I fancy myself a skeptic. This is the one aspect of me that tends to pain people, and myself, the most. I feel that a lot of people do not understand what it means to be a skeptic. It isn’t the simple rejection of what some people say for the sheer sport, but a commitment to not believe things until one is justified in their beliefs.
It’s a good way to be, and I am glad I share it with people like Michael Shermer.
Why People Believe Weird Things was written in 1997. The 90’s was a weird time when lots of strange beliefs were kind of accepted. Well, not that things are much better now. People now believe many of those same strange things and then many more, including the belief that a virus is somehow linked to cellphone towers. Shermer goes into what these beliefs are, and why some of the keystone pieces of ‘evidence’ for these beliefs are unjustified, fallacious, and otherwise untrue.
That’s kind of my issue with this book though. I am not sure to what extent I need a rigorous typology of all the weird things believed by people. I am not sure that that really does much to help me in 2020, but again, this book was written 23 years ago. The debunking is great, and I can see myself reaching to this title the next time I find myself in an irritating argument. But what I was really hoping is more on the ‘why’ of the title, and what we as a group can do to help curb these beliefs when we encounter them. The day after I finished reading this I encountered a person who told me they would not be taking the coronavirus vaccine because they had read a facebook post about how they were going to be putting chips into the vaccine. Despite reading the book, I felt pretty impotent about how the conversation was meant to proceed.
I don’t think there really is a good answer to that ‘why’ questions, and I think that is where this book falls short. But it almost isn’t a fault of the book as much as it is a fault of human nature. Every few years we will have new stupid beliefs that people are subscribing to, and I think if you could go back in time and talk to Shermer to tell him what people would believe in 2020, he would be rightly skeptical about it. These are just the times we live in.
But I tell you what was really surprising, seeing ‘Dr. Pepper is made from prune juice’ as a list of commonly believed things that are entirely warrant-less. I believed that. Guess maybe I am not skeptical enough.
2 thoughts on “Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer”
As a lover of conspiracy theories. I can tell you sometimes people just want to believe weird things. I used to believe the moon landing was a hoax and nobody could convince me otherwise. Sometimes holding weird beliefs is just entertaining.
It is entertaining, but it isn’t that simple. Not only our beliefs, but the community that engages with them, effect how we act in the world. People bring guns into pizza-parlours because of conspiracy theories. That are not just entertaining, they have real effects on the world. I struggle to believe in their innocence.