I originally learned of this book from reading a review of it on the Excite home page by Penn Gillette of Penn and Teller, where the highest praises were heaped upon it. Although not a bad book, and despite containing several good articles, I was disappointed with the book as a whole. The reasons for this are various: occasional lapses in factual accuracy, a little too much self-promotion, poor writing, more intolerance of religion than I am comfortable with, and an overall distrust of the author. On the latter point, I do not mean to say that I never have confidence in the accuracy of what he asserts, but that there were a couple of instances in which he made assertions that undermined my complete faith in what he was saying.
Where did Shermer lose my confidence? There were several instances, but I will mention two. My favorite book of 1997 was Keith Thomas's RELIGION AND THE DECLINE OF MAGIC. Shermer mentions this book in his article "Epidemics of Accusations: Medieval and Modern Witch Crazes." He writes: "In one of the best books on the period [i.e., the witch craze in England in the 16th and 17th centuries], Keith Thomas argues that the craze was caused by the decline of magic and the rise of large-scale, formalized religion" . This is an utterly baffling statement. Thomas at no point makes any point even remotely resembling this. It is possible to deduce such a position if one looks merely at the title of the book, but not from the text of the book itself. Thomas claims that the witch craze and witch accusations were caused by the erosion of traditional systems of benevolence and the decline of traditional forms of religion in which benevolence was central. In most instances of witchcraft accusation, the accusers claimed the "witches" had practiced witchcraft on them after they [i.e., the accusers] had refused to respond to a request for help. For instance, an individual would come to them for help--perhaps asking for bread or a mug of beer [the main source of calories during the period]--and be refused. Later, those who had declined to help might suffer nightmares or find a farm animal afflicted, and deduce that this was a result of their refusal to help. As Thomas points out, a large number of witchcraft accusations resulted from what we in the 20th century would recognize as feelings of guilt. Nowhere does Thomas suggest that the witchcraft accusations resulted from the rise of large-scale, formalized religion. My conclusion when I read this in Shermer was that he perhaps had read the title of Thomas's book, but nothing else. Or at best, that he had read it, but did not understand it. In either case, it caused me to wonder how well he had understood the hundreds of other books and individuals he discusses of whom I know less than Thomas.
The second instance that caused me to lose some confidence in Shermer concerned a statement he makes about David Hume: "The work [A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE] still garnered no recognition, so in 1758 he brought out the final version, under the title AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, which today we regard as his greatest philosophical work" . Who is "we"? It is certainly not Barry Stroud, J. L. Mackie, Pall S. Ardal, Annette Baier, or Norman Kemp Smith, who are the premiere Hume scholars of the past century. In fact, I know of only one writer who argues that the ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING is his most important work, and that is Antony Flew, and his view in widely recognized as a minority, somewhat aberrant, opinion. (In fact, Flew argues not that the one ENQUIRY is his most important work, but both the ENQUIRIES, both AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING and AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS. Shermer does not mention the existence of this latter work, which is the necessary complement of the other ENQUIRY. In other words, Shermer really just does not know what he is talking about here.
None of this means that Shermer cannot be trusted in the majority of his writing, but it nonetheless undercut my trust in his judgment. Having said that, many of the individual articles were quite enjoyable, and many were quite informative. A more serious criticism is that the book's content does not reflect its title. Shermer does not explain why people believe weird things so much as he catalogs weird beliefs. Admittedly, many of these beliefs are exceedingly weird. Still and all, I cannot recommend this book as highly as I can those of fellow sceptic and debunker Martin Gardner (whom Shermer mentions with great respect) or James Randi, both of whom I find to be a much more balanced and better-informed writers.