Michael Shermer seems like a totally nice guy. And yet there's something about his writing—it's not you, Michael, it's me—that seems to set my teeth on edge, and my brain to go into nit-picking mode.
This book, about conspiracies and the ardent believers of same, isn't bad at all; it's full of interesting
facts, fun stories, good advice, and fact-based debunkings of wacky conspiracy theories (9/11, JFK). It falls significantly off
in offering Shermer's effort at a Grand Unified Theory of conspiracy theorizing. But:
Nit One: Shermer's definition of "conspiracy" on page 23:
A conspiracy is two or more people, or a group, plotting or acting in secret to gain an advantage or
harm others immorally or illegally.
A decent editor would have pointed out the redundancy in "two or more people, or a group". And the
conspiracy is not the "group"; it's their plan. And does immorality or illegality really need
to be involved? Conceivably, the conspirators could be hatching a scheme that they perceive to
be in others' best interests!
JournoList, the private
forum where left-leaning journalists collaborated on the best talking points to
advance their preferred political narratives. Nothing illegal or (even) immoral
about that, and they probably all felt, in their heart of hearts, they were on the side of
When I have serious issues with the very definition of a book's main topic…
Nit Two: On page 38, where Shermer is running through the history of conspiracy theories,
one example provided is: "… and Senator Joseph McCarthy blacklisted writers perceived
to be Communists in the 1950s."
Now, I could be wrong about this, but I've read a bit about McCarthy and that era, and
I don't recall McCarthy himself blacklisting anyone, let alone "writers". The famous
"Hollywood Ten" blacklist happened in 1947 (a bit shy of "the 1950s") imposed by film studio execs, based on the refusal
of the Ten
to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Which of course
McCarthy wasn't on.
McCarthy did a lot of bad stuff, including probably
bogus claims that he had a list of known
Commies in government.
(And (sure enough) there were.)
Nit Three: Shermer's "case study in conspiracism" (Chapter 5) is
Sovereign Citizen Movement.
No doubt there's some Venn-diagram overlap between the sovereign citizens and actual conspiracy
theorists. But sovereign citizenism as such is more accurately described as simply a wacky legal theory;
conspiracism isn't necessarily involved.
Nit Four: Page 109: The Magnificent Seven is described as a movie
where "a 'posse' of gunslinging citizens are [sic] recruited to hunt down a
Mexican outlaw." Well, not exactly. The Seven were hired to defend a Mexican village
against a marauding gang of bandits. Defense, not offense. How hard is this to get right?
Well, enough nits. Good stuff, besides what's previously mentioned: Shermer has a number of tips
on how best to talk to conspiracists; he's had a lot of practice there. He reports on a Qualtrics poll
he did measuring the level of belief in many theories of varying nuttiness. Amusingly, the poll included
a couple theories that were entirely made up. Still, a significant number of respondents said
they found those theories credible.
I think this either shows (a) how gullible some people are; or (b) how hard it is to conduct a poll
when a lot of your respondents will either respond randomly or capriciously. (Like me: sometimes when faced
with a long list of items to rate on a 0-10 scale, I just use consecutive π digits: 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, 9, 2, 6, 5, …)
And one of the highest levels of belief was in the "theory": "Covid-19 was developed in a Chinese lab,
and Chinese officials have covered it up."
Dude, I rate that one "more likely than not".
To Shermer's credit, he admits the relative non-wackiness of that theory
later on. I'm not sure of the timing of the poll versus the timing
of revelations about sloppiness at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, gain-of-function research,
and the actions of those "Chinese officials" (and ours)
earnestly stonewalling investigations.
2023-01-01 UPDATE: I should have caught this before, and it's slightly bigger than a nit.
Shermer cites the "Milgram experiments" as holy writ (pp 112-3). Via Jerry Coyne's
the efforts to reproduce Milgram's results are (at best)
bills himself as kind of a Professional Skeptic; he should
have showed that in this case.