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56 of 63 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An adequate, if uneven, primer on pseudoscience, June 28, 2002
This review is from: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 26, 2009 10:57:35 AM PDT
It is always sad to see a scientist type get caught up in the same sort of subjectivity that they are exploring. I am also much less interested in the lunatic fringe like Tipler unless they vicious become attack dogs like Uri Geller. What concerns me is the poor ignorant and fearful person who believes in ghosts, planetary alignment catastrophe, or homeopathic remedies.

Posted on Mar 16, 2012 11:57:56 AM PDT
Earnest Mann says:
Sounds like 3 stars is very generous, given the editing issues. Thanks for the well balanced review.
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