Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

This review was submitted to my professor in PhD Communication, Communication 301 subject. Written last semester (March 2009).  Forgive me if it sounds too geeky. Hehe.

      Michael Shermer, Ph.D., discusses pseudoscience, superstition, witch hunting, prejudices and other mind-boggling “phenomena” that seem to fascinate even the smartest of people.  Dr. Shermer dedicates a chapter to each belief, breaking down the cycles of how these beliefs came to be, why people believe them, and how they evolve from small scale village tales to campaigns of a grand-scale magnitude.  He opens up various issues regarding wishful thinking, how these lead to alarmingly hyped ideologies and movements – instantly recovered memories, satanic rituals, modern-day witch crazes, alien abductions, racial discrimination and the like. 

      Dr. Shermer often finishes a chapter by narrating how he came into contact with the pioneers of such institutions. He describes some of them as educated, pleasant, reasonable people although there are some whom he thinks have self-serving agendas, preying on the gullibility of their followers. 

      The book is an exploration of how human beings think and how they act based upon their beliefs.  The revised and expanded version, which was released in 2002, addresses the concerns on suicidal terrorism with a new chapter. Dr. Shermer’s notes about this new chapter summarizes the psychology of belief systems with a simple sentence: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” (p. 297)

      The book is divided into five parts, namely:
    1. Science and Skepticism – This part covers the philosophies behind human thinking, showing cognitive processes that begin from observation, changing what is observed, and construction of results.  These are then expanded so that fallacies in human thinking are logically explained.

    2. Pseudoscience and Superstition – Dr. Shermer tackles near-death experiences, alien abductions, medieval and modern witch crazes, and cults. This is also where he comes up with a model, which he calls the “Feedback Loop”. The model explains how beliefs come about and how they evolve.

    3. Evolution and Creationism – This is a three-chapter discussion on religion and science, mostly centering on debates between the Creationists and the Skeptics.  The chapter also delves completely into the issue of selective observation and hasty generalization, which Creationists are prone to doing.

    4. History and Pseudohistory –  Dr. Shermer uses the Holocaust Deniers’ Movement as an example of pseudohistorians that take facts and events out of context to justify a belief that contradicts history.  Again, he uses his model, the Feedback Loop in order to illustrate the flow of information, intentions and actions during that time and how pseudohistorians may have a different interpretation of what had happened during the Holocaust. This portion also discusses conspiracy theories, moral codes and the end of racism.

    5. Hope Springs Eternal – This three-chapter portion of the book updates what have been covered in the previous printing.  Other fallacies such as time travel, the miracle of the Egyptian pyramids, terrorist attacks based on religious beliefs are explained. Dr. Shermer then goes on to dissect the reasons behind why people believe weird things, which he already explained in detail in the first three chapters of the book, and why smart people believe weird things.  He begins by drawing a diagram equating high IQ with low levels of supertitious beliefs, but is quick to point out that smart people may be smart only in their field. Factors to consider include intelligence, gender, age, education, personality, locus of control and influence.  Smart people have biases and have the tendency to work in proving or disproving something in relation to their biases.


      Dr. Shermer first mentions his “Feedback Loop” model in Chapter 7, when he explains what had happened during the medieval witch crazes. He also uses the same model, with different concepts, in accounting for the Holocaust.

      He states that social systems, where witch crazes and the Holocaust fall, organize themselves through feedback loops, “where outputs are connected to inputs, producing change in response to both (like a public-address system with feedback, or stock market booms and busts driven by flurries of buying and selling).” (p. 101)  There is a cycling of information that happens through a closed system. These movements or institutions endure because of internal and external components that loop systematically together.  Social control of someone over another and the human tendency to blame others for unfortunate incidents are internal components of this system.  Simply put, these are psychological states.  Socioeconomic stress, cultural and political issues, religious and moral differences are what make up the external components.  External components are social conditions.  Interaction of the internal and the external conditions is what produces the feedback loop.  As rumors, which can be proliferated by media or word-of-mouth, arise, the system becomes more and more complicated. It will then reach criticality and disintegrate under shifting socioeconomic conditions.
Figure 3.1: The witch craze feedback loop. (p. 101, model redrawn by me)

 Figure 3.2: The holocaust feedback loop. (p. 226, model redrawn by me)

      Why People Believe Weird Things is actually a very engrossing read. I was so engrossed that I bought my own copy of the revised and expanded version. Actually, it was the analysis of Ayn Rand‘s work that caught me – hook, line and sinker – because one of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Goodkind, peppers his books with Ayn Rand’s philosophies.  From that section onwards, I voraciously absorbed every bit of historical and scientific information that Dr. Shermer had to share.

      I could not help but compare this material with the other book we had to review, which was McQuail’s Theory of Mass Communication by Denis McQuail, Ph.D.  While Dr. McQuail’s was an easy-to-read reference book, it wasn’t quite as involving as Dr. Shermer’s when it comes to theorizing or unraveling phenomenon.

      Dr. Shermer has personal anecdotes about his encounters with supernatural believers in talk shows like Oprah and Donahue but he always emphasizes the need for scientific evidence.  Perhaps this is because he has learned his lessons from personal beliefs that had led him to disasters, like when he got into cycling and then experimented on weird practices just to improve his performance.  I found myself laughing when he recounted his experience:

      I tried colonics because supposedly bad things clog the plumbing and thus decrease digestive efficiency, but all I got was an hour with a hose in a very uncomfortable place.  I installed a pyramid in my apartment because it was supposed to focus energy. All I got were strange looks from guests.  I started getting massages, which were thoroughly enjoyable and quite relaxing. Then my massage therapist decided that “deep tissue” massage was best to get lactic acid out of the muscles. That wasn’t so relaxing. One guy massaged me with his feet. That was even less relaxing. I tried Rolfing, which is really deep tissue massage. That was so painful that I never went back. (p 14)
      He continues on about food allergy detection tests that came up with different results every time, “Electro-Acuscopes” that should help with muscle rejuvenation and healing but was totally ineffective, and all sorts of things that turned him into the skeptic that he is.

      He then whips out a list of sociocultural theories that are often used in communication studies and weaves them effectively in his explanations and stories. I was actually quite shocked to learn that there are people who do not believe in the Holocaust, that there are scientists who claim that the size of an African-American’s penis is inversely proportional to his IQ, that the witch craze still exists through a modernized form, and that Ayn Rand was actually responsible for the Objectivist movement. The book retells all the lectures we have covered in Ph.D. Communication classes, although  Dr. Shermer frames these in a very interesting way.  Why People Believe Weird Things is sharp, witty and full of visuals – models, results from gathered data, pictures – that illustrate the author’s points across.

      He speaks about methods, the scientific process and evidence, most of which I have already read in books like Russell Schutt’s Investigating the Social World: The Process and Practice of Research, Jacqueline Fawcett and Florence S. Downs’ The Relationship of Theory and Research and Arthur Stinchcombe’s Constructing Social Theories.  The first is academic reading, very pragmatic and uses a lot of interesting case studies as examples. The second is very dry and gives even an above average reader the impression that Nursing is a field in rocket science. The third is highly educational, clear, concise, straight to the point and a bit easier to read than the second.  None of them are half as riveting as how Dr. Shermer wrote this book, however.  The only downside I could find in this is the fact that Dr. Shermer can sometimes come across as a kill-joy, who aims to remove the mysteries that make life interesting. In that essence, he could  sound like the counterpart of an overzealous Christian reacting on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I have nothing against Christians (I am one) and scientists (I am one, too), but there must be a balance somewhere.  Fortunately, while he was analyzing the arguments of Evolutionists and Creationists, he did not go into his own feelings about the matter. He was able identify errors in both, armed with empirical data, of course, while coming across as someone who does not feel that science should be chosen over religion and vice-versa. 

      I highly recommend this reading material for those who are naturally curious.  Believers in the paranormal might find that this provides the scientific balance in a world run by horoscopes and morning prayers. The geeks and nerds, on the other hand, might find this a healthy breather from the otherwise monochromatic world of quantitative data.

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