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Heretics: Adventures With The Enemies Of Science

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For lovers of Jon Ronson, Ben Goldacre, Richard Wiseman and Louis Theroux, a new book that explores why today's heretics just don't believe the facts.

Will Storr was in the tropical north of Australia, excavating fossils with a celebrity creationist, when he asked himself a simple question. Why don’t facts work? Why, that is, did the obviously intelligent man beside him sincerely believe in Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and a six-thousand-year-old Earth, in spite of the evidence against them? It was the start of a journey that would lead Storr all over the world – from Texas to Warsaw to the Outer Hebrides – meeting an extraordinary cast of modern heretics whom he tries his best to understand. He goes on a tour of Holocaust sites with David Irving and a band of neo-Nazis, experiences his own murder during ‘past life regression’ hypnosis, discusses the looming One World Government with iconic climate sceptic Lord Monckton and investigates the tragic life and death of a woman who believed her parents were high priests in a baby-eating cult. Using a unique mix of highly personal memoir, investigative journalism and the latest research from neuroscience and experimental psychology, Storr reveals how the stories we tell ourselves about the world invisibly shape our beliefs, and how the neurological ‘hero maker’ inside us all can so easily lead to self-deception, toxic partisanship and science denial.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

Will Storr

19 books479 followers
Will Storr is a long-form journalist, novelist and reportage photographer. His features have appeared in The Guardian Weekend, The Telegraph Magazine, The Times Magazine, The Observer Magazine, The Sunday Times Style and GQ, and he is a contributing editor at Esquire. He has reported from the refugee camps of Africa, the war-torn departments of rural Colombia and the remote Aboriginal communities of Australia, and has been named New Journalist of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and has won a National Press Club award for excellence. His critically acclaimed first book, Will Storr versus The Supernatural is published by Random House in the UK. The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone is his first novel.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 329 reviews
April 25, 2021
I don't understand this, Christianity is a monothesist religion but sound more like a dualism with two supremely opposed Gods each with their own realm in the hereafter:

"When God says something's wrong, the Devil's out to do anything to convince us it's right."
"But if you follow that logic, any thought we have that goes against the Bible is the Devil. So we're not allowed to think for ourselves."
"We are allowed to think for ourselves. Your first step is thinking that God's wiser than me so I will accept what he says, even if I don't understand it."
"So that's all the thinking for yourself you're allowed. The decision to believe everything God says."

It also sounds like more or less all religions.
Profile Image for Ian.
726 reviews65 followers
December 26, 2020
At the beginning of this book the author sets out a simple concept in a way that hadn’t previously occurred to me. It’s self-evident that each of us thinks our opinions are correct, but none of us will ever encounter another person who agrees with us 100%. It follows that either an individual considers themselves the cleverest person in the world, or each of us accepts that some of our opinions are wrong. It’s in this spirit that the author seeks to find out more about those who hold unconventional opinions, and why.

Will Storr grew up in a religious household and rebelled against this, something which left him antagonistic towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. He is open though, in also admitting he had mental health issues as a young man, including kleptomania, alcohol and drug addictions, and excessive feelings of jealously around his romantic partners. As he says himself, this may have given him an instinctive sympathy for those who are accused of acting or thinking irrationally.

The book devotes roughly a chapter apiece to the various beliefs featured, which include “Young-Earth” creationists, “ufologists”, believers in reincarnation, ESP, homeopathy, and others. One chapter features the “Hearing Voices Network”, whose members dispute the concept of schizophrenia. Another has an interview with climate-change sceptic Viscount Monckton, who holds some very fringe opinions across a range of issues. The author is fair to those he interviews and in some cases sympathises with their viewpoints. There are a few exceptions though. One chapter features medical professionals who promoted the “satanic panic” of the 80s and 90s. Without him saying so directly, you get the impression Storr concludes that those involved leant credibility to the allegations of delusional individuals, to the great harm of many innocent people around them. Late on in the book he goes on a tour of Holocaust sites organised by David Irving. The rest of the people on the trip can only be described as Nazi sympathisers.

In some ways though Storr is more critical of the “skeptic” community (he advises that even the British ones have adopted the American spelling) as he argues they are as unwilling to change their opinions as those they condemn. The last chapter has an interview with James Randi, who of course died in October – the book was published a few years ago. Storr portrays Randi in an unflattering light.

Personally, I’m a big fan of science and technology, and I lean towards a rationalist interpretation of the world. Despite that I quite enjoyed this book. It was a reminder that, however firmly we hold our opinions, we should not be arrogant towards the beliefs of others (at least, not very often). The author spends time examining things like cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and “confabulation” as explanations of how people hold to beliefs in spite of evidence against them. One aspect of the book, which the author acknowledges, is that he barely addresses the issue of people who do change their minds, and how that comes about.

I’d be the first to say that in 95% of arguments, a qualified expert has a more accurate view than a layperson, but there are enough examples of experts being proven wrong to demonstrate that it’s vital that people continue to challenge established opinion.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,538 followers
April 21, 2014
This is a fascinating work of investigative journalism. The author, Will Storr, examines a range of beliefs that are antithetical to science, history, and even common sense. He interviews people who have these strange beliefs, and digs in deep. He tries to understand why people have these beliefs, their motivations, their way of thinking. Storr sometimes mentions the contradictions between these crazy ideas and reality--and listens carefully as these people rationalize their beliefs.

Storr interviews creationist John Mackay, UFO believers Glennys Mackay and Kay McCullock--and psychiatrist Professor John Mack, who tries to understand the psychology of why people believe in UFO's and alien abductions. Storr joins an enormous yoga session led by "swami" Ramdev, and later interviews him and his assistants. Ramdev claims to be able to cure just about any disease, including cancer (but not AIDS). Storr interviews "past-life regression" counselors, and takes a radical ten-day Buddhist mediation course that turns out to be psychologically painful. He interviews people who are convinced that homeopathy works, and he interviews "skeptics" who turn out to be just as closed-minded as the so-called "quacks". He interviews a climate-change denier and a holocaust denier.

Then, Storr interviews people who complain of painful symptoms of a disease named Morgellons. The medical establishment dismisses this disease as non-existent, that is to say, it is in the minds of the sufferers. However, there is strong evidence that it is a real syndrome caused by very small mites that dig into one's skin. But the medical establishment believes that the sufferers are delusional, and seem to reject the possibility of a real, physical cause.

Storr describes some fascinating interviews with schizophrenics, and he interviews psychiatrists who try to treat them--some using conventional medicine, and others using unconventional approaches. In some cases, there is evidence that schizophrenia can be triggered by traumatic events--but this idea is very controversial. Storr interviews a number of scientists, trying to understand how people acquire these strange ideas. He investigates how much of our political preferences are due to nature and how much are due to our environment.

There is a very confusing chapter, centered around a woman who committed suicide. She surely suffered from some mental illness. But there are strong suspicions that certain "therapists" pushed her into mental aberrations, by inducing memories of abuse by satanic cults--memories of events that probably never occurred. Storr goes into detail, trying to understand how memories of non-existent events can be induced.

This book is also a very personal memoir. Will Storr brings up his own history, and tries to understand his own beliefs--how he came by them, and how he sometimes suffers from delusions that are just as confounding as the subjects of his interviews. The book is entertaining, engaging, and gives a wonderful insight into the field of investigative reporting. I highly recommend it!
Profile Image for Yun.
513 reviews20k followers
March 27, 2017
This was a fascinating read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It wasn't what I expected going in. Instead of just being tales of wacky people with wacky beliefs, it was really an examination of why we believe what we do, sometimes even in the face of contrary facts. It's a reminder that none of us are ever entirely free of bias.
Profile Image for Jamie.
Author 1 book3 followers
March 6, 2015
A book about cognitive biases leading people astray wherein the author is led astray by his own cognitive biases.

To back up, the author of this book spends his time interviewing various eccentric characters, including famous creationists who think the world is literally 6,000 years old, swammis who believe deep meditation can cure any ailment (well, except for AIDS), Hitler enthusiasts who think that the Holocaust was made up (or at least grossly exaggerated), climate change deniers and famous skeptics and debunkers. A less skilled author would treat the eccentrics like a sideshow exhibit, and merely conclude that they're either deluded or stupid, but Storr generally treats them with civility and shows them as intelligent (sometimes very intelligent) individuals that are misguided in the same way we're all miguided. This, in the beginning, is a real treat - the care which Storr takes with his subjects and his entertaining writing seem to promise some deep revelation about what makes people in general unpersuadable when it comes to their firmly held beliefs. It's a real shame when those revelations come to nothing.

All of these interviews are in service of providing extreme examples of cognitive biases that lead all of us astray. These include confirmation bias, wherein we come to a conclusion emotionally and look for evidence that supports it while reasoning away any evidence that doesn't. The most interesting example of this is the famous Hitler enthusiast who goes through impressive mental contortions to reason away any document or fact that shows that Hitler knew of the concentration camps and what was happening in them.

The problems creep in as it becomes more and more clear that Storr wants the homeopaths and alleged alien abductees to be right, for there to be magic in the world, despite the evidence. He even states this at one point in the book, but having acknowledged this as a mental trap he's still unable to avoid it. As the chapters go on, Storr shows the least sympathy for the skeptics, those Goliaths that are fighting his chosen Davids.

Early on, he makes the point, succinctly and enjoyably, that skeptics suffer the same cognitive biases as those they debunk, but then goes well past that. An entire chapter is devoted to trying to show that James Randi, a famous skeptic and debunker of those claiming to have paranormal powers, is a liar and generally an asshole. The efforts Storr goes to in that chapter to catch Randi in a lie just left me feeling bad for Randi, an 80 year old man (who probably is a bit of an ass).

Once he's done taking down crackpots and skeptics alike, Storr simply throws his hands in the air and declares truth is relative and we can never know if we're just deceiving ourselves. But this misses a big piece of the puzzle, makes the book feel incomplete and robs it of an interesting conclusion. The missing piece is an exploration of how we get things right.

If we're all just coming to an emotional decision and then reasoning to support that or in a way that makes us the hero, how have we built a civilization? Why don't we still drill holes in peoples' heads to cure mental illness or use radium suppositories to cure hemorrhoids? The answer is the scientific method - a process that demands rigorous testing and experimentation rather than hunches. Storr acknowledges this in a passage or two, but largely ignores it, preferring to paint a picture of the human race that has us grubbing around in the dark forever. Randi may be an ass and skeptics may be susceptible to the same cognitive biases as Holocaust deniers, but the application of the scientific method by skeptics will lead to the right answer (eventually) more often than not. The reason Storr avoids this discussion seems to be his own biases in favour of finding for the crackpots and coming to the conclusion that truth is relative or that we can never really be sure we've got it right.

Why 3 stars then? Because the book is interesting, it is well written and it did have me second guessing some of my reactions and assumptions. Ultimately though, Storr is a storyteller and not a scientist, so what you're left with is a book of stories rather than revelations.
Profile Image for B Schrodinger.
305 reviews659 followers
November 8, 2013
In my mind Will Storr is the brilliant love-child of Mary Roach and Louis Theroux, both of whom I adore. I think Will may have to join their lofty heights in my respectability/adoration mind shrine.

Will's "Will Storr vs the Supernatural" was a wonderful and random find that I made several years ago. Will took it upon himself, Louis Theroux style, to get immersed in the lore and activity of the supernatural. What was different about the other supernatural books is that Will approached it from a skeptical point of view. His conclusions were that most of what he investigated was utter bullshit, but there were a few instances that made him think. That book was much better than Mary Roach's approach taken in her book "Spook".

Anyway, this time Will has taken on the enemies of science. Well more like the enemies of reason. SO each chapter or two is dedicated to an interview or an activity with a fringe group or person. You start with a creationist preacher, move through to holocaust deniers and take on homeopathy. All sections are well-researched and Will approaches each instance with a sympathetic ear. That ear may not last long, but he does have the best of intentions.

All throughout Will is bringing this all back to the nature of belief and the apparent need for the human brain to make reliable sense of the world it exists in. So there is a greater message other than "Look at these dickheads" and a great attempt to try and understand human thought processes.

In it's own way I think that this book adds it's own to a religion vs. science argument and should be considered essential reading for anyone tackling this subject. It definitely should be as popular and as read as Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and makes a much more logical assay of belief than Hitchens' "God is Not Great". It had a die-hard atheist like myself thinking as opposed to going "right on!" to every point. Very strong 4 stars.
Profile Image for Neil.
252 reviews8 followers
February 10, 2014
Not a "debunker" book as I originally expected. Storr not only meets with intelligent people who believe in non-scientific ideas (Holocaust deniers, young-earthers, past life explorers, etc.), he investigates recent studies in psychology and neuroscience to learn why people will ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary to passionately pursue such outsider lifestyles. His discoveries point out, not so much how different they are, but how alike we all are in the way we construct our versions of the world. Fascinating read.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,007 reviews220 followers
February 11, 2015
It was not until the chapter during which Storr describes attending the exact same Austin, Texas conference of Morgellons sufferers that Leslie Jamison describes in a chapter of The Empathy Exams - and quotes the same/similar overheard conversations - that I grasped what this book was actually achieving: The Unpersuadables is a series of empathy exams absent the high-minded literary experiments or the self-regard Jamison required to explore the capacity. And Storr passes every exam. He doesn't ridicule creationists, religious believers, homeopathy adherents, UFO theorists, radical skeptics, rogue scientists, or Holocaust deniers (although he easily could have). He attempts to understand them and why they believe what they do in an involved manner that thereby challenges his own unbelief, squeamishness, and kneejerk emotional responses.

In the early chapters I had flickerings of impatience when I feared that I was reading a 300+ book that was going to survey a lot of things I'd read about before (creationists, alternative medicine, skeptics, etc.). But unlike many other more impersonal, obstinately "objective" works this book improves as it progresses. The investigations accumulate and feed back into each other and further Storr's personal journey of understanding, until the three excellent portraits of David Irving, Rupert Sheldrake, and James Randi. The embattled Harvard researcher John Mack also plays a bizarre recurring role.

The book ends with one of those au courant indictments/take-downs of free will that make my head hurt to consider but leave me strangely relieved and optimistic. It was likely true what his father accused of him after Storr's first book, Heretics: that he didn't understand faith. But at least he's trying. Or at least that's the story as Storr has crafted it, which, you'll see if you read this, is also one of the points.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews127k followers
January 27, 2016
Not the most festive of books but bloody gripping all the same, this is Storr’s attempts to understand why people believe the things they do, even if the world tells them they’re wrong. Storr meets religious leaders, hardcore sceptics and bunch of quirky characters inbetween and even delves into the neuroscience. (Realising how untrustworthy your own beliefs are is a little unnerving.) It’s the sort of book you’ll feel the need to share fascinating facts from at regular intervals. — Rachel Weber

from The Best Books We Read In December: http://bookriot.com/2015/12/23/riot-r...
Profile Image for Laura.
181 reviews143 followers
October 12, 2016
This was an interesting read but I feel like Mr Storr might have bitten off a bit more than he can chew. Ostensibly a book about 'why people believe things which are clearly crazy', this tome bounces from false memories, to confirmation bias, to psychosomatic illnesses, to holocaust deniers, to hearing voices, to homeopathy.... he seems to be trying to answer the question 'how do people formulate ideas' and that, in my opinion, is just too broad for any single person to answer.

Storr is brilliant at painting portraits and telling stories. He's not so good at formulating coherent arguments, especially on a topic as vast and daunting as this one. So the book is quite inconclusive. There were no WOW moments for me, in which I felt I learned something new*. Each chapter tended to focus on a different person or group - James Randi, Lord Monckton, people with morgellons, etc. For the most part, they were people that I'd already heard about in the popular press. Granted, Storr managed to create a new and engaging slant on them, but all of the 'cases' he covers were already very well known.

I didn't enjoy this as much as Will Storr vs. The Supernatural: One Man's Search for the Truth About Ghosts, as I didn't think it was as original. However, I'd definitely still read another of his books.

*This isn't 100% true. I did find out that chicken sexing is done through intuition:

Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
489 reviews76 followers
December 15, 2020
I once read that many psychiatrists enter the field because they have issues of their own to work out. I thought about that as I read this book. Will Storr is certainly brave, baring his soul about his bouts with alcoholism, kleptomania, and destructive personal relationships, and the years of therapy that resulted. Some of this is cringe-inducing to read. It made me wonder if writing the book was partly therapy, an attempt to confront his own demons and understand what thinking processes had led him to his troubles.

In the first chapter he talks to a man who is unpersuadable about his Christian beliefs. Nothing anyone could say to him would change what he believes; he is certain that he feels the divine presence within him and there is no need to question any of it, so any evidence to the contrary is dismissed or reinterpreted to support his beliefs. There are a lot of people like him, many of them intelligent and well educated. As Storr says, “intelligence apparently isn’t the force field against wrongness that I had once assumed. Reason is no magic bullet.” (p. 41)

The second chapter deals with UFO-believers, and in spite of my attempts to approach this book’s material objectively, I had to smile when a conversation the author listened to became mired in the question of whether the aliens had to be summoned with chants or if it was enough to telepathically beam thoughts to them. All I could think was, “Right, we are now officially in crazy town.” And yet, the fact that the believers had this contentious debate is evidence of how strongly held their beliefs are; for them it isn’t belief at all, but fact. The chapter also discusses Dr John E. Mack, former head of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who published a study supporting alien abductions. His colleagues then attempted to strip him of his tenured position and drive him from the university. His story raises the question of where to draw the line between free academic inquiry and encouraging people’s possibly harmful outrageous beliefs.

In the third chapter we are introduced to Swami Ramdev, who has built a worldwide organization devoted to breathing. The concern in this case is people who believe so strongly in what he says about proper breathing being able to cure cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses (though after a nasty lawsuit he no longer claims it can cure AIDS), that they fail to seek proper medical attention in time. Storr introduces us to reasonable-seeming people, who appear to be fully grounded in reality, who are nevertheless ardent devotees of the swami and his techniques.

The book moves on through past-life regression, and then a chapter on a Vispassana mediation retreat, where the author and others spent ten days being tortured with yoga, sitting for hours at a time in excruciating positions. Storr always tried to keep an open mind when he met believers, but in this case he eventually realized that agony is not a path to some higher reality. He slipped out one night to go into the nearest town for a pizza, and slept through the next morning’s 4 a.m. wakeup call. As I read this chapter I was wondering whether the torture was not merely a side effect of learning the technique, but the whole point of it, so that the people who completed the sessions could see themselves as an elite group, disciplined to explore their inner consciences.

The next chapter is not about any particular belief, but about how we make sense of the world, how we use the limited information available to us to build seemingly coherent, workable models of reality.

We experience the out-there as if we are a tiny homunculus gazing from holes in our heads at a world that is flooded with light, music and colour. But this is not true. The things that you are seeing right now are not out there in front of you, but inside your head, being reconstructed in more than thirty sites across your brain. The light is not out there. The objects are not out there. The music is not out there. A violin has no sound without a brain to process it; a rose petal has no color. It is all a re-creation. A vision. A useful guess about what the world might look like, that is built well enough that we are able to negotiate it successfully. (p 106)

As if our perception of reality (whatever reality actually means) were not tenuous enough, we have evolved psychological props to help us interpret the world around us. From an evolutionary perspective, this helped us make quick decisions about potential threats: a false-positive (we think there is a tiger when there is not) was less dangerous than a false-negative (we think there is not a tiger when there is one). In modern terms this leads us to what is known as confirmation bias, which has some interesting corollaries for understanding why people stay with beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. “Psychologists know this as the ‘makes sense stopping rule.’ We ignore anything that runs counter to our hunch, grab for the first thing that matches, think, Yep that makes sense, and then we rest, satisfied by the peerless powers of our fantastic wisdom.” (p. 116)

From there the book moves onto homeopathy and placebos. There have been studies that have shown that many people who receive placebos do actually get better, which can be seen either as a testament to the mind’s powers to heal the body or a cynical validation of the idea that many people simply get better on their own, while the doctors take credit for it. ”Experts such as psychiatrist Patrick Lemoine have asserted that between 35 and 40 percent of all dispensed medications are actually ‘impure placebos’ – that is, they contain just enough genuine active ingredient so that the doctors don’t have to lie about what they have prescribed, but not enough that will have an effect. (p. 61)

Homeopathy is a large and profitable field that is founded entirely on the placebo effect and its powers of suggestion. Many people believe firmly in its healing powers, based on anecdotal reports from others, and from distrust of modern science-based medicine. From an objective view, it seems not just absurd, but insultingly so, and once again it can be positively dangerous if it causes people to delay proper medical treatment.

If you buy a standard ‘30C’ dose of any homepathic treatment, it means the active ingredient has been diluted thirty times, by a factor of 100. That might not sound like too much, until you realise that your chance of getting even one molecule of the original substance in your pill is one in a billion billion billion billion. In his influential book Bad Science, Skeptic superstar Dr Ben Goldacre explained that you would have to drink a sphere of water that stretches from the earth to the sun just to get one solitary, pointless molecule of it. (p. 129)

For homeopathy to have any claim to a basis in reality at all, it has to posit that water has a “memory,” so even an almost infinitely diluted solution can work by recalling the chemicals that once passed through it. If this sounds to you like the very definition of magical thinking, you are not alone.

By this point in the book Storr has made his main arguments about the nature of belief and the mind’s ability to construct plausible-seeming narratives. I recently read Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus, which looks at why working class Americans are so easily led to support policies and political parties which are clearly contrary to their best interests. As he says, “The intellectual lives of most working-class Americans consist of things that sound as if they might be true, and that is why millions are spent on sound bites and sloganeering.” And so, at its heart, most non-reality-based beliefs are based only on this: they sound like they might be true.

The remaining chapters are case studies in people who inhabit alternate realities. There is the sad story of a disease called Morgellons, in which people are convinced that their skin is infested with something, whether animal, chemical, or other. Side note, if this ever happens to you, do not take a sample of what you find to your doctor (it will probably just be clothing fibers anyway). Bringing it to your doctor is not evidence of a physical condition, but evidence that you suffer from DOP (Delusions of Parasitosis).

There is a horrifying chapter on a woman who was driven to an early death by irresponsible therapists who implanted false memories of satanic abuse into her. One of those who had a hand in it, and who later denied her role, was – you can’t make this up – the former Head of Ethics Science and Information for the British Medical Association.

There is a chapter on Lord Monckton, a reflexive conservative, who seems to have been programmed over decades of rigid beliefs to be unable to see the world from any other perspective. There are also two chapters in which Storr spent a week with Holocaust-denier David Irving touring World War II sites, including concentration camps and gas chambers. This was part of an organized tour by Irving’s group, so the author spent the time among half a dozen truly repellent neo-Nazis. I did note, however, that although the author was sympathetic toward the followers of all of the other outlandish beliefs in this book, he did not give the same leeway to the anti-Semites. While commendable, it made me wonder if that was his own personal moral stance, or something insisted on by his publisher.

The book ends with an interview with James Randi, hero to Skeptics everywhere. He was an old man by the time the author spoke with him, but nevertheless came across as less than the sum of his parts: part braggadocio, part improbable personal history, part inflated claims of success. What he really demonstrates, however, is that we should be cautious about the experts we support, and most cautious of all when they are heroes of our cause. Because they are heroes they and their followers erect a wall of infallibility to support the pedestal they are placed on, and inconvenient facts are ignored or suppressed.

There is no happy ending in this book. As its title says, many people who support irrational beliefs can never be convinced otherwise, or in Mark Twain’s famous remark, “You can’t reason someone out of something that they weren’t reasoned into in the first place.” The best we can do is try to limit the damage, speaking out against teaching creationism in schools, or demands that the government support alternative therapies that have no proven benefits. We also need to be skeptical without fetishizing skepticism, and keep reminding ourselves that we have a responsibility to understand and be able to support the beliefs we hold.
Profile Image for Terry Noel.
Author 2 books5 followers
May 29, 2014
Storr promises to document and explain why some people cling to beliefs that are completely at odds with reality. Instead, he delivers a stream of half-digested doubt that humans are capable of rational behavior at all.

To his credit, Storr sources credible authorities on the mechanisms that stand between us and a clear-headed view of the world. Biases and acculturation are the major drivers of human behavior, we are told repeatedly. He despairs of any of us being able to examine our own thought processes with enough clarity to be trusted.

Storr is not a nihilist--that would require commitment. Instead, he comes off as a confused adolescent, disappointed to find out that the world is a tough place and that he must ultimately find his own way. He is distrustful of anyone who stakes out a principled position, dubious that being "right" is the right thing to be, and apparently hostile to the idea that real heroes can exist.

Had Storr used this impressive amount of research to genuinely examine how doubt can sharpen our thinking, he would have done the reader a great service. Instead, The Unpersuadables is a drearily pessimistic story of a man giving up on reason.
Profile Image for Ian Beardsell.
230 reviews24 followers
June 19, 2019
Journalist and author, Will Storr, did an outstanding job on this treatise about the "Enemies of Science". Reading the jacket blurb, I thought at first that this book might be a timely accounting of those deplorable "unpersuadables" who balk at rationality and facts and cling wholeheartedly to their beliefs in conspiracy theories, literal creationism, impending alien invasion, or any other of myriad pet models of alternative reality. Storr starts out in this vein, but I really like the way he comes to find that doubt and uncertainty exist in practically all human endeavors of describing the truth, and although there are some obvious signs in many instances regarding which person's argument is more accurate, it often takes a lot of work to get there. And ultimately, we could be wrong.

The journalist in Storr gives the book a driving narrative, as he interacts with various "heroes of the truth", whether they be the creationist poking holes in fossil timelines or the skeptics who take an "overdose" of homeopathic medicine to demonstrate its inactive contents. These anecdotes provide the grist for the mill as Storr the philosopher then uses these examples to explore in great detail the human thinking that convolves in myriad ways to make each one of us, the "true-believer" and "true-skeptic" both, so sure that we are right and the other so wrong. What confabulation occurs in the victim of childhood trauma to help them cope with later debilitation? How does one avoid picking up all of the supporting pieces of the puzzle while ignoring the stubborn pieces that don't seem to fit anywhere? Why does the skeptic not even need to look at the contradictory evidence offered since he "knows" it is either wrong or fraudulent? There are so many traps for us to fall into. And we all do it.

I encourage anyone interested in human nature or the current climate of "fake news" and extreme bipolar-opposing views to take up this book, as Storr's analysis is not something that can be summed up quickly but is immensely important for us to get our heads around right now. Here is a quick and dirty attempt from the final page of the book:
Everything we know starts as electrical pulses, incoming from our senses [signals into our brains]. These pulses combine to construct a best-guess but distorted recreation of reality....We are creatures of illusion. We are made out of stories. From the heretics to the Skeptics, we are all lost in our own...secret worlds.
I will try to remember, though, that as right as I can sometimes feel, there is always the chance that I am wrong. And that happiness lies in humility: in forgiving others, and in forgiving myself.

Although this is somewhat of a daunting subject, Storr's book is intensely engaging and I really enjoyed reading it. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Zach.
251 reviews95 followers
April 21, 2014
The Unpersuadables is sold as an exploration into groups of people who hold wacky beliefs, such as young-earth creationists, holocaust deniers, UFO enthusiasts, people convinced they are infected with parasites that excrete fibers through their skin, and those who believe homeopathy or meditation can cure cancer and diabetes. These exposes are as fascinating as you would expect, and Storr does an excellent job of conveying the real vigor with which the supporters of these ideas defend them, how completely they believe. He's seldom judgmental in his investigations, but he also challenges each group of believers with seemingly obvious holes in their worldview. Without exception, the faithful are able to dismiss logical objections with alacrity. For example, he asks David Irving, the most famous holocaust denier, how he can claim that Hitler didn't know about the extermination of the Jews taking place in his country. Typical of the believers in the book, Irving claims that even direct quotes from speeches about "exterminating" the Jews are actually misunderstandings due to mistranslation of German c. 1940, and that the words used, at the time, didn't then have the modern meaning historians ascribe them. After the interview, Storr demonstrates via an English-German dictionary from 1940 that Irving is incorrect.

But as interesting as this tour of outlandish belief systems is, where Unpersuadables really shines is in its philosophical and scientific investigation into the mechanism of belief in general. Storr genuinely wonders how people come to adopt such obviously falsifiable beliefs and to dismiss any contradictory information they consider. To be clear, everyone does this, and Storr defends this claim with many citations of scientific studies. Without exception, people form their basic beliefs about how the world works during childhood and adolescence, and this worldview is then cemented fully during early adulthood. By the age of 30 or so, most people believe that they, personally, have all the correct opinions about the world, and attempts to show them contradictory information are met with real hostility on a neurochemical level. The brain, having already formed a strong model of reality, will actively reject any evidence which it cannot easily assimilate into its existing framework of beliefs. When exposed to new ideas, people get a feeling about whether they are correct or not, based on their existing model of the world. This happens below the level of conscious thought, which then comes up with elaborate confabulations to explain the decision that the subconscious brain already made. This illusion of consciousness is so complete that we believe we formed our beliefs for the reasons we give to explain them; in reality, the reasons we give are arbitrary and reflect, in no real way, the unconscious reason we chose to accept or reject an idea. For example, in a poll, researchers asked people if they would support an uneducated but street-smart man or an inexperienced but formally educated woman for police chief. A supermajority of people said they would support the man, and when pressed to justify their decision, they explained that they thought street-smarts were more important for a police chief to have than formal education. When researchers asked a different group the same question with the premise reversed (a street-smart woman versus an educated man), people again chose the man, explaining that they felt it was more important for the chief to have a good education. In both cases, the unconscious minds of the experimental subjects decided that a man was better for a job as police chief, and their conscious minds invented a story using whatever information it had at hand to justify this decision. This applies to every decision we make -- there is no such thing as unemotional reasoning; all of it is ultimately decided by a part of the brain that can only communicate with us via emotional states, but we trick ourselves into believing our reasons are well-considered and rational.

Storr weaves the philosophy into the stories of the believers masterfully, and the pacing of the exploration of these groups and ideas is excellent. It does bog down a little toward the end, but on the whole I was completely fascinated throughout. I recommend this to anyone curious about why people believe what they believe -- indeed, why we believe anything at all.
Profile Image for Mallory.
146 reviews1 follower
August 26, 2015
I was really excited about the premise of the book, but I guess I shouldn't have let my excitement persuade me that this book would be more than what the synopsis says it is. This book is really just a collection of stories about 'heretics' (people who believe 'fringe' or non-traditional world-views), with very little in the form of cohesion or analysis. Although Storr goes to great lengths to point out that he is potentially no more 'right' about the world than they are, he continually uses languages which reinforces the fact that he (and other traditional thinkers) are correct about the way the world works, while those that he talks about are stupid, wrong, delusional, and much more. It's a fun read if all you're looking for is to peek inside the lives of those who chose to live outside the mainstream, but if you're looking for any sort of insight into why people think the way they do, and why they persist in thinking these ways even when evidence is mounted against their position, then you are out of luck.
48 reviews
January 6, 2015
This was a fascinating read, primarily, from my vantage point, because the author's interviews were with people I have never really listened to. When someone tells me they are a creationist, I dismiss them or avoid going further, and thus never hear what they really think and why. I appreciated his effort to understand them and why people believe what they do, even in the face of reason or science. And it was probably important for me to hear that the skeptics (read Randi as an example) are badly behaving scoundrels in many cases. Nevertheless, I have a strong faith in the scientific method while understanding that all studies are less that perfect - controlling for variables is just amazingly difficult. And probably for this reason, I believe things without having read the actual studies myself because 1) reputable scientists conducted them, 2)they were reported in reputable journals, 3)they have been replicated, and 4) I am just biased towards science.
Profile Image for Christopher Farnsworth.
Author 23 books1,177 followers
March 26, 2014
This is, as the saying goes, a wholly remarkable book. Anyone who read Storr's earlier Will Storr Vs. The Supernatural knows about Storr's gifts as a journalist: his honesty and his ability to reach into the stranger reaches of belief without condescension or snark. This could have been a book that just went from one outpost of the fringe to the next, with an occasional aside about the anti-vaxxer and creationist crowd. And that would have been an entertaining and useful read. But Storr goes far beyond that. He treats his subjects with sympathy and respect, even when their beliefs are ludicrous on the surface. And he doesn't spare himself. He thinks deeply and struggles with the uncomfortable places where his own biases lurk. Storr explains the latest research in neuroscience elegantly, and makes complex ideas understandable. Most impressive, he gets at the root of the stubbornness that supports most people's beliefs -- the core that is unable to be swayed by facts or other opinions, no matter what they say. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, and it deserves a place on your shelf. It may not change the way you think about things -- but at least you'll know why.
Profile Image for Gavin.
1,085 reviews319 followers
December 21, 2018
Irritating but righteous. Not quite what it looks like: another Ronson-Theroux journalist, accosting another set of tragicomic kooks).

OK, it is that, but it's also a grim reflection on how confusing and muddy the world is, on the universality of extreme bias - plus dollops of Storr's personal traumas and peccadilloes. (Half the book is his confessing to childhood theft, psychosis, academic failure, and petty vendettas.) Rather than getting to the bottom of ESP, or morgellons, or homeopathy, or past-life regression, Storr tries to understand the character of the people who believe and disbelieve in them.

Besides confronting unusual beliefs without (as much) prejudice, The Heretics is about coming to terms with the fact that we are all riddled with deep obstacles to objectivity: ingroupism and confirmation bias; representation realism; emotional reasoning; the terrifyingly unreliable reconstructive nature of memory; the sad nonidentity of intelligence and rationality; evolutionarily adaptive delusions of superiority and agency. These are illustrated by interviews with a creationist, Sheldrake, Irving, Ramdev, Monckton, the Morgellons victims*, and even Randi.

Stories work against truth. They operate with the machinery of prejudice and distortion. Their purpose is not fact but propaganda. The scientific method is the tool that humans have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.

Storr is seriously out of his depth on the science: he is always at least second-hand from the evidence (when interviewing researchers), and often third-hand (most of his citations are pop science books), and so several chapters suffer from journalism's classic problem, false balance. The reason this isn't a call to shut the book is because he doesn't spare himself, states this repeatedly - and this is in fact the theme of his book: that almost all of us are unable to infer the truth about a shocking diversity of things.*

For instance, not just the past-life cranks, but also the Skeptics he encounters are out of their depth, and deserve the calling-out they get from him. No one can think they're past the need for doubt.

I am surprised, for a start, that so few of these disciples of empirical evidence seem to be familiar with the scientific literature on the subject that impassions them so. I am suspicious, too, about the real source of their rage. If they are motivated, as they frequently insist, by altruistic concern over the dangers of supernatural belief, why don't they obsess over jihadist Muslims, homophobic Christians or racist Jewish settlers? Why this focus on stage psychics, ghosthunters and alt-med hippies?

During our conversation, I asked Randi if he has ever, in his life, changed his position on anything due to an examination of the evidence. After a long silence, he said, 'That's a good question. I have had a few surprises along the way that got my attention rather sharply.'
  'What were these?' I asked.
He thought again, for some time. 'Oh, some magic trick that I decided on the modus operandi.'...
'So you’ve never been wrong about anything significant?'
'In regard to the Skeptical movement and my work...' There was another stretched and chewing pause. He conferred with his partner, to see if he had any ideas. 'No. Nothing occurs to me at the moment.'

That's not how memory works though, is it?

Even given his unusual humility, Storr is too literal-minded and prosecutorial ("I have been looking for evidence that James Randi is a liar"). Storr is disillusioned with particular Skeptics, and reacts by throwing out scepticism:
For many Skeptics, evidence-based truth has been sacralised. It has caused them to become irrational in their judgements of the motives of those with whom they do not agree...
This monoculture we would have, if the hard rationalists had their way, would be a deathly thing. So bring on the psychics, bring on the alien abductees, bring on the two John Lennons – bring on a hundred of them. Christians or no, there will be tribalism. Televangelists or no, there will be scoundrels. It is not religion or fake mystics that create these problems, it is being human. Where there is illegality or racial hatred, call the police. Where there is psychosis, call Professor Richard Bentall. Where there is misinformation, bring learning. But where there is just ordinary madness, we should celebrate. Eccentricity is our gift to one another. It is the riches of our species. To be mistaken is not a sin. Wrongness is a human right.

And when Randi corrects himself in the course of a sentence ("I didn't go to grade school at all, I went to the first few grades of grade school"), Storr leaps on this as a serious contradiction rather than just the patchy nature of speech. Sure, he talks about his emotional bias against scepticism - but he still leaves in this idiot journo behaviour, the uncharitable coaxing out of flaws.

These chapters were a good ethnography of 'traditional' (nontechnical) rationality. But Storr doesn't know about the other kind (which both foregrounds and copes with all the cognitive biases he is so struck and scarred by), and so his conclusion about rationalism is completely awry.**

The title is fitting in a few ways: Storr sees these people as persecuted underdogs (he likes many of the quacks and fringeists, and so focusses on the arrogance and bias of the - however correct - mainstream figures dealing with them); and they certainly have the holy madness of people who cry out despite knowing they will be ostracised.
Over the last few months, John E Mack has become a kind of hero to me. Despite his earlier caution, he ended up believing in amazing things: intergalactic space travel and terrifying encounters in alien craft that travelled seamlessly through nonphysical dimensions. And when his bosses tried to silence him, he hired a lawyer. He fought back against the dean and his dreary minions. He battled hard in the name of craziness...

David Irving is interesting in this regard: he does not act like a fraud (e.g. he sues people for libel, even though this brings intensive scrutiny of his research), but rather a sort of compulsive masochist-contrarian. Stranger still, his (beloved) family were all solid anti-Nazi soldiers in WWII. (Storr contorts himself to explain Irving's identification with Hitler as due to their sharing an admiration of the British forces (...))

Storr's awful experience on a Vipassana retreat is a vivid example of the Buddhist dark night of the soul. We don't know what fraction of people suffer terribly from meditation, but despite its cuddly image, there's surely large overlap with the 8% of people who are clinically depressive and/or anxious.

The chapter on psi does not represent the state of evidence properly - perhaps because one of his proof-readers was Professor Daryl Bloody Bem. ***

The ending is stirring but tilts over into relativism:
The Skeptic tells the story of Randi the hero; the psychic of Randi the devil. We all make these unconscious plot decisions...

We are all creatures of illusion. We are made out of stories. From the heretics to the Skeptics, we are all lost in our own secret worlds.

But the question is to what degree! And the degree of lostness, of inverse rationality, varies by many orders of whatever magnitude you wish to pick.

Storr's disquiet at the sheer power of cognitive bias, and the systematic failures of yes/no science (that is: statistical significance rather than effect size estimation) is well and good. (Gelman:
I think ‘the probability that a model or a hypothesis is true’ is generally a meaningless statement except as noted in certain narrow albeit important examples.
And his humane approach is certainly bound to be more compelling to mystics and flakes than e.g. deGrasse Tyson's smug dismissals. But Storr is scared of grey, of the fact that doubt is only reducible and not eliminable. This is because he doesn't know anything about our most beautiful weapons: probabilism, Bayesian inference, Analysis.

I recommend Elephant in the Brain or Rationality from A to Z instead as an approach to the vital, dreadful side of cognition (including advice on avoiding being a fake, partial, traditional sceptic); they have less angst and false equivalences, and were written by people who understand the balance of evidence.

Actually that's too strong; I am frustrated with Storr because he is so similar to me, except he doesn't grasp that the technical is the path out of (many) biases. There's a lot wrong with it and you should probably read it, and how often can one say that?

* Storr is right that skeptics can lack compassion. The "Morgellons" people are victims regardless of what their etiology turns out to be (mental illness, nerve disorders, tropical rat mites, or yes malicious sentient fibres). At minimum, they are victims of bad fortune plus rigid and actually unscientific medical practices. The Lesswrong style of rationalist has less of this problem IMO (more emotional literacy; a more Californian culture).

** Storr:
I am concerned that I have overstated my argument. In my haste to write my own coherent story, I have barely acknowledged the obvious truth that minds do sometimes change. People find faith and they lose it. Mystics become Skeptics. Politicians cross the floor. I wonder why this happens. Is it when the reality of what is actually happening in our lives overpowers the myth that we make of themselves? Are we simply pursuing ever more glorious hero missions?...

This is an imperfect system, as it relies on many secondary sources. Moreover, I do not declare myself to be free of the biases that afflict any writer, and I'm certainly not immune to making mistakes. If any errors are noted, or if new findings supersede claims made in the text, I would be very grateful to receive notification via willstorr.com, so future editions can be corrected.

*** Important caveat to the headline of that linked article from Gelman:

The only thing I don’t like about Engber’s article is its title, “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which means science is broken.” I understand that “Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real” is kind of a joke, but to me this is a bit too close to the original reporting on Bem, back in 2011, where people kept saying that Bem’s study was high quality, state-of-the-art psychology, etc. Actually, Bem’s study was crap. It’s every much as bad as the famously bad papers on beauty and sex ratio, ovulation on voting, elderly-related words and slow walking, etc.

And “science” is not broken. Crappy science is broken. Good science is fine. If “science” is defined as bad articles published in PPNAS—himmicanes, air rage, ages ending in 9, etc.—then, sure, science is broken. But if science is defined as the real stuff, then, no, it’s not broken at all.
Profile Image for Blair.
120 reviews81 followers
March 23, 2019
Don’t judge this book by its cover. From it, we expect to learn what is wrong with all those other people who believe in superstitious nonsense. And indeed we go down that route, but he gradually turns on those of us on the “right” side, showing how we are subject to the same types of confirmation bias as the crazies. Some reviewers who prefer their biases to be confirmed complain the book is not the one they wanted to read. Where is the righteous damnation of the deluded ones?

It is clear that our author does not really know a lot about science in general. Here is how he describes his (only?) qualification to write this book:

“I like to write about these people – it is like being a tourist in another universe. There is something noble about their bald defiance of the ordinary, something heroic about the deep outsider territories that they wilfully inhabit, something comforting – in a fundamental, primeval way – about their powers of cognitive transport. They are magic makers. And, beneath all of that, there is a private undercurrent: I fell a kind of kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.”

Maybe his ignorance of the subject matter actually helps him to understand the way these people think, which may be more useful than telling us over and over again what we already (think) we know, how wrong they are. For example, when he interviews his creationist before learning the basics of evolutionary theory, he realizes his understanding is as faith-based as that of his adversary.

The book consists of stories of his adventures in pseudo-science wonderland, plus a decent summary of modern cognitive research, based on the same books on the subject that I have read. There is nothing ground breaking here, but it is a useful review. Some of his stories seem rather long and pointless. But then, here is what he has to say about stories:

“Stories work against truth. They operate with the machinery of prejudice and distortion. Their purpose is not fact but propaganda. The scientific method is the tool that humans have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.”

He is particularly critical of so-called “skeptics”, such as James Randi, who he accuses of being just as closed minded as their adversaries. He quotes a conference center employee: “Skeptics: They are like conspiracy theorists.”

His point is well taken, but this conclusion is a bit much:

“Where there is just ordinary madness, we should celebrate. Eccentricity is our gift to one another. It is the riches of our species. To be mistaken is not a sin. Wrongness is a human right.”

Part of this book is thought provoking, and he does tell good stories, but some of it is pointless. What did I learn from his ten days of enlightenment training, other than on day nine he snuck out and bought pizza? There is also a lot of tedious tracking down of which skeptic said exactly what about some crank a long time ago. However, the puncturing of the self-confirming expectations of some reviewers is the best thing about it.
Profile Image for John.
Author 330 books162 followers
June 28, 2017
A thoroughly engrossing selection of essays recounting Storr's encounters with science rejectionists and others of similar worldview, from climate-change denier and compulsive self-aggrandizer Christopher Monckton to creationist John Mackay to revisionist historian David Irving to the guru and faith healer Swami Ramdev to . . .

. . . well, to Rupert Sheldrake, who exemplifies one of the problems I have with this book, which is that a few of the interview subjects can't really be described as "enemies of science." I happen to think that Sheldrake has wandered down an intellectual blind alley and that his work -- such of it that I know about -- is, while sometimes certainly interesting, ultimately worthless, but I don't think he can be described in any way as opposed to science, any more than could Fred Hoyle, another great champion of much that was wrong-headed.

I guess you could regard that as a quibble: if the book's fun and contains much of value, who cares if it oversteps its stated boundaries from time to time? (Besides, it's an error of which I know I am myself guilty more often than not.)

My other criticism of The Unpersuadables may seem like an even more trivial quibble but came in the end to assume, for this reader at least, serious proportions. There is far too much about Will Storr in these essays. There's TMI all over the place. I really have no interest whatsoever -- at least in the context of this book -- of the difficulties and obsessions he endured during his youthful love life, of his relationship with his parents, and of much else with which he regales us. Likewise, while the speculations of philosophers, neuroscientists and others whom he's consulted or cites about the way the human mind works are fascinating, I'm not so sure how much value to place upon his own speculations along these lines . . . and there are quite a few pages devoted to them. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy reading those pages -- I quite often did -- but that I felt their content belonged more to one of the best pub conversations you'd ever be lucky enough to have rather than between the covers of this particular book.

In any discussion of a book it's easy for the criticisms to outweigh the praise, so let me make a point of saying that The Unpersuadables has some very considerable merits. It's quite extraordinarily readable and it uncovers a lot of stuff that will be unfamiliar to most readers; even a reader like myself, who has read pretty widely in the field of science denial and rejection, found much that was new. Of particular note, I thought, was the amount of effort Storr makes to get into the heads of these people, to understand them on their own terms, rather than simply to dismiss them as loons. On the other hand, he's not afraid to let the nuttiness show through, often to comic effect. (I found myself quite uncomfortable when he applied the same sort of objective eye to a group of "skeptics"; I recognized that discomfort of mine as A Good Thing, since it jolted my complacency.)

So: A thoroughly enjoyable read with a great deal that's of very great value, but a book that could have done with some self-disciplined pruning.
Profile Image for Ryan.
990 reviews
April 27, 2020
There are people who believe that creationism should be taught in science class, that we can visit past lives, and/or that climate change is a hoax. Nothing can convince them they're wrong. Storr's The Unpersuadables attempts to figure out how the rest of us should understand such people. What are the things that make people unpersuadable, or as I tend to think of them, unreachable? Information and identity, it turns out.

Storr visits creationists. It's become fashionable to find the New Atheists annoying--they often are annoying--but perhaps we've forgotten about creationists, who are quite possibly even more frustrating and annoying to listen to. They are also inoculated against all arguments that challenge their worldview and the answers they give to Storr's questions about homosexuality are especially telling. At a certain point, people become immune to information because of cognitive dissonance, which is the tension between one's worldview and information presented that challenges that worldview. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and confirmation bias, which massages all new information so that it supports one's worldview, assuages that tension. Under this model, we intuit values and then rationalize them; therefore, the more data that is presented against one's view, the more one's view is hardened. If this sounds like Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, you're right, and he is interviewed in the book.

I suspect that many of us are both more and less "unpersuadable" than we realize. Storr, for example, often questions his beliefs. In fact, he does so too readily, I think. He rarely considers who should carry the burden of proof, for example, and instead defaults to "let's imagine each of us could be right" as if each proposition carries 50/50 chance of being right. Still, his approach, which begins with wondering about why people believe strange things and then asking them about it, is probably something that most of us struggle to really do. And when he does wonder why he believes what he does, he often finds himself appealing to authorities that he trusts, which carries the risk of tribalism and confirmation bias. The book is most interesting when he is able to move past that.

Sometimes people don't change, like Shakepseare's tragic heroes. Tragic heroes, at a certain point, realize they're doomed. They can change, and in changing perhaps escape their downfall, but they instead go down doing the thing that makes them who they are. This notion sounds banal, but I suspect it's very powerful because it sounds an awful lot like resolve, perseverance, and integrity. But don't we all sympathize with tragic downfalls in part because it seems somehow noble to die on a hill? We find smokers, for example, who cannot conceive of themselves as anything other than smokers, ridiculous. I suspect that smokers often feel a sort of helpless self-loathing, but I also suspect they feel indignant at being told how to live their life.
Profile Image for Sarah.
102 reviews12 followers
March 6, 2013
Not quite what I was expecting but enjoyable none the less.

I initially gave it a three star review but had to give it a grudging fourth star because while I feel he comes a bit close to, as the aphorism quoted in the book goes to "having so open a mind that it falls out", his concerns about the absolute certainty of the Skeptics and Materialist Fundamentalists (Dawkins et al) resonated with me. In a phone conversation with the author, Professor David Eagleman encapsulates how I feel; after first stating that he does not support the theories of a scientists who believes he has found a psychic terrier from Ramsbottom, he says:

"But I'm a supporter of people proposing wacky ideas because every single major advance started off as a wacky idea. We're at a very young period in our science right now. We need ideas. What doesn't make sense is to pretend that we know the answers and to act as if we're certain that materialism is going to bring us all the way home, because we have no guarantee of that."

Profile Image for Aussiescribbler Aussiescribbler.
Author 17 books53 followers
December 27, 2014
While I have a rather more optimistic view of the human situation than the one at which Will Storr arrives in this book, I think he sets a very good example through his approach to investigating deviant belief systems. He has also written a supremely entertaining book, at times very funny and at other times disturbing. He has a fine sense of ironic detail when relating his encounters with the heretics and also those who might be viewed as orthodox, but who are capable of their own absurdities.

If we genuinely wish to support reason in the world, it is not enough for us to know what is reasonable. We also have to know why other's beliefs do not conform to what we believe to be reasonable. The quest to find the answers to this question may shake us to the core, because anyone who tries to address a problem in the world but does not view themselves as part of that problem is deluding themselves. Everything is connected.

Storr comes to the conclusion that there is a general human characteristic which makes us view the world via a filter through which we appear to be the heroes and certain others the villains. His own self-image is so riddled with doubts that he is able to open up to the people he examines without immediately casting himself as hero in relation to them. And this is necessary if he is to learn something important about what makes them tick.

Personally, I think this hero-maker tendency varies from person to person. All of us are neurotically insecure to a different degree. If we are very insecure then we can't accept the idea that we might be wrong about something. As very young children we didn't have this need to recast our view of the world to fit the belief system in which we had invested ourselves, because we had not yet invested ourselves in a belief system, nor had we learned to repress our emotions and our drives in a way which made us neurotically inflexible. We had no character armour. The thing about character armour is that it is defensive and thus the more our worldview is attacked the more likely we are to cling to it. Storr finds this happening again and again with the individuals he interviews. But this is why I'm more optimistic than he is. If we learn to practise unconditional self-acceptence then our self-esteem will not rest on being right. Then we will not be locked into wrong-headed thinking as a matter of pride as is the case now. As for others, we can see that what is needed for them to move away from an unfounded belief system is not to have it argued against but for it to be accepted, not as our belief system but as theirs. I don't believe that the earth is only six-thousand years old, so why would I have a problem with the fact that someone else believes that. It is viewing such a belief as a threat which makes it a threat, because people dig the trenches, and start putting a major effort into trying to enlist others, to support such a belief only if others are fighting against it. View it as a harmless eccentricity and it becomes irrelevant.

Each extreme in the world is maintained and fed by its opposite. Creationism and proselytising atheism keep each other in business. There is an interesting example of this in the opening chapter on Creationist John Mackay. Mackay's father was strongly pro-evolutionist and anti-Christian and Mackay was following in his path until, at sixteen, he read a book about evolution which contained a chapter about why there is no God. Quite rightly, he viewed this as propaganda which didn't belong in a science book. This led to him reading the Bible and going the whole other way. Perhaps it was partly a rebellion against his father. But, apocryphal or not, this anecdote provides an example of how excesses on one side of a conflict inspire and strengthen the opposition. Bigoted atheists reinforce the faith of fundamentalists in just the same way that bigoted religious leaders drive some away from religion into atheism. And yet the bigotry of all has its roots in a buried lack of self-acceptance. Those who can accept themselves also accept all others. Anyone who doesn't accept anyone doesn't accept themselves. Not that accepting someone need entail accepting their behaviour, but accepting what underlies someone's behaviour helps us to restrain it where necessary. For instance, if someone wanted to murder me, the best starting point to trying to prevent them from doing so would probably be to accept that they have good reason for wanting to. To do otherwise would be to impose my world view on theirs.

What drew my attention to this book was a conflict between Rupert Sheldrake, a prominent scientist specialising in psychic phenomena, and self-proclaimed sceptic James Randi. Sheldrake, along with a number of other individuals, have accused Randi of lying and using his fame as a tool to wage an close-minded ideological war against researchers into psychic phenomena amongst others. Storr has a chapter on each of these individuals. He finds Sheldrake to be very reasonable, but he can't overcome his own disinclination to believe in the phenomena Sheldrake studies. And Storr does seem to catch Randi out in some lies. But then at least Randi is honest enough to admit that he is not always truthful.

The chapter on David Irving, the historian who reckons Hitler might not have been such a bad guy after all, is particularly entertaining, with Storr going undercover amongst a group of Nazi sympathisers on a sightseeing tour. Here again one wonders whether any danger Irving poses hasn't been created by viewing him as a danger. His ideas on Hitler have been pretty much universally dismissed by other historians, so wouldn't those ideas have less power to inflame disenfranchised misfits if he were not made into a persecuted hero figure through book banning and jail terms? But perhaps we need to act against villains like him in order to fool ourselves that we are heroes.

Homeopathy and its opponents also come in for coverage. Storr talks to a woman whose cancer went undiagnosed by conventional doctors until it was, apparently, terminal. After hearing this from them she took a course of homeopathic medicine and recovered her health. Of course an isolated case doesn't prove the effectiveness of a treatment which defies common sense, but I bet if you had had the same experience you would swear by it. The placebo effect is the most likely explanation, but if we can recover from a serious illness simply because we think we will why should be care that we were tricked into it? Opponents of homeopathy place a great deal of emphasis on cases were someone may have not received effective treatment because they placed too much faith in a folk remedy. But is fighting against the folk remedy the best way to address that problem? In most cases it isn't that serious. If someone has a headache and they buy a homeopathic headache treatment either there headache will go away more quickly (most likely from the placebo effect) in which case they achieved the desired result and will probably continue to do the same thing, or it won't work for them, in which case they won't buy it again. The sceptics Storr finds fighting against homeopathy are not terribly sensible. Some admit to having never actually examined any of the evidence even though they are arguing that matters be decided on evidence. And James Randi leads them all, sheep-like, in a mass "overdose" on homeopathic remedies. Now think about it. Does taking many times the recommended dose of a substance prove that it is ineffective? No. It only proves that it is very very safe. I have no reason to believe that homeopathy succeeds through anything other than the placebo effect, but I'm sure that those who do believe in homeopathy were not worried by this demonstration, which appears to be founded on the belief that homeopathic remedies are reputed to work in the same manner as pharmaceutical medicines, many of which are highly poisonous and therefore can be overdosed on. The demonstrators, like so many of us in this divided world, were preaching to the converted. But, then, perhaps saving the world is less important to them than maintaining their self-perception as heroes.

43 reviews
November 26, 2019
Without a doubt one of THE best books I've read in 2019. A fascinating study into how belief systems and what we CHOOSE to believe in can influence -- and even shape -- the reality we see around us. 11/10, would definitely recommend as a must-read for everyone!
Profile Image for Syeda Jaisha.
6 reviews
August 10, 2022
Be it those who deny the Holocaust or those who believe that breathing meditation can be a cure for terminal illnesses, Will spares no one in this book. Not even himself. He tries to explain the mysterious biases of human mind, yet falls prey to it himself again and again despite his commendable effort to suspend his own beliefs — such is the beauty of this book.

He's a brilliant writer and does a good job of interweaving his anecdotes with his research into the deceptive workings of the human mind but it was hard to keep up with his long anecdotes and their recurrring characters and I kept getting lost. I also found the research lacking in its scope and length.

Overall, the book piqued my curiosity, yet failed to gratify my desire to learn more.
Profile Image for Steve Rainwater.
174 reviews10 followers
March 26, 2017
Creationists, past life regressionists, climate science deniers, holocaust deniers, alien abductees, anti-vaxxers; the list of bizarre beliefs that contradict science, facts, and reason seems to be growing.

There are many books debunking these things but Will Storr has a unique approach to the subject. He wants to get to know the people who have weird beliefs and try to understand why they have them. He approaches the subject with journalistic objectivity rather than skepticism. No matter how crazy they seem, he befriends them, talks to them, and tries to understand what it is they believe and why.

He follows up by talking to scientists and experts in each field to get the facts and compare them to the views held by the "unpersuadables". His goal is not to debunk or mock, but rather to understand what it is about human nature that leads us so easily into false beliefs about the world. He concludes it's a combination of our brain's propensity to build mental models and tell stories. This leads us to filter out facts that disagree with the story we like or the mental model we've built up. His view is that we've evolved a predisposition to do this sort of thing and it's a problem that afflicts us all to one degree or another. The only protection is rigorous adherence to something like the scientific method that forces us to face facts we may not want to see.

The book is not at all what I expected but I enjoyed it and recommend it. It's not technical or scholarly, just an entertaining read full of eccentric characters.
Profile Image for Peter Colclasure.
252 reviews22 followers
January 14, 2019
Based on the title, you might presume that this a book where some smug, condescending liberal goes around mocking his intellectual inferiors.

This is not that book.

Here’s what he writes in the first chapter:

“I consider—as everyone surely does—that my opinions are the correct ones. And yet, I have never met anyone whose every single thought I agreed with. When you take these two positions together, they have a way of saying, ‘Nobody is as right about as many things as me.’ And that cannot be true. Because to accept that would be to confer upon myself a Godlike status. It would mean that I possess a superpower: a clarity of thought that is unique among humans. Okay, fine. So I accept that I must be wrong about them. A lot of them. But when I look back over my shoulder and I double-check what I think about religion and politics and science and all the rest of it . . . well, I know I am right about that . . . and that . . . and that and that and—it is usually at this point that I start to feel strange. I know I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am. I believe these two things completely, and yet they are in catastrophic logical opposition to each other.”

And here’s what he writes in the epilogue:

“I will try to remember, though, that as right as I can sometimes feel, there is always the chance that I am wrong. And that happiness lies in humility: in forgiving others, and in forgiving myself.”

The book is neither pompous, nor self-satisfied, nor dismissive. Each chapter focuses on a group or individual with beliefs that are, shall we say, outside the mainstream of scientific consensus. We meet creationists, UFO abductees, believers in past lives, morgellons sufferers, global warming deniers, holocaust deniers, faith healers, etc. The thing I found appealing was the empathy the author displayed towards his interview subjects, and the humility with which he presented his own beliefs. It’s an earnest exploration of the nature of belief itself.

Perhaps a more accurate subtitle would have put “enemies” in quotes.

The conclusion here is that we are not the impartial judges of reality that we pretend to be. Our mental hardware evolved on the plains of African millennia ago, and that we don’t process the world through sheer, unadulterated data. We process everything that happens to us through the filter of emotions, stories, and identity. We are the sum of the stories we tell ourselves. And therefore we are not fundamentally rational. This is why it can feel useless trying to win a debate with facts, logic, and reason. Ultimately the only thing that changes minds is an alternative story to what they have been telling themselves.

Here’s a quote I liked:

“I used to hold a fierce belief in binary love, of the kind that is promised in music, film and literature. You are in love, or you are not. They were absolute modes of being, like Christian or non-Christian, right or wrong, sane or insane. Today, my marriage is happy because I understand that true love is a mess. It is like my father’s belief in God: a journey, sometimes blissful, often fraught. It is not the ultimate goal that was promised by all those pop songs. It lacks the promise of having to fight for it—if it was just there, reliable, steady, ever-present, like a cardboard box over your head—what would be its worth?”
Profile Image for Fred Forbes.
966 reviews50 followers
May 19, 2020
Looking for answers to why folks believe the things they do, despite strong evidence to the contrary was my main attraction to this book as I see it play out daily on social media. Unfortunately, much of the book is taken up with digressions into the author's personal mental and family issues and it is quite distracting. I did find the recap of the meetings with the holocaust deniers, alien abduction victims, alternate medicine believers, creationists, etc. to be interesting and enjoyed some of the explanation about how beliefs develop in humans. Just a bit too uneven to rate any more highly.
149 reviews
September 23, 2018
This book begins with a story that hooked me right from the get go: The author, Will Storr, spends a few days hunting fossils with a celebrated and highly intelligent creationist. The creationist feels that fossil evidence proves, in a scientific sense, the existence of a 6000 year old earth as commonly interpreted from the bible. A debate ensues between the two of them and both sides feel like their respective facts just slide right off of the other. Both leave the room unhappy that the other remains unconvinced.

I was very surprised by what happened next: The author decided to not write this creationist off as a crock and a religious idiot--as many writers might be tempted to do. Instead, he decided to ask harder questions: what makes intelligent people hold so strongly to ideas that others feel can be disproved by rational evidence? What makes people unpersuadable? Why do intelligent people disagree about the same body of evidence? The 300 pages that follow are an engaging, sometimes scary, and very empathetic exploration of how the human mind works, how it subverts rationality and intelligence to its own purposes, and how humans are not well equipped to deal objectively with evidence.

It is a bit unnerving to me, a professional scientist, to learn that human irrationality is ubiquitous. In one very entertaining chapter, the author questions several prominent Skeptics about why they feel they are resistant to dogmatic thinking. Their reply: the dogma of Skepticism is anti-dogmatic. Ergo, they are safe. Even the professionals can't think straight!

I'd like to read and re-read this book several times. So far, my takeaway is that I really am in no position to mock or look down on anybody who simply believes something that I do not believe (religious, political, scientific, or otherwise). In a very classic "first cast the beam out of thine own eye" sense, my beliefs are primarily fueled by a complex mixture of irrational urges, suspect memories, a compulsion to find meaning in every event, and a deep desire/need to place myself at the center of the world. Invisibly and subconsciously, both your brain and my brain steer our powers of rational thinking to find and amplify observations that support our respective beliefs and ignore, reduce, or explain away anything that may contradict our respective senses of rightness. That's why I cannot imagine which of my many opinions could possibly be wrong. I'm guessing that neither can you.
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