Ever since my book Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997 I have been asked about the weirdest things people believe that I’ve come across in my quarter century of professional skepticism. I thought it would be fun and instructive to compile a Top Ten list. Naturally the criteria of what constitutes “weird” is necessarily subjective, but generally speaking I am talking about things that most experts do not believe are true but nevertheless have gained a toehold in our collective cultural consciousness. I also consider the wider impact of the claims on society. The belief that the Earth is flat, or hollow, is certainly weird, but it isn’t something that people give much thought to. By contrast, these ten seem to have a gravitational pull on people’s beliefs.
Top Ten Weirdest Things People Believe
#10. Ancient Aliens
The belief that aliens have been visiting Earth for millennia gained a mass following in 1968 with the publication of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, which became an international bestseller. Publishers like such cash cows, and the tens of millions of dollars in sales generated numerous sequels, including Gods from Outer Space, The Gods Were Astronauts and, just in time for the December 21, 2012 doomsday palooza, Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials. Earthlings still await their arrival.
The latest channel for the belief that ancient peoples were incapable of accomplishing such inconceivable feats as piling cut stones on top of one another into a pyramid shape is the History Channel, or more precisely H2, which lacks the oxygen of the original. Its series Ancient Aliens series stars the starry-eyed bouffant capped Giorgio Tsoukalos, whose most common refrain is best captured in a poster of his goofy expression and the words “I’m not saying it’s aliens…but it’s aliens.”
The reason this one makes the top ten list is because of its ubiquity (77% of Americans believe there are signs that aliens have visited the earth at some time in the past) and its instructiveness of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam, or appeal to ignorance. The illogical reasoning goes like this: if there is no satisfactory terrestrial explanation for the Egyptian pyramids and many other features of ancient landscapes—such as the Nazca lines of Peru and the statues of Easter Island—then the extraterrestrial theory that they were built by aliens must be true.
In point of fact archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have perfectly terrestrial explanations for all the so-called unsolved mysteries of the past, such that extra-terrestrial explanations are unnecessary. Before we say something is otherworldly we should first consider its worldly explanations.
Interestingly, in researching this subject for my July 2013 column in Scientific American, I discovered that in subsequent printings of Chariots of the Gods? the question mark was dropped and this disqualifier was added on the copyright page: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” QED.
#9. UFOs are Visiting Earth Today
For over half a century reports have been coming in about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) darting about our skies and landing in our crop fields, mutilating cows, probing humans, and even impregnating women with alien-human hybrids. Since “UFO” has become something of a joke, a new phrase was recently introduced: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), proffered by the investigative journalist Leslie Kean in a 2010 book entitled UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. Kean asks readers to consider “with an open and truly skeptical mind” that such sightings represent “a solid, physical phenomenon that appears to be under intelligent control and is capable of speeds, maneuverability, and luminosity beyond current known technology,” that the “U.S. government routinely ignores UFOs and, when pressed, issues false explanations,” and that the “hypothesis that UFOs are of extraterrestrial or interdimensional origin is a rational one and must be taken into account, given the data we have.”
How much data do we have and can it help us distinguish between UAPs and what I call Completely Ridiculous Alien Piffle (CRAP) such as crop circles and cattle mutilations, alien abductions and anal probes, and genetic experiments and human-alien hybrids? According to Kean, “roughly 90 to 95% of UFO sightings can be explained” as “weather balloons, flares, sky lanterns, planes flying in formation, secret military aircraft, birds reflecting the sun, planes reflecting the sun, blimps, helicopters, planes in formation, the planets Venus or Mars, meteors or meteorites, space junk, satellites, swamp gas, spinning eddies, sundogs, ball lightning, ice crystals, reflected light off clouds, lights on the ground or lights reflected on a cockpit window” and more. So the entire extraterrestrial hypothesis is based on the residue of data left over after the above list has been exhausted. What’s left? Not much.
In all fields of science there is a residue of anomalies unexplained by the dominant theory. That does not mean that the prevailing theory is wrong or that alternative theories are right. It just means that more work needs to be done to bring those anomalies into the accepted paradigm. In the meantime, it is okay to live with the uncertainty that not everything has an explanation. And once again, before we say something is extra-terrestrial let’s first make sure that it is not terrestrial.
#8. Evolution Denial (Creationism)
The argumentum ad ignorantiam employed by alien and UFO proponents is actually an old one used by evolution deniers—better known as creationists, or Intelligent Design theorists—who make what are called “God of the gaps” arguments: wherever there is a gap in scientific knowledge, that is evidence of divine design. The problem with all such arguments from ignorance—or gaps—is what happens to your theory when the gaps are filled? In science, for a new theory to be accepted, it is not enough to only identify the gaps in the prevailing theory (negative evidence). Proponents must provide positive evidence in favor of their new theory.
This is what creationists have failed to do ever since Darwin published his theory in 1859. Denying that evolution happened, denying that natural selection suffices as a mechanism of evolutionary change, denying macro-evolution (while accepting micro-evolution), denying transitional fossils, denying embryology, comparative anatomy, and comparative physiology, denying biogeography, and denying the genetic similarity of all living beings adds up to a lot of denial in order to rescue religious beliefs from the onslaught of convergent evidence from so many lines of inquiry.
This one also makes the list because of its popularity (polls consistently show that 40-45% of Americans believe in young earth creationism, another 40-45% believe that God guides evolution, while the rest take a strictly materialist/non-supernatural view of evolution) and it’s influence on science education as religious groups continue to lobby school boards, curriculum boards, textbook publishers, politicians, and teachers to “teach the controversy” and to give “equal time” to creationism in its many forms. Yet their curriculum programs fail to offer anything more than gussied up versions of “God did it” explanations, without even bothering to explain how God did it. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe no one did it.
#7. Holocaust Denial
The doppelganger of evolution denial, Holocaust revisionists (as they call themselves) deny the Shoah with very similar tactics as creationists (I explore this in depth in my book Why People Believe Weird Things):
A. Holocaust deniers find errors in the scholarship of historians and then imply that therefore their conclusions are wrong, as if historians never make mistakes. Evolution deniers (a more appropriate title than creationists) find errors in science and imply that all of science is wrong, as if scientists never make mistakes.
B. Holocaust deniers are fond of quoting, usually out of context, leading Nazis, Jews, and Holocaust scholars to make it sound like they are supporting Holocaust deniers’ claims. Evolution deniers are fond of quoting leading scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Ernst Mayr out of context and implying that they are cagily denying the reality of evolution.
C. Holocaust deniers contend that genuine and honest debate between Holocaust scholars means they themselves doubt the Holocaust or cannot get their stories straight. Evolution deniers argue that genuine and honest debate between scientists means even they doubt evolution or cannot get their science straight. The irony of this analogy is that the Holocaust deniers can at least be partially right (the best estimate of the number of Jews killed at Auschwitz, for example, has changed), whereas the evolution deniers cannot even be partially right—once you allow divine intervention into the scientific process, all assumptions about natural law go out the window, and with them science.
I wrote an entire book on this topic, Denying History so I won’t go into the details of their many arguments and my many refutations here, but suffice it to say that Holocaust denial makes the list because of the deep and profound political ramifications, particularly in the Middle East where there are still people who, while denying Hitler attempted to eradicate European Jewry, nevertheless believe he should have and that they would still like to. Thus is it, pace George Santayana, if we do not remember this past properly we may be condemned to repeat it.
6. Morphic Resonance and ESP
According to Rupert Sheldrake, a Cambridge University trained scientist and scion of paranormal researchers dating back the late 19th century, the universe is infused with what he calls morphic resonance: similar forms (morphs) resonate and exchange information through a universal life force. This, he says, is “the basis of memory in nature….the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species.” As Rupert explained in a 1999 Salon.com interview: “Descartes believed the only kind of mind was the conscious mind. Then Freud reinvented the unconscious. Then Jung said it’s not just a personal unconscious but a collective unconscious. Morphic resonance shows us that our very souls are connected with those of others and bound up with the world around us.”
As well, Sheldrake writes in his 1981 book A New Science of Life that “As time goes on, each type of organism forms a special kind of cumulative collective memory. The regularities of nature are therefore habitual. Things are as they are because they were as they were.” Morphic resonance, Sheldrake continues, is “the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species,” and it explains phantom limbs, homing pigeons, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and such psychic phenomena as how people know when someone is staring at them. “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images.” This is also why it is so much easier to do the New York Times crossword puzzle later in the day—because people earlier in the day have already solved it and that knowledge resonated into the cosmos. You’ve noticed that right? No? Me neither.
#5. JFK Conspiracy Theories
Kevin Costner had it right the first time when, in his 1988 film Bull Durham, he proclaimed to Susan Sarandon’s character “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone” (along with his other beliefs, such as “high fiber, good scotch, the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve,” and memorably, “I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days“). As opposed to Costner’s 1991 film JFK, in which he unforgettably repeated “back and to the left” over and over to drive home the point that there were multiple shooters—three teams at least—nestled in Dealey Plaza and positioned in the Dal-Tex building, on the grassy knoll, behind the picket fence, on the highway overpass…the possibilities are endless with enough imagination.
This one makes the list because for the past half century it has emerged as the mother of all conspiracy theories (possibly topped only by the next one on my list) and has considerable public support. A 2009 CBS News poll, for example, found that 60-80% of Americans believe that President Kennedy was the victim of an assassination conspiracy.
Conspiracy popularity notwithstanding, they are all wrong. Oswald acted alone. If Gerald Posner’s devastating take-down book Case Closed doesn’t do it for you (it did for me), Vincent Bugliosi’s brobdingnagian Reclaiming History at 1,648 pages (or the “short” version Four Days in November at only 688 pages) demolishes every single claim for conspiracy ever made. Consider just a few of the many facts that are not in the conspiracy believers’ favor:
- Conspiracy theorists make a big deal about the fact that Oswald happened to get a job at a building that was on JFK’s parade route, assuming that he was planted there by the conspirators. In point of fact, however, Gerald Posner tracked down the timeline for when the White House decided Kennedy was even going to Dallas, which was well after Oswald was hired. It was pure coincidence.
- Oswald’s Carcano bolt-action rifle—with his fingerprints on it—was found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, where he was employed, in a sniper’s nest he built out of boxes that also had his fingerprints on them.
- Three bullet casings there match what 81% of eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza reported hearing—three shots.
- Tests with this rifle found that three shots are possible in the amount of time Oswald had to shoot.
- The Carcano was the same rifle Oswald purchased by mail order in March 1963.
- Co-workers saw Oswald on the sixth floor of the Book Depository building shortly before JFK’s motorcade arrived, and saw him exit soon after the assassination.
- Oswald went home and picked up his pistol and left again, shortly after which he was stopped by Dallas Patrolman J.D. Tippet, whom Oswald shot dead with four bullets, all witnessed by numerous observers. He then fled the scene and ducked into a nearby theater without paying. The police were summoned and Oswald was confronted. He pulled out his revolver and attempted to shoot the first officer but the gun failed and he was arrested, saying, “Well, it is all over now.”
And so it is. It is all over for JFK conspiracy theories. Oswald acted alone. Period.
#4. 9/11 Conspiracy Theories
Was 9/11 an “inside job”? That is, did the Bush administration orchestrate the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001? No.
But a lot of people think it is possible, or at the very least that President Bush and his operatives knew about the pending attacks and allowed them to happen in order to galvanize the American public into going to war against Iraq to finish the job his father failed to complete, as well as to protect our oil interests and other Middle East relations. Just as I never imagined that Holocaust denial would wend its way into the mainstream press, I never imagined that 9/11 denial would get media legs. But now it has legs for days, and so at Skeptic magazine we published a full rebuttal of all the 9/11 truthers’ claims.The belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking, and is easily refuted by noting that beliefs and theories are not built on single facts alone, but on a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry. All of the “evidence” for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under the rubric of this fallacy. By contrast, the evidence of the real conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda is overwhelming. For example:
- The 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon by a radical Hezbollah faction.
- The 1993 truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center.
- The 1995 attempt to blow up 12 planes heading from the Philippines to the U.S.
- The 1995 bombings of U.S. Embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 12 Americans and 200 Kenyans and Tanzanians.
- The 1996 attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. military personnel.
- The 1999 attempt to attack Los Angeles International airport by Ahmed Ressam.
- The 2000 suicide boat attack on the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others.
- The well-documented evidence that Osama Bin Laden is a major financier for and the leader of Al-Qaeda.
- The 1996 fatwa by Bin Laden that officially declared a jihad against the United States.
- The 1998 fatwa calling on his followers “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military is an individual duty for any Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”
Given this evidence, and the fact that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda officially claimed responsibility for the attacks of 9/11, we should take them at their word that they did it.
#3. The End of the World is Coming (Again)
You would think by now that people would have glommed on to the fact that since every single prediction about the end of the world has failed it would forestall any future attempts to predict the future’s demise. But no.
The years A.D. 1000 and 2000, of course, were too round and zeroey to pass up for apocalyptic doomsday scenarios, yet both came and went without incident. There was a European famine in 1005-1006 that was believed to fulfill one of Jesus’ admonitions to his disciples that this would be a sign of the end. But Jesus died at age 33 and, by some calendrical calculations, since he was born in the year 0, a millennia later would put the end at 1033, and this lead to a mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem by the faithful in preparation for the final judgment. There were “Peace of God” movements in the 990s and 1030s gathering in open fields to venerate holy relics. But the centuries rolled on.
In 1843 a New York farmer named William Miller recalculated Bishop Ussher’s famous computations for the beginning and end of the world (using the begats in the Old Testament), concluding that instead of the end coming in 1996 (2000 years after the birth of Christ in the oxymoronic year 4 B.C., so presumed because that was the year King Herod died, and he was alive when Jesus was born), it would happen sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the latter date came and went without incident a “great disappointment” set in among his followers, but instead of abandoning their deranged prophet the sect recalculated the end for October 22, 1844, finding themselves twice disappointed. But instead of disbanding the group they instead doubled down on their belief (the very definition of cognitive dissonance) and employed several rationalizations that prophets use when their prophecies fail: (1) miscalculation of the date; (2) the date was a loose prediction, not a specific prophecy; (3) the date was a warning, not a prophecy; (4) God changed his mind; (5) predictions were just a test of members’ faith; (6) the prophecy was fulfilled physically, but not as expected; and (7) the prophecy was fulfilled—spiritually.
That group went on to become the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. But they’re lightweights compared to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose failed dates of doom include 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1975, 1984, and finally 1996, after which church leaders issued an edition of their magazine Awake! reminding readers of Jesus’s famous admonition that no man will know the “day or the hour” of his coming (even though Jesus also said “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”, referring to the signs of the end times).
Not just religious people are smitten with end times predictions. Secular versions have been proffered by hardline Marxists and communists (the end of capitalism), extreme environmentalists (the end of resources), liberal democrats (recall Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man), libertarians (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is an apocalyptic doomsday work), radical feminists (the end of patriarchy), and most recently the singularity (the end of biological intelligence and the beginning of artificial intelligence and human immortality), which is predicted to arrive sometime between 2030 and 2040. Don’t bet on it.
2. The Afterlife and the Soul
According to a 2009 Harris poll the following percentages of Americans believe in some form of the afterlife and the soul:
Soul survival 71%
This one makes the list because of its popularity and importance for most people’s purpose in life. Even the atheist Woody Allen said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” I am often asked about the afterlife. My response: I’m for it! But the fact that I wish it were so does not make it so. And there is no scientific evidence that anything like a soul transcends the death of our physical bodies, or that there is life after life. As I wrote in my book The Believing Brain:
Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does or ever will. Does science and skepticism extirpate all meaning in life? I think not; quite the opposite, in fact. If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities—and how we treat others—when every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts; not as props in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow where ultimate purpose will be revealed to us, but as valued essences in the here-and-now where provisional purpose is created by us. Awareness of this reality elevates us all to a higher plane of humanity and humility, as we course through life together in this limited time and space—a momentary proscenium in the drama of the cosmos.
According to Oxford University Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia, 84% of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion, and a 2007 Pew Forum survey found that 92% of Americans believe in God “or a universal spirit”.
God or a universal spirit 92%
I realize that calling belief in God a “weird thing” will be offensive to some, but to be intellectually honest and consistent it should be correctly classified as a supernatural belief because by most traditional believers’ accounts God is conceived as all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all good (omnibenevolent); who created out of nothing the universe and everything in it; who is uncreated and eternal, a noncorporeal spirit who created, loves, and can grant eternal life to humans.
I do not believe in any such god. Further, I believe that there is substantive evidence to show that God and religion are human and social constructions based on research from psychology, anthropology, history, comparative mythology, and sociology. I present this evidence in my book The Believing Brain. As well, the burden of proof is on believers to prove God’s existence—not on nonbelievers to disprove it—and to date theists have failed to prove God’s existence, at least by the high evidentiary standards of science and reason.
I also note a problem we face with the God question: certainty is not possible when we bump up against such ultimate questions as “What was there before time began?” or “If the Big Bang marked the beginning of all time, space, and matter, what triggered this first act of creation?” The fact that science has yet to answer these questions with certainty doesn’t faze scientists because theologians hit the same epistemological wall. You just have to push them one more step. For example, in my debates and dialogues with theologians the exchange usually goes something like this for the question of what triggered the Big Bang:
God did it.
Who created God?
God is He who needs not be created.
Why can’t the universe be “that which needs not be created?”
The universe is a thing or an event, whereas God is an agent or being, and things and events have to be created by something, but an agent or being does not.
Isn’t God a thing if He is part of the universe?
God is not a thing. God is an agent or being.
Don’t agents and beings have to be created as well? We’re an agent, a being—a human being. We agree that human beings need an explanation for our origin. So why does this causal reasoning not apply to God as agent and being?
God is outside of time, space, and matter, and thus needs no explanation.
If that is the case, then it is not possible for any of us to know if there is a God or not because, by definition, as finite beings operating exclusively within the natural world we can only know other natural beings and objects. It is not possible for a natural finite being to know a supernatural infinite being.
Thus it is that skepticism in this realm, as in so many others, is altogether appropriate. As the bumper sticker says:
Militant Agnostic: I Don’t Know and You Don’t Either.
© 2015 Michael Shermer, All rights reserved