Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer

Why People Believe Weird Things is a book that discusses the differences between pseudoscience and science, and why people still believe things that have no factual evidence behind them. Shermer believes that the main reason that even educated and intelligent people believe that which is apparently irrational is because smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. He believes that humans are pattern seeking animals who are on the constant search for a deeper meaning behind the seemingly random events that occur throughout a person's life.
He goes into detail to discuss how science is correct because it can prove itself to be so. For example, we know that gravity exists because it has been proven. Even before the Law of Conservation of Gravity was discovered, tested, and proven to be accurate, gravity still existed. Therefore, gravity is factual, and is a part of true science. Ghosts, on the other hand, are considered to be a part of pseudoscience. Shermer claims there is no way to scientifically test whether or not ghosts exist, the only thing people have to go off of is their own personal experiences with them. Those who believe in pseudoscience also claim that these experiences cannot be replicated, since the experience is personal and unique to the person who observed it.
Shermer then goes on to negate that experiences cannot be replicated; in fact, he says that they can. Historical events indeed can be replicated, and he gives the example of digging up dinosaur bones and how paleontologists use hypotho-deductive reasoning to rule out how dinosaurs died based on the evidence they have at hand.
The whole book goes on and on like this; Shermer explains his definition of a skeptic, saying that he is one. Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method which involves gathering data to test natural explanations for natural phenomena. The claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to a high extent. Therefore, Shermer claims that skepticism is more of a method leading to provisional conclusions. Things such as ESP, ghosts, and creationism have been tested to no avail and not proven to be real, thus it falls into the category of pseudoscience. Things such as gravity, matter, space, etc, have been proven and thus fall into science. In conclusion, Michael Shermer wishes to point out the main differences between science and pseudoscience, and what causes people to believe in what seem to be ridiculous claims despite their lack of factual evidence.
I honestly did not enjoy this book at all and found it extremely difficult to get through because I do not agree with majority of it. If I had to pick a favorite part, it would simply be how science gets to its conclusions on how something is in fact "real." Shermer gives the example of Charles Darwin's book "Theory of Evolution," in which Darwin takes an old theory of Creationism, disproves it, and backs up his claims with logical evidence. Also, he adds another section in his book entitled "Problems to the theory." This makes it very difficult for critics to find arguments against him, as he has already outlined the problems that could arise with his theory.  Another part of the book I liked was that although Shermer called pseudoscience ridiculous, outrageous, and downright false, he also claimed that science is not perfect either. Usually this is not something you hear from someone who is so strongly against one side. It was a nice change of pace to see that he admitted that there were problems with what he believed in too. Science is always changing and growing, and new discoveries are always being improved upon. One day, science can make a discovery that seems monumental and a decade later, it can be completely disproven. I also like that Shermer admits that pseudoscience cannot exist without science and vice versa. There is a place for both of them in the world.
This book can honestly be related to the theme of the entire course. This course is all about how pseudoscience is the study of things that cannot be tested and proven, such as UFO's, ghosts, psychics, dreams, etc, and how/why people believe them. It compares it to science, which is measurable, testable, and can be proven or rejected based on the hypothesis and evidence. One topic I can relate it to because it was talked about in the book is UFO's and false memories. Our slide show states that there is little or no correlation between recall accuracy and confidence of the veracity of recalled events. Recalled events previously thought to be accurate are often false. Shermer's book states that he often does not believe in UFO abduction claims because of that same reason. Also, people who claim to be abducted by UFO's often do not remember it happening, and thus require hypnosis to recall the event. Our class as well as Sherman's book state the same thing: recalled events are often false and a psychologist can implant false memories into the patient's mind, and hypnosis does not enhance accurate recall and can have the effect of increasing confidence in a false recollection.
Shermer's book also touches on the ability of clairvoyants, which our class also discussed. Shermer and our slides talk about how gifted readers often go off vague clues, and use the client's body language as a way to keep guessing accurately. Yet when asked to predict on the spot, they blame it on a multitude of things such as they cannot perform under pressure, it usually works but is not because someone is watching, just to name a few.

This is a video of Area 51,  an area in Nevada claimed by the government and rumored to be the home of many extraterrestrial investigations. This clip is from a documentary and is an example of pseudoscience:

The following is a clip of Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," discussing how God does not exist. He is a scientist who firmly follows the same theme as Michael Shermer's book, agreeing that he does not see truth in anything without hard evidence.

I found this report both interesting, and although I did not agree with this book, I learned a great deal. I believe it is always important to read things that really challenge your views and put other topics into perspective, and not only this book but this class as well, did just that.

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