Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Why People Believe Weird Things

Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
By Michael Shermer

Background: Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine (which I recommend) is a formal born-again, fundamentalist Christian, professional ultra-cyclist, alternative medicine disciple turned, uh, skeptic. This book is considered by many (ask me how I define that!) to be a classic of skeptical thought, philosophy and discussion. Perhaps not the rival of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, but I haven't read that yet (it's on my stack) so that comment is simply the culled opinion of those in the circle.


Grunt, street reaction. This book was fine.I enjoyed it and will read another of his books, but I can't give it a blazing bad-ass recomendation. Above average, given that if you're a prolific reader, reading the average becomes painful drudgery. This isn't drudgery. His writing style is clear. He isn't obtuse. He has a fine grasp of the language although he lacks flare. Which is fine. My all-time favorite non-fiction cultural review style book is Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Schlosser's writing is fast, gripping, loose and brotherly. He injects humor and opinion and backs up every claim with a mountain of documentation and research. Nearly a hundred pages of the book is simply bibliographic reference. I love it. The read is fun, informative and entertaining. He will be my golden standard for comparison.

Shermer breaks the book into sections describing in turn what is skepticism, what is science, why we should be skeptical for the first several chapters, and then spends the rest of the book dissecting specific examples of thinking gone wrong. These include such phenomenom as Holocaust denial, Intelligent Design and Creationism and Alien Abduction. These deseminations are intelligent and backed up by research, facts, and studies (look them up yourself.) And Shermer isn't dry. This isn't the same as reading a programming manual (as a former programmer I still have nightmares of parsing through pages of the most mind-numbing c/c++ books delivered to this Earth by the Gods of valium.) But I still found myself sort of bored while getting into the details of these examples. IS this Shermer's fault? Perhaps not. As an active skeptic myself, seeking out information and reading all that I can get my hands on in the worlds of science and conflicts between science and "magical thinking" and outright bad thinking, this book was nothing new. It was all things I have thoroughly studied myself.

So who would this book be for? That's hard to answer. Like Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion (recommended), the people who most need to read it are the least likely to ever do so. Perhaps there is a receptive state that we enter into mentally from time to time and if you managed to stumble across this, or if someone recognized you in this state and gave you the book, it would help bring you over into the fold.

If you are a person that looks around you, to family, friends, and the culture at large, at the religiosity, the anti-evolution nonsense, at the snake-oil alternative "medicine," at the world of mystic spirituality and psychics, and thinks, wow, this is stupid, and you feel alone and lost as the only person that doesn't see the world through the eyes of instant credulity, this book is here to say you aren't alone.

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