Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer

This is one fantastic book.

Michael Shermer takes a skeptical look at topics such as ESP, UFO abductions, near-death experiences, creationism, Objectivism, Holocaust denial and more.  But the main purpose of this book isn't to debunk them (which he skillfully does) or ridicule them (which he carefully doesn't); what makes the book great is that he's out to understand why people believe them, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Since he says it himself at the beginning of the book, it's not really giving anything away for me to include the short answer here:  we believe these things because we are pattern-recognizing creatures with intuitive thinking.  And while this worked great for our survival as a species, it means we're also great at finding patterns for things that aren't there, assigning meaning to them, and then skillfully defending them.

The rest of the book gives the long answer as he looks at each item individually, showing the different ways we bring such beliefs into existence in the first place, presenting the evidence against it, and exploring why people are able to discount that evidence in a way that seems logical to them.  It's a wonderful blend of science, psychology and sociology, all while keeping a skeptical approach.  It kept me fascinated from beginning to end and has introduced me to the benefits of healthy skepticism.