Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Book Report: Why People Believe Weird Things

Why People Believe Weird Things was written by Michael Shermer, a New York Times best selling author and skeptic. With a M.A in psychology and Ph.D in the history of science, Shermer has made a career for himself investing pseudoscientific claims. He is also a founder of The Skeptics Society whose mission “is the investigation of science and pseudoscience controversies, and the promotion of critical thinking”. Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997 debunks a plethora of pseudoscientific claims, including alien abductions, near death experiences, and Holocust deniers. 
Abducted, the chapter dedicated to encounters with aliens starts with the recollection of Shermer’s own experience with “aliens”. When doing a bike race across America Shermer went many hours without sleep, and began believing his racing crew were all aliens from another planet who had planned to kill him. The point of this story is simple, if an “alien abduction” can occur in these situations, people can believe it's happening in other states of consciousness as well. Shermer concludes the chapter by stating his opinion on the subject, “alien abduction phenomenon is the product of an unusual altered state of consciousness interpreted in a culture context replete with films, television programs, and science fiction literature about aliens and UFOs”. Roy Baumeister a professor at Case Western Reserve University has an interesting take on alien abductions, stating that those who report abductions are masochists and unconsciously are just trying to relinquish control of their own lives.

Near death experiences are phenomena that seem to occur when individuals are close to death and it is a compelling phenomena because many people seem to recount very similar experiences. There are three commonly reported components to a ND, floating out of body experience where the individual looks down and sees their own bodies, passing through a tunnel or spiral chamber towards a bright light, and emerging on the other side and seeing other loved ones who had already passed away. Once an unusual event, NDEs became popularized in the 1908s when Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross publicized a NDE of a patient who was able to report details about the doctors even though she was unconscious during the time. While people who believe they have had NDE’s are adamant about the realness of it, Shermer explains several more logical explanations. The brain has receptors for durgs such as MDA and LSD which result in feelings of hallucinations, the perception the world is shrinking or enlarging, or even flying, among many others. When under extreme trauma or stress the brain can naturally produce these chemicals and trigger these feelings, which are all commonly reported descriptions of NDEs. Several prominent celebrities have reported near death experiences, including comedian Tracy Morgan after a 2014 car accident. He says in the aftermath of the crash he met God and was even reunited with his father Jimmy Morgan who had passed away in 1987. 
Link to article about Tracy Morgan: https://www.near-death.com /experiences/hollywood.html
Even though there is reputable evidence about the existence of the Holocust, many still attempt to deny it. In an interesting chapter, Shermer ``debunks”’, or proves the falsified claims, of Holoaust deniers. While the Holocust deniers are not a pseudo scientific phenomena, this illogical belief is the direct result of fast thinking so Shermer once again uses critical thinking to disprove the claim.  The first of three major claim of the Holocust deniers was that the genocide based on race was not intended by Hitler or his followers and some even say Hitler did not know about the Holocost. The second major claim is that gas chambers and crematoria were not used for mass killings and rather they were used for delousing clothing and crematories disposed of bodies from “natural deaths”. The final major claim was that the number of deaths is over exaggerated and far less than the nearly six million Jewish deaths actually occurred. In order to debunk the deniers Shermer presents evidence and shows the faults of the methodologies of these deniers. There are written documents, eyewitness testimonies, photographs, physical evidence, and demographics which all prove the existence and legitimateness of the facts of the Holocust, yet the deniers tend to ignore evidence which does not suit them. Shermer highlights how they focus on the unknowns and pick apart what they consider to be “weak points” of historians arguments, but rarely present data of their own. Simply, they rely on fast thinking to come to these conclusions, while scientific critical thinking leads to an entirely different conclusion. 
Overall, Why People Believe Weird Things was an extremely interesting read which I believe I learned from. While I personally do not fall victim to fast thinking and belief of pseudo scientific phenomena, it is fascinating to understand why others do. Michael Shermer wrote a clear and concise book, which focused on disproving these claims using scientific data rather than simply attack the claims without concrete evidence. Whether someone believes in phenomena presented in the book or not, any reader could benefit from this book.

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