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Pseudo-Science, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time

Michael Shermer

Extended Book Review

The publisher of Skeptic magazine both enlightens us with a lot of material new to us, and disturbs us with his insights to the effect that the human condition may be so rigid that peaceful living may remain a dream of idealism. In any event, his broad background in biology, psychology, and the history of science enables him to bring consilience to the core of his methods in "debunking bunk," to use his term. And that makes his position compelling to those open enough to follow his insights and take them to heart. Nevertheless, his insights also need to be looked at skeptically. You are remiss if you do not, for there is much for most of us to learn--one of them being the practice of being a skeptic.

The early parts of Shermer's book lay the groundwork for codifying his views on why we believe in weird things.

Shermer is perhaps the most ingenious of commentators alive today on the human condition. To paraphrase his research (roughly), myth, superstition, and religion arise out of our needs
  • to know the substance of nature and our individual roles in it,
  • to find comfort,
  • to realize immortality,
  • for an anchor, to believe in something,
  • to be like other people,
  • to explain the feelings of reverence for nature or its maker, and
  • to explain the unknown.

Once codified, myths easily become religion if they serve some or all of the above needs. But Shermer does not focus on religion; he is equally hard and precise in debunking any pseudoscience, myth, secular sect. For example, he devotes many pages to explaining why the philosophy of Ayn Rand ended up as a sect instead of a school of thought it could and should have been. In short, hope springs eternal, and it can go astray as the followers of the atheist Rand did, in fostering a "secular religion."

As for the connection to RoadtoPeace, Shermer offers an alternate pathway for why people can become domineering rulers without being psycho-sociopathic. Aside from his insistence on logic as the best thinking process for survival, Shermer illustrates how the "Affirmation Bias" affects us all. The Affirmation Bias is "the tendency to seek or interpret evidence favorable to our beliefs, and to ignore or reinterpret evidence unfavorable to already existing beliefs." When people caught in this trap achieve power they can lead us off a cliff just as easily as a psycho-sociopath can. And they can do it in all good faith, whether or not they have any religious calling.

Shermer offers three simple questions we can ask when dealing with any claim that seems a bit weird:

  • What is the quality of the evidence for the claim?
  • What are the background and credentials of the person making the claim?
  • Does the thing work as claimed?

Along with the books written by: Adorno, Milgram, Zimbardo, Altemeyer, Dean, Varshney, Dozier, Armstrong, Huber, Stern, Frank, Stout, Manji, and Ahmed, Shermer's book deserves serious reads by all who are serious about researching violence in our times. It details the very human traits that get us into trouble time after time after time. It nicely explains why, after five or so millennia, monotheism has failed to bring peace on earth. In short, it is all in how culture interacts with our genetic potential for violence. We discuss this at length elsewhere. See Browser's Hub.

Harry Rosenberg


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