SocraticGadfly: Another pseudoskeptical fail by Michael Shermer

March 31, 2023

Another pseudoskeptical fail by Michael Shermer

Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational

Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational by Michael Shermer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is an expanded version of the Goodreads review for inside baseball Skeptics™,pseudoskepticism reasons. Semi-regular readers here should know that I'm not a huge fan of Shermer, and this book only makes it worse. 

Let's dig in on the expansion.

This is a horrible book, not on the conspiracy theories, which I don't need Shermer to tell me, but on him totally getting wrong the one actual conspiracy he discusses, which is why this is 1-starred on a grok.

Rather than there being JUST and ONLY an Austrian conspiracy against Serbia in 1914, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand instead traces directly through one "Apis," head of both Serbian military intelligence and the secret society named The Black Hand, and also directly or semi-directly through confederates of Apis in the nationalist organization Narodna Odbrana, to Serbian Prime Minister Pasic. All of this and more is documented by Christopher Clark in the excellent book "The Sleepwalkers," which Shermer ACTUALLY REFERENCES and then ignores for Tim Butcher's "The Trigger," which is
A. A piece of crap and
B. Only about 10-20 percent about lead assassin Gavrilo Princip and 80-90 percent directly or indirectly about Tim Butcher.

Shermer's right that this is arguably the world's deadliest conspiracy. He's dead wrong about where the conspiracy started.


The rest of the book, without this egregious ax-grinding, would probably be 3 stars, no more, so, even without this, it's not worth a read. It's a basic definition of conspiracy vs conspiracy theories, basic overview on why many people believe in conspiracy theories, and how to try to talk to them.

But, surely Shermer could have found something else to discuss as a true conspiracy. Rather, it appears that, following in Butcher's footsteps despite having read Clark's documenting the likely ties to the Serbian government, and despite mentioning the Black Hand, even in an overall superficial treatment (and even talking about an assassination conspiracy, though trying to limit it to just the Black Hand, if that), he thought he could use some intellectual judo to show an Austrian conspiracy.

In reality, despite Conrad having been pushing for pre-emptive war with Serbia for years, even after the assassination, the Dual Monarchy was divided on going to war. And, trying to treat its Byzantine turns in just a few pages will be a good way to get superficial treatment even if not wrong — which, of course, Shermer is. And, I can say that as having read "The Sleepwalkers" TWICE. 


It's also bad for those other, inside baseball reasons.

First, citing libertarian pseudoskeptic and convicted felon Brian Dunning will get you nowhere in my book.

Second and related, attacking the tobacco merchants and climate change deniers when, at a minimum, I don't think you have ever publicly called out Penn and Teller for promoting both of them, and I'm not sure they've ever backtracked on climate change, is an issue. You yourself, in fact, albeit to a lesser degree than Dunning, have mixed libertarianism and skepticism at times, including on climate change (and Kurzweil's "singularity"). You've also mixed both with bad political hot takes, like on Occupy Wall Street.

In addition, you and Dunning blocked me at Skepticblog, in part because I called out both you and Dunning on the libertarian pseudoskepticism, and you and the Not-So-Always-Amazing Randi also had at least a couple of toes in the world of #MeToo problems, including, allegedly, personally having committed sexual assault, and also, at Skeptic mag, you've been at a minimum, a racialist fellow traveler, tackled again here in passing when talking about Pop Ev Psych and sexism. And, to tie this all into one nice neat bow, the actual Serbian conspiracies, of which its prime minister almost certainly had some foreknowledge, and its army intelligence even more? Driven by ethnic-based Serbian nationalism, which isn't too many stones' throws away from racialism, as Serbia's post-1989 history shows. (Not that Croatia's been a lot better.)

Beyond that is Shermer's ignorance of actual philosophy. Or him being "no true Scotsman" at times on skepticism in his personal life.

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