There are many excellent books out there on skepticism generally, on the specific mistakes we tend to make in our judgments that lead us to believe what isn’t true, and on the more specific questions of CAM and evidence-based health care. As part of an ongoing project, I am re-reading a number of the classics in the skeptic’s bookshelf, including the almost iconic Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer.
I came from a position of vague but rather superficial skepticism, to a deeply held and (I hope) methodologically rigorous position on how best to evaluate medical claims through a process that stretched out over years and is still ongoing. The first and key step in this process was coming to understand the nature of how we form and maintain our beliefs, and where this process so often goes wrong. The first book that really hit home for on this subject was Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think, which I hope to review in the near future. However, many skeptics cite Shermer’s book as the seminal popular work on the subject, and it certainly does an articulate and cogent job of making the case that uncertainty is inevitable but real knowledge can be gained despite the limitations of our cognitive processes if we follow the tenets of sound scientific and skeptical method.
As Shermer puts it, “unless we rigorously use human reason both to discover and acknowledge nature’s factuality, and to follow logical implications for efficacious human actions that such knowledge entails, we will lose out to the frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, [and] uncompromising “true” belief…” He goes on to argue, and demonstrate, that skepticism must not be merely destructive of fale ideas but a positive approach to knowledge; “Skepticism is not a position; skepticism is an approach to claims…Proper debunking is done in the interest of an alternate model of explanation, not as a nihilistic exercise. The alternate model is rationality itself, tied to moral decency…”
Shermer makes effective use of personal experiences and anecdotes, his own of those of others, to illustrate, though not to prove, his arguments. I certainly fall into the category of scientists and intellectuals who find it difficult to write in a style that is engaging to those not similarly inclined, but Shermer has the ability to make complex ideas, and even ambiguity, clear and accessible. He begins by introducing the skeptical and scientific approach and contrasting it with pseudoscience. He then summarizes the barriers to thinking and reasoning soundly which these approaches are intended to correct.
There follows a series of chapters illustrating the application of the skeptical method to a variety of “weird” ideas, including near-death experiences, alien abduction, creationism, and Holocaust denialism. Many of the specific arguments and points of evidence may not be new to those already familiar with the methods and arguments of skepticism applied to these topics, but they are solid, persuasive summaries and reference sources. One of my favorite chapters, though it seems a little dated, is his critique of the Objectivist movement founded by Ayn Rand as having characteristics of a cult. This is a particularly interesting commentary coming from a self-identified libertarian.
Finally, he reviews how people come to and maintain false beliefs, and makes what I believe is a telling point of great relevance to medical professionals, which is that smart and educated people are not immune to such beliefs. As he says, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs that arrived at for non-smart reasons.” Skepticism is an epistemological position that one often arrives at, contrary to popular belief, out of a deep personal humility that arises when one begins to understand how tenuous and unreliable our perceptions, memories, and judgments all too often are. Such humility comes hardest for those who most need it, those who are intelligent, educated, and recognized by others as such.
I highly recommend reading Why People Believe Weird Things not only for those interested in the specific subjects addressed but also those who want to better understand how we all come to our beliefs and how we can guard against the natural human tendancies that sometimes lead us astray.