Revised and Expanded Edition.
In this age of supposed scientific enlightenment, many people still believe in mind reading, past-life regression theory, New Age hokum, and alien abduction. A no-holds-barred assault on popular superstitions and prejudices, with more than 80,000 copies in print, Why People Believe Weird Things debunks these nonsensical claims and explores the very human reasons people find otherworldly phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing. In an entirely new chapter, "Why Smart People Believe in Weird Things," Michael Shermer takes on science luminaries like physicist Frank Tippler and others, who hide their spiritual beliefs behind the trappings of science.
Shermer, science historian and true crusader, also reveals the more dangerous side of such illogical thinking, including Holocaust denial, the recovered-memory movement, the satanic ritual abuse scare, and other modern crazes. Why People Believe Strange Things is an eye-opening resource for the most gullible among us and those who want to protect them.
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About the Author
Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.
Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and several other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He lives in Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
Why People Believe Weird Things
Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
By Michael Shermer, Pat Linse
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2002 Michael Shermer
All rights reserved.
I Am Therefore I Think
A Skeptic's Manifesto
On the opening page of his splendid little book To Know a Fly, biologist Vincent Dethier makes this humorous observation about how children grow up to be scientists: "Although small children have taboos against stepping on ants because such actions are said to bring on rain, there has never seemed to be a taboo against pulling off the legs or wings of flies. Most children eventually outgrow this behavior. Those who do not either come to a bad end or become biologists" (1962, p. 2). In their early years, children are knowledge junkies, questioning everything in their purview, though exhibiting little skepticism. Most never learn to distinguish between skepticism and credulity. It took me a long time.
In 1979, unable to land a full-time teaching job, I found work as a writer for a cycling magazine. The first day on the job, I was sent to a press conference held in honor of a man named John Marino who had just ridden his bicycle across America in a record 13 days, 1 hour, 20 minutes. When I asked him how he did it, John told me about special vegetarian diets, megavitamin therapy, fasting, colonies, mud baths, iridology, cytotoxic blood testing, Rolfing, acupressure and acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapy, negative ions, pyramid power, and a host of weird things with which I was unfamiliar. Being a fairly inquisitive fellow, when I took up cycling as a serious sport I thought I would try these things to see for myself whether they worked. I once fasted for a week on nothing but a strange mixture of water, cayenne pepper, garlic, and lemon. At the end of the week, John and I rode from Irvine to Big Bear Lake and back, some seventy miles each way. About halfway up the mountain I collapsed, violently ill from the concoction. John and I once rode out to a health spa near Lake Elsinore for a mud bath that was supposed to suck the toxins out of my body. My skin was dyed red for a week. I set up a negative ion generator in my bedroom to charge the air to give me more energy. It turned the walls black with dust. I got my iris read by an iridologist, who told me that the little green flecks in my eyes meant something was wrong with my kidneys. To this day my kidneys are functioning fine.
I really got into cycling. I bought a racing bike the day after I met John and entered my first race that weekend. I did my first century ride (100 miles) a month later, and my first double century later that year. I kept trying weird things because I figured I had nothing to lose and, who knows, maybe they would increase performance. 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 starting 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.
In 1982 John and I and two other men competed in the first Race Across America, the 3,000-mile, nonstop, transcontinental bike race from Los Angeles to New York. In preparation, we went for cytotoxic blood testing because it was supposed to detect food allergies that cause blood platelets to clump together and block capillaries, thus decreasing blood flow. By now we were a little skeptical of the truth of these various claims, so we sent in one man's blood under several names. Each sample came back with different food allergies, which told us that there was a problem with their testing, not with our blood. During the race, I slept with an "Electro-Acuscope," which was to measure my brain waves and put me into an alpha state for better sleeping. It was also supposed to rejuvenate my muscles and heal any injuries. The company swore that it helped Joe Montana win the Super Bowl. Near as I can figure, it was totally ineffective.
The Electro-Acuscope was the idea of my chiropractor. I began visiting a chiropractor not because I needed one but because I had read that energy flows through the spinal cord and can get blocked at various places. I discovered that the more I got adjusted, the more I needed to get adjusted because my neck and back kept going "out." This went on for a couple of years until I finally quit going altogether, and I've never needed a chiropractor since.
All told, I raced as a professional ultra-marathon cyclist for ten years, all the while trying anything and everything (except drugs and steroids) that might improve my performance. As the Race Across America got bigger — it was featured for many years on ABC's Wide World of Sports —I had many offers to try all sorts of things, which I usually did. From this ten-year experiment with a subject pool of one, I drew two conclusions: nothing increased performance, alleviated pain, or enhanced well-being other than long hours in the saddle, dedication to a consistent training schedule, and a balanced diet; and it pays to be skeptical. But what does it mean to be skeptical?
What Is a Skeptic?
I became a skeptic on Saturday, August 6, 1983, on the long, climbing road to Loveland Pass, Colorado. It was Day 3 of the second Race Across America, and the nutritionist on my support crew believed that if I followed his megavitamin therapy program, I would win the race. He was in a Ph.D. program and was trained as a nutritionist, so I figured he knew what he was doing. Every six hours I would force down a huge handful of assorted vitamins and minerals. Their taste and smell nearly made me sick, and they went right through me, producing what I thought had to be the most expensive and colorful urine in America. After three days of this, I decided that megavitamin therapy, along with colonics, iridology, Rolfing, and all these other alternative, New Age therapies were a bunch of hooey. On that climb up Loveland Pass, I dutifully put the vitamins in my mouth and then spit them out up the road when my nutritionist wasn't looking. Being skeptical seemed a lot safer than being credulous.
After the race I discovered that the nutritionist's Ph.D. was to be awarded by a nonaccredited nutrition school and, worse, I was the subject of his doctoral dissertation! Since that time I have noticed about extraordinary claims and New Age beliefs that they tend to attract people on the fringes of academia — people without formal scientific training, credentialed (if at all) by nonaccredited schools, lacking research data to support their claims, and excessively boastful about what their particular elixir can accomplish. This does not automatically disprove all claims made by individuals exhibiting these characteristics, but it would be wise to be especially skeptical when encountering them.
Being skeptical is nothing new, of course. Skepticism dates back 2,500 years to ancient Greece and Plato's Academy. But Socrates' quip that "All I know is that I know nothing" doesn't get us far. Modern skepticism has developed into a science-based movement, beginning with Martin Gardner's 1952 classic, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Gardner's numerous essays and books over the next four decades, such as Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus (1981), The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (1991a), and On the Wild Side (1992), established a pattern of incredulity about a wide variety of bizarre beliefs. Skepticism joined pop culture through magician James "the Amazing" Randi's countless psychic challenges and media appearances in the 1970s and 1980s (including thirty-six appearances on the Tonight Show). Philosopher Paul Kurtz helped create dozens of skeptics groups throughout the United States and abroad, and publications such as Skeptic magazine have national and international circulation. Today, a burgeoning group of people calling themselves skeptics — scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, professors, teachers, and the intellectually curious from all walks of life — conduct investigations, hold monthly meetings and annual conferences, and provide the media and the general public with natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena.
Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to test natural explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some things, such as water dowsing, extrasensory perception, and creationism, have been tested and have failed the tests often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are false. Other things, such as hypnosis, lie detectors, and vitamin C, have been tested but the results are inconclusive, so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses until we can reach a provisional conclusion. The key to skepticism is to navigate the treacherous straits between "know nothing" skepticism and "anything goes" credulity by continuously and vigorously applying the methods of science.
The flaw in pure skepticism is that when taken to an extreme, the position itself cannot stand. If you are skeptical about everything, you must be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber.
There is also a popular notion that skeptics are closed-minded. Some even call us cynics. In principle, skeptics are not closed-minded or cynical. What I mean by a skeptic isone who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the "show me" state. When we hear a fantastic claim, we say, "That's nice, prove it."
Here is an example. For many years I had heard stories about the "Hundredth Monkey phenomenon" and was fascinated with the possibility that there might be some sort of collective consciousness that we could tap into to decrease crime, eliminate wars, and generally unite as a single species. In the 1992 presidential election, in fact, one candidate — Dr. John Hagelin from the Natural Law Party — claimed that if elected he would implement a plan that would solve the problems of our inner cities: meditation. Hagelin and others (especially proponents of Transcendental Meditation, or TM) believe that thought can somehow be transferred between people, especially people in a meditative state; if enough people meditate at the same time, some sort of critical mass will be reached, thereby inducing significant planetary change. The Hundredth Monkey phenomenon is commonly cited as empirical proof of this astonishing theory. In the 1950s, so the story goes, Japanese scientists gave monkeys on Koshima Island potatoes. One day one of the monkeys learned to wash the potatoes and then taught the skill to others. When about one hundred monkeys had learned the skill — the so-called critical mass — suddenly all the monkeys knew it, even those on other islands hundreds of miles away. Books about the phenomenon have spread this theory widely in New Age circles. Lyall Watson's Lifetide (1979) and Ken Keyes'sThe Hundredth Monkey (1982), for example, have been through multiple printings and sold millions of copies; Elda Hartley even made a film called The Hundredth Monkey.
As an exercise in skepticism, start by asking whether events really happened as reported. They did not. In 1952, primatologists began providing Japanese macaques with sweet potatoes to keep the monkeys from raiding local farms. One monkey did learn to wash dirt off the sweet potatoes in a stream or the ocean, and other monkeys did learn to imitate the behavior. Now let's examine Watson's book more carefully. He admits that "one has to gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened. So I am forced to improvise the details." Watson then speculates that "an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washingsweet potatoes in the sea" — hardly the level of precision one expects. He then makes this statement: "Let us say, for argument's sake, that the number was ninety-nine and that at 11:00 A.M. on a Tuesday, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass." At this point, says Watson, the habit "seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously on other islands" (1979, pp. 2 — 8).
Let's stop right there. Scientists do not "improvise" details or make wild guesses from "anecdotes" and "bits of folklore." In fact, some scientists did record exactly what happened (for example, Baldwin et al. 1980; Imanishi 1983; Kawai 1962). The research began with a troop of twenty monkeys in 1952, and every monkey on the island was carefully observed. By 1962, the troop had increased to fifty-nine monkeys and exactly thirty-six of the fifty-nine monkeys were washing their sweet potatoes. The "sudden" acquisition of the behavior actually took ten years, and the "hundred monkeys" were actually only thirty-six in 1962. Furthermore, we can speculate endlessly about what the monkeys knew, but the fact remains that not all of the monkeys in the troop were exhibiting the washing behavior. The thirty-six monkeys were not a critical mass even at home. And while there are some reports of similar behavior on other islands, the observations were made between 1953 and 1967. It was not sudden, nor was it necessarily connected to Koshima. The monkeys on other islands could have discovered this simple skill themselves, for example, or inhabitants on other islands might have taught them. In any case, not only is there no evidence to support this extraordinary claim, there is not even a real phenomenon to explain.
Science and Skepticism
Skepticism is a vital part of science, which I define as a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. In other words, science is a specific way of analyzing information with the goal of testing claims. Defining the scientific method is not so simple, as philosopher of science and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar observed: "Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed, because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare" (1969, p. 11).
A sizable literature exists on the scientific method, but there is little consensus among authors. This does not mean that scientists do not know what they are doing. Doing and explaining may be two different things. However, scientists agree that the following elements are involved in thinking scientifically:
Induction: Forming a hypothesis by drawing general conclusions from existing data.
Deduction: Making specific predictions based on the hypotheses.
Observation: Gathering data, driven by hypotheses that tell us what to look for in nature.
Verification: Testing the predictions against further observations to confirm or falsify the initial hypotheses.
Science, of course, is not this rigid; and no scientist consciously goes through "steps." The process is a constant interaction of making observations, drawing conclusions, making predictions, and checking them against evidence. And data-gathering observations are not made in a vacuum. The hypotheses shape what sorts of observations you will make of nature, and these hypotheses are themselves shaped by your education, culture, and particular biases as an observer.
Excerpted from Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer, Pat Linse. Copyright © 2002 Michael Shermer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
FOREWORD - The Positive Power of Skepticism,
INTRODUCTION - Magical Mystery Tour,
PROLOGUE - Next on Oprah,
PART 1 - SCIENCE AND SKEPTICISM,
1 - I Am Therefore I Think,
2 - The Most Precious Thing We Have,
3 - How Thinking Goes Wrong,
PART 2 - PSEUDOSCIENCE AND SUPERSTITION,
4 - Deviations,
5 - Through the Invisible,
6 - Abducted!,
7 - Epidemics of Accusations,
8 - The Unlikeliest Cult,
PART 3 - EVOLUTION AND CREATIONISM,
9 - In the Beginning,
10 - Confronting Creationists,
11 - Science Defended, Science Defined,
PART 4 - HISTORY AND PSEUDOHISTORY,
12 - Doing Donahue,
13 - Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened, and Why Do They Say It?,
14 - How We Know the Holocaust Happened,
15 - Pigeonholes and Continuums,
PART 5 - HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL,
16 - Dr. Tipler Meets Dr. Pangloss,
17 - Why Do People Believe Weird Things?,
18 - Why Smart People Believe Weird Things,