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a Chapter from Denying History

In Denying History, Dr. Michael Shermer takes on the darkest subject of his career — Holocaust denial — and exposes it for the pseudohistory that it is. In this free audio download from the first chapter, Dr. Shermer recounts how he and his co-author, Dr. Alex Grobman, went to visit Canadian Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, which subsequently took them on a journey that included Auschwitz, Majdanek, Mathausen, Treblinka, Sobibor, and the killing machinery of the Third Reich. Shermer then discusses the free speech issues and why Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon (where it is not illegal as in most other countries), and what it is that Holocaust deniers are denying. He then closes with a dramatic reading from the Scopes Monkey Trial, quoting Clarence Darrow on the importance of freedom of speech, even and especially for points of view that we find distasteful.
DOWNLOAD the sample MP3 (21MB)

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael E. O’Reilly reviews Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid it by Stephen Greenspan. Mike O’Reilly is a writer and business owner living in Salt Lake City. Originally from the Detroit area, he moved west in 2004 with his wife to attend the University of Utah, where he earned his masters degree in poetry. His first book, Mysteries and Legends of Utah, was published by Globe Pequot Press, in April. He is currently writing a book about hunting ethics, animal rights, and environmentalism.


The Gullible Instructing the Gullible

a book review by Michael E. O’Reilly

If you skim through the online reviews of Stephen Greenspan’s book on gullibility you will find many people eager to pounce on Greenspan for his being swindled by Bernie Madoff (which he discusses in his Skeptic article in Vol. 14, No. 4 and in eSkeptic), proclaiming that there’s no way they’d take advice about gullibility from a person so gullible. Of course, the fact that a psychology professor who specializes in gullibility has fallen for a major scam is the very reason one should read his book.

item of interest…
Innumeracy (cover)

The book that coined the word innumeracy, exposed math ignorance in popular culture and journalism, and changed the way math is taught.
ORDER the book

Early on, Greenspan lays out his model describing gullible actions as those that arise from the combination of at least two of the following four elements: personality, cognitive style, the state of a person, and the situation a person finds him or herself in. The first and last two chapters deal with the psychology of gullibility, and include an interesting set of examples of gullibility found in the Bible and in various children’s stories. The middle chapters are basically a series of short case studies, each exploring gullibility in religion, anti-semitism, war and politics, conspiracy theories, criminal justice, science and academia, finance, and vulnerable populations, including the very old, very young, and brain damaged people.

Greenspan offers an even-handed analysis of gullibility on just about every topic he tackles. But after presenting good examples of gullibility on the political right (Reagan’s popularity, and the “strong father” metaphor), he attempts to balance it with what I think is a bad example of gullibility on the political left. In a backbreaking, half-century stretch back in time, he criticizes left-leaning America for disregarding the brutality of communism, and for continuing to idealize the principles that brought about ultimate failure of the Soviet Union. But why choose this example when there are so many contemporary examples to choose from, any of which would resonate better with current conceptions of liberalism? For example, why didn’t Greenspan criticize liberals for falling—hook-line-and-sinker—for some of the blatantly disingenuous “greenwashing” campaigns launched by the slick marketing departments of huge corporations? Example: The colorful new British Petroleum TV commercials claiming that the new “BP” stands for “Beyond Petroleum.” Beyond my ass! Or, why doesn’t Greenspan call vegetarians gullible for believing that their soy products—trucked in from half-a-world away—are somehow more environmentally and morally defensible or (comfort word of the day) “sustainable,” than good ol’ steak and potatoes? How about a chapter called Gullibly Sustainable?

I was hoping to find analyses of more exciting topics like multilevel marketing scams (although he does go over Ponzi schemes), Native American shamanism, Mormons, modern urban and cultural legends like the fact that so many people believe AIDS has been cured, or that the CIA introduced crack cocaine into the inner cities to keep black folks down. And once I discovered that Greenspan has a brother with an autistic spectrum disorder, I anticipated a chapter about the whole autism/vaccination debate, but it never came. The only time he came close to addressing anything related to Asperger’s or autism, was when he discussed the case of Sheila McGough, a lawyer who “may have had a form of cognitive impairment known as nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD).” I thought McGough’s story, about her being conned by a client who happened to be a persuasive sociopath, was a poor example for Greenspan to use in his section about the gullibility of lawyers. McGough was someone suffering from NLD who happened to be a lawyer, not an example of a typical lawyer, and most readers would expect her to get scammed, especially by a guy who has successfully scammed normal functioning people. More interesting is how lawyers in general can be gullible (e.g, junk science in the courtroom).

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ORDER the book

One of the most interesting tidbits I took from this book involves a common misconception about degrees of trust among people. Conventional wisdom holds that those who are reluctant to trust others (low trust), have somehow been “burned” in the past, while people with high trust are more gullible, and have likely been sheltered, and/or never been betrayed. For Greenspan though, one’s concern about failure and betrayal is positioned a priori, rather than as the result of actual betrayals. “[P]eople low in trust, because of their fear of betrayal, avoid many interactions, thus limiting both their opportunity to learn as well as their opportunity to succeed.” Thus, if a person has little social experience and is not open to either taking the slightest emotional risk, or discovering new things about various topics, i.e. they are not curious, the person (who might be gullible, but also unsure about whom to distrust) most likely will not have put himself in many situations where he could have been burned, in the first place. Specifically, trust levels are determined by our “social intelligence.”

In contrast to those with low trust, Greenspan says, “People with adequate social intelligence are more able to pick up on cues indicating when to distrust someone … and thus are more likely to base their withdrawal of trust based on evidence rather than on a global overgeneralization that nobody is to be trusted.” If the low trusting person has been burned, it is generally at no higher a rate than those who have high trust. The difference is that when the high trust people get burned, they do so not out of gullibility, but because their higher social intelligence allows them to put themselves at greater risk, more often. The study of social intelligence is still a growing, mutating, and imperfect science as applied to this book, “the first of several” that Greenspan hopes “will contribute to the development of an interdisciplinary field of Gullibility Studies.”

Greenspan freely admits that part of his interest in studying gullibility stems from the fact that he is gullible. It’s implied that, given the right circumstances, everyone is gullible to some extent, which is what’s so problematic about Greenspan’s four-part list of ingredients for gullibility. It is very difficult to ascertain which elements are at work, or deficient, and to what degree. The result is that the reader becomes confused as to exactly why Greenspan is blaming one person’s gullibility on a certain cognitive misfire, or trait, while attributing another’s gullibility to some different psychological or situational phenomenon.

The latest additions to and

Shakespeare, Interrupted

Scientific American

In his Scientific American column for August 2009, Michael asserts that the anti-Stratfordian skeptics need more evidence to prove that Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare.
READ the column

Debating “Miracles” on Premier Christian Radio

Michael debates “miracles” with Pastor and apologist Adrian Holloway on Premier Christian Radio in the UK. • LISTEN to the debate



  1. John T says:

    I started reading the review of the “Annals of Gullibility”, but stopped after reading the completely inaccurate statement from the review that tries to cast doubt on being a vegetarian and implying the eating steak and potatoes is more ‘sustainable’. Well, let’s put health issues aside in this discussion since it wasn’t mentioned. Besides, there’s no argument (no valid argument) anywhere that I know of that suggests eating meat is more healthy.

    Mr. O’Reilly says soy is trucked from ‘half-a-world’ away. Really? The top soy producer in the world is the U.S. (2006 – 87 million tons, versus Brazil at 52 million), whereas the U.S. imports over 300,000,000 lbs of beef annually.

    Then there’s the waste of resources just so you can have your steak. Let’s see, it takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat whereas it takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. 80% of the corn grown in the U.S. is grown fed to livestock. 95% of oats go to livestock. Speaking of the potatoes part of ‘steak and potatoes’, an acre of land can produce 40,000 lbs of potatoes while that same acre could only produce 250 lbs. of beef. It takes 16 lbs of soybeans and grains to produce 1 lb of beef. And here’s the funny part: this is only scratching the surface of why being a vegetarian makes more sense than being a meat eater!

    So please, next time try doing a little research before you make such silly statements.

    • Patrick says:

      Fact is, not only are human teeth actually more suited for vegetables, But we lack the long canines that would be necessary for tearing raw meat. Anyway, it shouldn’t be a choice between the two. We Humans actually need Fruits and vegetables in our diets to be most healthy. I do eat meat, but you will never catch me without at least two, (Usually more), types of veggies on the plate along side that juicy steak.

    • Dieter A says:

      I hear these kinds of comparisons alot, so many pounds of beef grown on an acre versus so many pounds of wheat. Meaningless figures without the relative available caloric intake in a pound of beef versus a pound of wheat.

      • Scott says:

        It’s good to question such statements and am glad to see that people jumped all over it, as I would have imagined with readers of eSkeptic.

        I’m not going to stop eating meat though – it very well could be a planetary evil… tastey tastey planetary evil…

  2. Liberal Lizzy says:

    I’m unsure how liberals fell for BP’s new ad scheme. I haven’t seen the ads, but do folks who are progressive support BP in some way? Just b/c BP attempts to touch on our gullibility and pretend it’s green does not mean liberals are buying the idea. Did you make a leap of faith or did I miss something? If you made a leap of faith that liberals believe whatever nonsense corporations spout, well, ya ought to not be writing for skeptics. Sorry, no leaps of faith allowed. :)

  3. Barry J says:

    I agree with John T. Given that most of the world’s soy production goes into feedstock, and that conversion of vegetable protein into beef is grossly inefficient, O’Reilly has picked a glaringly erroneous example. Did he fall for some advertising from the cattle industry?

  4. Mark Thomas says:

    Michael did a good job of being skeptical in his debate with apologist Adrian Holloway. However, he still seems to think that there’s reliable evidence that Jesus actually existed. There is no such evidence. All reliable evidence indicates that Jesus was created by Paul in the 50’s CE, with the unknown authors of the gospels adding to the story at least 20 years later. No historian of the first century referred to Jesus, and many should have if he really existed.

    Earl Dougherty makes an excellent case for this in “The Jesus Puzzle.” I’ve written an article (with Bible references) at

  5. Cynthia says:

    A great book for skeptics that has issues with both the left and right extremes is “Challenging Nature” by Lee M. Silver. I just started subscribing to your newsletter, so you may have reviewed this book at some point already. But I just finished it and found the opinions to be convincing from a microbiologist’s point of view. Gullibility is addressed, although not directly – it’s not the subject of the book. Support of science in light of recent discoveries is really the point, I think, and notions such as the right’s view that a fertilized egg is a baby and the left’s notion that Mother Nature is always benign are dismissed.

  6. Val Z says:

    I am not aware of any liberals who believe the BP commercials. Nor am I aware of any liberals who believe Mother Nature is always benign. Can someone give me examples?

  7. Paul Beaird says:

    Poor book review. I do thank the reviewer for calling this book to my attention. However, his assertions that “I don’t think X was a good example” are completely arbitrary, offering us no reasons for also thinking so. And, the severity of “progressives” folks overlooking the mass murder of 100s of millions during the Communist reign of terror during the 20th century is an important example, because it ripples with relevance today, when the same philosophy of self-sacrifice for the needs of the collective motivate American politics up to the present moment, when we are being thrust into economic dictatorship…all the people having been fooled by the vague claim we’d be given “change”.
    A reviewer can offer his own opinions, if he provides reasons for them. Furthermore, to criticize a book for what it subjects it didn’t take up is utterly irrelevant to a review of the book one may buy and read.

    • P K Narayanan says:

      Any body may write any book on any topic, even if it is utter nonsense and trivia: The book will be there to buy and gossip about so long as there are publishers and means for sales: It doesn’t mean that no one can criticize about what it deserves to be criticized.

  8. P K Narayanan (Dr) says:

    Gullibility and its analysis in the outdated, Western psychological concepts are not digestible for a person like me, who is a Rationalist who evaluates things and phenomena as they are in the physical plane. The contexts that exist where we live and work are totally different from what you talk about and what you find in America and England and other European cultures. We in India who are Rationalists take the word “gullible’ in its true literary sense; for us a gullible person is one who is easily deceived or cheated. No other explanation and analysis is necessary to understand this simple word.

    As to the physiology of the nervous action for gullibility, it is negative socio-cultural environs and beliefs on one side and bio-chemical formations of the physical body on the other side. The stimuli from these environs/sources result in the formation of several conditioned reflexes in the central nervous system akin to gullibility. Marxism and for that matter capitalism has nothing to do with gullibility.

  9. Robert Berry says:

    My father had a very simple rule for gullibility.

    “Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you read.”

  10. Charles says:

    I think it’s intellectually irresponsible to make such broad statements about “the left” and “the right” that are being made in this forum- these are social constructs that have no independent meaning- you could have a vegetarian right winger who finds biblical justification for their diet, and a meat-eating lefty. There are queers for gun rights on the logic that armed queers don’t get bashed, and Libertarians, who while fiscally conservative are against government intervention in the bedroom also. Endless varieties of mutations are possible of political perspectives.

  11. Gene Garman says:

    Doubt exists because the natural cannot comprehend the supernatural. The illusion with which some humans observe “God” in a rose or a sunrise is delusion. With wisdom, the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia and the men of the First Congress commanded “separation between Religion and Government” (James Madison, Jr., William and Mary Quarterly, 3:555).

    “It is the religion commandments in the Constitution which should be hung on every court room wall, posted and taught in every American public school, and monumentalized throughout America, not the religion commandments of Moses, or of any religion,” p. 19, The Religion Commandments in the Constitution: A Primer

  12. Dan Lynch says:

    Evolution denial is critical to evangelicals and skeptics but pretty small beer to most everybody else. Half a century of agitation has left American science the best in the world. People who need to know evolution, find out soon enough and the rest don’t care.

    The real damage has been to the whole concept of “evidence.” No matter how many crime shows we watch, evidence does not have the respect it deserves. This is painfully obvious in ease with which the health-care deniers have recently spread the most preposterous of lies.

    But my take on this has evolved as the discussion (riots) has evolved. Health-care reform is a proxy for race and the preposterous claims aren’t about the debate (shreads of) but about spreading terror. (What is the word for people who do this? We can’t use it here.)

    When Republican Senator Demint said “It (health-care reform)will break him …,” he was saying, “Obama must fail!” Not health care reform, Obama. Not Obama the liberal, Obama the black man. White supremacy demands black failure.

    Demint is, of course, from the old Confederacy where evolution-denial is more important to religion than Jesus and that unpleasantness that started in 1861 has never ended.

  13. Richard Smith says:

    Others also exhibit sensory processing deficits, as well as symptoms related to aggression, attention, hyperactivity, and speech.

    At my research for an answer to this problem, I have come more closely to that idea of one lack of oxygen being that primary problem. Autism is one disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. This is very similar to Alzheimer and dementia.

    All have one thing at common, loss of intellectual capacity and difficulty transferring though to speech.

    Those signs all begin before one child is three years old.

    Autism affects information processing at that brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood.

    – Richard Smith

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