This is a book by Michael Shermer that comes highly recommended. I read about it in a Richard Dawkins book and the foreword is written by Stephen Jay Gould.
What more can an author ask for?
I have the revised and expanded edition to which the author append a chapter called “Why smart people believe weird things”.
Overall I loved the book though there are chapters of no interest to me.
The first part of the book is superb. Called “Science and Skepticism”, introduces Shermer’s first touch with skepticism and continues with theorising “How thinking goes wrong”.
He goes “I became a skeptic on Saturday, August 6, 1983, on the long, climbing road to Loveland Pass, Colorado”.
Shermer was a cyclist, since 1979 when he decided that he’s not going to “land a full-time teaching job” [source: Shermer, "Why people believe wierd things"].
He kept racing for 10 more years but don’t let this fool you.
He is not a professional cyclist. Michael Shermer received his Bachelor’s degree from Pepperdine University in 1976 in Psychology/Biology, his master’s degree from California State University, Fullerton in Experimental Psychology two years later, and his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in History of Science in 1991, with a dissertation entitled “Heretic-Scientist: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Evolution of Man: A Study on the Nature of Historical Change” [source: Wikipedia, article on Michael Shermer].
I do not believe one can become a skeptic in a matter of minutes and I am convinced the process of converting from a “health spa/iridiology/high colonic junkie sleeping in a wire pyramid” into a full time job skeptic is longer and more gradual. But I love his way of putting it and I understand that really August 6, 1983 was the moment he acknowledged his new inner convictions.
I for one, I don’t even remember the moment when or If I ever decided I am a skeptic. I grew into it but I never used the word to describe myself. It may have happened while reading Richard Dawkins as he was the one to introduce me to these concepts. Dawkins has a superb theory on why children are supposed to be credulous stressing at the same time on the importance for adults to stop being gullible.
It goes like this (oversimplification):
A child’s life depends on how fast he or she’s able to absorb knowledge. Children are like sponges for information and any authoritative figure (like the parents) is supposed to be trusted without questioning. This behavior is inherited and genetically imprinted in our cells. It is because nature had a way of selecting out of existence the individuals who had a tendency to be skeptical during childhood. For example, it is not the best survival policy to question your father’s warning that snakes are dangerous and are to be avoided [source: Dawkins, God Delusion].
With animals, each new born individual is almost as developed as it will ever be. Most of the herbivorous mammals are capable of walking minutes after birth. With humans, the only reason the baby is born only after 9 months is cause his head would otherwise not fit through his mother legs. If it were not for this limitation, I think the gestation period would be much, much longer. Even so, the human will continue to grow for a long time and he will be fully developed at around 18 years. Though the brain power will grow rapidly until the age of 6, the humans will never actually stop learning.
It shows a simple fact. The survival in humans is no longer a physical game. It is not about the legs length, not about muscle power. It is about brain power and knowledge. This is how Dawkins proves that a human child is supposed to be credulous. Being credulous is a virtue in children.
Not so with adults. You have no excuse for being gullible as a grown up.
Shermer’s book comes as natural continuation to this. He tries for 300 pages to understand why would grownups still believe every piece of junk information fed to them by television, psychics, church or new age pseudo scientists. After the “I am therefore I think” chapter, he continues with “The most precious thing we have”, where he starts investigating science versus pseudoscience.
The chapter I liked most was “How thinking goes wrong”, describing 25 fallacies that lead us to believe weird things.
It is a comprehensive list of pitfalls of the logic, so common in our way of thinking that nobody escapes unaffected.
Let me pick a couple for you.
“Equipment constructs results” which means that the tool you use to understand the world will probably distort the reality in some way.
Like a scientist studying fish, casting his net in all oceans around the world, measuring his catch. He can arrive to the wrong conclusion, among some correct ones, that fish are creatures no less than 2 inches long. This is just because all the smaller fish escaped through the net. [source: Shermer, Why people believe weird things]
“Scientific language does not make a science” which means that no amount of scientific gibberish will make a statement true. He’s example is wonderful: “This planet has been slumbering for eons and with the inception of higher energy frequencies is about to awaken in terms of consciousness and spirituality. Masters of limitation and masters of divination use the same creative force to manifest their realities…” What does it mean. What is a master of divination? How would higher energy frequencies help the planet consciousness? [source: Shermer, Why people believe weird things]
There are more: “Unexplained is not inexplicable” which applies well to the creationists saying “well, how do you explain X”, where X is one of the facts that you in particular or science in general cannot yet explain. If you admit you don’t know they will always reply with something similar to “see, that means there is a god, and He is the explanation of it all”. No, it does not…
And then “Coincidence”, and then “Either-Or”, “Circular reasoning” or “Over reliance on authority”. All are traps for your reasoning.
The book continues this way for a couple of more chapters. You can find a very nice balance between theory and real life examples. You can find there a lot of strikingly interesting facts about science advancements. For example, in 1662 there were 2 scientific publications, now there are 100.000. Or, the speed of a stagecoach in 1780 was 10 mph, the speed of a rocket is 4000 mph, the speed of a space shuttle is 18.000 and, you cannot remain unimpressed by this, the speed of the TAU deep space probe is 225.000 miles per hour.
Then it goes to why the conspiracy theory is so popular and why witch crazes were possible. It talks about cults and the particular Cult of Personality around Ayn Rand and her Objectivism movement.
At some point the book started being too specific. It started talking in too many details about all the creationist law suits and the holocaust denial movement. There is nothing much you can abstract out from these two weird things so Sherman went into describing the nuts and bolts. For example he has a good deal of pages dedicated to each holocaust denial movement leader. I didn’t like those. I do not care about Mark Weber or David Irving. I got it, their thinking is wrong though they seem reasonable and pleasant individuals. The book turns into a one on contemporary history. It may have value to some people but not for me.
With part 5, the book returns to a style I appreciate more.
The last chapter is “Why smart people believe weird things”. Among many many others, Shermer advances the idea that scientists or other people that are smart in at least their field of activity, need to be able to defend their theories against themselves at the beginning and against other people finally. They need to be able to find the good parts in a theory and to gather arguments in favor of it. This is how you come to create a new theory in physics, for example. You need to refine it as much as your brain will allow you to, you need to take it from a first idea to a complete system discarding the parts that are wrong, adding to it until it is finally what you believe to be the ultimate theory on X. At that moment you are so biased to believing in it, you cannot understand or admit anything that is contrary to it. If you master the skills needed for such a process, you mind will work this way and you will be in danger of strongly believing more than just sound, proven, widely accepted things. That is to say, you are, in a way, prone to believe weird things.
Two more things I need to mention.
Thinking itself is limited. One can understand or create ideas within the limits of one’s own brain. The evolution made us compatible with our own environment. We needed brainpower to be adaptive but we were meant to adapt to the world in which we live.
And furthermore, the things that we can observe are limited. I found in Shermer’s book the most wonderful and the most general definition of the anthropic principle: “The things that can be observed are constrained by the conditions necessary for the existence of the observer”.
You can find more about it and about Michael Shermer on his website.
I loved this book. You would too, I strongly recommend it.
I came to accept wikipedia as a trustworthy source of information only recently and I have several reasons. If you feel that the information provided there is not accurate, you can check their sources at any time.