Believing Bullshit

In the last few years we’ve become accustomed to lies, distortion, pick n’ mix ‘facts’ and ‘fake news’ splashing around like an angry Falls of Clyde. Lies, falsity, religion and superstition have existed for as long as conscious minds, of course. The new twist is the ubiquity of instant means of digital communication. The trap is to think that anyone’s view is just as credible as anyone else’s because it can appear on Facebook or as a Tweet. Where, then, is the demarcation between truth and falsehood? How can you detect the bullshit?

A useful handbook is found in Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole by Stephen Law of The University of London. ( The trouble, as the author points out, is that irrational beliefs abound. The truth is either too stark to be palatable, or too complicated to understand. So people prefer the irrational and comforting. Members of the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ suicide cult believed they were taking a ride to heaven on board a UFO. Muslim suicide bombers expect to be greeted after death by 72 virgins. Fundamentalist Christians insist the entire universe is  6,000 years old. The Pope issues ‘infallible’ statements (‘ex-cathedra’) which are later rescinded. Of the 10,000 widely worshipped gods known to cultural anthropology, modern believers are sure that 9,999 of them are false and fictitious, but the one they happen to believe in is real.

Of course, it’s not only cults and religions that promote the irrational. Huge numbers believe that aliens built the pyramids, and that astrology columns predict their future. How does this nonsense flourish? Believing Bullshit is a witty and insightful critique that will help immunize readers against the wiles of cultists, religious and political zealots, conspiracy theorists, and the host of delusional fools. It clearly sets out the tricks of the trade by which such insidious belief systems are created and sustained.

Follow up this theme by reading further why people believe the irrational. Michael Shermer ( has offered explanations why people jump to, and cling to, nonsense in The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths (2011).  Reviewed by me here

This should be followed immediately with Shermer’s Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye (2016) (reviewed by me here )

Go on to Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) by Daniel Dennett.  American philosopher and cognitive scientist Dennett shows how religious belief could have evolved, despite being irrational, because it has adaptive advantages. It binds people together around a single totem and ensures social control. Also, ascribing agency to aspects of the natural environment is a survival tool. For example, it’s better to jump to the conclusion that the rustle in the long grass is a lion rather than just the wind. Generalised and formalised, this tendency leads to the illusion of supernatural beings (gods).

One of the pervasive delusions is about the apocalypse. This is dealt with admirably in Living at the End of the World (1998) by Marina Benjamin (reviewed by me here The root fallacy in all these expectations is to believe humans are special, and have some special destiny in the narrative of history. This is the equivalent of a child thinking its bedroom is the nicest bedroom ever, and that its Mummy is the best Mummy in the World, ever.

In Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (2008) Robert L. Park asks why people persist in superstitious convictions long after science has shown them to be ill-founded. He critiques the supernatural from religion and the afterlife to New Age spiritualism and faith-based medical claims. He examines recent controversies and concludes that science is the best way we have of understanding the world.

Read an entertaining account of historic superstitions in Black Cats and Evil Eyes: A Book of Old-Fashioned Superstitions (2012) by Chloe Rhodes. Most of them have foundations in our ancestors’ efforts to ward off evil, which they blamed for hardship, illness and injustice. For most of human history life has been nasty, brutish, short and unpredictable.

Along the same lines is Simon Hoggart’s Bizarre Beliefs (1995) (reviewed by me here )

How Do You Know It’s True? Discovering the Difference Between Science and Superstition (1994) by Hy Ruchlis provides younger readers with an understanding of the basic nature of science, not just as a body of knowledge, but as a method. Ruchlis addresses the main theme by contrasting the Cinderella fable with the way scientists establish facts; he describes the scientific method and how it has been applied to increase human knowledge. The author demonstrates the unobservable nature of superstition, illustrates the dangers of magical thinking using the example of the Salem witch trials, explores the contradictions of such elaborate superstitions as astrology, and shows how astonishing events can be analyzed and explained using reason.

A more grown up read is Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-first Century (2006) by Stuart Sim. This offers an excellent historical account of the various forms of scepticism from the Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus to the present day. Well aware of the self- defeating character of compulsive scepticism, Sim strongly argues for a balanced sceptical and questioning mind set. This is the only defence against the pervasive Dogmatisms that are getting a frightening grip around the world in our time.


Check if this cool exercise in reason is in stock at your local library. Consult the online catalogue at

260 pages in Prometheus Books

First published 2011

ISBN  978-1616144111

Dr Stephen Law

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