What Can We Steal From Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things?

Title of Work and its Form:  Why People Believe Weird Things, nonfiction
Author: Michael Shermer (on Twitter @michaelshermer)
Date of Work: Originally published in 1997.  A revised and expanded edition was published in 2002.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  You can purchase the book at fine bookstores everywhere!  I’m guessing that Dr. Shermer would appreciate it if you bought the book through the Skeptic shop.

Bonuses: Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine, easily one of my favorite publications. If you have children, Junior Skeptic is a MUST.  Here are some essays Dr. Shermer wrote for Scientific American.

Dr. Shermer (an awesome public speaker) gave this TED talk that relates to the book:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Establishing Ethos

Michael Shermer is one of the most important and accessible voices in the skeptic movement.  If there were some sort of skeptic Mount Rushmore, he would be blasted into the mountain along with men and women such as Susan Jacoby, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Harriet Hall, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.  (We’ll have to find a really big mountain.)  These great writers and thinkers stand on the shoulders of giants, of course, and have stolen ideas and techniques from writers who came before.  There is a thriving community of bloggers who concentrate on issues of skepticism; they champion free thought and scientific inquiry and resist the intellectual oppression of dogma at every turn.  (If you’re interested, why not start with Skeptic Magazine’s blog?)  (And Thunderf00t does some very interesting video essays on his YouTube channel.  And every so often, he does some rockin’ science experiments.)  (And the blog maintained by James Randi and his Educational Foundation is always a good time.) (And the folks at the Skeptic Ink blog network are well worth a visit!)

To my mind, Why People Believe Weird Things is a classic in the field.  Dr. Shermer fulfills the promise he makes in the title; through the course of five sections and 300 pages, he explains from a psychological, evolutionary and societal perspective why people are willing to believe all manner of “strange” ideas.  He devotes chapters to some popular pseudoscientific concepts (alien abductions, the paranormal) and spends a great deal of time explaining why creationism holds so much sway (and why it shouldn’t).  One of my favorite sections in the book details Dr. Shermer’s experience during a spot he did on Donahue.  Some Holocaust deniers came on to do their thing, and Dr. Shermer joined some folks trying to refute such nonsense.  The book concludes with a discussion to explain why smart people believe weird things.  We are all at risk of irrational thinking and all must remain vigilant to ensure we are considering reality on its own terms, not creating our own reality as viewed through our own perspectives or personal biases.

What does Dr. Shermer have in common with Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov and Christopher Hitchens?  When you read their work, you feel as though you are in a conversation with the author.  Dr. Shermer never talks down to his reader, but blends first person storytelling with the scholarly work he must do.  For example, Dr. Shermer describes an experiment to test ESP claims.  You’ve heard of these kinds of experiments, no doubt; folks must divine which simple shape is on the concealed side of a card that is placed in front of them.  Having already laid the factual foundation for his point, Dr. Shermer relates a fun personal anecdote.  A woman approaches him and challenges him to explain “coincidences like when I go to the phone to call my friend and she calls me.”  This brief scene makes a point and is entertaining.  Dr. Shermer and the other writers I mentioned maintain a balance: they are part of the story, but the story is not about them.  Some scholarly writing, by definition, must be drained of personality.  (People probably don’t want to read the author’s fun personal anecdotes in a paper that describes the results of a drug trial or something.)   In a work such as Why People Believe Weird Things, however, Dr. Shermer benefits by relating how his mind works; all the better to reveal the flaws in the reasoning of others.  Dr. Shermer brings the reader along for the ride, but doesn’t make the ride all about himself.

Check your ethos.  Dr. Shermer has a bachelor’s degree in psychology/biology, a master’s in experimental psychology and a doctorate in the history of science.  He has an extensive list of publications and has clearly engaged with a number of scientific fields.  So, yeah.  I’m going to believe what he’s talking about.  He has authority when he speaks on these and other related topics.  Does this mean that you can’t write about science or other complicated topics if you don’t have the appropriate degree?  Of course not.  There’s nothing wrong with having, say, a degree in communications, but you must in this case borrow some ethos to make a compelling argument about rocket science, evolutionary psychology or string theory.  Dr. Shermer, for example, is allowed to justify and cite fewer of his factual statements because he has authority.  He does, of course, offer tons of citations and always explains his lines of reasoning.  Were I to write a book like this, I would not be inclined to write it from the same personal perspective that Dr. Shermer employed because I do not have any advanced degrees in science. (Alas.)

Dr. Shermer delineates his overall theses very quickly and very early in the book.  (Pro tip for beginning scholars: ALWAYS READ THE INTRODUCTION OF SCHOLARLY BOOKS.  Why?  Scholars will typically distill their argument in that introduction.  Sometimes they even begin sentences with the very helpful phrase, “In this book, I will…”) The book is not primarily about demonstrating that alien abductions are poppycock or that Holocaust deniers are delusional.  Dr. Shermer’s primary objective is to explain…why people believe weird things.  He doesn’t devote 200 pages to undoing the “witch crazes” that pop up from time to time.  That would be a completely different book.  Instead, there’s but one chapter that serves his claim instead of the other way around.  Further, Dr. Shermer’s audience would be confused if he spent all of his time talking about the irrationality of a belief in witches alone.  No, Dr. Shermer makes it clear in this book and others that he is devoted to critical thinking and a rational examination of human psychology that is guided by evidence instead of ideology.

What Should We Steal?

  • Engage in a conversation with your reader, but avoid making the story “about you.”  You know, unless you’re writing an autobiography or something.
  • Ensure that you have or are borrowing the necessary ethos to justify your argument.  If you don’t have the level of education or experience necessary to justify calling yourself an expert, you may want to be very vigilant in working your research into your piece.
  • Privilege your thesis and overall purpose over other concerns that may arise.  If you set out to write a book about, I don’t know, beneficial parenting techniques and end up with 200 pages about preventing child abuse, that’s great.  But you may wish to realize that you’re writing a different book than you intended and adjust accordingly.