reading, they are same examples of debunking we have seen for years. I, for one, would appreciate a fresher skeptical approach that is not so (apparently) reluctant to challenge the claims of institutionalized religions.
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118 of 132 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on May 16, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When the top Skeptics of the 20th century were listed by Skeptical Enquirer recently, Michael Shermer was not among those named.
He should have been.
Unlike the average debunker of false lore and hoaxes, Shermer starts from the premise that those who believe in weird things are intelligent people who have been miseducated.
One of the best sections of this book lists and explains 25 errors in thinking which lead people to fail to critically evaluate the claims of Randenoids, Holocaust revisionists, creationists, astrologers, and others. He then proceeds to use these principles, first to explore the contradictions of the most "unlikeliest cult of all" (the followers of Ayn Rand who claim to be disciples of objective reason) and then to explain the evidence for the Holocaust and Evolution.
Anyone who needs a tune-up on her or his objectivism can stand reading this book. That means nearly everyone should own a copy.
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58 of 65 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on June 28, 2002
Format: Paperback
While I agree with others who've noted that the book is deceptively titled (Shermer spends only the last four pages speculating about the "why" of his topic), this volume remains a useful and entertaining introduction refuting a random assortment of anti-scientific claims, ranging from the silly to the scary.
The first part, "Science and Skepticism," is by far the best: Shermer explains the meaning of skepticism and offers guidelines for detecting doubtful scientific and historical pronouncements. The remainder of the book--a series of case studies--is somewhat ill-assorted, in large part because the chapters are, for the most part, revised versions of previously published articles and little attempt was made to weave everything into a coherent unit.
Readers looking for detail on any particular subject should look elsewhere. There are, of course, far better books debunking Holocaust denial, creationism, IQ measurement, UFOs, etc. (One odd error by Shermer: his chapter on "medieval witch crazes" actually discusses the epidemics that swept Shakespearean England and colonial America--long after anyone's definition of the medieval period.) Nevertheless, as an overview, however, this volume succeeds nicely.
The weakest chapter, it must be said, is the one attacking Frank Tipler and his eschatological philosophy-physics. Much of Tipler's over-the-top nonsense is certainly deserving of refutation, but Shermer spends several pages inexplicably discussing the fact that Tipler was an oldest child and presenting the assertion that the eldest sibling is more likely to hold conservative views. This presentation certainly doesn't refute Tipler's theories, and it fails even as a scientifically-based psychological underpinning.
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55 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Jon Penney on December 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
After reading most of the reviews here, I came to wonder what people were expecting from this book. People seem have expected either 1) an in depth scientific or sociological explication of "why" people believe certain phenomenon; or 2) an academic paper, complete with multiple sources, extensive discussions of methodoloy, hundreds of footnotes or lengthy citations, and that thick and dense prose one can only find in a PhD thesis. Ladies and Gentlemen, you cannot do either of the above in 300 pages. But fear not. Shermer does you all one better: he reasons, presents, charts out, explains, and does so *without* that condescending thick and dense prose one can only find in a PHD thesis.

In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer takes us through a well reasoned, insightful analysis of many of the social phenomena -- superstition, UFOs, Cult, Holocaust Denial -- which perplex and at times plague contemporary western society.

But he does so in a way that is neither blatant nor condescending. He does not argue that people who deny Evolution, see UFOS, or propagate pseudo-science are suffering from neuropathological condition (as some people seem to have expected Shermer to argue in this book). He also argues that "rationalist" philosophers are always subject to their own errors in reasoning (see the chapter on Ayn Rand and her "cult"). Hence, Shermer attributes such beliefs to problems in people's reasoning and way of seeing the world -- eg., their "baloney detection kits" -- which can be understood in lieu of various flawed assumptions, logical errors and methods of argumentation. (See Chapter 3's "25 Fallacies").

Shermer is thorough, but clear in his style and presentation, as seen in his illustration of Creationist arguments and their proper responses.
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