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Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category

Why People Believe Weird Things

During the Second World War, the Nazi’s orchestrated the systematic murder of millions of Jews in the gas chambers of concentration camps around Europe. This horror known as the Holocaust is remembered and studied by students and academics alike. But there are a few people out there who, for some reason, deny that it ever happened and try and suggest that the whole thing is a big conspiracy.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a brilliant scientist called Charles Darwin finally gave a name to the scientific theory explaining life and how it came to be here today in the form that it is. His Theory of Evolution precipitated a complete change in the understanding not just of science, but of the amazing world in which we live. But there are a few people out there who spend their entire lives trying to deny that it ever happened.

These two ‘weird things’ are just several of the many beliefs which Shermer discusses in Why People Believe Weird Things. Although I only read the first edition which is now 11 years old, it was a fascinating and still very relevant expose of some of the strange beliefs that humans hold dear and why they hold them so closely.

Shermer is a sceptic (or, to use the American spelling which is presented in the book – a skeptic) which, as he explains, offers a way of examining things, not a belief unto itself. To be sceptical, one must approach each claim with an open mind and base the truth or falsity of that claim on evidence in a scientific manner. He employs Hume’s motto

That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

So essentially, if the alternative explanation (other than the miraculous one) is completely unbelievable, then one would default to the miraculous explanation. If it was more miraculous that someone could fall asleep and experience a waking dream than it was if that said person was abducted by aliens and used for alien experiments, then the falling asleep explanation would have to be discarded. However, as one can clearly see, this simple reasoning tends to assist in disproving most supernatural claims.

Shermer’s  book isn’t just a treatise on debunking claims such as alien abduction, Holocaust denial, cults, witch crazes, near death experiences and the ubiquitous creationism. It is also an examination into why people believe such things. In this he touches on psychology, human need for comfort, biology and history. Ultimately, it is human nature to look for causality and to try and find simple explanations. Because of this, all too often human allow themselves to be seduced by fallacies to the point of refusing to listen to anything else. This book causes you to take a step back and look at your own beliefs and try and test each one for its plausibility. Without realising it, we are all subjected to fallacious thinking and convincing myths and often accept them without question, despite our ability to critically think and assess evidence.

Shermer’s overarching reason, however, for why people believe weird things is that hope springs eternal. Even if there is solid proof to the contrary, hope that the pseudoscience or myth is true continues to dominate. Perhaps that is an inescapable aspect of the human condition? And really, the majority of people who do believe in ‘weird things’ aren’t doing it because of political, racial or religious prejudice, or because they lack the ability to think for themselves. The majority truly hold that hope. But Shermer demonstrates that exploration, examination and critical thinking can result in explanations which are so amazing that you feel privileged to be alive and living within it. The reality of the world in which we live is far better than hope, if people would just walk out of the door and see.

I will definitely try and get my hands on the more recent edition of this book and re-read it because there was a wealth of information and a deliciously long bibliography at the back. It was the thing I adored when I was doing my MA – when you had finished a chapter, book or article, you came away with another list of related chapters, books or articles from the bibliography that you could go and explore further. Seems my academic years will never truly leave me.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-7167-3387-0
Publisher: W.H. Freeman and Co.
Year: 1997
Date Finished: 30 March 2008
Pages: 278
Challenges: 1/8 of Category 6: Science and Scepticism

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The Nuremberg Interviews were conducted by Leon Goldensohn during the trials of 1945-1946. Gathered together and finally published by his brother, Eli, and carefully edited and annotated by Robert Gellately, this primary historical source makes for chilling reading. Goldensohn, an American Jewish psychiatrist, was present at the prison and conducted interviews with many of the defendants and witnesses of Nuremberg. What results is a story of banality, in some cases inhumanity, weakness, bombast and fear. Through questioning, the personalities of the leading players came out, sometimes to terrifying and devastating effect.

I did not know all of the defendants or witnesses, but those that I did know – Goering, Ribbentrop, Jodl, Keitel and Franck among others, were suddenly given colour. To hear their own words was chilling. Most begged innocence. Most exonerated themselves of any responsibility for the mass murder and horror of the Second World War. Most chose to blame those players who were dead – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler. And most were clearly lying and delusional.

The most frightening of all was the interview with Rudolf Hoess – Kommandant of Auschwitz prison. His account of his responsibilities and the cool detatchment with which he spoke of them made me feel physically ill. I had to put the book down halfway through the chapter because I couldn’t stand reading further. To think that humans could be so detached in the face of suffering and murder, as attested to by his own words, was almost impossible.

This is a valuable historical source. It makes for incredibly compelling reading – if nothing else to find out how utterly ordinary most of the people involved with Hitler actually were. They didn’t appear to be monsters. They didn’t appear large as life. They just seemed like very ordinary (or often weak, snivelling or pathetic) men who for some reason, ceased to think like civilised human beings when it came to genocide.

A must for any historian of World War II. But be prepared.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 1-8459-5014-3
Publisher: Pimlico
Year: 2006
Date Finished: 29 December 2007

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