Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
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Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer, is a fascinating read, despite the hodgepodge of content and the slightly confusing theoretical argument it contains. Let me begin with the theoretical argument. Shermer begins the book by arguing that belief in pseudoscience, superstition, etc. is the result of biological evolution, “We evolved to be skilled, pattern-seeking, causal-finding creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns… left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants. The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not. Unfortunately our brains are not always good at determining the difference. The reason is that discovering a meaningless pattern usually does no harm and may even do some good in reducing anxiety in uncertain situations” (pp. xxiv-xxv). The biological systems involved in pattern recognition often help us (1) discover falsehoods (it’s a mirage not a spring in the middle of the desert) and (2) discover truths (touching a hot stove causes physical harm to our bodies).
However, our ability to detect patterns also results in a proclivity to make two types of errors: (1) believe a falsehood and (2) reject a truth. We do these things when there are no serious consequences to doing so. For example, what is the consequence of believing in homeopathy? Generally, homeopathists treat actual conditions with colored water (they claim it has magical properties), which is unlikely to cause any harm. Homeopathy is a falsehood in that has been shown to not actually help the conditions it claims to treat, but it also doesn’t cause harm, generally (except for the money they take). Thus, believing in the falsehood of homeopathy is generally harmless. Likewise, in the US today, what is the harm in rejecting the truth of evolutionary theory if you are a car mechanic? You can reject that truth (which about 40% of Americans do) but suffer no ill effects. Thus, humans can accept falsehoods and reject truths, all in the pursuit of seeking patterns and causes. We need to be able to discern falsehoods and truths for our survival. But believing in falsehoods and rejecting truths when they don’t cause us harm is rather benign.
So, we have the ability to accept falsehoods and reject truths, but how do people come to believe falsehoods and reject truths? Shermer has an answer for this as well, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons” (p. xxvi). What does he mean by this? “[M]ost of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning… Rather, such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are disconfirming. All of us do this, of course, but smart people are better at it through both talent and training” (p. 283). In short, smart people are better at justifying their erroneous beliefs because, well, that’s the definition of being smart.
As I read the book, this was the major theoretical explanation offered by Shermer. However, there are lots of other reasons offered as well. Perhaps these other reasons are subsets of the big reason, but that wasn’t clear. For instance, Shermer says on page 275, “More than any other, the reason people believe weird things is because they want to. It feels good.” Shermer does not tie this reason back into the broader reason, which would be quite simple: smart people like to feel good and sometimes that means believing erroneous things, which they then justify believing. Thus, they are particularly good at justifying beliefs that make them feel good. On a side note, as a skeptic I feel compelled to point out that Shermer doesn’t provide any empirical evidence for this claim (it’s probably true, but as a skeptic, he should provide evidence). Other similar explanations for why people believe weird things include:
- simplicity: “Immediate gratification of one’s beliefs is made all the easier by simple explanations for an often complex and contingent world.” (p. 277)
- morality and meaning: “At present, scientific and secular systems of morality and meaning have proved relatively unsatisfying to most people.” (p. 277)
I think Shermer did intend for these arguments to be sub-arguments to the broader argument of the book, but that wasn’t very clear. Overall, then, Shermer’s theoretical argument is that people believe weird (i.e., erroneous) things because they arrived at those beliefs for a variety of reasons and then found ways to justify them. Also, the erroneous beliefs are generally not causing them harm.
To illustrate these weird beliefs, Shermer discusses a variety of pseudoscientific and superstitious beliefs, illustrating that they are erroneous along the way. He begins, however, with a clarification of what it means to be a skeptic, “Some people believe that skepticism is rejection of new ideas or, worse, they confuse skeptic with cynic and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. Skepticism is a method, not a position” (p. 8). Shermer discusses science and empiricism at length, illustrating that skeptics seek after empirical verification, which is why they are unwilling to accept unfounded claims. Like science and scientists generally, skeptics don’t reject the possibility of supernatural and pseudoscientific claims outright, they simply are holding out for compelling evidence.
One of the topics Shermer tackles as pseudoscience is creationism, or a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. Shermer illustrates that creationists are smart enough to develop explanations for why they believe the earth was created in six days, but they are justifying a non-empirical position: the evidence does not support young-earth creationism. One argument he uses to illustrate the irrational position of creationists is a discussion of creation myths, which I always find intriguing. Shermer notes that pretty much all societies have creation stories, and they can be grouped into specific categories based on the characteristics of the myths (p. 129):
- No Creation Story: “The world has always existed as it is now, unchanging from eternity.” (Jainists of India)
- Slain Monster Creation Story: “The world was created from the parts of a slain monster.” (Gilbert Islanders, Greeks, Indochinese, Kabyles of Africa, Koreans, Sumero-Babylonians)
- Primordial Parents Creation Story: “The world was created by the interaction of primordial parents.” (Cook Islanders, Egyptians, Greeks, Luiseno Indians, Tahitians, Zuni Indians)
- Cosmic Egg Creation Story: “The world was generated from an egg.” (Chinese, Finns, Greeks, Hindus, Japanese, Persians, Samoans)
- Spoken Edict Creation Story: “The world sprang into being at the command of a god.” (Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, Maidu Indians, Mayans, Sumerians; FYI – this is the Biblical creation myth most widely espoused among Christians in the US)
- Sea Creation Story: “The world was created from out of the sea.” (Burmese, Choctaw Indians, Egyptians, Icelanders, Maui Hawaiians, Sumerians)”
The point of mentioning other creation myths, of course, is to put widely held creation myths into context. A literalistic interpretation of the Bible fails to recognize the context of the Bible and fails to recognize that it is just one creation myth among many. Shermer offers another good illustration of the diffusion and assimilation of creation myths in the Bible, “The Noachian flood story, in fact, is but one variation on the Sea Creation Story, except that it is a myth of re-creation. The earliest version we have is ancient, predating the biblical story by over a thousand years. Around 2800 B.C.E., a Sumerian myth presents the flood hero as the priest-king Ziusudra, who built a boat to survive a great deluge. Around 2000 to 1800 B.C.E., the hero of the famous Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh learns of the flood from an ancestor named Utnapishtim. Warned by the Earth-god Ea that the gods were about to destroy all life by a flood, Utnapishtim was instructed to build an ark in the form of a cube 120 cubits (180 feet) to a side, with seven floors, each divided into nine compartments, and to take aboard one pair of each living creature. The Gilgamesh flood story floated (pardon the pun) for centuries throughout the Near East and was known in Palestine before the arrival of the Hebrews. Literary comparison makes its influence on the Noachian flood story obvious” (p. 130). Again, the point here is that the Noachian flood story in the Bible is just a new incarnation of an ancient myth. Contextualized (set in its time period), this makes sense. When you take the Bible out of its context and interpret it literally, you end up believing the nonsensical notion that the entire world could be covered by war, which is a naturalistic impossibility (there isn’t enough water to cover all the land).
I’ve probably already spent more time on creationism than necessary, but I have to note one great quote from the book that I had not come across earlier. Shermer uses a quote from Voltaire’s Candide (1759) to illustrate the absurdity of the argument of intelligent design that the world is designed intelligently to be “the best of all possible worlds”, “’Tis demonstrated that things cannot be otherwise; for, since everything is made for an end, everything is necessarily for the best end. Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles. Legs were visibly instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches” (p. 256). This still makes me laugh after having read it a dozen times or so. This reminds me of Kirk Cameron’s argument that it is obvious that the world was designed by an intelligent designer because bananas naturally fit the curve of a human hand, indicating they were designed for humans to eat them. In a discussion following that claim, one person offered a one-word refutation of that ridiculous argument: pineapples.
Other topics discussed by Shermer include holocaust denial and the attempt of one physicist to prove religion through physics (Chapter 16), which Shermer illustrates is quite absurd. Another topic I wasn’t expecting was a discussion of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Having read much of Ayn Rand’s work (and at one point really having believed she was right), I was interested to see what Shermer had to say about her ideas. Intriguingly, Shermer’s attacks on Objectivism are actually indirect attacks, as he still seems to be at least fond of her basic argument, “The cultic flaw in Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is not its use of reason, emphasis on individuality, view that humans ought to be motivated by rational self-interest, or conviction that capitalism is the ideal system” (p. 118). Shermer accepts these premises, or at least does not reject them. Where he takes issue with Objectivism is in “…its belief that absolute knowledge and final Truth are attainable through reason, and therefore that there are absolutes of right and wrong knowledge and of moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered by (the Objectivists’ version of) reason to be True, the discussion is at an end. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed, it can be corrected, but if you don’t correct your reasoning (i.e., learn to accept the principle), you are flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final solution for such unreformed heretics” (p. 118). In other words, Objectivism is flawed because it claims to actually have all truth, and if you disagree with its truth, you are in error, as Objectivism cannot be in error. That’s an intriguing argument that does undermine Objectivism to some degree. However, Shermer also actually uses a logical fallacy to attack Objectivism as well, though perhaps a slightly justified one as it relates somewhat to the above criticism: Shermer talks at length about the cultic milieu created by Rand in the later part of her life. Apparently Rand set up a controlling environment in which she was worshiped by her followers and dictated everything they did. Shermer may not have brought this up to undermine Objectivism, but it’s unclear why else he would have. This is an ad hominem attack and a logical fallacy as her private life has no bearing on the validity of her philosophy. As it stands, I think the book would be stronger without this chapter.
Two additional topics discussed are alien abductions and the satanic scare of the 1980s. Shermer does a better job bringing his skeptical reasoning to bear here as he outlines a pattern to many pseudoscientific movements, like exorcism, satanic rituals, recovered memories, and alien abductions. They tend to follow a pattern:
- Victims tend to be women, the poor, the retarded, and others on the margins of society.
- Sex or sexual abuse is typically involved.
- Mere accusation of potential perpetrators makes them guilty.
- Denial of guilt is regarded as further proof of guilt.
- Once a claim of victimization becomes well known in a community, other similar claims suddenly appear.
- The movement hits a critical peak of accusation, when virtually everyone is a potential suspect and almost no one is above suspicion.
- Then the pendulum swings the other way. As the innocent begin to fight back against their accusers through legal and other means, the accusers sometimes become the accused and skeptics begin to demonstrate the falsity of the accusations.
- Finally, the movement fades, the public loses interest, and proponents, while never completely disappearing, are shifted to the margins of belief.
Shermer also rightly notes that these waves of panics and scares are often driven by corporate interests, as the people who need them (the book, film, and television industries) use these scares to make money (pp. 106-107).
Overall, the book is definitely worth reading, but it could have been a much better read for several reasons. First, Shermer does have a tendency to repeat himself at times, rehashing ideas in multiple chapters. Cutting out the repeated information would have shortened the book by at least a good 30 to 50 pages. Second, the theoretical arguments aren’t completely integrated and don’t always come across clearly. I think you can distill the major theoretical arguments from the book, but you kind of have to do that by reading it carefully and making some assumptions, as Shermer doesn’t necessarily do that for you. Third, not all of the topics covered seem to fit with the general theme of the book (definitely the case for Objectivism). This kind of left me thinking that Shermer took topics he has examined and written about previously and aggregated them into this book without thinking about how well they worked together.
Despite these problems, the book is entertaining. Shermer is a born-again skeptic, having engaged in some pretty bizarre pseudoscientific behaviors in his past, which make for good stories to illustrate his arguments. Shermer has some great ideas, and while the execution of those ideas by America’s leading skeptic isn’t perfect, it is still a worthy read.
p. 82 “As humanist scholar Robert Ingersoll (1879) noted, “The only evidence, so far as I know, about another life is, first, that we have no evidence; and secondly, that we are rather sorry that we have not, and wish we had.”"
p. 295 “The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1954), for example, discovered that among the Trobriand Islanders (off the coast of New Guinea), the farther out to sea they went to fish the more they developed superstitious rituals. In the calm waters of the inner lagoon, there were very few rituals. By the time they reached the dangerous waters of deep sea fishing, the Trobrianders were also deep into magic. Malinowski concluded that magical thinking derived from environmental conditions, not inherent stupidities: “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous.” Think of the superstitions of baseball players.”
p. 298 “With an odds ratio of 8.8 to 1, we may conclude that people are nearly nine times more likely to attribute their own belief in God to rational reasons than they are other people’s belief in God, which they will attribute to emotional reasons. One explanation for this finding is the attribution bias, or the attribution of causes of our own and others’ behaviors to either a situation or a disposition. When we make a situational attribution, we identify the cause in the environment (“my depression is caused by a death in the family”); when we make a dispositional attribution, we identify the cause in the person as an enduring trait (“her depression is caused by a melancholy personality”). Problems in attribution may arise in our haste to accept the first cause that comes to mind (Gilbert et al. 1988). Plus, social psychologists Carol Tavris and Carole Wade (1997) explain that there is a tendency for people “to take credit for their good actions (a dispositional attribution) and let the situation account for their bad ones.” In dealing with others, for example, we might attribute our own success to hard work and intelligence, whereas the other person’s success is attributed to luck and circumstance (Nisbett and Ross 1980).”