Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Book Report: Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

         For my report, I read Michael Shermer's, Why People Believe Weird Things. It was a very compelling read and I was drawn to it from the start. I do have to say though that some of Shermer's explanations were very lengthy and hard to follow since there were too many layers to it. Either way, I feel much more observant of the news I see around me and of why people act in certain ways. Michael Shermer is a skeptic, so it is in his design to doubt other's opinions. He performed this using scientific theories, personal experience, and critical thinking on a number of different popular beliefs. This book was composed of five parts: Science and Skepticism, Pseudoscience and Superstition, Evolution and Creationism, History and Pseudo-history, and Hope Springs Eternal. I found it very interesting when Shermer mentioned his own "experience" with alien encounters. Two other memorable sections were when Shermer discussed near death experiences and when he answered several philosophically based arguments on evolution and creation. 
         Shermer's experience with aliens seemed pretty ironic considering that a skeptic would end up debunking his own experience. Once Shermer explained that he had been competing in a professional cycling marathon, some of his behaviors made sense. He was focused on a 3,000 mile nonstop race across America, demanding about 22-24 hours of cycling with no sleep, high stress, and many different forms of training. Extreme sleep deprivation has similar psychological effects as hallucinatory drugs, such as different states of consciousness, hallucinations, and it "breaks down the wall between reality and fantasy" (89). When one of Shermer's crew members noticed his extreme sleep deprivation, he set him to sleep at a motor home and that's when Shermer slipped into an altered state of consciousness. He saw his entire biking crew as a group of aliens who were trying to kill him. Shermer was able to critically think about his experience and although he still can vividly recall the event as if it were real, he knows that it was due to an altered state of consciousness. Most people who experience alien encounters would accept this event as real since it was what they perceived while overlooking any external or internal factors that could of altered their reality. 
        I have always found the idea of near death experiences interesting. I have even heard of some friends and family members explain an out of body state they have experienced while undergoing surgery or experiencing a traumatic accident. Near death experiences can lead some people to believe "that there is an afterlife or that death is a pleasant experience or both" (77). According to Shermer, there are three commonly reported elements of near death experiences such as, a floating out of body experience where you see your body underneath you, passing through a tunnel with a bright light, or seeing loved ones/ a god like figure who have passed away. Either way, in many of the near death experience interpretations there is an element of religion or afterlife. Near death experiences can leave victims feeling as if they were granted another chance at life and that there was a reason they didn't die. While this does give its victims a sense of purpose and a feeling of purity, there are biochemical and neurophysiological explanations as to how these occur. There are receptor sites in the brain that under certain stressors, become activated as a way to relax your mind. Out of body experiences are usually caused by dissociative anesthetics, DMT can make the world seem as though it is shrinking, and LSD triggers hallucinations. These are usually artificially processed chemicals, but they can be naturally produced. Shermer theorizes that near death experiences and the feelings associated with them could just be wild trips created by the mind during severe trauma or stress, such as almost dying. 
         The last section that I will discuss about Michael Shermer's, Why People Believe Weird Things, is his responses to philosophically based arguments on evolution and creation. Evolution and the creation of man is something I have thought about many times throughout my life and Shermer answered most of my questions *to his best ability considering how hard it is to find evidence of creation*. Shermer brought up a great point in response to the idea that "there are only two explanations for the origins of life and existence of humans, plants, and animals:either it was the work of a creator or it was not. Since evolution theory is unsupported by evidence, creationism must be correct" (144). He explains that considering the fallacy of false alternatives and the either or fallacy, just because A is not right, doesn't mean that B is right. In this case just because there is not clear cut evidence of evolution creating life, does not mean that life is the result of a creator. Only looking at options A and B dismisses the possibilities of an option C, D, E, and so on. In terms of a creator, supernatural subjects cannot be measured scientifically since there is no existing proof of a functioning supernatural existence. Of course you can still believe in a higher being and a religion, but there is no evidence of a specific god, just experiences told through generations. So either way, supernatural laws do not follow the rules of natural laws used in science. 
          Through the book Why People Believe Weird Things, I have become more suspicious about the things I believe in, whether it is news stories, religious concepts, or pop culture. I have learned about the importance of critical thinking and the analyzation of logical fallacies. There are a lot of people I would recommend this book to. I know a lot of people who have irrational beliefs or superstitions that have almost paralyzed them with anxiety. This book does an amazing job at detailing why certain beliefs are valid or not. The best way to lower anxiety is educating yourself on the causes of your anxiety and knowing the probability of those events happening. One thing I found to be a little confusing when reading this book is that Shermer can be a little all over the place when writing his ideas, going from personal experience, to scientific theory, to someone else's experience, to back to his own ideas. I feel that some parts, not all, were a little disorganized making it hard to read, but it wasn't impossible. Overall the ratio of confusing ideas were very low in comparison to the amount of enlightening ideas I have discovered from this book. 

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