Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

This book should have been titled The Weird Things That People Believe and Why They’re Wrong. The book is a collection of Shermer’s articles (previously published in his Skeptic magazine) which refute a wide range of topics—from fringe beliefs like Holocaust denial and implications of race, to the popular UFO abductions and mind-reading, to creationism and witchcraft and recovered memories, among others.

There is a good chapter early in the book that explains the role of the scientific method and rational argument to the skeptic, but most of the book is spent profiling and attempting to debunk beliefs. Only in the final chapter, “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things,” does Shermer return to the promise of the book’s title.

That said, the book is for the most part an interesting read. It gives a good historic overview of the evolution-creationism debate, and some surprisingly non-judgmental profiles of people who believe all these various “weird” things. There is also a chapter about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, which Shermer skewers as a near-cult, that I found enjoyable (even though Shermer mounts a bit of an ad hominem argument against Rand herself after denouncing such an argument a few chapters prior).

Overall, a pretty uneven book that, while it has its moments, never really comes through in its central promise.

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