Review: Why People Believe Weird Things

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.



If you put all paranormal claims on a chart with the most likely at the top, orbs would be several pages down, perhaps only a few slots above stories of Neil Armstrong having traces of Cheddar on his boots when he returned to Earth.

Orbs can be created easily by the home enthusiast or naïve ghost hunter. First, you need a digital camera, preferably a basic one, but with a flash. Next find a suitable location – somewhere old, dark and dusty – orbs can still be seen in daylight, but they don’t show up so well. Then start snapping away. As long as there are some small particles caught in the flash, directly in front of the lens, but too close to be in focus, you’ll get good results. If by good results you mean blurry translucent circles across your image.

They are quite obviously natural rather than supernatural. Unfocussed light from a point source can appear as a circle when photographed and even with the naked eye if you’re too lazy to focus properly. However, it has been claimed that some orbs move or act intelligently, responding to commands. Unsurprisingly this claim has been investigated and found lacking.

The videos sometimes showed faster moving Orbs that performed aerobatic manoeuvres. They were as claimed under intelligent control, but, in these cases they were explainable by the fact that many buildings are inhabited by almost microscopic flying insects that survive all year round due to factors such as central heating and the milder winters. An evening spent in a haunted building with some flypaper and a UV Insect acuter soon proved they existed.

Orbs (or insects) responding to commands could certainly be explained by wishful thinking and confirmation bias – until some reliable evidence can show otherwise. In fact there good answers to all the “mysteries” surrounding orbs.

All of which makes orbs as a paranormal phenomenon seem pretty far-fetched, but doesn’t seem to stop people believing in them.

Leonore Sweet is one such person. Although she insists that she’s neither an expert on the paranormal nor on photography, she has written a book entitled How to Photograph the Paranormal. She also has a PhD, although in what, she doesn’t say.  She refers to orbs as “Light forms”, perhaps sounding deliberately similar to “Life forms”. Naturally she is forced to acknowledge that orbs can be created by dust, water droplets, etc, or it would be pretty easy to prove her wrong. But, like so many similar claims she insists that at least some of them are indeed real – just not the ones which have been properly investigated. Have a look at the photos on her What They [orbs] Are page and see what you make of the “types” she claims are legitimate.

If nothing else, these light forms have taught me I know next to nothing in the total scheme of things. This is an uncomfortable feeling for most. Loss of their comfort zone must be why people can look at ten inexplicable photographs and totally dismiss all of them as fraudulent when just one is shown to be from a natural cause.

That’s because it is the simpler explanation. The onus is on the claimant to provide evidence that these are something paranormal. If you can’t explain something it’s not enough to say, “It must be paranormal” – that’s not the default answer. If the police come questioning you about a murder and you don’t have an alibi, they don’t say, “Then you must be the murderer” and march you off to prison. They’d need some positive evidence too.

For example you could take simultaneous photos of the same person from different angles and see if the orb appears in exactly the same place. Get consistent results from two or more angles and you will actually have some idea if that orb is hovering right behind someone or is a speck only centimetres from the lens.

Leonore Sweet is smart enough not to make any solid claims about the “light forms” she photographs, in fact she rarely even speculates about what they are. Instead she points out that one appeared above a woman who had breathed her last breath or another seems to be hovering protectively near a child. This makes it harder to directly criticise her claims and leaves the speculation up to the reader’s imagination.

Other orb enthusiasts are not so guarded, however. The Sunday Times recently features a piece on Klaus Heinemann, an experimental physicist researching orbs. After waffling about science and how “orthodox research methods often go out the window” he makes some interesting claims:

Hundreds of sequential pictures of the same orb, taken under scientifically sound conditions in rapid succession, have demonstrated that they’re capable of moving very fast — up to 500mph or more. They can also change size and orientation almost instantaneously.
– Klaus Heinemann

Now if he says they can move at a particular speed he needs to know how far away they are – which must be difficult when they can also change size spontaneously. Sadly there’s not the room in this piece to examine his methods, nor any link that might allow us to do so. He goes on to say,

My working theory is that orbs are emanations from spirit beings. There has always been a huge body of anecdotal evidence that the spirit world exists, that consciousness survives physical death, and now, thanks to digital technology, we believe we are seeing it. Orbs are a non-physical, albeit real, phenomenon that can now be detected by physical means.
– Klaus Heinemann

I’d be interested to know how he intends to test that theory or indeed what made him believe it in the first place. Without these details his claims are little more than vague and imaginative claims that I suspect are intended to promote his book rather than help discover anything about reality.

Readers won’t be surprised to hear that the woo-spectrum doesn’t stop here on orbs. The furthest I’ve dared to tread is the delightfully-named Orbs by Beans. Put on your sunglasses and prepare to be dazzled by a smorgasbord of flim-flam!