Although many politicians pay lip service to the idea of education as a necessity in an increasingly global job market, they rarely discuss the issue of education as a cornerstone of democracy. Perhaps this is an honest oversight, but few politicians would be thrilled about the idea of teaching students to approach political claims with skepticism and to recognize the logical fallacies that politicians regularly employ. Yet the ability to analyze political and other arguments is essential for an educated citizenry. In this age of information, misinformation and manipulation are more commonplace than ever, and citizens need to know how to analyze political speeches, sales pitches, and presumably scientific claims rationally in order to make informed decisions. Luckily, where education fails them, Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time steps in.
A card-carrying skeptic, Shermer provides readers with a basic understanding of how to differentiate science from pseudoscience, as well as an inventory of common fallacies that often lead to erroneous conclusions. Although his list of scientific and logical fallacies is not exhaustive, he covers the most common errors simply and concisely. More importantly, however, Shermer spends most of his time debunking varied claims such as alien abductions, holocaust denial, and intelligent design with considerable detail. From the opening prologue with its case of a psychic whose cold-reading tricks he exposed on the Oprah Winfrey Show to the analysis of the feedback loop behind the Salem Witch Trials and other cases of widespread panic, Shermer keeps his readers’ attention. In case after case, he demonstrates how to use observation, statistical analysis, cognitive science, logic, and the scientific method to debunk creation scientists, paranormal investigators, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, self-help gurus, and psychics, whether they are charlatans or merely confused.
Unlike many other books on logic or science, Shermer’s book it is quite user-friendly. Though he spends several chapters analyzing creationism and holocaust denial from various angles, readers can begin reading at the beginning of almost any chapter in the book and still make sense of his arguments. True to his skeptical roots, he uses technical jargon minimally in order to clarify rather than to confuse or intimidate readers. He also uses simple charts and images to illustrate complex concepts when necessary. His approach is accessible without being simplistic and detailed without being overwhelming.
Why People Believe Weird Things is a great introduction to applied skepticism that will interest both self-declared skeptics and those who are simply curious about why some people believe such crazy things. If you’ve ever scoffed at someone who claims he has met extraterrestrials or who thinks she has E.S.P., this may be the book for you.