Sunday, August 3, 2014

Why People Believe Weird Things - Book Report

For my book report I chose to read Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer. Shermer’s book is a good read for anyone who has long been suspicious of the wild claims prevalent today’s society. He tells us how to distinguish empirical science from pseudoscience, as well as (as it states in the title) why people believe weird things. For each topic he presents in his book, he gives a rational explanation backed by empirical evidence as well as personal experiences. By doing so he makes his writing easy to relate to as a reader.

Shermer goes through modern superstitions and hoaxes chapter by chapter. The first part of the book describes pseudoscience and how to detect it, as opposed to scientifically backed claims. The second section goes into detail about many paranormal/supernatural topics, such as alien abduction, OBEs, mass hysteria, and psychic ability. Shermer says he was personally involved in many of the situations presented, such as appearing on a live TV show as a ‘skeptic’ as well as an ‘encounter with aliens’ he had in Arizona. The third part of the book revolves around fundamentalist creationism and debunking the many impossible claims it makes; both from a creationist point of view and that of an evolutionist. The fourth section focuses on historical pseudoscience – that is, falsity as it relates to history. Some examples of topics covered in this section are holocaust denial, censorship, and race. The fifth and final section describes the psychological aspect of why we believe impossible things, as well as how even an otherwise smart, rational person can hold some pretty bizarre beliefs.

My personal favorite part of Why People Believe Weird Things is chapter six – Abducted! In this chapter, Shermer opens with his experience of being abducted by aliens. He describes how during a 3,000 mile cross-country bike marathon he became so exhausted and sleep deprived that he, in his delirium, believed his crew were actually aliens disguised in human skin. He claims they took him into their ‘spacecraft’, aka chrome trailer, all while he interrogated them to prove their humanity and cause them to ‘slip up’. He went so far as to include the fact that he would be able to tell that they were aliens by their stiff pinky fingers, a trait popularized by a movie on aliens at the time.

Shermer says after he got some rest he knew that his crew weren’t aliens, but that he remembered the delusions as clearly as though they were any other memory. He attributes many abductees having vivid memories of their experiences to the fact that certain types of hallucinations can clearly be remembered and confused for reality.

He also debunks one of the best explanations there is for aliens visiting earth: a film of an autopsy of an alien body, said to have crash landed in a spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico. After point by point dissection of why the footage is a hoax, Shermer goes on to say that even UFO enthusiasts place little credibility in the video.

This chapter was interesting to me because I have always been a science-fiction fan and anything involving aliens generally falls into that category. Alien abduction stories have also always been a topic of interest; mainly because of how prevalent they are in the media. I have never believed that the abductees actually were taken away by aliens though – surely, if so many people were getting whisked away by spaceships, someone would have noticed by now.

Shermer, in chapter six, recounts his role on the NBC series The Other Side: a show that investigated mysteries, miracles, and the supernatural. He appeared as a ‘skeptic’ numerous times, including during a two-part program on UFOs and alien abductions. On this show he got to personally know the ‘abductees’; ordinary people who claim to have been abducted by aliens and subsequently experimented on and molested. He describes them as perfectly sane, rational folks who all had a common irrational experience. Through talking to them over dinner, he learned that while all of them firmly believed their experiences, they all had no recollection of them happening after the experience. Instead, they remembered being abducted later, after visiting a hypnotist.

Chapter 6.2 in the class text specifically mentions UFO abductions as false memories being planted by hypnotists. Scientific Perspectives has the reoccurring theme of ‘false memories’ being created by a.) our faulty memory process; and how our minds very rarely remember anything with 100% accuracy b.) being planted by the hypnotist themselves and c.) the suggestibility of many people, hypnotized or not.

Furthermore, many people report being abducted while sleeping. Sleep paralysis and OBEs are two other themes the class text describes as explanations for supernatural happenings. Shermer believes both of these phenomena play a role in people believing they have been abducted.

Since we normally view people who claim to have been abducted by aliens as crazy, there may not be much way to expand this topic. Perhaps if more people are aware of the different types of situations that can seem like an extraterrestrial experience (sleep paralysis, false memories, OBEs) less people will think they have been abducted and seek a rational explanation. However, since UFOs and alien abduction are so deeply embedded in the media, the public is always going to have a basis on which to base their claims. Many ‘abductees’ also have support groups which serve as echo chambers that reinforce their beliefs.

I can offer a personal story that involves UFOs. Years ago, my younger brother was convinced he saw a UFO fly over our house late at night. He said it was ‘just like a star, but it moved really fast’ and that it definitely wasn’t a plane. He told us he’d never seen anything move that quickly in the sky before. I didn’t really believe him because I hadn’t seen it myself – my parents were also skeptical. For the years that followed he insisted what he saw was a UFO.

Fast forward a few years: my family and I were staying at a relative’s cabin in Appalachia. We went outside the first night there; the sky is very clear and you can see a ton of stars. We sat out there and chatted – stargazing – without incident, when suddenly my brother started to yell.


Sure enough, what did look like a star was moving very quickly across the night sky. I started to get excited myself before my dad cut him off.

“That’s the ISS…It’s a satellite. I’ve seen it plenty of times.”

I ended up looking it up later and sure enough, you can see the International Space Station if you’re in the right place at the right time.

My brother tried to defend himself for a while after that night, but eventually admitted defeat. He doesn’t bring up the UFO he saw anymore and doesn’t like to talk about it.

In the end, there was a rational explanation for his UFO sighting. Perhaps if more people choose to look deeper they will find one of their own.

For the creative element of my book report I drew a short comic about alien abductions.

No comments:

Post a Comment