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Why People Believe Weird Things - Michael Shermer

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MadArchitect

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Why People Believe Weird Things - Michael Shermer

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When I dropped into Borders a few days ago, one of my objectives was to look up a book that has been read and recommended by several people in this forum, Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Wierd Things". While there, I read through the prologue and most of the first chapter before decided that this was almost definitely not the sort of book that I would care to keep and reread, so I returned it to the shelf. Today I had the opportunity to visit the library, and since it was still in the back of my mind, I checked out a copy of the Shermer book.What follows in this thread is a progressive journal of my thoughts while reading the book. You're welcome to comment on or argue my points. Given that there are some admirers of Shermer in the forum, I imagine that my comments will be fairly controversial, particularly given that, a chapter and a half into the book, I'm already finding myself disagreeing with the spirit of Shermer's inquiry, and in some cases on the details.MadI renamed this thread so that other members are aware that this is an ongoing discussion thread for Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things." I would have been reading it all along had I known. Chris Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 7/27/05 9:34 am
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Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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Foreword: The Positive Power of Skepticism, by Stephen Jay GouldThe character that arises from a close reading of the foreword seems, to me, odd in a book of this temperment. There's a pseudo-religious tone to much of Gould's introduction, for example, when he talks about the "dark side" of human nature, or more suggestively, reason as out potential "salvation". This lends weight to the argument that there is a veritable cult of Progress in the modern world, though I doubt it was Gould's intent to suggest as much. Whereas pseudo-science and pseudo-history are reputedly prone to plunge us into mass hysteria (a specter raised by Gould's mention of witch-hunting) pseudo-religion is apparantly permissable.In another odd choice of words, Gould alos notes that the human brain is "designed to perform quie different functions from the ones that now regulate our collective lives". Surely Gould meant "adapted" rather than "designed", but at the same time, had he used the proper word we might have been inclined to ask whether or not the forms of thought we're addressing in a book like this might not themselves be forms of mental adaptation. But Gould and Shermer are champions of the ideal not of progress in general but of a particular brand of progress, one towards a particular (if hazy) teleological end. It would be contrary to their purpose to allow the suggestion that there are other valid end points to which we could progress.Maybe the most useful and telling sentence in Gould's foreward comes in the last paragraph: "Proper debunking is done in the interest of an alternate model of explanation". By saying so, Gould is attempting to present skepticism as a force for positive knowledge, but he also inadvertantly throws the ball into Paul Veyne's court. Shermer's brand of skepticism is not merely methodologically reliant on science, it's applied in the interest of supporting the current scientific model. Hopefully, I'll have occasion in future entries to elaborate on why that relationship has the potential to mislead.
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Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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Prologue: Next on OprahIt seems to me likely from this prologue (and further reading will, I hope, clarify the possibility) that Shermer has a heroic view of the skeptic. I wonder how that view might color his perception of the work of skepticism, perhaps even distort it.On the whole, I'm not terribly impressed by Shermer's thesis as to why people believe weird things. It may very well be the case that in certain individual instances people become credulous "under the pressure of reality", but that doesn't strike me as a sufficient explanation for why such credulity takes hold in entire populations, nor why it should adopt forms that are, to some degree, very regular.More damaging, perhaps, is the observation that Shermer's argument here is no less supported than the claims he addresses as the nation's chief professional skeptic. What's his evidence for the first tier of weird belief, "because hope springs eternal"? Is he citing Alexander Pope as an authority? Or is Pope merely the best possible expression of something that we all know -- in other words, is Shermer making an appeal to "common sense"? Or maybe his evidence is anecdotal. That seems to be the format of the book, in which case, all it takes to flatten the house of cards built by his argument is one example of a credulous person whose credulity is due to something other than hope. Whether or not we ultimately agree with Shermer's assessment of human credulity, it's disappointing to say the least that he hasn't held his argument to the same standards of scrutiny that he would apply to any other unsubstantiated claim.Tiers two and three are more straightforward. I'm willing to accept them without argument, though they do strike me as examples of how weird belief arises, rather than of why.I also take exception to Shermer's insistence that "skepticism is a method, not a position" (the italics are his). This may be true in a general sort of way, but as I noted concerning Gould's foreword, Shermer's brand of skepticism does imply a particular position. It's structured so as to support the edifice of modern science. Moreover, as skeptical readers we ought to note that Shermer makes his living as a skeptic, so he has a vested financial interest in the argument for skepticism, and this may well color his interepretation of the activity.
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Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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Part 1: Science and SkepticismChapter 1: I Am Therefore I ThinkThere is a little of the same irony that touched Gould's foreward in Shermer's recollection of the day he "became a skeptic". For most of the first paragraph under the heading "What Is a Skeptic?" the passage reads much like one of the professions of faith you hear from evangelicals who can tell you the exact date and circumstances of their conversion. And Shermer's book does come off a great deal like a work of evangelism -- what's his purpose if not to produce converts?The all-to-brief gloss of historical skepticism isn't of much help, though that's likely because Shermer's brand of skepticism, with its roots more in Martin Gardner's debunking methods than Socrates' epistemic profession of ignorance, has less of a basis in the philosophical forms of skepticism whose hoary age and pervasive influence give the name a repute he'd like to accrue to himself. Shermer's skepticism seems to begin with the assumption that all claims should be subject to scientific method. Now, personally, I have no qualms about putting to the test those charlatans who attempt to back spurious claims with so-called scientific findings. But we may find that the eagerness to subject all knowledge and all claims, be they scientific or otherwise, to Shermer's skeptical "method" leads us into error.As a bit of a side-note, the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon addressed by Shermer in this chapter appears in slightly modified form in the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know?", where it's treated as quite credible under the dubious auspices of quantum mechanics. Fans of Shermer, there's your movie review right there.On the face of it, Shermer's definition of science seems entirely acceptable: science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection of confirmation." That "past or present" bit is a little questionable, since our evidence of past phenomenon usually suffers the flaw of having been gathered with something other than the scientific method in mind, but for the moment we'll let that slide. More problematic is the sentence that follows, where Shermer restates that definition to say that the goal of science is "testing claims". Science does test claims, and methodically at that, but to say that science stops once it has tested a claim is to ignore the rather large body of work that takes place beyond that supposed goal. More to the point, science more often than not works to bring observed phenomena into the perview of human control. The goal of science is not only to test a claim regarding a given phenomenon, but also to make that phenomenon useful in a given sphere. That same goal is effective in Shermer's work. He's not merely there to test claims but to insist on the pragmattism of the phenomenon put before him. For Shermer, the "crucial" point towards the end of this chapter is "the therapy of gadget almost never does what it is supposed to do."It should be noted that the term "fact" is problematic, if not in denotation then in connotation. Shermer maintains the provisionality of scientific fact, for which he deserves a great deal of credit, but at the same time he has yet to deal with the psychological effect inspired by the use of the term. Those upset by the hair-splitting of Creationism lobbyists and their "evolution is a theory" stickers have apparantly ignored the straightjacketing sense of the term "fact". We routinely use the word to squelch opposition, to give the sense that a given idea is indisputable. When we cite "facts" in general conversation, we do not imply their provisionality.I'm suspicious, as well, of the claim, derived from Aristotle, that we are a naturally curious species. It's true to some degree, I suppose, just as it may be generally true that dogs are loyal. But it is not, I would say, a driving force in each and every person's life, not is it the "most basic" element in science. Shermer ends the chapter by reference to Descartes' "cogito ergo sum", an apt enough quotation since Descartes' is responsible for much of the groundwork of the modern scientific method. Notably, though, Shermer does not reproduce that other line from Descartes, the one about reason making us the "masters and possessors of nature."
marti1900

Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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Interesting stuff, both the book and your thoughts on it. Thanks for doing this. Re your comments on his views of skepticism as a method vs. position. Don't you have to have a position on something before you can have a method? Is that what you are saying? As a side note, why do you think people believe wierd things? It's an interesting line of inquiry, isn't it.Marti in Mexico
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Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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marti1900: Interesting stuff, both the book and your thoughts on it. Thanks for doing this.Well, I figure that, in a forum named BookTalk, we should talk about more than just the official selections for the quarter. This is a book that I've seen mentioned here a good dozen or so times, so I thought I'd look it up. I figure it has a pretty good chance of kicking up some discussion. I'll probably give Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" and Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man" a run through after this one, though maybe not immediately thereafter.Re your comments on his views of skepticism as a method vs. position. Don't you have to have a position on something before you can have a method? Is that what you are saying?Maybe. The question of how you arrive at a method tends to imply a position. Method implies a goal, at any rate, and when we look at Shermer's goal, then we're in a better position to determine his position. Of course, what he means is that his approach to any given topic doesn't have a predetermined value -- he doesn't approach all claims negatively, or all claims positively. I think it's a little more tricky than that, and because both his method and his goal are arranged around science as not only an intellectual discipline but as "the most precious thing we have" clearly he's not going to come to any conclusions that seriously undermine science as a body, even if he's willing to jettison any particular scientific claim.As a side note, why do you think people believe wierd things? It's an interesting line of inquiry, isn't it.I would say that it depends on the case. I'm not discounting Shermer's "hope springs eternal" argument altogether. There are people who are clearly credulous about dubious claims because they hope to receive some benefit from it that they can't claim themselves. But Shermer's answer is probably influenced by his occupation. He's the Ralph Nader of products and techniques that claim to help people, so of course the majority of marks he meets are people who hope to be helped. But I wouldn't say that the guy out on the corner shouting that the world is coming to a fiery end is particularly hopeful.Perhaps I should wait to pass judgement until I've read more of the book, though. It may be that Shermer ends up putting more weight on the second and third tiers -- the ways in which thinking goes wrong. My concern with those two answers, however, is what Shermer means by correct thinking, particularly is if turns out that correct thinking is whatever supports the discipline of science, even at the cost of other forms of knowledge.
marti1900

Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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I've been thinking more about this. I need Shermer's definition of 'weird things'. Maybe it's just a catchy title with a hook to get people to read it, but if not, I find it a little arrogant. Afterall, why is my belief in shamanistic healing any wierder than his belief in the powers of Vitamin C (both hypothetical examples...maybe you can think of much better examples)?Is it superiority calling the kettle black? And isn't all belief the end product of hope? Maybe not. Can you give me an example of a belief not built around the concept of hope?Keep reading, I live vicariously through you.Marti in Mexico
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Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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marti1900: I've been thinking more about this. I need Shermer's definition of 'weird things'.For the most part, he's talking about what he terms "pseudo-science" and "pseudo-history", which are, in his own terms, "claims presented so that they appear scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility" (again, the emphasis is Shermer's -- he tends to italicize a sentence or two every few pages). I'll discuss this a little more when I talk about the second chapter.Afterall, why is my belief in shamanistic healing any wierder than his belief in the powers of Vitamin C (both hypothetical examples...maybe you can think of much better examples)?Hypothetical, maybe, but relevant. He actually lists the claims concerning vitamin C as inconclusive. Not disreputable, mind you, just inconclusive. I'm a little suspicion of what underlies Shermer's criteria for what constitutes a wierd belief v. a "normal" belief, and that's one of the things I'm looking at in my reading. As it turns out, chapter two is fairly informative in that regard.Keep reading, I live vicariously through you.I'd mail it to you when I'm done, but the library would probably be pretty pissed about that. My luck, some grad student would recall it just as soon as I dropped it in the mail.
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Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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Chapter 2: The Most Precious Thing We HaveConcerning Shermer's quotation from Bacon, knowledge is power, but as the witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries have shown, knowledge doesn't always have to be correct in order to produce power. See also Edward Said's "Orientialism", where he presents the academic traditions grouped under that heading as a body of knowledge acquired, in many ways, by means that make it very like a science.As for all of his statistics and charts concerning the growth of interest and trade in scientific research, I'm really not sure what point it's all supposed to illustrate, save that the "culture of science" now forms a kind of status quo. As I'll discuss later in this post, that may actually be to the detriment of Shermer's argument.I'm willing to let most of the discussion of the so-called Pirsig's paradox pass. Honestly, it doesn't present much of a problem to my mind, for the simply fact that I don't see the ghost-theory analogy as terribly convincing in the first place.My first big problem with this section comes in Shermer's summary of George Sarton's internalist view, particularly the fourth part, which is worth quoting in full. Shermer writes: "Science, because it is positive, cumulative, and progressive, is the most important contribution to the history of humanity. Therefore, it is the most important thing a historian can study. Doing so will help prevent wars and build bridges between cultures." To be fair, Shermer does attempt to strike some balance between internalism and externalism, and that leads him to reject some of the internalist claims, but the notions embodied in this passage seem like a standing claim. It's also grossly unsubstantiated. If it were clear that science were the "most important contribution" to humanity, then it would follow that it is also the most important thing a historian (or anyone for that matter) should study. But why it should stake that claim on the strength of being "positive, cumulative, and progressive" isn't especially clear. And there are so many steps missing between those premises and the conclusion that the study of the history of science will "prevent wars and build bridges between people and cultures" that the mind fairly boggles. Nor does the evidence of the "scientific age" tend to back that claim, being so riddled with wars and destruction as it is.For that matter, I don't see how reference to Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" resolves the internalist-externalist dichotomy. Hobbes may have been inspired by "Elements", but his system can only be described as Euclidean or mechanical by way of analogy.Shermer's point in this section -- even thought the dots don't connect as neatly as he sthink they do -- is similar to one of the primary theses put forth by John Ziman in his book "Reliable Knowledge", and since I am testing a lot of Shermer's claims about science against Ziman's very reasoned opinion, now is as good a time as any to introduce the comparison. When Shermer talks of the science's advantage as "a description of a regularly repeating action that is open to rejection or confirmation" his preference for science stands largely on what Ziman refers to as the consensibility model of science. In effect, the consensibility model states that the purpose of science as an activity is to produce a body of knowledge that is consensible, that is, upon which we may all agree by reflection on the evidence presented. But as Ziman points out, the insistence on consensible knowledge must necessarily exclude knowledge which is not consensible, regardless of whether or not it is true. I'm not one to affirm the existence of ghosts, but nor would I say that, given the nature of the claims made concerning ghosts, they fall into the category of consensible knowledge. So, incredulous though I may be, when Shermer asks "Shouldn't we know by now that the laws of science prove that ghosts cannot exist?" I'm inclined to say no, and by your very own definitions of science.The philosophical difference between Ziman and Shermer, it seems to me, is that Shermer wants science to be a kind of panacea for belief. But there are, I think, valid reasons why science, if it is to be useful and reliable at all, cannot address every claim that is made, and Ziman has presented the best argument for those limitations that I have seen thus far. Undoubtedly, I'll have more to say on the comparison in later entries.Now let's draw a rather sharp distinction. Shermer defines pseudo-science as any "claims presented so that they appear scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility". (I have to say, he's been very helpful in given his definitions precise expression, though there are times when I wish he had been more thorough.) And that, as it so happens, is the realm where I think Shermer's brand of skepticism is most useful. The anecdotal examples he gave in the prologue are classic examples of the sort of exploitation that deserved debunking. However, Shermer seems a little too eager to extend the principle. A layperson who claims to have seen a ghost, for example, is rarely making a claim with any pretense to scientific rigour. I'm not sure that such claims are subject to the same considerations, not because the layperson's experience is sacrosanct, and not because we should, as a rule of thumb, respect their subjectivity, but simply because our experiences usually happen without the sort of controls necessary to test every individual claim.On its face, Shermer's example of the Afrocentric claims of intellectual plagerism leveled against Aristotle seems fair enough. Here's a theory debunked rather easily by a rather apparant conflict in dating. The problem is that the conflict is so apparant that the example doesn't really prove anything. A man misses the obvious fact that the evidence starkly contradicts his claims, and we're supposed to take that as proof that "historical events can be tested"? By only presenting this one, dramatically obvious example, Shermer has oversimplified the problems facing any attempt to theorize a science of history that can be held to the same standards as the "pure" sciences. Any good historian will tell you that the situation is more difficult than that. But we can perhaps excuse Shermer on this point, dismiss this as an instance of a poor choice of examples, provided that this is not merely an indication of a broader program of historical certainty. He may well benefit from the relative profusion of evidence and documentation that allows him to debunk Holocaust-deniers, but even there uncertainty must prevail on a number of sticky questions; how much more uncertain we must be when it comes to periods for which he have fewer sources and less evidence you can see for yourself by reading the work of reputable and honest historians.While we're at it, Shermer's analogy between the work of paleontologist Jack Horner and the work of historians isn't terribly apt. Horner's observations are more on par with the work of anthropologists, for the simply reason that Horner is not testing his finds against a body of historical documentation. Nor do paleontologists attempt to fit every find into a strictly causal chronological scheme. The death of a herd of Maiasaura is not in itself a historically significant event -- its significance to paleontology is the effect that it has on the research conducted on the general characteristics of dinosaurs. Paleontologists do deal with historically significant events -- extinctions, adaptations, climate changes -- but these tend to be counted in geological time, and their significance is more biological than social or cultural. Transplant the same sort of event to the study of the human species and you're suddenly traversing the field of the anthropologist, not the historian.As for Shermer's attempt to distinguish science from pseudoscience by reference to its adaptability, all I can say is that the evidence stands in rather stark contrast to his conclusion. If we count astrology as a pseudo-science, to take a single isolated example, it's possible to trace the changes in the discipline back to the Medians living in ancient Persia. And these changes share many of the characteristics attributed by Shermer (by way of Thomas Kuhn, whose book I've suggested as one of our quarterly reads) to the "paradigm shifts" of scientific revolution. Such long-practiced disciplines also change for personal, political and ideological reasons, as Shermer notes, but a study of the history of alchemy, astology, or folklore will show that they are surprisingly resistent to such improvisation. Moreover, science can be just as easily influenced by the personal, political and ideological concerns of an age, as we see in the Soviet adoption of Lamarckian evolution. Both science and pseudo-science are susceptible to those factors, and both have explicitly social correctives.Shermer goes on to describe the four usages of the term paradigm: sociological, psychological, epistemological, and ontological. Shermer rejects the notion of the ontological paradigm, but his substantiation is not so much a reason as it is a fear. To wit: "My definition of a paradigm holds for the sociological, psychological, and epistemological uses. To make it wholly ontological, however, would mean that any paradigm is as good as any other paradigm because there is no outside source for corroboration." To my mind, this is equivalent to saying that he won't support any idea that will put other paradigms on an equal footing with his own, even if there's ultimately no evidence for asserting relative superiority. And Shermer offers just that: no evidence. He merely dismisses the problem, saying that it's "not even wrong", just "ridiculous". This is not conscientious belief, to say the least.One of the benefits science holds over pseudo-science, according to Shermer, is that it is "the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge over time, in which useful features are retained and nonuseful features are abandoned, based on the rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge." But that is not a characteristic unique to science, and reference to another book I'm reading at the moment, H.R. Trevor-Roper's study of "The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Secenteenth Centuries" illustrates why the distinction is questionable. The beliefs attribute to witches by the inquisitors were also systematic, cumulative and the product of a type of deductive growth; features were retained and abandoned over time; the whole body of knowledge was testable under the rigours of a methodology. And the whole body of knowledge was surprisingly consistent, with very similar forms arising from the confessions and evidence gathered all across the face of Europe, but different inquisitors and from different cultures. The paradigm of the demonology of 16th and 17th century European witchcraft rather easily fits the first three categories listed suggested by Michael Ruse and Shermer; it was sociological, psychological, epistemological, and by the time it reached its ultimate form in the mid-17th century, it had become, for large segments of European society, ontological as well.One final note, and then I'll let off the hook anyone who was patient enough to read this far. Personally, I find Shermer's definition of the culture of the modern Industrial West fairly unsettling, given the criticisms I've made so far concerning his understanding of the terms involved. If our culture "has as a primary goal the accumulation of cultural traditions and artifacts, and it uses, ignores, and returns to cultural traditions and artifacts as needed to aid in the progress of science and technology", then we might very well have locked ourselves into a systematic delusion from which there is no egress save through a catastrophic system-wide collapse.Happily, that's another one of those definitions on which Shermer and I disagree.
marti1900

Re: Readings from the staff skeptic

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We believe weird things because we are conditioned to do so. From birth we are conditioned to believe in god, and if THAT's not an impossible thing, I don't know what is. From this rather tall order, it is an easy leap to believing in the efficacy of Vitamin C, alien abductions, and ghosts.Alice laughed, "...one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." -- Lewis CarrollWe've all had so much practice at believing six impossible things before breakfast that believing the world will end in 2012, according to the Mayan calendar, or that there will only be two more popes before the world ends, as predicted by St. Malachy, or that wearing copper will help your arthritis, does not take much effort. So, given this premise, just what could possibly be 'weird' things to believe? (You can see I am still gnawing on that definition of 'weird'.)Marti in Mexico
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