Michael Shermer’s skeptical book, Why People Believe Weird Things has been around since the late nineties. I should probably have read and reviewed it sooner; so much of the content is relevant to what I write about here. I’ve had the book a while now, but a few weeks ago I managed to wrestle the book back from my wife and actually read it. I’m glad I did.
Shermer starts the book by explaining what he means by a weird thing, the difference between science and pseudoscience and how skepticism works. He also gets my respect for admitting to the weird beliefs he previously held, which included a variety of unusual treatments alleged to enhance the performance of athletes. He cites their complete failure to improve his competitive cycling as one of the reasons he became a skeptic.
The majority of the book is devoted to covering a wide variety of weird beliefs. These include paranormal abilities, alien abduction, creationism, Ayn Rand’s objectivism and even holocaust denial. Shermer has certainly done his homework on all of these, providing some fascinating quotes and an 18-page bibliography for those looking for further reading. In several cases, the author has had direct experience of debating with those who believe weird things, on radio and television. These accounts are candid and modest – he spends more time noting his frustrations and failures to get his message across than he does celebrating great victories for reason. I found this to be all the more enlightening.
I found myself shaking my head in wonder and horror at some of the ridiculous and repugnant ideas described. However, Shermer carefully describes, dissects and debunks each of the weird beliefs without resorting to ridicule or personal attacks. Furthermore, the explanations are easy to follow and the book as a whole is pleasingly free of unexplained scientific or philosophical language.
Only in the last section does the book really address the question of its title. The harder question this leads to is why smart people believe weird things. Shermer concludes that, being of above-average intelligence is no guarantee of being free from weird beliefs. It seems that great minds do not necessarily think alike. He summarises his explanation for this as follows:
Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.
I found this to be a surprising revelation, but one which Shermer has arrived at after much study across the diverse range of beliefs described in the book. Too often it seems that people take it as an insult to their intelligence to say that they believe something weird. To accept that even the most intellectually gifted amongst us have blindspots in our understanding of the world is a step in the right direction.
I had, perhaps naïvely expected the book to be entirely about the psychology of belief. I found the descriptions of weird beliefs to be very interesting, although I would have preferred more discussion of the successes and failures of his debates and the thought processes behind the beliefs.