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A Gallup poll, taken in 1990, asked 1,236 Americans about their beliefs in certain things. The results were stunning: 52% believed in astrology; 46% believed in ESP; 41% that dinosaurs and humans lived simultaneously on Earth; and 67% believed that they actually had had a psychic experience.
That people may believe "weird things" is partly a result of their culture and upbringing, and partly related to their experience, including presentations of "weird things" in the media. After all, enough Americans think they've seen Elvis Presley to ensure the sales of tabloid newspapers, but it is entirely possible that this belief is fostered by such newspapers themselves through their repeated reports of Elvis sightings.
Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society is one of the leading debunkers of falsehoods, and, as such, has written several books examining beliefs, science and pseudoscience, bogus history, and cults. Shermer is an interesting character: a former born-again Christian, a former theology student, he changed course during his university period to study psychology and the history of science. In the true spirit of the questioning skeptic, this book examines a number of beliefs that bear witness to both the gullibility of believers and the self-serving interests of those who propagate them.
"Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism—and is therefore one of the keys to human and social decency," says Stephen Jay Gould in his forward to the book. And skepticism, and the questioning attitude it fosters, is indeed something that is lacking in today's world where people are too complacent, too ready to simply follow what information is most present in the media. As Shermer says in the book's introduction, "Humans are pattern-seeking animals. We search for meaning in a complex, quirky and contingent world." Yet this meaning can be easily perverted by mistaken beliefs, often influenced by groups who stand to benefit from people's acceptance of their tenets.
The book opens with a solid presentation of the concept of skepticism and an exposition of the scientific method and how it functions. Understanding the rigorous constraints of science, how it is self-correcting, and how scientists rely on reproducible proof, are key concepts in developing a healthy, questioning attitude. This allows you to see that those beliefs that do not meet the exacting standards of the scientific method cannot be proven. Shermer presents "Twenty-five Fallacies that Lead Us to Believe Weird Things", which is perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book. He says, "In my opinion, most believers in miracles, monsters, and mysteries are not hoaxers, flimflam artists, or lunatics. Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong in some way." These "twenty-five fallacies" are a primer for skeptical thinking. From alien abductions to ESP, from witch-hunts to recovered memories, Shermer shows how this type of analysis can determine what is fact and what is unfounded belief.
Shermer spends a lot of time looking at one of the biggest targets of active skeptics, and one that has serious repercussions: so-called creation-science. In many places in the United States, and for decades, there has been a strong movement to introduce "creationism" as a counter-weight to evolution in biology textbooks. The courts have been solicited, and the Supreme Court even came down against this, but the movement to force teachers to present creationism as if it were a fact is strong. Shermer spends about 50 pages presenting the issues, the arguments, and the history of this debate from the Scopes "monkey" trial to the present. His arguments are cogent and lucid, and he avoids the sometimes whining shout-fests that pit creationists against atheists.
He also spends a great deal of time looking at holocaust deniers and their arguments; perhaps too much time. He gets bogged down in technicalities, here, in some 70 pages of dense presentations of the main Holocaust deniers, their organizations and their ideas. It is probably because he has written a book about the subject (Denying History) that he devotes so much space to the subject, but it seems somewhat out of place. Holocaust denial is less of a "weird thing" than a political choice, and Shermer's treatment of the problem is harder to follow and seems more subjective than other issues.
While Shermer gets the big picture right in the early chapters, the dense detail in the Holocaust denial section drags the book down some. I would have liked to see some coverage of more commonplace beliefs: astrology, divination, palm reading, Elvis sightings, Bigfoot, and especially many "new age" beliefs, such as alternative medicines, healing by crystals and other products, and homeopathy.
Nevertheless, this book serves a valuable purpose: it gets the reader to think about their beliefs, and possibly to question the ones they are uncertain about. For in the end, one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings is our ability to question things, especially those we take for granted. Our children should be taught to question more ideas and beliefs; it would make for a healthier society. Of course, this would lead to their questioning authority, something that no government wants to promote. It is just for this reason that a book such as Why People Believe Weird Things is essential reading.