Michael Shermer
Why People Believe Weird Things
W. H. Freeman and Company, 1997
306 pages
ISBN 0-7167-3090-1 (pbk. 0-7167-3387-0)
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1999 by Gary McGath

Books on the debunking of irrational beliefs vary greatly in quality. Some do a good job in their research, while others are embarrassingly easy to shoot down. (Michael White's pathetic Weird Science is a recent example of the latter.) Some recognize that there are mysteries for which there currently aren't obvious solutions, while others are implausibly confident in offering a single explanation for each "paranormal" mystery. Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things is among the better efforts in this field.

Shermer's credentials are solid; he is publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society. He starts off with a proper grounding, placing skepticism in the context of science and discussing logical fallacies in a readable way. He then takes us through such subjects as UFO's, altered states of consciousness, witch crazes, creationism, Holocaust denial, and Objectivism.

What? Did I say Objectivism? Yes, I'll get back to that in a little while. But the book is more than just a catalogue of fallacies, actual or alleged; the stress on methodology puts it a step above many other refutations of the paranormal. He ties together many of the different fallacious beliefs by citing common features in their methodology. His stress on basic methods of thinking is evident in passages such as this:

The essential tension in dealing with "weird things" is between being so skeptical that revolutionary ideas pass you by and being so open-minded that flim-flam artists take you in. Balance can be found by answering a few basic questions: What is the quality of the evidence for the claim? What are the background and credentials of the person making the claim? Does the thing work as claimed?

The chapter on "How Thinking Goes Wrong" lists twenty-five problems in thinking. For the most part, this discussion is good; titles of the problems include "Anecdotes do not make a science," "Rumors do not equal reality," and "Overreliance on authorities." The discussion of "Reduction ad absurdum" is confused, but Shermer uses that form of argumentation to good effect himself in several places; for example, he notes that "If you are skeptical about everything, you must be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber." Also, he equates tautology with circular reasoning. But these are different; circular reasoning uses a premise to prove itself, while tautology equates a thing to itself. Tautologies are not fallacious, but rather are trivially true (though a disguised tautology can be used in equivocation).

"Epidemics of Accusations" is one of my favorite chapters, because the subject it covers is so widely applicable. Witch hunts, "Satanic panics," and recovered-memory hoaxes are included as examples of social feedback loops; denial is proof of guilt, the accused are compelled to testify against others in their "cult," new rumors arise in imitation of old ones, and the apparent magnitude of the marginal or non-existent phenomenon grows until a reaction sets in and it collapses. Witch hunts are not just something of the past; Shermer describes a sex-crime hunt with many of the characteristics of Salem's witch trials, which happened just in 1995 in the state of Washington.

In the three chapters on the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust, I was pleased to see that Shermer got both points right: the people who claim that it never happened are talking complete nonsense, but the attempts to censor them (several European countries have laws criminalizing Holocaust denial) can't accomplish any good. His summary of the evidence is effective, and so is his defense of free speech:

Once a mechanism for censorship of ideas is established, it can then work against you if and when the tables are turned. Let us pretend for a moment that the majority denies evolution and the Holocaust and that creationists and Holocaust deniers are in the positions of power. If a mechanism for censorship exists, then you, the believer in evolution and the Holocaust, may now be censored. The human mind, no matter what ideas it generates, must never be quashed.

The chapter titled "The Unlikeliest Cult: Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Cult of Personality" naturally needs special attention in this collection of reviews. It isn't as bad as some "cult" analyses of Objectivism; Shermer actually understands what the philosophy is about. But like many others, he equates the actions of particular individuals (and a great many of them, unfortunately, have engaged in such actions) with the philosophy. He concludes that Objectivism is a cult because it is characterized by "veneration of the leader," "inerrancy of the leader," "omniscience of the leader," and so on.

He states: "For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered by (the Objectivists' version of) reason to be True, the discussion is at an end. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed." He gives no source for this alleged principle of Objectivism. He does not explain how this alleged principle can be reconciled with, for instance, Leonard Peikoff's statement in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

In any case where there is reason to suspect that a variety of factors is relevant to the truth, only some of which are presently known, [man] is obligated to acknowledge that fact. The implicit or explicit preamble to his conclusion must be: "On the basis of the available evidence, i.e., within the context of the factors so far discovered, the following is the proper conclusion to draw."

Shermer conflates the way many Objectivists act with the principles of Objectivism. This is comparable to refuting Christianity by treating the persecutions of the medieval Church as if they were the whole of Christian doctrine.

Shermer also argues against Objectivist morality, and against objective, universal moral codes in general, by claiming that "[moral] standards are themselves human creations and cannot be discovered in nature." He compares moral preferences to musical preferences: "Neither Mozart nor males are absolutely better, but only so when judged by a particular group's standards." He goes on to argue:

But as soon as a group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people's actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance, and thus reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group dangerous to individual freedom.

Leaving aside the dubious reasoning which leads from absolute standards of right and wrong to dangers to freedom, let's ask just one question: on what basis does Shermer regard danger to freedom as a "bad" thing? If all moral standards are simply personal preferences, with no more grounding in nature than musical preferences, then freedom and tyranny are themselves merely personal preferences, and neither is more suited to humans than the other. In fact, the whole point of Shermer's book is undercut by his claim in this chapter; given that the words "right" and "wrong" merely express preferences, the choice between scientific honesty and superstitious charlatanism is itself merely a preference, and neither is superior to the other.

Shermer does state, "I accept much of Rand's philosophy"; his principal disagreement is with its ethics. He also acknowledges that "there remained (and remains) a huge following of those who ignore the indiscretions, infelicities, and moral inconsistencies of the founder and focus instead on the positive aspects of her philosophy." But these disclaimers are small comfort after seeing the same stale "Objectivism is a cult" nonsense, complete with capitalization of words for purposes of ridicule, for the fiftieth time.

I've devoted a significant portion of this review to a single chapter of the book, because it's a subject which is important to me and, I expect, important to a large proportion of the readers who will come across this review. I should point out, though, that the chapter is only a small part of the book and its problems don't seriously affect the rest of the book (aside from being briefly echoed in Stephen Jay Gould's preface).

With the reservations I've stated, I highly recommend the book. It would make a good gift for a student entering college, who is about to be exposed to many different ideas. It's also good reading for people who simply want to learn more about some of the fallacious beliefs which are prevalent today.

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