Thursday, April 23, 2020

BOOK REPORT: Why People Believe Weird Things

Some people are strange, and their beliefs are even weirder. This is proven through Michael Shermer’s book, Why People Believe Weird Things, in which he narrates and explicates his personal escapades into the world of ‘Pseudosciences”. As a skeptic, Shermer is able to explain both sides of a particular pseudoscience, as he questions its validity, partnered by participation, concluding with his opinion and factual evidence as to why that particular ‘science’ failed to do as it promised. Sherman has undergone a quite diverse array of pseudoscience practices in an effort to explain them to the common reader, events such as aliens and abductions, the mass denial of world-bending events,188/238 and cults of various sorts. 
In one of the most interesting chapters in the beginning of the book, Sherman experiences his own encounter with alien life, followed by the passing of lions, and sentient mailboxes. During the chapter, Sherman analyzes how people come to the conclusion that they have witnessed aliens by examining his own experience. Shermer details the events of his life days prior to the event, which included him partaking in a cycling event with his friends, and during the trip, he has practiced a pseudoscience which deemed a type of lemon-water diet healthy for active lifestyles. While under a week’s worth of effects, Sherman collapses and begins to hallucinate heavily, :cracks in the road make meaningful designs, and mailboxes looked like people. I saw giraffes and lions. I waved to mailboxes.” (89). After he had recovered some days later he realized that instead of actually bearing witness to these strange occurrences, he had in reality contracted “White Line Fever”, which is an incredibly hallucinogenic fever.  
Sherman argues that people with similar stories of aliens and arbitrary experiences may have suffered some form of illness that modified their perception. In addition, Shermer understands that the past memories of the individuals may influence their perceived interaction. When Shermer met his ‘invaders’, he noticed that they were identical to his friends, but he was highly suspicious of them, saying that the aliens had done their research. Sherman admits to having recently watched a film by the name of The Invaders, in which the aliens research and take the form of a human being, only being discovered as such through their lack of an opposable pinkie-finger. Sherman relates the film and this phenomena to himself, as was reported as acusing his friends of being the race of aliens, convinced that my entire support crew were aliens from another planet and that they were going to kill me… So clever were these aliens that they even looked, dressed, and spoke like my crew.” (89) With this, Shermer was able to, accidentally, become involved with aliens and experience a form of abduction. However, when sober, Shermer was able to apply science and deduction to ascertain the cause of the ‘abduction’, figuring out that it was a simple hallucinogenic accident.
The middle of the book contains overarching themes based around groups of people with strange goals that ostracize them from average society. These people are defined as cults. Shermer introduces cults with a segment on witchcraft, and the effect the idea of witches played in developing a type of feedback loop. This feedback loop is a perpetual paradox that keeps outdated ideologies, such as drowning the accused witch, alive. Not all cults are particularly devilish and murderous as crazed villagers though. Some of the cults Shermer examines are modern people who have organized a cult-like following. During the eight chapter, Shermer describes a modern author as a cult-like leader. His reasoning is through her work, and what it is meant to symbolize as well as the immediate following generated from her writing. The symbolism in her most divine work, Atlas Shrugged, is shown through the collapse of society. She embellished the idea of anti-government and anti-establishment ideologies in the story, which then, inspires the young minds of the next generation. The young audience aspires to be like the main hero, one who brought about the end of a world to then begin a new one. 
Sherman understands why people eventually follow others in a devout manner. He reflects over an interview Rand had participated and analyzes what she says about her philosophy and summarizes it, “One should think for oneself and never allow any authority to dictate the truth, especially for the authority of government, religion, and other such groups.” (116). With this statement, Sherman then begs to question why cults attempt to follow this form of philosophy, but contradict themselves and fall into a group that follows a leader and tells them what to do. This is reflected through Rand’s own cult following, as they do just that, hypocritically of their own philosophy. 
In one of the final chapters, Michael Shermer begins to discuss a controversial subject. The Holocaust and the people who deny its existence. This is tied, in a vague sense, to lectures we have observed in class. Particularly the lectures on Mass Delusions. This is because the last half of the book centers on the delusions of people in large groups, particularly a group that claims the Holocaust is false and never even occurred, despite decades of history and research, and documentation. 
This chapter details the arguments based around the groups of people who deny one of the most damaging events in the history of the human race: The Holocaust. Shermer is quick to notice the claims of the deniers is separate from what most would generally think of the group. Shermer examines the claims of the deniers closely, and sees that they do not deny the event, but the history around it. They claim that it was not a tactical and calculated extermination of a race, but due to the allied invaders destroying property and supplies which lead to the deaths of the Jewish bystanders, “The main causes of death were disease and starvation, caused primarily by Allied destruction of German supply lines and resources at the end o the war.” (189). This is just one example of how this group of people have understood history. Another example is how this same group also incorrectly understands the statistical aspects of the Holocaust. The group is quite assertive when determining the average number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, debating that it is around 5 or 7 million. However, the statistics actually read a much larger number, but that number is more general, as it over-arches with the Jews that have died in camps, during executions, etc. 
Finally, the group’s origins lie within other books developed during the German Revisionism Era, in which Germany attempted to rebuild itself after the second World War. During this revision, Germany had many authors publish books about the Holocaust and the second war, and select books gave ‘statistical records’ in relation to what modern deniers claim are hard facts; the same Jewish death numbers, as well as what the camps were for. Shermer notes the books in his very own, to give the readers reference.
In conclusion, Michael Shermer is a skeptic who was also very experimental. Due to his curiosity, he had taken part in various kinds of pseudosciences. While participating, Shermer had performed research in order to understand how the pseudoscience worked, however, the ‘sciences’ had failed and Shermer was able to describe the issue with the ‘science’. He also details the experiences with particular groups and why they still hold these beliefs. Overall, Shermer is quite a daring author who goes above and beyond what is required in order to entice an audience. He also is able to research and develop strong analytical pieces that explain and elaborate upon the history and effects of a specific pseudoscience.

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