The Heretics / The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science
© 2014 Will Storr
Outside ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. Will Storr will meet you there, because at this point he’s not sure that there’s any other place to be. We open with Will mingling with Australian fundamentalists, listening to their views on Creationism and sexual mores with wonder and muted horror. Though at first writing them off as uneducated, hateful rubes, Will doesn’t cut bait and run: instead, he lingers, attempting to resolve the conflict between intelligent and loving people, and the ideas and values he finds so objectionable. His commitment to finding out the answer to why people believe what they do – to finding the human hiding beneath the cardboard villain their antagonists reduce them to – marks this book, charging it with human interest even as the author’s long conversations with philosophers and psychologists invites the reader to explore deeper the mysteries of mind and belief. This is an utterly, utterly fascinating book on multiple levels – compelling not only in the interesting-to-horrifying range of ideas that Storr sits down and considers, but to what he and those he interviewed have to say about how we approach the world.
When I began this book, I thought it would just be a collection of smug-tourism, of some Poindexter cruising from seances to neo-Nazi kaffeeklatsches and informing us of the classical logical fallacies These People are making. It isn’t. Storr introduces himself as someone who is quick to judge & ghost others for not having the Right Opinions, but at the same time he’s drawn to those who are utterly marginalized, lampooned or derided for being crazy or evil. There’s charm about their fight against the mob, even if their causes are weird or abhorrent. Storr’s curiosity, sympathy for the intellectually despised, and commitment to his cause of understanding combine wonderfully here to allow the reader to spend a considerable amount of time listening to extraordinary ideas – -and then evaluating them with the help of a variety of scientists better versed in the field than he. There’s a lot of back and forth, with Storr serving as middleman: instead of two antagonists squaring off with one another and giving a public performance, we get no-theatrics-all-content conversations with Storr, Storr then processes the conversations, and subsequently has follow-ups. It’s more intimate, revealing, and conducive to the reader seeing the humanity of all parties involved. Although I disliked him at first brush, the more time I spent with Storr the more interesting and admirable he became – a man willing to subject himself to days of silent meditation at a yogi’s retreat, for instance, in an effort to experience something that people kept raving had changed their lives. Storr is no driveby debunker wheezing “Accccctualllly…..”
Throughout the book, as readers sit and listen to Storr’s conversations with heretics and authorized agents of The Science alike, we get deeper and deeper into how the brain constructs its models of reality, forming beliefs and values, and how new data are treated – invariably, trimmed and adjusted to fit the existing model. This is understandable: the brain’s models have been created over time and at great cost, since brains consume a fifth of the body’s energy reserves. It’s more efficient to tweak what exists than to do a total rewrite: it is by that logic all of evolution functions, which is why animal bodies are rife with quirks. We are storytelling creatures — not merely creatures who tell stories, but creatures who are formed by story, who live through story, who are story. Our memories make us, but they are fragmentary, our narrative knitting them together often imaginative, and the cast of that story subject to our emotional makeup at the time – and people’s stories of themselves can mire them in learned helplessness and depression, or drive them forward. As Michael Shermer & Jonathan Haidt have both argued in their own books, we do not begin with a clean slate and, with objective eyes, discern the Facts and build a worldview accordingly. Instead, our brains develop with an outline of how things are in the womb, with genetic predispositions towards favoring openness or caution: that outline is further developed or altered by our childhood experiences, and then our ongoing experiences continue to modify the story. Storr’s appreciation for mental models and beliefs increases as the book wears on, and his growing awareness of our universally shared weaknesses on this subject allows him to spend time with people as noxious as say, David Irving, and stare at him not in hatred, but in earnest longing to Understand. How did a man – a proud Briton – from a patriotic British family, whose members served in World War 2, come to become Adolf Hitler’s chief defender in the 20th century, who put his extensive and astonishing command of World War 2 facts to use downplaying if not denying the Holocaust, and attempting to shelter Hitler from any involvement in it? This is the most extreme example, but throughout the book Storr meets people whose experiences sent them in unexpected ways, and he takes the reader along to try to understand his interviewers and possibly bridge the gap between those who mock them from similar positions of supreme self-surety.
I am utterly confident that this will be one of my favorite books of the year, given the overwhelming amount of Holy Cow That’s Interesting content here . The science is compelling in itself: I frequently read on the mind, often from the same source Storr quotes here (Ramachandran & Eagleman), so some of this I was familiar with, but other aspects – like the fact that 30% of our memories are completely fabricated – was new, or had least been forgotten. What Storr learns investigating specific claims of the heretics is also interesting. We may take it for granted that homeopathy ‘works’ purely on placebo, but when Storr is investigating the claims of homeopathists, he learns from respectable authorities that even prescribed, FDA, “real medicine” depends partly on the placebo effect, something that sometimes effects the efficacy of name-brand versus generics despite the identical chemical composition. In a more dramatic example, Valium only appears to work if people know they’re taking it. Medicine shouldn’t be so flimsy: a chemical introduced to a chemical should have a predictable, reliable reaction – but the brain has its own chemistry that throws a spanner into the works. Storr emerges from each adventure with heretics a little altered – not convinced, not even swayed most of the time, but made to realize that the truth is a complicated thing. In one chapter, for instance, we meet a community of people who all experience the same thing, the sensation of tiny little creatures inside their skins and trying to claw their way out. So intense is this sensation that people dig into their skin themselves trying to get the creatures out, and in the end the desperate and now bloody patients turn up little specks or fibers. Industrial medicine uniformly writes them off as crazy, but other medical investigators believe that this is a genuine nervous-system misfire issue, not yet understood, that doesn’t get properly addressed because the victims of it are so easy to write off as nuts.
This is a wildly interesting and thought-provoking book, in part because of the author’s intense involvement in the subject: he’s not merely learning about why other people believe strange things, he’s learning about his own susceptibility, his own stories he’s told himself, and the reader joins his company: we cannot help but engage in reflection right along with him. This is an intimate encounter not only with the science of belief, but the existence of the Self, in all its etherealness and mutability. The Unpersuadables is unforgettable.
The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided, Jonathan Haidt
The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall