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Michael Sherman: Why people believe weird things

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Bastian Hayek

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I wonder if anybody here actually read Michael Sherman's book against pseudo-science. He debunks many myth but somehow he places Rand among all the pseudoscience.

From amazon:

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."

I found that people writing against the book on Amazon are mostly christian fundamentalist.

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Just FYI, it's Michael Shermer not Sherman.

I think you can read it online for free somewhere, I'm pretty sure I had at one point. His argument wasn't really anything new or different. He didn't just criticize her work, he explicitly calls Objectvism a cult. If I remember right, the points he made were that moral certainty, and certainty at all is dangerous and leads to harmful consequences. Shermer's argument hinges on the same kind of accusations of the Branden's, and Kelley, that Rand (and Objectivism) was virulent, neurotic, and "intolerant".

In a way it's too bad, some of the things he writes in regards to pseudo-science are clever, but when it comes to philosophy he takes the canned true skeptic stance. It's worth considering that he himself was once a christian fundamentalist as well.

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He's sort of typical of contemporary anti-philosophical, plug-and-chug modern aproaches to science. You have to remember that his goal is not to actually do science or engage in deep and serious thought, it is to influence the masses. I don't know the exact nature of his criticism of people who follow Rand mindlessly, but anyone who is mindless in holding to Objectivist beliefs does not understand Objectivism. But such people are no more typical of Objectivism than the cultists who uncritically accept Popper's dogmas are typical of "scientists". What I think is sort of depressing is how he himself falls into the pit of uncritically accepting conclusions without appropriate supporting evidence. As you can see from his criticism of Rand, which calls in question his judgment on other topics.

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I think some people (like mr. Shermer) believe in weird things.

They can go from being a Hitler youth for instance to becoming a leftist, militant radical, or deeply religious. I am never surprised for instance when someone like Gunter Grass, or some religious leader at the Vatican, is found out to have been raised by the nazis.

It is about the inability to be rational- to base your decisions on reason rather than emotions, and to develop the thought patterns that lead you with relative ease to those rational decisions), which is something you aquire as a child, during your education: I noticed how you listed all those things Shermer went through before he became a skeptic: he pretty much ran out of stuff to take at face value, and is now rejecting everything. (those are both emotional reactions)

He obviously never was an objectivist, in the sense that he never understood objectivism: it is a philosophy that encourages you to only accept things that you know to be true: so how can you rationally come to a conclusion, and then reject that conclusion? You reject it based on what, if you already employed all your cognitive abilities to study the issue, and arrived at the conclusion that it's true?

Which is more likely? Has Shermer become smarter in the past few years, or did he in fact accept Rand's ideas at face value in the first place, just like his previous pattern suggests he is inclined to do?

An objectivist is not someone who believes Ayn Rand's ideas to be true. An objectivist is someone who knows that her philosophy is the right one, based on his own rational mind. Shermer was never an objectivist, and many of us, here at this site, are not objectivists either.

While I don't consider myself an objectivist (the way Ayn considered herself one), I think I have the capacity to become one.(if objectivism turns out to be the right choice). One thing I do know however is that I cannot become an objectivist the way I became a "christian" when I was ten or a liberal and agnostic when I was 15. I know that Ayn Rand's ideas make sense to me, and that objectivism is the philosophy that is worth pursuing at this point in my life. Eventually, when(if) I understand it, and the world, well enough, I will either become an objectivist, or I will reject it: but I will never claim that I was one, and then I stopped being one.

If a person has the ability to evaluate themselves honestly enough, they cannot come to the conclusion that they understand the world well enough to make a rational and definitive judgment on how they should live their life (which Ayn Rand did), and then change their mind and decide they were wrong, and human beings cannot know anything about these issues. There is a huge intellectual dishonesty in someone who would do that, a dishonesty that won't just go away in a few years.

In my opinion someone like Shermer, who has at one point in his life believed so passionately in "weird things" as he calls them, does not have within him what it takes to become an objectivist. Nor does someone who used to be just one of those things: christian fundamentalist, true believer-during adulthood-in alien abductions, a white suppremacist, etc.

Why do I consider myself different from that, and why do I say that I can make rational decisions?

Well, when I was young (11-12), I remember spending a few weeks at a christian camp (pretty liberal protestant church), and I remember how good it felt to believe in God, and I also remember that the same fall I became aware of the fact that I can no longer believe in God, and I had a feeling of sadness over this fact. To this day I thank my lucky stars that I received the kind of education that made it possible for me to make what I believe was a rational decision that there is no God: I think I was conditioned to make rational decisions, and reject emotionalism, by my parents, grandparents and my teachers.

Further proof of that is that all throughout my teenage years I sought rational answers, and while before I discovered laissez-faire capitalism and libertarianism( and then Ayn Rand), I was a liberal, I was always a moderate: I never accepted socialism or environmentalism, I just sought out the left because they seemed more in favor of the rational and of science (by rejecting the Pat Buchanan's of the world).

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I think you can read it online for free somewhere, I'm pretty sure I had at one point. His argument wasn't really anything new or different. He didn't just criticize her work, he explicitly calls Objectvism a cult. If I remember right, the points he made were that moral certainty, and certainty at all is dangerous and leads to harmful consequences.

This is something I've noticed in modern science writers (presumably also in modern scientists, but I can't say for sure). The idea that certainty is impossible, and the best we can do is calculate probabilities (how one is to do that if one cannot know what is, well, that's hard to explain, isn't it?)

It's common for scientists to come up with wrong theories, of course. A scientist has to be willing to change his mind pending new evidence. But that doesn't mean he can't or shoulnd't be certain.

Objectivism rubs a lot of people the wrong way because it advocates almost the precise opposite of that is commonly believed. be it certainty, selfishness, Capitalism, etc.

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