Why People Believe Weird Things (review)
- Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. By Michael Shermer. Foreword by Stephen Jay Gould. 1997: W. H. Freeman and Company (New York). ISBN 0-7167-3090-1. xii + 306. Includes bibliographical references and index.
In modern society, one of the most potent icons for selling ones product is, curiously, the Nazi swastika. If one can position oneself as either victim of or opponent to the Nazis, one is free to portray the swastika on book covers and advertisements, certain in the knowledge that its appearance will spark an interest in the minds of the paying public.
Michael Shermer, editor of the deceptively titled Skeptic Magazine, director of the Skeptics Society, and self-appointed expert on skepticism for meetings, radio shows, television shows, and elsewhere, got his first taste of the potency of the swastika as a sales gimmick in 1994, when he used it to lift the circulation of his magazine to a level previously only dreamed of.1 Shortly thereafter, Shermer went from being an obscure professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, to being presented as an
expert on the Holocaust and specifically on Holocaust revisionism on the nationally-televised
Donahue show, opposite revisionists Bradley Smith and David Cole.
For Shermer, a relentless self-promoter, the results of swastika waving and revisionist bashing seem to have pointed the way. While his actual performance was dismal, recognition for being a
Nazi fighter is not based on performance, but rather on image. So Shermer, who has a doctorate in the history of science, became the latest in a long line of people claiming to have — at last — the final answer to the revisionist challenge, despite the fact that he had virtually no expertise or knowledge of the subject at hand. Lest anyone doubt his skeptical and unbiased position on Holocaust studies, Shermer has repeatedly stated that he is not Jewish, which seems an implicit recognition that Jews are not to be trusted with representations about the Holocaust: If he felt that Jews were unbiased, it would be unnecessary for him to make such a representation.
Since the publication of his original 1994 article in Skeptic, Shermer has been working on a book-length treatment of Holocaust revisionism. Why People Believe Weird Things is not that book,2 but it does contain three chapters on Holocaust revisionism, alongside three muddled chapters on skepticism, science, and logical fallacies, and a chapter each on the paranormal, near-death experiences, alien encounters, witch crazes, and cults of personality (focussing on the cult the sprang up around writer Ayn Rand). He also devotes three chapters to creationism, and one to race. Two final concluding chapters deal with the role of science and why people (presumably he means
persons) believe weird things (presumably he means
hold weird beliefs).
The chapters on revisionism in this book closely follow the original Skeptic article, which was so tangled and disorganized that it seemed to defy review and/or rebuttal. Time has not improved the presentation any, and in some respects the presentation of the material is worse in the book than in the Skeptic article. Reading Shermer, one is reminded of what Arthur Butz, author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, had to say about anti-revisionist Jean-Claude Pressac:3
The disorganization is there not because of the bad style of the author, but because of the bad logic applied by the author and desired of the reader.
Because the disjointed nature of the article and book versions of Shermer’s attacks on Holocaust revisionism, this review will necessarily be incomplete.
Talking the talk
In answering the question,
What is a skeptic?, Shermer writes (p. 17),
In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the ‘show me’ state. When we hear a fantastic claim, we say ‘That’s nice, prove it.’ Shermer quotes (p. 45) David Hume,
‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Better words could not be found for a skeptical motto. Shermer further quotes Hume (pp. 46-6):
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention),That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.
Shermer also warns against some of the problems that cause illogical thinking (p. 51):
Rumors do not equal reality, and
One would be well-advised to first thoroughly understand the probable worldly explanation before turning to other-worldly ones (p. 95). Later (p. 95),
Emotive words are used to provoke emotion and sometimes to obscure rationality. Underlying it all, Shermer repeatedly claims to be following a dictum of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza,
I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. Shermer’s deeds, though, do not even begin to approach the lofty ideals he so fervently promotes.
Michael Shermer: Science groupie
In fact, the message that comes through most strongly is that Shermer is an ideologue, hiding behind science. He is now proselytizing science with the same fervor and ignorance he once proselytized God, and took up endurance cycling. He is evangelizing scientific theories as if they are immutable truths, hoping against hope that his simplistic parroting of the works of others will be enough to reduce a complex world to something understandable and soothing. His ardent, though flawed, subservience to the scientific method would be touching if there was not so much desperation in his efforts. Shermer seems unwilling to acknowledge that, the strengths of the scientific method notwithstanding, neither science nor scientists is perfect, and each can be completely wrong.
It is this point of
truth theories that reveals the fundamental flaw in Shermer’s approach to science and revisionism. For, while Shermer the scientist holds the position that science is not in the
truth business, and should be ready to question anything and everything, Shermer the believer states that some theories such as relativity and evolution are no longer theories to be tested, but rather have become truths needing only to be accepted. So, while outwardly Shermer acknowledges that science is a method, inwardly he acts as if it is a belief system.4
Another manifestation of Shermer’s blind allegiance to
science can be seen in his treatment of
fire walking. While dismissing (pp. 52, 274-5) claims that walking on hot coals is possible by mind over matter, he attempts to retire the entire matter by stating that anyone can
walk on fire because the coating of ash insulates a person’s feet from the heat of the coals. Shermer compares it to the difference between putting one’s hand into a hot oven (which can be done without harm), and grabbing a metal object in that hot oven (which will result in a burn). This explanation is astonishing for several reasons, not the least of which is that some
fire walkers actually walk directly on burning-hot rocks. If Shermer doesn't know this, then he simply doesn't know his subject. If he knows but chooses to ignore it, or to dismiss it because he cannot provide a
scientific explanation, then it shows a fundamental dishonesty, as well as a lack of faith in his professed religion: science. Many persons resort to tactics such as this when dealing with difficult issues, but these are precisely the types of tactics a true skeptic ought never to consider, let alone employ.
The politically correct nature of Shermer’s skepticism can in part be seen in the topics he chooses to examine in his book. For example, Shermer attacks faith healing, witch hunts, claims of UFO abduction, creationism, Afro-centrism, differences among the races, psychics, and Holocaust revisionism. None of these beliefs is mainstream, meaning that the potential to rock the boat is virtually nonexistent. To put it another way, the bulk of Shermer’s
skepticism marches in lock step with the currently accepted thinking by the federal, state, and local governments in the United States. It is not difficult to imagine Shermer in other age, surreptitiously urging that monotheists be nailed to the cross in Jerusalem, meekly siding with the Church against Galileo in Italy, or timorously joining in the persecution of witches in 17th-century New England.
Further evidence of Shermer’s superficial skepticism is shown in his juxtaposition of what he labels weird beliefs. For Shermer, topics such as fire walking and UFO abduction are on par with the debate over Holocaust claims (objectively one of the most important and most taboo issues of our time), and with investigations of racial characteristics and differences (an important issue in this or any other time). For Shermer, who strives to appear eclectic but comes off as merely eccentric, these topics are all
This is not to say that Shermer alone should be singled out, thus letting other skeptics off the hook. Indeed, it is a sad commentary on the state of intellectual honesty in the world today that non-Shermer skeptics haven't yet raked Shermer over a bed of hot coals for his brand of politically-correct
skepticism. In such an atmosphere, it is hardly surprising to find fulsome praise on the back cover from the likes of Jared Diamond and Carol Travis, and a foreword by none other than Stephen Jay Gould. With a possible exception of their stand on freedom of expression, today’s community of skeptics resembles nothing so much as what Lenin termed
Five big mistakes
In attempting to debunk Holocaust revisionism, Shermer makes five big mistakes.
- He fails to define his topic adequately;
- He misrepresents revisionists and their positions;
- He assumes good motives of anti-revisionists and ascribes bad motives to revisionists;
- He attempts to establish history through the use of what he calls a
convergence of evidence;and
- He misrepresents documents and evidence.
Defining the Holocaust
Although not explicitly stated in his book, Shermer uses a flawed definition of the Holocaust, as he has before: In his Skeptic article5 he used three different definitions of the Holocaust, and subsequently6 he came up with a fourth, which is so meaningless it must be seen to be believed.
I define the Holocaust, wrote Shermer,
as the functional intent on the part of the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry. By this definition, no Jew has to have died for there to have been a Holocaust, and mistreatment doesn't count; it is the intent that matters, but only as long as the intent is functional. Any non-functional (dysfunctional?) intent is not included in the Shermer Holocaust. Of course, there is no evidence that there was a Nazi plan or policy to exterminate the Jews, and there is plenty of evidence that where Jews were concerned the Nazi policy was emigration if possible, expulsion if necessary. Shermer’s definition does have the benefit of sounding vaguely scientific, but as Shermer notes (p. 49) in his list of logic fallacies
scientific language does not make a science.
Shermer does provide (p. 188) the reader with
three points found in most definitions of the Holocaust: 1. There was intentionality of genocide based primarily on race. 2. A highly technical, well-organized extermination program using gas chambers and crematoria was implemented. 3. An estimated five to six million Jews were killed. Ignoring for the moment what other points should be included in
most definitions of the Holocaust (left unspecified by Shermer), compare this to what revisionists say:
- There was no Nazi plan or policy to exterminate the Jews,
- There were no Nazi gas chambers, and
- the figure of six million Jewish deaths is an irresponsible exaggeration.
Revisionists do not say that these three points define the Holocaust. On the contrary, revisionists acknowledge a great many things happened to the Jews before and during the Second World War, both in German-controlled territories and other places. In providing only a truncated definition of the Holocaust, Shermer is clearly attempting to imply that those who take issue with these selected points are therefore denying these points, and because these three points define the Holocaust, such persons are therefore Holocaust deniers.
Shermer later writes (pp. 213-4):
Deniers seem to think that if they can just find one tiny crack in the Holocaust structure, the entire edifice will come tumbling down. This is the fundamental flaw in their reasoning. The Holocaust was not a single event.
No revisionist believes the Holocaust was a single event, or that it has a
structure that can be destroyed by finding
one tiny crack. It is worth noting that Shermer does not name any revisionist (or denier, for that matter) who holds this position. However, despite his earlier
redefinition of the Holocaust, and mischaracterization of the revisionist position, Shermer has put his finger on precisely why revisionists say they do not deny the Holocaust, although they do question certain aspects of claims associated with what has become known as
the Holocaust. Later still (p. 225), Shermer himself refers to
the Holocaust as
an event. Shermer’s claim of identifying the
fundamental flaw in the revisionist position is false, thus Shermer’s response to this flaw is of dubious value.
The Holocaust was thousands of events in tens of thousands of places, and is proved by millions of bits of data that converge on one conclusion. The Holocaust cannot be disproved by minor errors or inconsistencies here and there, for the simple reason that it was never proved by these lone bits of data in the first place.
While it may never be known how Shermer defines or views the Holocaust, he is to be thanked for acknowledging that there is no single piece of evidence that contradicts the revisionist position concerning Holocaust extermination claims.
Note also that Shermer starts out attacking
deniers, but then shifts to a discussion about what can be
disproved. If revisionists were really
deniers, it wouldn't matter how many
bits of data there are to support Holocaust claims, because denial doesn't have to account for facts: revisionism — which follows the scientific method — does.
Finally, Shermer’s reference to
minor errors or inconsistencies in the accepted version of the Holocaust extermination myth is essentially dishonest. Shermer acknowledges that there is no evidence of a Hitler order to exterminate the Jews, that there were no Nazi gas chambers where once some were claimed to have been, that Jews were not made into soap, that the death toll at Auschwitz was overstated by almost three million, that the Wannsee Conference was not held for the purpose of planning the extermination of the Jews, and that other claims that the Nazis exterminated Jews and others simply are not true. However for Shermer, these are all discounted as unimportant and trivial aspects of the Holocaust story, as if
the Holocaust — again as an event — is as established as the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the questions raised by revisionists are of no more consequence than variances in the colors of the sunset. Here, Shermer’s attitude on the Holocaust is once again the same as every other credulous believer in the extermination myths, and no matter how much is proven untrue, he and his fellow believers will continue to keep the faith, even in the absence of any evidence supporting their position.
As noted above, Shermer’s attack on revisionism includes labelling revisionists as
deniers. Shermer’s use of the term
deniers is in contrast to what he wrote in his Skeptic article, in which he presented arguments as to why revisionists should be called revisionists.7 That argument, and its conclusion, are missing from the book. Just as striking is Shermer’s shift on this point from the position he took in 1995, during his public debate with Mark Weber. There, Shermer stated that revisionists had a problem being accepted as legitimate scholars because of perjorative labelling, and because of aspersions regarding ideological motives. Now, Shermer is one of those who uses perjorative labels and casts aspersions on the motives of revisionists. Likewise missing is an explanation of why someone who questions whether the Nazis had
functional intent to exterminate European Jewry is a
Shermer’s attempts to paint revisionists as
deniers are so ham-handed that he substitutes one word for the other no matter what the context. For example, in his Skeptic article he correctly stated:8
Even though he [David Cole] disagrees mightily with many revisionists' beliefs and most of their politics, he will introduce himself in the media as arevisionist…
In the book (p. 202),
'denier', making the sentence untrue. David Cole most assuredly does not (and never did) introduce himself as a denier, as Shermer well knows.
Shermer further misrepresents revisionism by ignoring the nuances of the revisionist position, in order to set up a
straw man (one of the logic fallacies Shermer neglects to enumerate), that is, setting up an erroneous or overly simplistic opposing position that can be easily demolished. Here Shermer, in common with many anti-revisionists, egregiously misrepresents both the revisionist position and the scope of the debate, not only to make revisionism seem ridiculous but also to strip the revisionist position of so much of its substance that he can pretend to triumph in a contest of wits in fora where he already enjoys the advantage.
As seen above, Shermer employs this technique to distort the three main points revisionists make about Holocaust extermination claims. But Shermer’s misrepresentation is more comprehensive than that: He also refers to all revisionists as if they form a monolithic unit. This is not unusual among ideologues such as Deborah Lipstadt, but Shermer knows better. In June 1996, he wrote,
I realize that I cannot lump all revisionists together as holding the exact same beliefs ….9 In this book, he states (p. 193),
we must remember that the denier movement is not a homogeneous group …. Exacerbating the situation caused by muddling together all revisionists as
deniers, Shermer takes the extra step of treating all revisionists as if they are equally good sources of information on any given topic. This practice reaches its nadir when Shermer, in talking about the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), quotes outsiders David Irving about a bequest left to the IHR’s parent corporation, and David Cole about the focus and direction of the IHR. As a result, the information presented by Shermer on these two topics is simply wrong. If Shermer felt uneasy calling the IHR for this information, which is possible although unlikely given the amount of information and material supplied him by the IHR for his research, then he could have consulted the public record. By seeking out secondary sources, however, Shermer is better able to maintain his artificial construct of
denier world, which he alone has been able to penetrate.
Shermer also takes time out to denigrate individual revisionists. He refers (p. 190) to Robert Faurisson as a
gadfly who refuses to be pinned down on details. The reality is exactly the opposite. When they met at the IHR Conference in Irvine, California, in 1995, Faurisson, who has spent more that a quarter of a century studying Holocaust claims, repeated for Shermer his request for
one proof, just one proof for the existence of a Nazi gas chamber. Shermer writes that when he asked Faurisson,
'What do you consider Shermer is either lying or he is mentally underequipped for the rigors of verbal discourse. Faurisson’s stock reply, which he has given many times, is,
proof?' Faurisson was unwilling (or unable) to answer.
Whatever you consider to be proof. Faurisson has even put this in writing for Shermer’s benefit:10
… He [Shermer] asked me what was a proof for me. But I had already answered his question. It was, as in a criminal case, a physical or material representation of the weapon of the crime. If he did not agree, he would have to tell me why and he would have to bring me what he called a proof, not in theory but in practice.
I kept repeating that he had to give just one proof of his own. After all, it was he who had made an accusation; he had to prove. It was up to him to decide what kind of proof he would bring. We would then discuss that proof. Unfortunately he never brought anything for us to consider.
This situation is not changed by the appearance of this book. Shermer, a man who has visited the major concentration camps said to have contained gas chambers, a man who claims to be able to describe the location, construction, and functioning of Nazi gas chambers, utterly fails to produce his evidence, and instead relies on hackneyed and shopworn Holocaust claims, including the now completely discredited testimony of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss.11
Shermer also repeatedly misrepresents the nature of Faurisson’s challenge, falsely claiming that Faurisson is asking for
one proof, just one proof of the Holocaust. In reality, Faurisson has twice pointed out that Shermer has accused the Germans of:
- having decided to construct chemical slaughterhouses to kill the Jews systematically and in great quantities;
- having built the weapon with which to perpetrate this crime; and
- having used it for years in special operations using special techniques.
Because of this serious accusation, Faurisson asks Shermer for
one proof, just one proof of the alleged gas chambers, not of the Holocaust. Because Shermer is the one making the extraordinary claim, it is he who should provide the proof.
In another context Shermer relies (p. 198) on what the ADL says about what the Guardian Weekly says about what Faurisson said, rather than quoting Faurisson directly.12 It seems clear that Shermer is not — and has never been — disposed to listen to revisionists with anything near the attentiveness he accords anti-revisionists. This is not skepticism, and it certainly isn't scholarship.
What is really disappointing about Shermer’s treatment of revisionists is that, unlike the Lipstadts of the world, Shermer has spent hours and hours discussing the finer points of Holocaust revisionism with the cream of the revisionist crop. Journal of Historical Review editor Mark Weber, independent researcher David Cole, Robert Faurisson, and others generously gave of their time and materials so that Shermer could gain a clear understanding of the facts and the context of the Holocaust controversy. Shermer, who like many anti-revisionists admits off the record that the revisionists have raised a lot of good points, neither acknowledges nor uses this information, instead repeating the standard extermination line, giving credit only to anti-revisionists for helping in the preparation of his work.13 For Shermer, anything contributed by revisionists is worthless until acknowledged by traditional historians. After acknowledgement, the contribution is self-evident (and probably unimportant anyway). He later (p. 181-5) bemoans the fact that revisionists are sometimes the only ones disseminating truthful accounts of some aspects of the Holocaust story, although the implication is that revisionists are simply popularizing details pointed out by
Shermer (who does not speak German) presents himself (pp. 222-3) as having a much better idea what Nazi leaders meant 50 years ago when speaking and writing in their native tongue than best-selling British historian David Irving, even though Irving’s spoken and written German are better as a second language than Shermer’s English is as a first language. Shermer neglects to mention that others, including Jewish historian Robert Wolfe, formerly an expert on captured German documents for the National Archives, agree with Irving’s assessment on the meaning of one of the main words in contention, ausrotten, or perhaps he never bothered to ask.
In the process of denigrating Irving, Shermer includes two breathtaking lies. Irving, he claims (p. 195),
began to deny the Holocaust altogether, not just Hitler’s involvement after reading the Leuchter Report. In fact, after reading the Leuchter Report, Irving realized that stories about Nazi gas chambers were probably not true, even though he still accepts other aspects of the Holocaust extermination myth rejected by revisionists such as Robert Faurisson. But Shermer’s greater calumny against Irving is that Irving is a liar for stating that publication of his book, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich, was cancelled by a major publisher after the contract had been signed, and that this major publisher asked Irving to return the advance they had paid. The proof of these accusations, according to Shermer, is that this book was published by Irving’s own Focal Point publishers in London (p. 195).
It defies explanation how Shermer could have missed the worldwide flap that ensued when major New York publisher St. Martin’s Press, virtually on the eve of printing Irving’s book on Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, succumbed to what the London Times called
prolonged protests from Jewish pressure groups, broke its contract, and halted publication of the U.S. edition. Shermer not only was sent copies of The Journal of Historical Review and at least one direct-mail solicitation that featured ads for the British edition of this book — ads that included information on the reprehensible behavior of St. Martin’s Press — but he also bought a copy of this book from the IHR precisely because the St. Martin’s Press affair meant that the book was unavailable from mainstream book sources.
Shermer also implies (p. 197) that Irving is biased in advancing the revisionist position (apparently only where Holocaust extermination claims are concerned). However, Shermer doesn't explain how it is that his co-author Alex Grobman (and others) are somehow not biased when they support Holocaust extermination claims.
Not content to stop there, however, Shermer later (p. 197) makes the ludicrous statement that Irving, whose works were once published by major publishers including Arrow Books (London), Avon Books (New York), Morrow (New York), Macmillan (New York), Congdon & Weed (New York), Congdon & Lattes (New York), Hodder and Stoughton (London), Kimber (London), St. Martin’s Press (New York), M. Joseph (London), Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London), Viking Press (New York), Button (New York), Elmfield Press (Morley), Cassell (London), Little, Brown (Boston), and Simon and Schuster (New York), among others, was motivated to adopt the revisionist position on the Nazi gas chambers by the prospect of self-publishing his books and selling them by hand to a few hundred revisionists around the world.
Shermer has a more difficult time discrediting Mark Weber, and seems nonplussed after having confirmed that Weber does indeed have a degree in history, implications by Deborah Lipstadt and rumors to the contrary on the Internet notwithstanding. Not to be deterred, however, Shermer accuses Weber of making politically-incorrect statements about race (p. 193), repeats a wildly false story put out by the Simon Wiesenthal Center linking Weber to German neo-Nazi groups (p. 194), and opines that Weber could really make something of his life if not for his
fixation on Jews and the Holocaust (p. 194). This really seems to bother Shermer, who quotes (p. 204) Weber as saying,
The very existence of this [U.S. Holocaust Memorial] museum points up this perverse sensitivity of Jewish concerns in our society. Shermer completely misrepresents this demonstrably truthful statement by commenting,
There is not a lot of gray area in this statement. Sensitivity about Jews and the Holocaust ‘campaign’ is ‘perverse’ … The only way Shermer could take exception with this sentiment is if he feels that the appropriate level of sensitivity is
too much, and that anything less is nowhere near enough.14
Shermer’s relationship with Weber also figures in a major anomaly in the book. In many of his discussions of
weird beliefs, Shermer manages to talk about himself and his own involvement with some aspect of the topic at hand. He even admits to believing once that he was being abducted by aliens (p. 88). When discussing Weber, however, Shermer somehow neglects to mention the debate the two of them had concerning various Holocaust extermination claims. After his opening chapter on revisionism, which deals with what even Shermer felt was a dismal appearance on the
Donahue show, one would expect Shermer to revel in recounting the details of his valiant two-hour-long battle against a revisionist in a forum free of the restraints of modern television, much as he does when writing about his face-to-face meeting with a creationist. However, not only is there no mention of this debate, Michael
Revisionists-should-be-free-to-state-their-position Shermer actually refused (without stating a reason) to allow an advertisement for a video tape of the confrontation to appear in Skeptic magazine.
More ad hominem attacks
While attempting to disparage German-Canadian activist Ernst Zündel, Shermer makes another slip that reveals his lack of courage, describing (p. 199) Zündel as a pro-Nazi so unrepentant that he dares to speak his mind even in front of Jews. Having thus established Zündel as the epitome of evil, Shermer later mendaciously assures (p. 209) his readers that
Zündel is acknowledged as the spiritual leader of the movement.
Playing the race card
One might wonder why Shermer resorts to personal attacks after noting that such attacks are among the
fallacies that lead us to believe weird things (p. 56) One repeated theme in these attacks is Shermer’s attempt to link revisionism with racism. The lengths to which Shermer goes to make this connection are almost unimaginable. Consider the example found in Chapter 15, which is devoted to looking at racial differences. Shermer starts out by mentioning The Bell Curve, the 1994 book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray that brought discussion of racial differences in mental ability to the forefront of public discussion. After only a couple of paragraphs about The Bell Curve, however, Shermer, following his typically desultory approach, leaves off discussion of this thought-provoking, critically-acclaimed book to mention the IHR! The (tortured) connection is that the authors of The Bell Curve acknowledge the assistance of something called the Pioneer Fund. The Pioneer Fund also supports something called Mankind Quarterly, according to Shermer. Many years ago, Mankind Quarterly had an editor by the name of Roger Pearson. In the 1960s, over a decade before the founding of the IHR, Pearson worked with one of the co-founders of the IHR (p. 240). What significance this can possibly have is anyone’s guess, and this is not the only occasion where Shermer goes far afield to mention something of virtually no importance. It is difficult to guess whether he actually sees a connection, or whether he simply cannot distinguish between the substantive and the extraneous.
Revisionism = Creationism
In fact, Shermer uses a similar technique to slight revisionism in an earlier chapter on creationism. According to Shermer (p. 131),
Of all the claims we have investigated at Skeptic, I have found only one that I could compare to creationism for the ease and certainly with which it asks us to ignore or dismiss so much existing knowledge. That is Holocaust denial. Further, the similarities between the two in their methods of reasoning are startling. Shermer then lists the devious methods used by revisionists that so closely match the methods of creationists (p. 132):
- Revisionists find errors in the work of historians, point out these errors, and then challenge the conclusions based on the erroneous material.
- Revisionists quote (usually out of context, says Shermer)
Nazis, Jews, and Holocaust scholars to make it sound like [sic] they are supporting Holocaust deniers' claims.
- Revisionists contend that debate among Holocaust scholars means they can't get their stories straight.
On the basis of these statements, it seems that for Shermer, a conclusion based on errors is not wrong if it supports the traditional version of the Holocaust extermination story; any fact or statement by a
Nazi, Jew, or Holocaust scholar that supports the revisionist position either is out of context, does not really support the revisionist position, or both, because there is no possibility that an in-context quote from these sources could support the revisionist position, even though
real historians are revising our understanding of the Holocaust all the time; and the debate among Holocaust scholars is over such small details that there exist no substantive differences deserving of exploration by revisionist scholars. Here as elsewhere, Shermer appears as less a skeptic and more an overeager sycophant for the secular religion known as the Holocaust.
As mentioned earlier, Shermer equates revisionism with pseudohistory, which he defines as the writing of history to fit a predefined goal. Yet he identifies very few points on which the revisionists are wrong, and in fact, he identifies more points on which they are right, implying that anti-revisionists are wrong for reasons of ideology. So, where he claims that revisionists have bad motives, he fails to identify bad history, whereas in the case of the anti-revisionists, he identifies bad history, but fails to notice bad motives. Motives should be beside the point, but aren't for Shermer — where revisionists are involved. Even if revisionists did have some motive for attempting to correct history other than the obvious one that the truth matters in and of itself, it is illogical to assume that someone with bad motives is illogical, as Joe Sobran has pointed out.15
If motives really do matter to Shermer (that is, if everyone’s motives matter, and not just those real or imagined motives of revisionists), then why doesn't Shermer question the motives of the 34 French scholars who in 1979 signed a statement saying,
It is not necessary to ask how, technically, such a mass murder was possible. It was possible technically because it took place.? Why doesn't Shermer question the motives of his anti-revisionist friends for not publicizing that they know more than they will admit in public? Why doesn't Shermer question the motives of those who make demonstrably and maliciously untrue Holocaust claims? Why doesn't Shermer question the motives of his co-author, Alex Grobman, Director of the Jewish Federation Council and the Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles? And why doesn't Shermer question his own motives for repeatedly stating that he is not Jewish?
‘Convergence of evidence’
One manifestation of Shermer’s reliance on science to provide him with a safely understandable universe can be seen in his reliance on what he calls
convergence of evidence. For Shermer, the theory of evolution is
proved by convergency of evidence, which he never really defines, although he implies that it means that once you get enough evidence from enough different sources, then you can claim to have proven your theory, and establish something as being the truth. Shermer claims evolution to have been proved by
the convergence of evidence from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, herpetology, entomology, biogeography, anatomy, physiology, and comparative anatomy. Shermer does not state which of the many theories of evolution is proven by this method, but neither does he address the issue of why this same technique is unreliable when used to
prove witchcraft, alien abductions, and that there was a functioning Nazi gas chamber at Dachau.
Robert Faurisson dealt with this issue many years ago:16
… the Exterminationists all employed the all-too-facile system ofconverging bundles of presumptionsor again, as it was called in past times,adminicles(parts of a proof, presumptions, traces). Each of their alleged proofs, rather shaky, was supported by another proof, itself rather fragile. There was much use of testimonial proof, which is the weakest of all because, as its name indicates, it is based only on testimony. Theessenceof the testimony of Kurt Gerstein was called on, supported by theessenceof the confession of Rudolf Höss, which rested on theessenceof a personal diary in which, they say, in veiled language, Dr. Johann Paul Kremer revealed, and at the same time concealed, the existence of the gas chambers. In other words, the blind man leans on the cripple, aided by a deaf man. In the past, at the time of the witchcraft trials, judges made great use of adminicles and, in order to condemn witches and wizards, relied on a strange accounting method whereby a quarter of a proof added to a quarter of a proof, itself added to half a proof, are considered to equal a real proof (the film Les sorcières de Salem [the French version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible] depicts a judge practicing this type of arithmetic). Naturally, one couldn't provide definitive proof of the existence of Satan and of a meeting with him. It was impossible to prove his existence, as one would prove that of a human being. That wasn't the fault of the judges, the thinking went, but precisely that of Satan, who, it was no doubt thought, was too naughty to leave traces proving his misdeeds. Intrinsically perverse by nature, Satan left at the most only vague traces of his passing through. These traces did not speak by themselves. One had to make them speak. Especially wise intellects were skilled at detecting them in places where ordinary people saw nothing. For minds such as these, Satan had tried to cover his tracks but had forgotten to hide the traces of his so doing, and, beginning there, learned magistrates, helped by scholarly professors, were able to reconstruct everything.
The other problem with
convergence is that one must have looked at all the other sources, as Arthur Butz has done in The Hoax of the Twentienth Century. It is no surprise that Shermer arrives at a
convergence of the evidence while looking only at the evidence with which he feels comfortable.
Shermer somehow manages to misrepresent many of the documents he cites, but he cites one document in particular that simultaneously torpedoes his claim to understand the German language as spoken in the Third Reich, and his claim to have looked at all the evidence (as part of assembling his
convergence). Shermer cites (p. 221) a speech by Heinrich Himmler in February 1937 (Shermer erroneously has it as January 1937), in which Himmler is quoted as saying:
I have the conviction that the Roman emperors, who exterminated [ausrotten] the first Christians, did precisely what we are doing with the communists. These Christians were at that time the vilest scum, which the city accommodated, the vilest Jewish people, the vilest Bolsheviks there were.
Shermer uses this passage to denounce Irving’s interpretation of ausrotten as
to root out, writing,
… a check of historical dictionaries shows that ausrotten has always meant ‘exterminate.’
Commenting on Shermer’s use of this passage, Arthur Butz says:17
… it does indeed seem that Himmler is claiming that he is physically exterminating communists and/or Jews, and there were many of both in Germany then. It would be very difficult to argue, on the basis of internal analysis [of this speech alone], against such an interpretation. However Germany was not doing such things in 1937. Communist leaders and other political enemies had only been put into concentration camps.
If Himmler can seem to claim that mass killings which did not actually exist, where does that place later occasional comparable statements by him and other Nazi leaders?
If Shermer were honest, he would either 1) acknowledge that this document does not support his claim (and tell us what this revelation does to his utterances on
convergence), or 2) provide evidence that the Third Reich was killing hordes of Jews and Bolsheviks in 1937. In keeping with his approach to this subject, he does neither: In his most recent book, he retains the claim that ausrotten means
exterminate, and eliminates all mention of the foregoing Himmler speech.
Shermer proudly writes that
scientists show everything. Shermer himself, however, shows nothing. On the
Donahue show Shermer spoke of
photos of gas chambers. During his debate with Mark Weber, Shermer promised repeatedly to show the audience a video he had taken of gas chambers. In his book, Shermer writes of having examined computer-enhanced aerial photos of Birkenau, showing the gas chambers. To date, not one of these photos has seen the light of day. In his book, Shermer shows (pp. 234-6) the same old, unenhanced photos that have been around for years (he claims to have spent hours locating them).
On the matter of intentionality, Shermer cites (p. 217) commentary from various sources to prove that there must have been a Hitler order, and then claims,
Whether or not there was a specific order from Hitler for the extermination of the Jews does not matter,… It may not matter to Shermer, but it sure matters to a lot of other people. Historian Raul Hilberg at one point claimed that there were no fewer than two Hitler orders, and the entire reason for the split between the intentionalist camp (who believe the extermination of the Jews must have been planned at a high level in the Nazi government) and the functionalists (who believe that the extermination program evolved
organically among lower-ranked personnel) hinges on the existence of a Hitler order. Shermer does include a discussion of the schism between intentionalists and functionalists, but typically, at different times he supports different interpretations. It is next to impossible to discern which side he really supports.
Gas chambers and crematories?
In Skeptic, Shermer wrote,18
But should it ever turn out that gas chambers played a lesser role than we once believed, this in no way lessens the crime — murder is murder. Now Shermer states (p. 229),
No one source by itself proves that gas chambers and crematoria were used for genocide. This apparently is an attempt to finesse the entire question of the existence of a homicidal gas chamber, by lumping together delousing gas chambers (known to have existed) with alleged homicidal gas chambers (the existence of which has yet to be proven).
Rather than prove it himself, Shermer plunges into the murky world of testimony from sources revisionists will immediately recognize as those normally trotted out as
proof of the Nazi gas chambers. As noted above, he deals with aerial and other photographs, but does not produce anything new or substantive.
Shermer also attempts again to set up another straw man by mendaciously claiming (p. 229) that
deniers ask why no extermination victim has given an eyewitness account of an actual gassing, citing Butz’ The Hoax of the Twentieth Century without a page number. In fact, there are at least two
eyewitnesses who claim to have survived a gassing, and the revisionists have used their
testimony as examples of the kind of ridiculous lengths to which people will go to claim special victimhood.19
How many Jews died?
Shermer’s treatment of Jewish losses during the Holocaust is so superficial it must be seen to be believed. Essentially, he reproduces a chart from the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, claims that
Most scholars … place the total number of Jewish victims between 5.1 and 6.3 million, and then he asserts that any future revision of the total number of victims
is not likely to change by more than a few tens of thousands, and certainly not by hundreds of thousands or millions. (pp. 236-7) Shermer’s ability to predict the future and divine the past would be exceptional in anyone, but it is especially so in a skeptic.
Curiously, Shermer states (p. 236),
Whether it is five or six million [victims] is irrelevant. It is a large number of people. And it was not just several hundred thousand or ‘only’ one or two million, as some deniers suggest. This callous attitude toward the dead — where two million or even one hundred thousand victims is discounted as being somehow not
enough — is symptomatic of anti-revisionists, who simultaneously claim that if even one Jew was murdered by the Nazis, that constitutes a Holocaust.
Shermer’s new accounting for Jewish victims of the Holocaust stands in contrast with what he previously wrote in Skeptic, however, where he stated,20
I tend to go with the more conservative figures [5 million] because of the still unknown quantities killed in the Soviet Union. But if it turns out that fewer than this were killed, say ‘only’ three to four million, this in no way lessens the crime — millions are millions.
What would a skeptical researcher, confronted with the Jewish Holocaust in which there were nine million involved, and the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from the eastern territories after the Second World War where fourteen million were involved, wonder about the possibility of drawing comparisons between the two events if the death toll in each case was two million. That is, the common understanding is that two million ethnic Germans lost their lives after the Second World War in a massive ethnic cleansing in the eastern territories. If two million Jews lost their lives in the Nazi ethnic cleansing during the Second World War, why do we hear so much about the Jewish Holocaust and so little about the German expulsion? Is it possible that millions aren't millions? The answer seems to be that Shermer, in addition to not being a skeptic, is not a historian, and he has not (contrary to his claims) looked at all the evidence. But of course, he doesn't have to, because he supports the received version of the Holocaust, and has no real interest in any other version.
Shermer finishes up his proof by claiming that revisionists are conspiracy minded (but not consistently so, says Shermer), and by accusing revisionists of making the
moral equivalency argument, which essentially means that revisionists are attempting to put the Holocaust into context and perspective (a normal part of the writing of history in every other historical event, but a no-no when dealing with the Holocaust, according to anti-revisionists). Among these arguments, Shermer here quotes Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer as writing that there was not so much as a whisper of talk among the Nazi elite about an extermination program, because that’s not the way they operate (p. 239). In Shermerland, lack of evidence is itself evidence.21
Perhaps most indicative of Shermer’s feeblemindedness and unsuitability for critical thought is the
feedback loop of the Holocaust he provides on page 226. Judging by this example, Shermer has no idea what a feedback loop is, or how one works. Its crudeness and inaccuracy are astounding.
And yet …
Shermer admits that the revisionists have publicized some good points (he’s not yet ready to concede that revisionists originated many of these points, as well), that they should be allowed freedom to speak, that persons such as Elizabeth Loftus are blinded by their ideology, and that Holocaust scholars admit more in private than they do in public (p. 181, 182).
The editors at Freeman seem to have given this book all the editing it deserved, which is to say, little or none. From the title onward, this book is larded with grammatical errors, typographical errors, repetition, self-aggrandizement, logical fallacies, unsupported statements, and lackluster prose. In addition to the errors, lies, and omissions noted already, Shermer erroneously writes that Jean Farrel was related to Thomas Edison, and that Willis Carto runs Noontide Press, and this is just in the chapters devoted to revisionism.
During the debate with Mark Weber, Shermer stated,
Is it okay to ask these kinds of questions [about Holocaust extermination claims]? Of course it is. Yet in his book (p. 202) he wonders why David Cole asks these questions. We must assume, however, that no matter what he says, he feels these questions have some validity — even if only on a mean and personal level — because he has written so extensively in attempting to answer them.
The death of true skepticism
The best that can be said about Shermer’s brand of
skepticism is that it makes it possible for milquetoasts to masquerade as men. Shermer, who has admitted that he is not a brave person, seems to be using skepticism to gradually out himself. It certainly takes no courage to claim to be skeptic of the existence of witches. The whole point of the exercise is not to become a man, but rather to feel good about being a milquetoast. A perfect example of this is Shermer’s insistence that he is not an atheist (that is, one who does not believe in God because of the lack of scientific evidence to support a claim of God’s existence) but an agnostic (who believes that knowledge about God is unknown and unknowable, and therefore, outside of the realm of scientific investigation). When it comes to being a scientist — or even a skeptic — Shermer attempts to talk the talk, but he can't walk the walk.
The worst that can be said about Shermer’s
skepticism is that it promotes and facilitates the crushing oppression of the politically correct movement afoot in the world today. This is no small matter, as arising out of this political correctness are persecutions just as serious — and as unjustifiable — as the witch hunts of 300 years ago.
Why People Believe Weird Things promises to turn a skeptical eye not only on weird beliefs, but also on the reason why humans persist in weird beliefs. Instead, it shows the sorry state of modern-day skepticism, at least the brand practiced by author Michael Shermer.
For other views of Shermer’s scholarship, see:
- Bountiful Nonsense, by Gene Callahan
- Michael Shermer’s
Jumping TogetherArgument, by Lyle Burkhead
- Michael Shermer’s 18 bits of evidence, by Lyle Burkhead
- Bigotry Dressed Up as Science: The worthless screeds of pseudo-skeptic Michael Shermer, by Alexander Baron.
- Michael Shermer,
Proving the Holocaust: The refutation of revisionism and the restoration of History,Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 4 1994, pp. 32-57.
- The bibliography lists an upcoming book under the title, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, one step farther out from Deborah Lipstadt’s attack on revisionists, Denying the Holocaust. This book, to be published by Yad Vashem both in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, lists Alex Grobman, Director of the Jewish Federation Council and the Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles, as the co-author.
- Arthur Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The case against the presumed extermination of European Jewry, Newport Beach, CA: Institute for Historical Review. 1993. p. 391.
- Brian Doherty.
Critique of Pure Skepticism.Los Angeles: Reason; November 1997; p. 64. Los Angeles Times Magazine,
Weird Science,p. 11.
- M. Shermer.
Proving the Holocaust.p. 33.
- E-mail message to Mark Weber, June 28, 1996.
- M. Shermer.
Proving the Holocaust.p. 34.
- M. Shermer.
Proving the Holocaust.p. 37.
- E-mail to Mark Weber, June 28, 1996.
- R. Faurisson.
My comment on an open letter from Michael Shermer.March 31, 1995. See also a letter for publication, dated April 12, 1995, mailed to Skeptic Magazine. It is worth noting that Shermer also misrepresents this challenge itself, claiming that Faurisson is demanding one proof of the Holocaust.
- Prepublication pages from Shermer’s upcoming book indicate that now he implicitly ignores Höss' statements in favor of his own timeline of events.
- R. Faurisson.
Revisionism on trial in France: 1979-1983 ,JHR, Summer 1985, p. 133-181. (From a paper presented to the Fifth International Revisionist Conference, and dedicated to Ditlieb Felderer.) Shermer leaves out the phrase
but not its leaders,which is in italics in the original.
- M. Shermer.
Proving the Holocaust,p. 32n.
- See for example, Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999) and Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry (2000) for similar concerns about American hypersensitivity to the Holocaust.
- Joe Sobran.
The Stratford Response,Sobran’s, vol. 4 no. 8, August 1997, p. 6.
- R. Faurisson. Auschwitz: Technique & Operation of the Gas Chambers: Part I. JHR, vol. 11 no. 1, Spring 1991, p. 47.
- Arthur R. Butz, 13th IHR Conference, May 2000.
- M. Shermer.
Proving the Holocaust.p. 33.
- See for example,
Eyewitness ‘Testimony’ of an Auschwitz Gas Chamber Survivor(JHR, January/February 1996 (vol. 16 no. 1), p. 32). This
testimonyaccompanies the article on the Weber/Shermer debate, a copy of which was mailed to Shermer.
- M. Shermer.
Proving the Holocaust.p. 33.
- On page 41 of his Skeptic article, Shermer quotes Speer as saying,
… what I testified in court is true, that I had no knowledge of the killings of Jews …Shermer acknowledges that Speer said this, yet he maintains that Speer’s comments provide proof that the killings did occur!