Science Fictions

The Believing Brain
From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
Michael Shermer
Times Books, $28, 400 pp.

Few baseball players have ever plumbed the epistemological depths of baseball, few stockbrokers have written groundbreaking works of theoretical economics, and few of those who are good at physics have proved much good at metaphysics. Science simply isn’t the same thing as the philosophy of science, and few real scientists would imagine the two interchangeable.

But Michael Shermer is not a scientist, exactly. The founder of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, he’s more of a popularizer of science. The author of such books as the 1997 Why People Believe Weird Things—an enjoyable book, which summarizes the more scholarly work of others on such topics as the rage of accusations about Satanic abuse in child-care centers in the 1990s—Shermer has now followed up with The Believing Brain.

There are fewer actual case studies here than in Shermer’s previous work. He does mention a number of wild beliefs: alien abductions, economic bubbles, political fantasies, anti-Darwinism, ESP, autism-causing vaccinations, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and, naturally, faith in God. But the book is clearly less about the examples than about the theory Shermer uses to explain them all.

Shermer is not an original thinker, and does not really pretend to be....

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About the Author

Joseph Bottum is an author whose latest book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (Image/Random House). The former literary editor of the Weekly Standard and chief editor of First Things, he lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota.