Cryptohedonological book rating: A
“Science, measured against reality,” as Einstein remarked, “is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” Science is the tool we, as humans, use to test new claims, weigh evidence, and to form a consistent map of reality around us. We make an observation about a process in the world and wonder how it works. We systematically poke the world to test the wonderment. The world pokes back. We record the results. Look for patterns. Make more observations and continue to wonder with our newfound knowledge. This scientific method of cataloging reliable physical patterns and holding them in a network of accountability to be used as evidence for future observations — a relatively new systematic process for human thinking — has provided us with fantastic success in pulling the murky veils of confusion from our relatively primitive human brains. This has allowed us to begin to unlock the deepest secrets the universe in remarkable ways. Furthermore, science has allowed technologies to emerge that exploit physical processes not normally accessible to humans, but which are now an everyday part of our lives: computers, cell phones, satellites, the Internet, information technology, lasers, TV, radio, MRI, PET Scans, ultrasound, Doppler radar, airplanes, spacecraft, extreme engineering, etc. Science is doing something right and is indeed telling us about how the world really works. But in doing this, science does not remove mystery from the universe, rather calibrates it, allowing us to distinguish between real and phantom mysteries.
Indeed, the human mind is easily fooled by phantoms. Our intellectual strength is also our weakness: we are very good at finding patterns and looking for connections. However, we tend not to be very good at weighing evidence. Frequently we are fooled into finding connections that aren’t there. We hold onto simultaneous ideas and beliefs that are contradictory. We judge the merits of a claim based on how it makes us feel in an instant rather than how cumulative evidence holds up under scrutiny. Science is our only reliable measuring stick where we can check what we think or feel is true against what is true.
Dr. Michael Shermer is the founder of the Skeptics Society (please note corrected link: www.skeptic.com; the link www.skeptic.org is a spam site, my bad), is a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and is the co-host and producer of Exploring the Unknown on Fox Family Network. He has written numerous books on a wide range of topics. In Part One of Shermer’s now classic book Why People Believe Weird Things, he explores the pragmatic and philosophical roots of science and how it is distinct from pseudoscience. He delves into how the human mind can be fooled into finding faux-patterns in nature, leading to superstitions and spurious beliefs. He also investigates and discusses various common thinking fallacies we all share, and gives practical advice about how to be vigilant and identify them, both from within and without.
To highlight some of those ideas, in Parts Two, Three, and Four, he explores several case studies, some of which are low hanging fruit, some of which are more controversial. Why do otherwise rational people, in spite of volumes of evidence to the contrary, persist in believing in astrology, ghosts, near death experiences, and UFO abductions? Why do people, despite knowing better, find themselves following cults of personality and charismatic charlatans? How do people easily fall into “which hunt” mentalities? He discusses in detail why Creationism and Intelligent Design are not viable scientific alternatives to The Theory of Evolution and dissects, in some detail, the anatomy of such claims. He also provides strategies in debating people who hold such views. Using the Holocaust as a template, he investigates how we know when historical events are real (this is not always straightforward!). He also provides a template for how to “debunk the deniers” of the holocaust and how to engage other irrational conspiracy-oriented mindsets.
The second edition ends with an illuminating chapter entitled “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.” People tend to hold the view that it is always “other people” who are the ones who believe “crazy stuff.” Nestled snugly in the recesses of our own thinking, our own “crazy stuff” never seems particularly crazy to ourselves. In particular, as scientists, engineers, academics, and professionals we tend to view ourselves exempt from holding crazy ideas. But if we look carefully and honestly, our own minds are rife with them. It is part of being human. In Shermer’s words, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
Why People Believe Weird Things is a fascinating and entertaining book, which should be essential reading for any student of science and advocate of reason. But, more generally, it is perfect reading or anyone interested in not only understanding common irrationalities intrinsic to moderity, but also in understanding mental blind spots present in all of us as humans.