Why People Believe Weird Things | Michael Shermer

Summary of: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time
By: Michael Shermer


Delve into the fascinating world of pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions that have gripped humanity throughout the ages with Michael Shermer’s ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’. In this compelling exploration, Shermer scrutinizes various pseudosciences such as astrology and creationism, drawing a clear distinction between them and actual science. This book summary will guide you through the significant topics and themes covered, including the nature of pseudosciences and how they stand apart from scientific methods and knowledge. Additionally, you’ll discover how pseudoscientific ideas have led to a range of irrational beliefs and delusions. Prepare to journey into the realm of the unexplained and uncover the logical explanations behind some of our strangest beliefs.

Separating Science From Pseudoscience

How to distinguish between scientific laws and theories from unfounded pseudoscientific beliefs.

Science and pseudoscience are often confused because they both claim to be scientific. However, pseudosciences like astrology and creationism do not follow scientific laws and methods. In contrast, real science uses laws that can be measured, and these laws are the basis for further theories and research. The law of gravity, for instance, can be tested again and again, and scientists can use it to explore the physical world further. Scientific theories, on the other hand, can be tested, and researchers can improve them if necessary. Pseudoscientific beliefs, however, are based on subjective assumptions and lack evidence and laws. Divination, for example, assumes that certain people have innate psychic powers, but this has never been scientifically proven. Pseudosciences can’t be tested, and thus, can never be proven wrong or right. Science uses objective evidence to prove something to be true, while pseudoscientists believe in something because it hasn’t been proven wrong. Knowing the differences between real science and pseudoscience is crucial to avoid being misled by unfounded beliefs.

Growth of Scientific Knowledge

The growth of scientific knowledge has been rapidly increasing since the beginning of human existence. Every new scientific theory is built on the current body of knowledge and if a theory replaced by a newer one, the useful information retained. Science is always correcting itself by filtering and replacing the bad ideas. On the other hand, pseudoscientific theories are static because they’re based on belief and cannot be tested or improved. Pseudosciences have little in common with actual science, yet many people continue to believe in them. The theory of evolution is an example of how new scientific ideas replace old ones and pseudosciences don’t progress. In the next parts, common supernatural beliefs will be examined, and why they’re wrong.

The Techniques of Psychics Revealed

This book exposes the tricks of psychics and mind readers who deceive people into believing in their mystical abilities.

If you have ever witnessed a psychic or mind reader, you might have been impressed by their accurate readings. However, this doesn’t necessarily prove the existence of divination. Similar to magicians, psychics also use various strategies to trick their clients into believing their mystical powers.

This book sheds light on two methods used by psychics to deceive people- cold reading and hot reading. A cold reading is when a psychic makes generalized guesses about someone’s life. By observing how the client responds to their general questions, they make educated guesses about their personal life. If they stumble upon a topic that the client responds to positively, they dig deeper and provide more details.

Similarly, in a hot reading, psychics research their clients ahead of time. They may arrange informal meetings with certain clients to get to know their personal information, which they later use to wow the audience in their performance. In the present-day, hot readings are facilitated by social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as people readily disclose personal details online.

The book highlights that psychics don’t care much about being accurate, as they understand that clients will remember the hits better than the misses. They also maintain a positive tone, by saying things like “You’ll find your true love soon.” This book exposes the deceptive tactics of psychics and mind readers and provides valuable insights into their trade.

The Science Behind Near-Death Experiences

Many people who experience near-death experiences report similar sensations, such as leaving their body and moving through a tunnel towards a light. While some view these testimonies as proof of an afterlife, scientists provide rational explanations for them. Hallucinations caused by chemicals can replicate the out-of-body sensations. The common vision of a tunnel can be explained by abnormal cell activity in the visual cortex. The brain interprets these patterns as spirals, resulting in the perception of a tunnel. These scientific explanations shed light on the mysterious phenomenon of near-death experiences.

Alien Abductions Explained

Numerous alien encounter stories can be attributed to hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation and rare mental sleep states like hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations.

Stories of alien abductions are rampant, but the question is – can so many people be lying? The answer is no, since certain experiences can lead to hallucinations so realistic that individuals may struggle to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Research shows that sleep deprivation can cause “white-line fever,” which is a sleep disorder often experienced by truck drivers. The monotony of driving and lack of sleep often leads to hallucinations that can be quite intense. These hallucinations can also cause people to believe they’ve had an alien encounter.

Individuals who don’t know they’re experiencing hallucinations also store their sightings in their memory. After they recover, memories of these hallucinations often remain as real-life experiences, particularly when they recall their alien encounters after a long hiatus, usually after waking up from deep sleep or under hypnosis.

Alvin Lawson, a psychologist, ran an experiment with students and put them into a hypnotic state, convincing them that they had been kidnapped by aliens. Upon waking up, the students could recollect intricate stories about the alien abduction, which were entirely false. Apart from sleep deprivation, rare mental sleep states, known as hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, also account for several alien reports. Sleepers in these states believe that their dreams are a part of actual reality for a few minutes after waking up, leading them to be convinced that they’ve been abducted by aliens. Robert A. Baker, a psychologist who studied these hallucinations, found several subjects who were convinced that they’d been carried away by martians.

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