Why people believe in weird things is a book by the author Michael Shermer, and rather just analyze conspiracy theories, Shermer instead looks at how average people can wind up with bizarre beliefs. The author even does his own research, often by personally interviewing believers or taking classes that claim to alter one’s state of mind. He entertains their ideas, then looks at the possible psychological reasoning behind the beliefs. Covering a wide variety of topics such as holocaust denial, out of body experiences, and alien abductions.
One of the best sections for me personally, was when Shermer discussed his experience with alien abduction. The book makes it abundantly clear that the author has no belief in the paranormal, so the idea that he “saw aliens” really came out of left field. But then Shermer explains the circumstances behind his abduction. As it turns out, he was really into long distance biking which meant getting minimal hours of sleep for days at a time. He was exhausted when he saw some sort of disk come down from the sky and aliens brought him inside the craft. When he awoke, it turns out 90 minutes had passed and he had no memory of what went on inside the spacecraft. This experience shook up the sleep-deprived Shermer, where he even believed his entire bicycle crew was replaced by aliens. An otherwise intelligent man was quizzing his friends to see if they were real, even asking if they glued together his things with spaghetti sauce. I find it pretty remarkable that Shemer was able to look at such a personal experience and concluded that it was actually a result of his sleep deprived hallucinations. Shermer recognizes that even if aliens did exist, they likely wouldn’t have abducted him or looked like little grey men.
One subject Shermer spent a lot of time investigating was the concept of ESP. Our lectures often discussed how these psychics rely on vague language, and Shermer has personally met with a proclaimed psychic named Van Praagh who did just this. This psychic who actually appeared on Oprah would spit ideas, like “I’m seeing water. Did someone’s loved one die in the ocean?” to a large crowd. In a room full of adults, it’s likely to have people who have lost loved ones in a variety of ways. It’s a technique called cold reading, basically casting a wide net by asking basic questions, while hoping the audience will ignore any wrong predictions. People would rather have faith in a psychic, rather than question their actual accuracy.
While it’s impossible to completely separate a human from illogical emotions, a book like this really helps the reader acknowledge their own faults. It’s common for money grabbing or ignorant fads to gain traction on social media, and mindlessly get passed along by people who simply assume the information to be true. Teaching people to be more critical of the information they consume can possibly mean these “viral” trends gain less traction, helping prevent an exponential spread of incorrect information. Overall, the book is really worth the read if you want to teach yourself to critique your own ideas, to better your own understanding of human psychology, or even expand your argumentative skills.