Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer
by Nathaniel Bluedorn
I just finished the book Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society. Shermer was once a fundamentalist Christian, became heavily involved in alternative medicine, believed he was abducted by aliens, and through some difficult events, including becoming violently ill from a particularly radical alternative medical treatment, he became a skeptic and an atheist.
In this book, Shermer covers alien abductions, psychic readings, Afrocentrism, repressed memory therapy, creationism, holocaust deniers, and other weird beliefs. Of course, I happen to think his chapters against creationism contradicted what he said in his other chapters, but those other chapters were good.
According to Shermer, the number one reason why people believe weird things is because they're smart – they have a high IQ or they have an exceptionally creative intellect. Because he can rationalize away evidence, an intelligent person is better able to defend weird ideas to himself. The last chapter of this book outlined why smart people believe weird things including the (1) Attribution Bias, and the (2) Confirmation Bias.
When someone attributes good reasoning to his own beliefs, but bad reasoning to other people's beliefs, he is guilty of the Attribution Bias. According to some studies, most people said that they believed in God because the evidence supports their belief. However, when these same people were asked why others believed in God, they said that other people believe because they were raised with that belief, or religion offers comfort when they get old. In other words, people like to think of themselves as very logical, but like to think of their neighbors as less logical.
When someone subconsciously filters evidence to support his established beliefs, he is guilty of the Confirmation Bias. According to some studies, we pay more attention to evidence that confirms what we believe, while we tend to ignore evidence which might ask us to reevaluate what we believe. When we hear a new piece of evidence, most of us simply find a way to fit that evidence into our already established beliefs. Intelligent people are better equipped to deceive themselves because they imagine that they are objective and open to new ideas, when they are simply rationalizing to reaffirm their old opinions. This applies to atheists as well as to Christians. I may be the most illogical person I know.
Here are some of Shermer's points that I thought were especially useful:
- Science is not a subject, it is a method. In the same way, skepticism isn't a position; it's an approach to claims. Skeptics must create a balance between cynicism and credulity by exercising a critical yet inquiring mind. It is important to be open-minded enough to be interested in alternative ideas, but only accept new ideas if they have very strong supporting evidence.
- Some people believe that science is the ultimate discoverer of objective truth; while others believe that science is a modern mythology that cannot escape from its own cultural paradigm. Both are right in different ways. Science can never be truly objective, but at times science has escaped from its cultural paradigm.
- One of the distinguishing characteristics of pseudoscience is that it fails to distinguish between theories that are possibly true, and theories that are probably true. Believers in pseudoscience accept the possibility that their theory may be true, and ignore the probability that it is false. Their presuppositions force this interpretive framework.
- Pseudoscience does not value objectivity. True science would value objectivity by (a) being self-critical, (b) wanting to hear the opinions of other scientists in the field, (c) not relying on unverifiable evidence, (d) admitting its limitations and errors without trying to explain them away.
- David Hume said, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." The more extraordinary a scientific claim is, the more extraordinarily well tested the evidence must be.
- A person's presuppositions determine how he interprets the evidence. Christopher Columbus thought he had landed in India or China, so he concluded that he had found many Asian plants and animals that Marco Polo had written about. The human mind naturally tries to find connections between things, even when there is no necessary connection.
- Just because someone shows that an established scientific theory has some problems does not mean we should abandon it for a new theory. It is not good enough simply to give evidence to disprove the opposition; a new theory needs to accumulate much supporting evidence before we should put confidence in it.
- As a pseudoscience or pseudohistorical idea makes the rounds in a community, it develops a feedback loop. As more and more people hear the rumor, they begin to believe it more and more, and soon it becomes common knowledge – everyone believes it and assumes everyone else must have a good reason for doing so too. Soon a person can be rejected by the community if he dares to question the idea. This happens because no one wants to be challenged to actually to explain what the evidence is for the theory.
- Intelligent people are better able to defend ideas that they may have arrived at for unintelligent reasons. In other words, though they may have adopted a belief without thinking, they are able to use their superior mind to justify that belief. Intelligent people are better equipped to see biases in other people, but they can justify their own biases. Intelligent people make better hypocrites. When there are gaps in evidence, intelligent minds are better at filling those gaps with their imagination. Some people can actually create reasons for why there should be no evidence for a theory, and then use the very lack of evidence to support their theory.
You may be convinced from reading this review that I have become a skeptic and an atheist. Don't worry. I haven't. I would not give Why People Believe Weird Things to someone who was not well founded in the Christian faith. Shermer uses some very sophisticated and potentially powerful methods to discredit Christianity. Nevertheless, I am thankful to God for giving Christians like me intelligent atheists like Michael Shermer who can challenge us in our lazy reasoning, and startle our minds into being more alert.
Copyright March 01, 2003, all rights reserved. 8111 views