Why People Believe Weird Things, Redux

Michael Shermer wrote a book called Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, which I own and have read several times. I always find it fascinating, but recently I’ve been thinking about Shermer’s main point: why, in fact, people do believe weird things.

Shermer’s point can be summed up with a few quotes:

More than any other reason, the reason people believe weird things is because they want to. It feels good. It is comforting.

Immediate gratification. Many weird things offer immediate gratification.

And finally, Shermer lists the last reasons as: simplicity, morality and meaning, and “hope springs eternal.”

I disagree.

I think I have a rather unique perspective on the issue. I’m looking at “weird things” (usually pseudoscience and other bogus claims) from the perspective of someone who regularly interacts with teenagers and the American education system. I watch people learning, and have made a hobby of looking at how, exactly, they learn.

It’s rather telling. But before I go into what I believe, let me look at what Mr. Shermer says and what I believe is wrong with it. To do so, I’d like to quote another one of his books, The Mind of the Market:

There appears to be a sharp distinction between how people view their own beliefs — as rationally motivated — and how people view the beliefs of others — as emotionally driven.

To me, Shermer has fallen into his own trap. He states that people believe in weird things for emotional reasons — exactly what the psychological bias would predict. I believe the true answer is somewhere between rational and emotional.

The fundamental problem is, in my opinion, is not that people don’t think and instead let their emotions take over; the problem is that they’ve never learned how to think. I’ve addressed critical thinking before, and I think it plays into the weird belief problem as well. (The blog post I just linked to explains part of the problem in more detail than I’ll go into here, so I suggest you read that as well.)

Let’s face it: a large number of weird beliefs could be discounted with some good old-fashioned thought. Astrology, for example, doesn’t take much besides common sense to discount: you’re telling me that stars millions of light-years away somehow alter my personality?

But, as I have said before, school teaches people how to do problems, not how to actually use knowledge to draw conclusions. Ask a student a question outside the bounds of his teaching and he will be lost, even if he has the knowledge necessary to figure it out. If nobody taught him how to do that specific type of question, he can’t. If nobody prompted him, saying, “so if a star is a million light-years away, what sort of effect can it have on you?”, then he will never pursue that train of thought.

So there’s the problem. No matter how much science we teach our children, they will still be unprepared to be thinkers in the face of “woo-woo”, as James Randi puts it. American students aren’t given the critical thinking skills required to help them analyze pseudoscience and know when it’s complete bunk. Critical thinking shouldn’t just be something students have to do on particularly irritating tests; it should be something they do as a habit, automatically, analyzing and thinking about everything they see.

I propose we make our science and math teachers force students to think. Give them problems outside the bounds of their teaching. There’s still hope.


  1. I was one of those high school kids you are talking about. I went through my whole high school career learning how to do problems but not how to think about problems. As a freshman in college I took a philosophy class in which we were required to read W.V. Quine’s “The Web of Belief”. It’s a short, easy to read introduction to rational thought and theory of knowledge. It changed my life.

    Sometimes I think it ought to be required reading for high school science classes.

  2. I’ll take a look at that book and see how I like it. (Looks like I’ll have to order it through Amazon.) Perhaps I can evangelize a little…

    To the first commenter: Looking at your blog, it seems like you’re into exactly what I’m into, except you’re doing a degree in it. I’ll be following your blog (it’s pretty neat), and I may be doing more posts along this line as well. I might have more ruminations yet.

  3. Cool, thanks. Will be writing a little more today about skeptic texts – and as for John, you might like to look at the curriculum model I wrote for our state’s course in Philosophy and Ethics… at least in one state in the world, Shermer’s ‘Weird Things’ would be a brilliant text for studies:

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