That’s the title to an article over at Scientific American.com by Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things. The book itself is worth reading for anyone interested in learning more about critical thinking and the general lack of it exhibited by the average American. It attempts to explain why so many people seem to buy into pseudo-science and the supernatural. The article linked above talks about why even highly intelligent people will often profess a belief in such things despite, or in spite of, their supposedly high IQs. Here’s a quick review of the book from Amazon.com:
Few can talk with more personal authority about the range of human beliefs than Michael Shermer. At various times in the past, Shermer has believed in fundamentalist Christianity, alien abductions, Ayn Rand, megavitamin therapy, and deep-tissue massage. Now he believes in skepticism, and his motto is “Cognite tute—think for yourself.” This updated edition of Why People Believe Weird Things covers Holocaust denial and creationism in considerable detail, and has chapters on abductions, Satanism, Afrocentrism, near-death experiences, Randian positivism, and psychics. Shermer has five basic answers to the implied question in his title: for consolation, for immediate gratification, for simplicity, for moral meaning, and because hope springs eternal. He shows the kinds of errors in thinking that lead people to believe weird (that is, unsubstantiated) things, especially the built-in human need to see patterns, even where there is no pattern to be seen. Throughout, Shermer emphasizes that skepticism (in his sense) does not need to be cynicism: “Rationality tied to moral decency is the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known.” —Mary Ellen Curtin
I’ve read the book years ago and it is largely responsible for my present status as a skeptic. Prior to reading the book I tended to dislike the idea of calling myself a skeptic simply because of the negative connotations the word holds for so many people. This book does a good job of showing why skepticism is not necessarily a negative stand point, but is a very healthy way to approach any unfamiliar idea. I hope to add it back to my personal library in the not too distant future myself.