A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
by Michael Shermer
(W H Freeman & Co., 1997)

Skeptics have been treated to several publications in recent years which might indicate that there is some hope for rationality after all. Sagan's Demon-Haunted World and Randi's Encyclopedia, for example, have done quite well. Michael Shermer's book is yet another attack on irrationality and unreason to find its way into print. Yet, lest we get too optimistic we might take a lesson from one of Shermer's debunking experiences.

In the prologue, Shermer gives an account of James Van Praagh whom he calls "the master of cold-reading in the psychic world." He describes Van Praagh's success and how he wowed audiences on NBC's New Age talk show The Other Side. Shermer then tells us how he debunked Van Praagh on Unsolved Mysteries.  Yet, none of the others in the audience was sympathetic to Shermer. One woman even told him that his behavior was "inappropriate" because he was destroying people's  hopes in their time of grief. (Van Praagh specializes in being contacted by  anybody's dead relatives.) Van Praagh is still going strong, having appeared recently (Dec. 10, 1997) on the Larry King Live  show.  He said he could "feel" Larry's dead parents and even pointed out where in the room these feelings were coming from. James took phone calls on the air and, once given a name, he started telling the audience what he was "hearing" or "feeling". He fished for positive feedback and got it, indicating that he really was being contacted by spirits who wanted to tell their loved ones that being dead ain't so bad when you've got a guy like James to talk to on Larry King Live. Larry didn't ask Van Praagh why he thought that billions and billions of dead souls were turning away from eternal life to get inside Van Praagh's head. Had Van Praagh told Larry that his parents were sorry for abusing him as a child and now request that Larry go public about his sadistic sexual practices with animals, Van Praagh would be history. But the charlatans of the world wouldn't be where they are if they tried to tell people what they don't want to hear. As long as they feed the hopes and dreams of their victims, the psychics will flourish. Of course, if they can't handle their finances they'll go broke like the Psychic Friends Network did.  Otherwise, if they keep feeding the fish, the fish will return.

So, why do people believe weird things? "More than any other, the reason people believe weird things," says Shermer, "is because they want to. . . .It feels good. It is comforting. It is consoling." Secondly, weird beliefs offer "immediate gratification." People like weird beliefs because they are simple. Weird beliefs also satisfy the quest for significance: they satisfy our moral needs and our desire that life be meaningful. Finally, he says, people believe weird things because weird things give them hope.

You would think Shermer would know, for he has walked through the valley of weirdness as a believer and a challenger. He's been abducted by aliens and had colonic irrigation. He's been to the chiropractor to get aligned and balanced. He's been to many alternative health practitioners to get "purified" and "detoxified".  He's been Rolfed and wrongly diagnosed by an iridologist.

He's also been on a number of talk shows where he has faced not only psychics but those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. He's confronted creationists and spiritualists on national television. He started Skeptic magazine and the Skeptic's Society. He has written many articles on various weird beliefs. In short, Michael Shermer has entered the lion's den, walked through the valley of death and known firsthand the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Even so, Shermer seems to have overlooked or underemphasized some fundamental reasons why people believe weird things. Ignorance, for example, seems to be the main reason many people believe weird things. They simply do not know any better. If they had some knowledge about physics, chemistry, biology, memory, the brain, the body, etc., they would not even consider many of the crackpot ideas put forth for their consideration. Only a person ignorant of physics and neurology could consider it reasonable that wearing a takionic headband will improve thinking or that alpha waves are a sign one is entering a transcendent state of consciousness. A great deal of  New Age quackery about "energy" medicine depends upon people being ignorant of quantum physics. It is unlikely that Shermer would have tried the detoxification regimes he did had he been more knowledgeable.

Ignorance might explain why 90% of Deepak Chopra's followers believe him when he tells them that happy thoughts make happy molecules, but it doesn't explain why Chopra himself believes the mind can have a causal effect on the molecular level. He is a trained physician and knowledgeable of biology. It does not seem to be a very satisfactory explanation to say that he and other New Age gurus believe that disease can be controlled by thought because they want to believe so. The will to believe explanation seems too facile. Even William James, who has given us this expression from the title of an essay, did not try to explain most weird beliefs by claiming they were acts of will. James reserved using will alone to determine belief for those cases where (a) a decision must be made and (b) the evidence is equal on either side of the issue. Furthermore, he recognized that only some beliefs are living options for each individual. A devout Christian could no more accept the possibility that Mohammed is the Prophet of God than a devout Muslim could accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Not every claim is a living option for every person. Sheer willfulness should only be used to explain choosing one living option over another when the evidence for each is equal. Such a situation is definitely not the case for believing in the power of thought to control disease. The evidence is overwhelmingly against such a belief. What is of interest is why certain incredible and improbable claims are living options for some people and not for others.

It is obvious that the difference cannot be explained in terms of differing intelligences. Duane Gish and the creationists, Willis Carto and the Holocaust deniers, and physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler--to name just a few of those Shermer takes on--are at least as intelligent as their opponents. When an intelligent person believes something for which there is little more than faith to support the belief, what else can you say except that the person believes simply because he or she wants to?

For example, Barrow and Tipler think they have a new and improved argument from design which uses only physics to prove God exists. And Tipler thinks he has proved the immortality and the resurrection by physics alone. Yet despite his enormous intellectual endeavors to prove Christianity by physics, Tipler comes off a bit disingenuous when he admits that the only thing really going for his theory at this point is its "theoretical beauty." Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that is not saying much. In short, for all his brilliance, Tipler's theory is an elaborate construction which can only be accepted on faith. Since there are probably only a handful of people who could even understand his argument, refuting it seems unlikely to be very rewarding, but Shermer gives it a go. The argument is very complicated and likely to produce more yawns than hurrahs.

Likewise for his essay on Ayn Rand and her cult of followers. Other than being an example of colossal self-deception and egoism, the debunking of a second-rate metaphysician and the cult of adoration which grew up around her is of little more than historical interest. He might as well have done an essay on the Beatles and their adoring fans. Rand did not claim Objectivism is a science, but a philosophy. It's not a very interesting philosophy, nor was it innovative, despite what she and her followers believed. (update: 23 April 2011. It might be time to re-examine the debunking of Rand, as she is frequently cited as a hero by Tea Party Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians, including Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. A movie version of The Fountainhead is also arousing interest in this pathological thinker whose admiration for a serial killer led her to model her Superman idea on a sociopath rather than on a Nietzschean moral hero who could see through the morality of Jews and Christians. What could be more selfish than wishing eternal bliss for oneself and eternal torment for one's enemies? [/update])

The argument against Carto and his anti-Semitic band is much easier to swallow and to follow, and the rewards are much more gratifying. For all those sucked in by the tempting arguments of the pseudohistorians of Nazism, chapter 14 of Shermer's book is a must read. He not only explains the methodology of the the Cartophiles, he responds with specific evidence to their arguments. For example, one of the favorite appeals of the Holocaust deniers is to demand  some proof that Hitler gave the order for the extermination of the Jews (or the mentally retarded, mentally ill, and physically handicapped). Holocaust deniers point to Himmler's telephone notes of November 30, 1941, as proof that there was to be no liquidation of the Jews. The actual note says: "Jewish transport from Berllin. No liquidation." Whatever the note meant, it did not mean that Hitler did not want the Jews liquidated. The transport in question, by the way, was liquidated that evening. In any case, if Hitler ordered no liquidation of the Berlin transport, then liquidation was going on and he knew about it. Hitler's intentions were made public in his earliest speeches. Even as his regime was being destroyed, Hitler proclaimed: "Against the Jews I fought open-eyed and in view of the whole world....I made it plain that they, this parasitic vermin in Europe, will be finally exterminated." Hitler at one time compared the Jews to tuberculosis bacilli which had infected Europe. It was not cruel to shoot them if they would not work or if they could not work. He said: "This is not cruel if one remembers that even innocent creatures of nature, such as hares and deer when infected, have to be killed so that they cannot damage others. Why should the beasts who wanted to bring Bolshevism be spared more than these innocents?"

In my view, however, the racist community doesn't believe its false notions about the holocaust for any of the reasons for weird beliefs listed by Shermer. They believe them because such beliefs are empowering. They make the believer feel superior and they allow evil to be rationalized as good. Ultimately, many weird beliefs are the beliefs of groups, not isolated individuals. Understanding the dynamics of social belief is no small undertaking and certainly goes beyond wishful thinking and laziness. The Holocaust deniers feed off of each other's anti-Semitism. But what gave birth to their hatred of the Jews? Resentment and projection of their own inadequacies onto another race? Perhaps. That was Sartre's argument, following Nietzsche's lead, in anti-Semite and Jew. We might say, though, that at least some weird beliefs are based upon wanting to believe them because they fit in with one's prejudices.

Shermer does an admirable job of presenting Duane Gish's case for "scientific creationism" and then dismantling it. Here, too, I think the creationists want to believe Gish because his claims fit in with their own prejudices. One of my correspondent's, Claud Roux of France, wrote me about an all-night debate he had with a creationist.

    I started a dispute with this person which lasted until dawn...I was absolutely baffled by how much this person was insensitive to any arguments which would contradict his strong beliefs about a world made in 7 days... I  couldn't find any flaw in his armor so that I could introduce a hint of questioning in his mind...If I gave him a scientific argument, this would be considered as a lie nourished by an army of scientists. In fact, there was a strong belief in all that he said that science was another religion opposed to the traditional religions. The discussion with this person was not a debate over the pertinence of a theory, but rather a fight between two different religions, science being a religion invented by the devil to "disbalance [desequilibrer]" the world. His personal fight was not to prove that science was wrong but to prove that science was evil...

Science is evil because it is perceived to be very threatening to the creationist's religious beliefs. That intelligent people might adhere to weird beliefs mainly because they offer solace and refuge from other, terrifying beliefs, implies that the mind is often used to construct delusions as a kind of safety net. Let me give another example for another correspondent. Carol Lazetsky of Austria via England wrote me about a friend of hers who had received a Ph.D. in biology. The biologist's parents are also biologists and were pioneers in the legalization of euthanasia movement in Holland. Lazetsky writes that the daughter biologist with the Ph.D. was having a problem with her parent's stand on euthanasia.

    . . . and she started to have some sort of therapy.  I then moved to Ireland and we lost touch, however, I had a few letters in which she touched upon the fact  that she had become involved with the church and seemed to be getting some relief from her problems.  We lost touch even  more and then I had a letter from her after moving to Austria.  Her letters had become more and more frantic and her thoughts seemed to have become disjointed, until 2 years ago at Christmas I had a letter  which was totally incomprehensible and muddled up.  I was worried when I got the letter but didn't react much since I felt I could do little from so far away.  However, the alarm bells really started to ring when I received a brochure from her a year later when she told me that she had started working from home and had set up a therapy studio for reflexology.  There was a whole load of glossy brochures with maps of feet and a résumé of her stating her qualifications as a biologist (which seemed to make her business sound believable).  She then told me she was "studying" a lot to open up a "Spinal Correction" practice and was into all sorts of "New Age" theories including crystals, auras and chanting.  Her marriage had nearly fallen apart because of her new ventures, but her husband was getting used to it, she said.

    I find this all very alarming and dangerous since it seems to me that these practices have robbed her of her identity and her reason.  They nearly robbed her of her family and they are most definitely robbing her purse.  I felt that as we had once been good friends that it was only decent of me to be honest with her and I wrote and told her how I felt about what she was doing.  I knew that I may not hear from her again, but I thought it would be insincere of me not to write and tell her what I thought.  I never heard from her again.

One facile explanation is that the young biologist has gone mad. This may be true and it may explain her conversion from scientist to pseudoscientist, her new interest in religion and New Age mysticism, and her disjointed thinking. The chemicals in her brain may have become redistributed, causing her to have a serious thought disorder. This is possible and we should not dismiss this possibility out of hand just because there is a stereotype of the mad as out of control, completely irrational, babbling idiots. The mad are often quite intelligent and restrained, even polite or reclusive, even if their thoughts are illogical and their judgment unsound. However, there is another possibility here. Perhaps she is not mad, but deeply troubled. She had followed in her famous parent’s footsteps and become a scientist. But her parents are leaders of the euthanasia movement and euthanasia is something which repulses her. Rather than risk becoming "evil" like her parents, she leaves science and goes into something much safer. She enters a world of deluded  but very happy, hopeful and caring people. The reasons for choosing reflexology  rather than iridology or some other form of quackery are probably unimportant. It is probably by sheer accident that she fell into one bit of nonsense rather than another. The point is that we search in vain for why she believes in reflexology if we search for a logical explanation. To say she believes because she wants to believe is trivial. She believes because she does not want to follow in the footsteps of her scientific parents, because she does not want to bring evil into her life, because she wants hope and wants to do good. Perhaps.

There is probably a long list of reasons why people want to believe certain things, but in the end they all amount to the same thing when looked at from the other side: it is generally pointless to produce counterarguments to their beliefs except to persuade some third party who might listen to both sides and realize which side has the stronger evidence.

Another significant factor in weird beliefs, not mentioned by Shermer, is communal reinforcement. If others believe the same non-sense, it is often very difficult or dangerous to challenge the beliefs. For example, I have my philosophy of law students read a racist essay by an intelligent, educated lawyer and leader of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The essay makes one false claim after another regarding the physical, intellectual and moral nature of black people. Each of the claims is put forth with comments indicating that everybody knows this and it is scientific fact. My students invariably ask: How could anyone believe this stuff? The answer is simple: if your parents, teachers, ministers, and everyone else in your circle believes it, and contrary opinions are banned, why wouldn't you believe it, too?

Other beliefs seem to be adhered to simply because they are possible. Even though the evidence is overwhelmingly against them, why do people believe in such things as dowsing? Many, of course, believe because they do not understand how easy it is to deceive ourselves. They do not understand the need for controlled studies to eliminate self-deception from influencing our beliefs. Yet, others seem to believe such things simply because they are possibly true. They are unaware of the fallacy of the argument to ignorance. However, simply because a claim is possibly true--in the absolutely loosest sense of the term 'possibly'--does not mean it is reasonable to use an act of will alone to accept the claim. In fact, for reasonable people, such claims are not living options because they contradict what has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. However, even though the evidence seems to be preponderantly on one side, there will always be those who claim that they do not believe that the evidence against a belief is overwhelming. That was James' view of the evidence regarding belief in God; the evidence for was proportionate to the evidence against, he thought. But he never proved that the evidence was equal for atheism and theism. He assumed this to be the case. It seems to me, however, that it is only politeness which grants him this point. The evidence is overwhelmingly against anything like the God of the western religions existing.  How a Bernie Segal or a Deepak Chopra or a John Mack can steadfastly maintain their weird beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence against them seems explicable only if one assumes they are acting on faith alone.

Even so, why do some people have faith? Why do they choose to believe preposterous, incredible, improbable claims? Shermer's explanation in terms of hope, simplicity, immediate gratification, and providing meaning to one's life seems to cover most of the reasons for faith. But the desire for power should also be included in this list of fideistic motivators. Such beliefs give the illusion of control over things which are either out of one's control or which require diligent effort and intellect to effect reasonable control.

However, what is most valuable about Shermer's book is not his attempt at the psychology of belief, but his criticisms of specific weird  beliefs. He has especially detailed criticisms of creationism and Holocaust denial. There are fairly straightforward chapters on Edgar Cayce, near-death experiences and alien abduction. There is a chapter on the repressed memory witch hunts, among other things.

He even has a section on altered states of consciousness (ASC) which he prefaces with a remark that most skeptics will question his account of ASC. Shermer considers the hypnotic state to be an ASC, for example. He doesn't do much to bolster his case by quoting a straw man argument from Kenneth Bowers who trivializes Nicholas Spanos' cognitive-behavioral explanation in terms of role playing by calling it "the faking hypothesis." Playing a social role is not the same as "faking." Next, he considers sleep to be a state of consciousness, rather than unconsciousness, because we dream while sleeping. Finally, he produces a set of EEG readings to designate what he calls six different states of consciousness, one of which is the coma. He says: "If a coma is not an altered state, I do not know what is." Let me fill in the enthymeme using modus ponens. "A coma is not an altered state. Therefore, you do not know what an altered state is." On Shermer's criteria, sneezing would be an altered state. So would coughing. Each is likely to produce a distinct EEG reading. I find his argument puzzling, since he defends the view that sleep, deep sleep, drowsiness and coma are altered states of consciousness by appealing to the fact that they produce different squiggles on an EEG. But he defines an altered state subjectively, in terms of self-consciousness and self-control. "When there is a significant interference with our monitoring and control of our environment," he says, "an altered state of consciousness exists." People who are interested in altered states of consciousness, such as Charles Tart, think they are gateways to transcendent truths. I would agree that ASCs are brain states, but not every brain state is an ASC. I certainly would not include sleep or coma as ASCs because they are not states of consciousness at all. I understand the term ASC to refer to an altered state of consciousness. Unconscious states, such as sleeping, coma, concussion, fainting, etc. are not ASCs because the person is unconscious by definition. I take it for granted that to have an altered state of consciousness one must be conscious.  On Shermer's analysis, I suppose death would be the ultimate altered state of consciousness: the flatline EEG.

Overall, Shermer's collection of essays is a welcome addition to the growing body of skeptical literature that has for so long been wanting but is beginning to shed a little light in the darkness.

further reading

 Huston, Peter.  Scams from the Great Beyond : How to Make Easy Money Off of Esp, Astrology, Ufos, Crop Circles, Cattle Mutilations, Alien Abductions, Atlantis, Channeling, and Other New Age Nonsense (Paladin Press, 1997).

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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