The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer


Why the Rational Believe the Irrational

This book is a must read for understanding conspiracy theories, who believes them and why, and how to counter them.

When author Michael Shermer saw the video of a middle-aged man named Kevin Seefried walking across the rotunda in the Capitol Building dome on January 6, 2021, proudly waving a large Confederate flag representing bigotry and hate, he could not help but wonder, “What went wrong with this man’s beliefs?”

With the legacy of January 6th and the conspiracy theory of a stolen election still plaguing the country (two-thirds of Republicans believe President Biden is illegitimate), the problem of today’s conspiracism is more pressing than at any time in our history. In Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational (Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 9781421444451; On sale October 25, 2022; $29.95), best-selling author Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, presents his own original theory to explain why people believe conspiracy theories, and in an engrossing analysis shows how we can determine which conspiracy theories are likely true or false, and how we can break their power.

Conspiracism has been part of the fabric of society for centuries; we evolved to detect external threats of dangerous coalitions. Many conspiracies are real. For instance, the most consequential conspiracy of the 20th century was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, resulting in a war costing tens of millions their lives. And conspiracies often grow up around a shared traumatizing event, like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the death of Princess Diana, or the events of 9/11. But the conspiracy theories that have gained popularity of late are markedly different from those in the past, in that they require little to no proof for their adherents. Mere assertion of a conspiracy claim suffices—“fake news” or “rigged” or “people are saying” is all the evidence many people need to be convinced of their veracity.

Historically, popular American conspiracy theories tended to reside on the fringes of society, but today conspiratorial thinking has gone mainstream. Shermer cites Skeptics Society polling research showing that, for example, a remarkable one in five Americans believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the United States are controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation” (QAnon), and one in four believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration.

While the impulse to see conspiracies might be a natural human trait, it is not necessarily healthy, especially not for a diverse society and a liberal democracy that depends on institutional trust. How might we combat the rise in belief in conspiracies? One answer is education. Shermer notes that 42% of people without a high school diploma score highly in having conspiratorial predispositions, compared with those holding postgraduate degrees, who come in at 22%. Another is transparency: the checks and balances in the institutions that make up a liberal democracy must be immune to conspiracies.

In Conspiracy, Michael Shermer provides an urgently needed model to explain who believes in conspiracy theories, why, and how to debunk them when they are false. As former president Barak Obama wrote in 2020, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work.”

Advance Praise for Conspiracy

“Imagined conspiracies claim one implausible explanation for many real problems. But some conspiracy claims are true, and more were true in our tribal past. How can you tell actual conspiracies from crazy theories? Once again, Michael Shermer has written a sparkling, irresistible, astonishing romp through one of today’s biggest problems.”

—DR. JARED DIAMOND, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

“Searingly smart and fascinatingly informative, Conspiracy is also an exhilarating read. With his trademark flair, brilliance, and hawk-eyed clarity, Michael Shermer helps us make sense of a world run amok.”

—AMY CHUA, Yale Law Professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations

“Conspiracists are often dismissed as fools or psychopaths, but Michael Shermer shows we are all susceptible: left and right, old and young, educated and illiterate. In this erudite account of the history and mystery of conspiratorial beliefs, he explores the devastating social consequences conspiracies can create—along with their powerful psychological and evolutionary benefits.”

—CAROL TAVRIS, coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

“I enjoyed reading this book tremendously. Seeking to debunk some common yet irrational conspiracy theories, Shermer explains what drives people’s belief in them while also acknowledging that real conspiracies do occur. Along the way, he delves deeper into a range of other interesting questions, examining what the evidence says about a Kennedy or 9/11 conspiracy, how to detect if conspiracy theories are likely true or false, how to talk to conspiracy theorists, and the details of the real conspiracy that ultimately gave rise to World War I. Shermer does a terrific job making this complex yet interesting research field accessible to any reader.”

—JAN-WILLEM VAN PROOIJEN, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, editor of The Psychology of Political Polarization

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