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Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time [Paperback]

Michael Shermer , Stephen Jay Gould
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (242 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 1998
This work presents a down-to-earth and sometimes funny survey of a range of contemporary irrationalisms, and explains their empirical and logical flaws. It tackles a variety of topics including creationism, Holocaust denial, race and IQ, cults and alien abductions, and the author looks at the research behind the claims and discredits the pseudoscience involved.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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.

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 (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (242 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,388,940 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an interesting book where Shermer explores why people believe weird things by which he means things that once considered seemed odd or strange. The book is divided into five parts. which dela with sciecne and skepticism, pseudoscience and superstition, evolution and creationism, history and pseudohistory, and hope springs eternal. Shermer deals with a number of topics. The book begins with some anecdotes and an attempt to define skepticism. By skeptic, Shermer tells readers he means, "one who questions the validity of a a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it" (17) and emphasizes that this ought to be a self correcting approach to the positions one holds. Chapter 2 discusses some of the differences between science and pseudoscience and briefly explores the internalist v. externalist debate in the historiography of science. Shermer suggests that even though scientific principles only exist in people's mind; the actual phenomena they describe exist outside of us.; "all description is in the mind, but scientific laws describe repeating natural phenomena while pseudoscientific claims are idiosyncratic. Further, he contends, that science, at least on average, moves forward due its cumulative nature while recognize that "there is no question that science is heavily influenced by the culture in which it is embedded, and that scientists may al share a common bias that leads them to think a certain way about nature" (41). Chapter 3 discusses ways in which thinkers commonly make mistakes (theory influences observations, observer changes the observed, equipment constructs results, anecdotal thinking, the use of scientific language cab mislead, bold statements, heresy, rumors, where the burden of proof lies, after the fact reasoning, coincidence, etc). Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyed it a lot January 23, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've always been curious why humans have such faulty logic, and this books goes into great pains to explain some of the more natural reasons that humans are prone to believe weird things. The author describes not just scenarios he's dealt with, but scenarios that have occurred in history and some of the arguments made. All in all, it's an interesting read if you've ever had a close encounter with a New Age website detailing its pricing catalog for remote psychic activation of ethereal DNA. However, if you really want to study more on this topic, I strongly recommend "Mistake Were Made (But Not By Me)" which details actual studies done on various human ... thinking errors.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fearsome Weapon Against Lazy Thinking December 9, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things" is a terrific book. Wow.

I cannot emphasize enough what an enjoyable read this book is for anybody tired of being surrounded by people who view the world as some sort of unsolvable supernatural puzzle. Because the world isn't!

Sure, we can't explain the entire world. If we could, we wouldn't need science or reason or philosophy or psychology or logic or anything--if we could, we could just recite the same dogmas and platitudes of earlier generations and never have to bother thinking about anything beyond how things make us feel.

...Like a lot of people do.

This book systematically moves through a large number of the more persistent myths of our age--from Biblical creationism, to Holocaust denial, to psychic detectives--and while it spends quite a bit of time exploring the strangeness and the details of such ideas, it also spends quite a bit exploring why such beliefs are ultimately false, why people choose to believe such things, and how we can avoid such errors in our own thoughts.

Reading it, I constantly found myself wanting to force it onto everyone I talked with, whether they would agree with me about it or not. This book is a weapon against lazy thinking--particularly its chapter, "How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies that Lead Us to Believe Weird Things"--a chapter that I wouldn't mind seeing expanded into an entire book of its own--and I really could not recommend it more highly.

Most of the book originally appeared as essays in "Skeptic" magazine, so it may feel a bit episodic at points--but holy cow, what great episodes!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Shermer is Always a Treat to Read April 4, 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

Why People Believe Weird Things finally makes its appearance to the Kindle. In this revised and expanded edition accomplished skeptic and the Director of The Skeptics Society takes an evenhanded and fair approach to addressing why people believe weird things. He tackles a number of pseudo claims including but not limited to: out-of-body experiences, abductions, recovered memory movement, creationism, and holocaust, among others. This 384-page book is composed of seventeen chapters and broken out by the following five main parts: Part 1 - Science and Skepticism, Part 2 - Pseudoscience and Superstition, Part 3 - Evolution and Creationism, Part 4 - History and Pseudohistory, and Part 5 - Hope Springs Eternal.

Positives:
1. Michael Shermer is a treat to read because of his direct and accessible prose.
2. As expected a well written, well researched book. A very pleasant tone throughout.
3. A wonderful job of defining terms and providing popular examples.
4. Great use of illustrations and diagrams.
5. Great quotes such as, "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons".
6. Why skepticism is a vital part of science.
7. A better understanding of the scientific method.
8. The Hume methodology at display.
9. The chapters on creationism are always a personal favorite.
10. Twenty-five examples of fallacies, excellent.
11. The curious phenomenon of the feedback loop.
12. In defense of science.
13. The first-cause and prime mover argument revisited.
14. The strength of evolution.
15. What exactly do holocaust deniers, deny?
16. Ayn Rand's cult...
17. UFOs...far out.
18.
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