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415 of 446 people found the following review helpful
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. Is transubstantiation any more credible than claims of the paranormal? Are alien abduction stories any less credible than the Book of Mormon's claims about a large, literate Hebrew society in America 2,000 years ago, that used horse-drawn chariots and steel swords? Are witch crazes any more significant than some Christians who let their children die rather than bringing them proper medical treatment? I think not, and I believe it is time for skeptics to broaden their portfolio beyond the usual array of paranormal activities and alien abductions.
Shermer devotes chapters 9 through 11 to the conflict between creationism and evolution. This section of the book has a wonderful summary of the legal battles fought to keep the religion of creationism out of public schools. Chapter 10 has an excellent description of what is evolution, and a very brief summary of 25 arguments used by creationists against evolution, along with counter arguments used by scientists. Interestingly enough, Shermer offers very little in the way of direct evidence against creationism - of which there is a tremendous amount - and focuses mostly on how to defend evolution. Unfortunately, he has truncated his 25 arguments so much that they are of little practical use - especially against more polished debaters. Shermer admits this at the beginning of the chapter, and does offer an excellent bibliography of more detailed references for the reader.
Shermer's defense of evolution bogs down when he encroaches on the idea that evolution is not a threat to religion. [This is how I interpreted Shermer, though he is not entirely clear about his personal feelings regarding this matter.] Science most certainly is a threat to some religions - creationism, for example (and Shermer argues throughout his book that creationism is a religion - which is why it should not be taught in public schools). It seems obvious to me that sometimes science does threaten religion (more some than others) - but that is religion's problem, not science'. Scientists should stop apologizing for that fact.
In trying to sooth the potential conflict between science and religion, Shermer quotes Stephen J. Gould (one of my favorite authors). Interestingly, Gould (uncharacteristically) offers a spectacular example of some of the bogus reasoning Shermer discredits in chapter 3. Gould says (page 132):
"Unless at least half my colleagues are dunces, there can be - on the most raw and empirical grounds - no conflict between science and religion."
Here, Gould violates Shermer's rule 19 (overreliance on authorities - Gould's colleagues in this case). Then, Gould leaves us wondering if, instead, we are to consider the other half of Gould's colleagues (the half that apparently do not agree with him) as dunces.
To his credit, Shermer provides a definition of religion on page 145 (though he offers no definition of God). I am not sure he makes the matter any clearer by doing so, however, since his definition of religion (as a method) places it as the antithesis of science (also defined as a method). Yet, I got the impression from his book that Shermer agrees (on a fundamental level) that there need not be any disagreement between science and religion.
Part 4 discusses racism and pseudohistory in the case of holocaust deniers. This part seemed out of place in the book primarily because Shermer spends comparatively little time discussing the weirdness of the opposing camp, instead focusing mostly on his perceptions. Though I agree with him on most points, I could no shake the feeling the chapters belong in a different book with a different title.
In the last section (section 5) Shermer gets back on track and finishes with an interesting view of the societal role science plays, and the roll it will play in the future. Shermer holds hope for the human race, in spite of its sometimes-overbearing tendency toward mysticism. He also gives a wonderful summary of why people believe weird things: because it feels good. Though I would like to know more about why it feels good, I cannot argue with his conclusion.
Overall, this was an excellent book. Dr. Shermer is a clear thinker. His ability to focus on the central issues and facts makes this book refreshingly illuminating. His personal touch, brought through stories of actual life experiences, adds to the pleasure of reading his book.
Duwayne Anderson
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116 of 130 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2000
Format: PaperbackVerified 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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56 of 63 people found the following review helpful
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. The study cited by Shermer compared variables that were randomly selected (for example: age, sex, and nationality--but not ethnicity, eye color, height, weight, diet, and wellness) and, in many cases, subjectively measured (socioeconomic status, religious and political attitudes, conflict with parents..., travel, education). The study concluded that birth order was the strongest factor in "receptivity" to "innovation in science" (which itself must be subjectively defined). Furthermore, to fit Tipler into this preordained mold, Shermer simply waves a wand and asserts that Tipler's beliefs are ultra-conservative. As Shermer points out elsewhere in this book, subjective measurements and subjective definitions do not lead to objective conclusions, and what may be true of a nebulously defined group will not necessarily be true of an individual, so it's a bit perplexing that he himself falls into these traps.
Finally, the reader should be warned that the paperback edition is one of the most atrociously typeset books I've ever purchased. (I have the first printing, so later printings might be in better shape.) The prologue ends mid-sentence, entries (e.g., between Polkinghorne and Rand) are omitted from the bibliography, and parts of paragraphs are missing from the text, leaving the reader guessing what was supposed to be there.
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52 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 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. And for those philosophers of science out there, Shermer even deals with some of the problems raised for the "culture" of science -- a la Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- in a way that is satisfying to the scientist and casual critical thinker alike.

In the end, this book will not pass as an academic polemic against pseudo-thought, but it is here where the book finds its proper place. "Why People Believe..." is a clear policy statement for critical thinkers: To cleave with Occham's Razor, but at the same time follow Spinoza's example; we ought to try to *understand* why believe the things they do, rather than bewail.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
Shermer's analysis of some of the stranger social phenomenon of our time is crisp. Many have said that he doesn't talk about why people believe wierd things (the title of the book, after all, slightly overblown as it is) but he does offer some general explanations of strange behavior. (The "feedback" system he describes, for example.) The really good thing about his book is how it shows that anyone, even the most rational of people, can fall into "cultish" or peculiar behavior. The chapter on Ayn Rand and how her philosophy of Objectivism, which is supposed to be all about rationality and individuality, turned into a cult centered on her is a fantastic read, and goes beyond the usual focusing on UFOs, Roswell, JFK assassination type of material. But, all of that's there too, in its bizarre glory. There's also an excellent chapter(s) on the phenomenon of Holocaust denial that, while utterly wrong on its face, isn't always just about anti-Semitism, as Shermer points out. He does a very good recap of how historical evidence is collected, and how that collection builds a preponderance of information, something that deniers usually don't get. Shermer's an historian, so historical aspects are a strength to his book, as you would expect.
Shermer sings the praises of rationality and skepticism, things I'm all in favor of, but he doesn't get as negative about irrational behavior as some other skeptics have. He claims that he himself, in the past, participated in a couple of bizarre fads and faddish behaviors, so he has an understanding for their appeal. A sense of mystery, alienation, deviancy, a bit of paranoia, societal reinforcement, all are ways that bizarre ideas proliferate, and we're all susceptable to them from time to time.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2001
Format: Paperback
As other reviewers have mentioned, the main flaw in this book is that Shermer doesn't really tackle the question posed in the title. He spends most of the book debunking nonscientific beliefs, but only one chapter is devoted to the actual question of why people believe "weird things" without proof. Besides that, he includes to many different areas of research, and thus doesn't have time to focus thoroughly one any of them.
Why, then, do I give this book four stars? It is well written and very convincing, and could serve as a good introduction to skeptical thought. As the tide of pseudoscience rises and people attempt to dismiss rational and reasonable thought, we need good thinkers like Shermer to defend science as what it really is - the attempt by humans to understand the world around us. Finally, he connects with the audience by providing many humorous annecdotes about his own experience with pseudoscientific liars and examples of scientific thinking gone astray (very, very astray.)
The final section of the book, and the best one, covers the phenomenon of Holocaust denial. This is the most interesting section because it does delve into the psychology of people who want to rewrite history, even though they know that the things they are saying aren't true. Shermer also points out the urgency of fighting this movement with solid historical fact.
The middle section of the book covers the Creationism vs. Evolution debate. Unfortunately, it is too short to present this topic in great detail. Contrary to what the review below this one claims, Shermer doesn't insist that Evolution is true because Creationism is false. However, his purpose in this section is to show how and why Creationists intentionally misrepresent scientific fact, so that is the main focus of these chapters.
The opening section is the least useful. It covers a variety of topics, including UFOs, near-death experiences, and Ayn Rand's cult. However, the chapters are quite short, so they can't provide in depth analysis of such phenomenon.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
That's three and a half stars. Much of what's in here has been done before, and done better, by people like Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan. The specific debunkings can't go into much detail, because Shermer covers so much territory. For example, Pennock's "Tower of Babel" provides a far deeper understanding of the makeup and motivations of the Creationist movement. But there's enough that's fresh to make it a worthwhile read: material on the Ayn Rand cult (and why it qualifies objectively as a cult), personal war stories about what it's like to battle the weirdmongers on weird-friendly media turf, and things psychologists have learned about traits that correlate with paranormal beliefs. And as the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, the author knows his territory.
Shermer draws useful parallels between creation science and Holocaust denial. I hadn't noticed the tactic both share, which is a generally useful one for anybody who wants a protective seal against reality: the creationists demand "just one fossil" which is incontrovertibly transitional, and the revisionists demand "just one document" which incontrovertibly spells out the plan for Hitler's Final Solution. This "one knockdown argument or nothing" strategy permits them to cultivate tunnel vision, and to ignore the *accumulated* weight of evidence, which is how truth is ordinarily determined in truly rational history, truly rational science, and for that matter in common sense.
You wouldn't expect that Shermer could come up with a definitive answer for the title's question, and he doesn't. But he does make a serious attempt, and shows as much interest in understanding the true believers as he shows in exploding their beliefs. He's fighting the good skeptical fight, fighting it without compromise, but doing it with more gentleness and respect toward his opponents than one usually finds in this genre of literature. (Though I was surprised at how hard he came down on Frank Tipler. Tipler's "Physics of Immortality" incorporates a powerful element of wishful thinking, but it's not in conflict with science, much less in full fugue from reality like the rest of Shermer's subjects.)
If you've already read Gardner and Sagan, and want more good debunking entertainment in the same line; or if you'd enjoy meditating on why people do believe weird things, but aren't expecting a final answer; or if you do engage in skirmishes with true believers yourself often enough to be collecting a short shelf of useful references, you'll find Shermer a genial companion, and this book (and its extensive bibliography) well worth your time. If your interest is more casual, you may feel otherwise.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2005
Format: Paperback
When I came upon this book in the book store, I was intrigued by the title and decided to buy it after browsing through a few chapters in the store.For most of my adult life I had believed that the bible was God's infallible word and that my particular sect of Christianity was the only one that had "The Truth".After researching both my own denomination and Christianity itself, I realized how ridiculous these beliefs were. Why was I attracted to these beliefs in the first place? How could an otherwise intelligent person believe such things? Why do people look for an absolute truth about God and the universe? Was I unique in being taken in by such beliefs?These were the things going through my mind when I found this book,and so I had to read it. I apologize for the long intro before my review , but I am hoping that others who are at a similar point in their lives might read this review and feel compelled to read this or similar books.

Michael shermer takes on a vast array of topics in this book.He takes on such topics as e.s.p.,near death experiences,alien abductions,witch hunts,Ayn Rand,creationism(my favorite section),holocaust deniers,and much more.

He writes in a style that is easy for the average reader to understand.It is truly amazing to read about some of the things that people convince themselves of,while looking for deeper or hidden meanings to life.One good aspect of the book is that you don't come away feeling like a fool for having believed similar things.In fact Shermer recounts the weird things that he,too has believed in,such as fundamentalist Christianity and objectivism.

My favorite part of the book is section 3,Evolution and Creationism.I had never read much about evolution and found it very interesting.Evolution, it turns out, is nothing like the crazy idea that my former religion and others would have their congregations believe.There certainly are disagreements among scientists about exactly how evolution occured, but not about whether or not it did happen.Of course it doesn't answer every question,but it is a great place to start,and by itself is worth the price of the book.Chapter 10, 25 Creationist Arguments,25 Evolutionist Answers was especially educational.

Chapter 3,How Thinking Goes Wrong-25 Fallacies that Lead Us To Believe Weird Things, was also very enlightening.Throughout the book you will encounter similar characteristics of cult-like thinking in what would at first seam to be very disparate groups. Even groups supposedly committed to rationalism can become cult-like, where the members abdicate their freedom of thought to the leader,who of course,has come to find the absolute truth.

Throughout the book you will see that people can be very,very good at defending the most ridiculous beliefs.The last chapter,Why Smart People Believe Weird Things is insightful on this subject. There are a few areas where I would disagree with the author, but he doesn,t claim to be God's spokesman or to have the absolute truth about every issue discussed.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
I originally learned of this book from reading a review of it on the Excite home page by Penn Gillette of Penn and Teller, where the highest praises were heaped upon it. Although not a bad book, and despite containing several good articles, I was disappointed with the book as a whole. The reasons for this are various: occasional lapses in factual accuracy, a little too much self-promotion, poor writing, more intolerance of religion than I am comfortable with, and an overall distrust of the author. On the latter point, I do not mean to say that I never have confidence in the accuracy of what he asserts, but that there were a couple of instances in which he made assertions that undermined my complete faith in what he was saying.
Where did Shermer lose my confidence? There were several instances, but I will mention two. My favorite book of 1997 was Keith Thomas's RELIGION AND THE DECLINE OF MAGIC. Shermer mentions this book in his article "Epidemics of Accusations: Medieval and Modern Witch Crazes." He writes: "In one of the best books on the period [i.e., the witch craze in England in the 16th and 17th centuries], Keith Thomas argues that the craze was caused by the decline of magic and the rise of large-scale, formalized religion" [103]. This is an utterly baffling statement. Thomas at no point makes any point even remotely resembling this. It is possible to deduce such a position if one looks merely at the title of the book, but not from the text of the book itself. Thomas claims that the witch craze and witch accusations were caused by the erosion of traditional systems of benevolence and the decline of traditional forms of religion in which benevolence was central. In most instances of witchcraft accusation, the accusers claimed the "witches" had practiced witchcraft on them after they [i.e., the accusers] had refused to respond to a request for help. For instance, an individual would come to them for help--perhaps asking for bread or a mug of beer [the main source of calories during the period]--and be refused. Later, those who had declined to help might suffer nightmares or find a farm animal afflicted, and deduce that this was a result of their refusal to help. As Thomas points out, a large number of witchcraft accusations resulted from what we in the 20th century would recognize as feelings of guilt. Nowhere does Thomas suggest that the witchcraft accusations resulted from the rise of large-scale, formalized religion. My conclusion when I read this in Shermer was that he perhaps had read the title of Thomas's book, but nothing else. Or at best, that he had read it, but did not understand it. In either case, it caused me to wonder how well he had understood the hundreds of other books and individuals he discusses of whom I know less than Thomas.
The second instance that caused me to lose some confidence in Shermer concerned a statement he makes about David Hume: "The work [A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE] still garnered no recognition, so in 1758 he brought out the final version, under the title AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, which today we regard as his greatest philosophical work" [45]. Who is "we"? It is certainly not Barry Stroud, J. L. Mackie, Pall S. Ardal, Annette Baier, or Norman Kemp Smith, who are the premiere Hume scholars of the past century. In fact, I know of only one writer who argues that the ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING is his most important work, and that is Antony Flew, and his view in widely recognized as a minority, somewhat aberrant, opinion. (In fact, Flew argues not that the one ENQUIRY is his most important work, but both the ENQUIRIES, both AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING and AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS. Shermer does not mention the existence of this latter work, which is the necessary complement of the other ENQUIRY. In other words, Shermer really just does not know what he is talking about here.
None of this means that Shermer cannot be trusted in the majority of his writing, but it nonetheless undercut my trust in his judgment. Having said that, many of the individual articles were quite enjoyable, and many were quite informative. A more serious criticism is that the book's content does not reflect its title. Shermer does not explain why people believe weird things so much as he catalogs weird beliefs. Admittedly, many of these beliefs are exceedingly weird. Still and all, I cannot recommend this book as highly as I can those of fellow sceptic and debunker Martin Gardner (whom Shermer mentions with great respect) or James Randi, both of whom I find to be a much more balanced and better-informed writers.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2001
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I'll concede to comments of some earlier reviewers: the book had a few weaknesses. I give it 5 stars, however, as it's a great analysis of...just what the title states.
Contrary to what some other reviewers thought, I liked the way the book was set up. It started with the priciples of science, of skepticism, etc., then went into countless examples of its opposite. I liked the chapter "How Thinking Goes Wrong," as it offers an examination of HOW we think we're thinking when we're not, and what we may do about that. It's not a dogma, just an honest examination of where are reasoning takes us, and how.
Without using Sagan's oft-quoted maxim," Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," Shermer says essentially the same thing. And he gives scores of examples. Two that come to mind right off are the entertaining claims of the Afro-centrists, and those who perpetuate belief in the Near Death Experience (NDE). Sure Shermer seems adamant and inflexible. But, really, people claiming their beliefs in these things cannot expect us to believe them except in faith. In the former, there are easily confirmable facts which refute the claims of the Afro-centrists. As to the latter, there ARE other, simpler explanations which are almost inevitably the right ones.
Oh, yes. And, sure there are other takes on history. But they're NOT all equally valid!
And I liked the piece on Ayn Rand, which some others criticized. It's a cult so riddled with self-contradiction, and I think it's important we realize that lest we get trapped by Rand's alleged eloquence. The loyalty of her disciples to Rand and her clique is mind-boggling, and it's important we recognize WHY...and why we should challenge that degree of allegiance to anything!
As to the book's weaknesses, at the expense of endorsing the jargon I frequently criticize, I wish Shermer had used some more of the definitions of the logical fallacies in the chapter I mentioned above. He covered some, and some are in Latin. But I think it's important to know not only what they are, but how other people refer to the fallacies. We can retort to them intelligently then, when we know what they're called.
Then, as others have said, there was too much of the book dedicated to the holocaust denial. However, that WAS a major historical event, and there ARE those who, despite mountains of evidence, deny it. So it's a case in point as to erroneous thinking, contrived evidence, etc. So, while I wish that portion of the book hadn't been so long, I will not penalize Dr. Shermer a star or two for it.
Overall I think it's an important book, one that should be used in college freshman courses, assuming colleges wish to foster critical thinking. This, despite its weaknesses.
And I WILL read other Shermer books. He offers an educated--and rational--perspective sadly lacking in too much of today's discourse.
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