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Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

by nbluedorn

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:

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. 10185 views

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