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A New Tome Of Skeptical Literature Challenges Our Pet Presumptions

By Dave McElfresh

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, And Other Confusions Of Our Time, by Michael Shermer (W.H. Freeman and Company). Cloth, $23.

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  UPDATE PILGRIM'S Progress and no doubt the contemporary version of the Path To Perdition would be that narrow, lingering walk through the checkout aisle, where each soul is tempted by the outlandish but intriguing headlines of The Star, National Enquirer and The Globe. Nothing so tempts us to believe outright lies and unfounded stories posing as science than the sensationalistic schlock therein. From alleged paleontologists willing to verify that, yes, these are bones of angels found in Africa, or supposed astronomers saying that the next comet heading our way will destroy all life on earth per God's command, the tabloids are always eager to oblige with loads of slop for the public trough: The Enquirer is the best-selling publication in the states, surpassing even TV Guide. Some force deep within truly wants to believe aliens cured that Montana farmer of his pesky hernia problem.

It's unfortunate that literally millions of weeklies are sold for each lone copy of skeptical literature that makes it onto someone's bookshelf. Damn few really want to investigate whether psychic powers are valid, or measure the likelihood that Elvis, Jesus or JFK will deign to speak to us from the Beyond. That's not good news for author Michael Shermer. No question about it--relatively few are going to pick up his Why People Believe Weird Things, which commands 20 bucks-plus to question our unfounded pet beliefs. But almost without exception, skeptical literature like this book, literature that questions and invalidates our goofy thinking, is far more interesting than that jive Roswell UFO stuff we swallow whole.

Those brave, humble souls who snag a copy of Weird Things will find interesting first-hand encounters between the author, UFO abductees and the disciples of Edgar Cayce. And, of interest to those who've kept up on skeptical literature through the years via Prometheus Press's invaluable prove-it publications, are the chapters showing how contemporary debunking has finally taken on opponents outside the realm of parapsychology.

Shermer documents debates with biblical creationists like Duane Gish, a leading proponent of disproven theories regarding the age of the earth (6,300 years old, beginning when Adam and Eve were created). Shermer also tells how, on the Donahue show, the author debated history revisionists who claim the Holocaust is a fabrication, citing self-serving historical twists as evidence.

Another highlight: the cult following of late author Ayn Rand; near-death experiences and explanations that dismiss supernatural interventions; contemporary witch crazes; and a reassessment of the Herrnstein and Murray book The Bell Curve, which attempts to validate intellectual inequality among the races.

What most supports Shermer's position as a skeptic is his willingness to call the shots realistically--even if they're at his expense. Shermer states that he doesn't know who the audience thinks won the debate with Gish, and he admits Phil Donahue's staff was livid with him for not outright attacking the Holocaust deniers. His refusal to become skepticism's invincible superman (in a sense he comes pretty close, being the publisher of the exceptional Skeptic magazine) adds credence to the positions he presents. Most importantly, he dutifully covers the main tenants of each weird belief system and responds to each, giving the reader a very accessible means of evaluating the information at hand. You, too, can hold your own with the next fundamentalist or fascist you encounter.

For those new to questioning the shoddy thinking that so frequently makes its way into print, Shermer begins the book with "Twenty-Five Fallacies That Lead Us To Believe Weird Things." Seldom have the tenants of science-based skepticism been so clearly defined. We're warned not to assume that the unexplained is inexplicable, not to blindly trust authorities, and to insist that science-based investigation be supplied by those flashing exceptional claims. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, as someone said.

Skeptical literature is a downer if you've invested metaphysical moolah in stuff that can be explained away--everyone experiences eerie coincidences, and anyone can firewalk without believing any hoodoo-voodoo claims, Shermer shows. It boils down to whether we want to pursue the truth or chase after unfounded beliefs that make us feel special. The big question is, do we have what it takes to transcend our egos when the facts reveal our faulty thinking? If the crystal-wavers and UFO abductees ever take over the world, this book will be one of the first to land on the bonfire.

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