This week saw an online shouting match erupt between entrepreneur Elon Musk and the New York Times, in the wake of that publication’s negative review of the Tesla Model S electric car. In a number of back and forth blog posts and Twitter statements, both sides in the argument posted their claim to the moral high ground. But the interesting part for me, watching on, was how those arguments filtered out to, and were represented by, the general public. People I follow on Twitter who are generally left-leaning in their politics would retweet Musk’s statements only, sometimes throwing in some words of support. Right-leaning folk, on the other hand, covered only the NYT’s side of the story, sometimes with the addition of pointed barbs at Musk’s expense.
It was a perfect example of the ways in which we continually reinforce our own beliefs and biases, by selecting/trusting sources that confirm them, and discarding or disparaging those that undercut their foundations. It’s a topic that has fascinating me personally throughout my life, and one that has now been explored beautifully by journalist Will Storr in his newly-released book The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. In the book, the well-traveled British journalist goes in search of an answer to why people can believe strange – sometimes outrageously strange – things without batting an eyelid.
Storr is no stranger to adventures with outliers – his previous book, Will Storr vs the Supernatural, had him hanging out with paranormal investigators and demonologists as they went about their (rather odd) business. The Heretics is written in a similar, gonzo journalist manner, allowing Storr to place the reader in the room with these ‘fascinating’ (a catch-all I’m using to describe everything from intriguing to downright dangerous) people, to hear their opinions from their own mouths, and have Storr ask them the questions that are on the lips of us all as we read along.
The Heretics moves beyond the supernatural topic of the last book to encompass all manner of modern-day heresy: he talks to Creationist John Mackay, climate change skeptic Christopher Monckton, and ‘Holocaust denier’ David Irving, among others including people who hear voices, those who suffer from ‘Morgellon’s Disease’, attendees at an extreme meditation retreat, and homeopathic healers. Storr’s personal approach works well – where most authors might treat these people as a class of alien beings whose thought processes are beyond our ability to comprehend, or worse, simply resort to ridicule, in The Heretics we get a real sense that these are people much like us, and we understand how they might have arrived at their belief system. That’s not to say Storr gives them a free pass, as he regularly questions and challenges them to justify the authority of their claims. But this back and forth often leads to surprising results: towards the end of a rather disturbing chapter in which the author travels to a concentration camp with David Irving and a group of Neo-Nazi tourists, the bigoted and mean-spirited aura that has enveloped Irving for most of the trip dissipates for a short time, giving Storr and the reader a quick glimpse at the human within Irving that most of us would much prefer not to acknowledge.
Storr mixes these encounters with explanations from brain science and psychology research as to how we – because, as Storr is at pains to point out, it’s not just these outliers who can hold irrational beliefs – come to believe weird things, and manage to defend these beliefs from even the most logical, incisive attacks. Our brains, he points out…
…have evolved to project an image of reasonable, wise, clear-sighted coherence and yet whose decision-making engines run on a slick conjuration of illusion, prejudice and ego-bolstering sleights of truth; a system of irrationality that includes a kind of neural blacksmith’s workshop for dealing with uncomfortable facts – there the furnace for softening them up, there the hammer and tongs for reshaping them, there the window from which to toss them out.
There is an irony in the book though, in that it leans on these neurological and psychological theories to explain the methods by which we fool ourselves and support our beliefs. A number of times when Storr quoted some theorist (Kahneman with his bananas and vomit, the research who says we are unaware of how we mimic those around us), my response was “actually no, you got that wrong”. And, as far as I can ascertain, not because I was trying to defend my own belief system! The thought did run through my mind though, that perhaps these theorists too were generalising too quickly in order to bolster their own ‘insights’.
But Storr does give generous space in The Heretics to the idea that even scientists and skeptics are not immune to building up a false belief system. Early on in the book, he questions those at a skeptical gathering as to how they know homeopathy is false, with the revelation that most have done no detailed investigation or reading on the matter. Towards the end of the book, Storr covers the debate between Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Wiseman on the ‘dogs that know their owners are coming home’ research controversy, and is surprised to find that Sheldrake holds his own easily in defending his anomalous findings. And then, in the final chapter, Storr talks to the godfather of modern skepticism, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, at his eponymous ‘Amazing Meeting’ in Las Vegas. During this chat, Storr’s jaw drops when he finds that this famous defender of science and rationalism holds some rather odd beliefs himself, spouting a Social Darwinist manifesto before admitting to Storr that he has resorted to lying in order to win the intellectual arm-wrestle against his ‘woo-woo’ opponents.
It is a “crystallising moment” for Storr, with the sudden recognition that even ‘skeptics’ can be similar to Creationists, by treating belief as a moral choice: “If you do not choose as they do, you are condemned”. In the end, this is the key to the author finding himself in the strange position of celebrating the eccentric beliefs of humanity. Some will (and already have, from other reviews I have seen) seize on this to – rather ironically, given the theme of the book – shout down Storr as giving support to the likes of Irving. But to do so, they would be ignoring a short passage near the end of the book where the author makes clear that it is not weirdness that is the real problem, but intolerance and violence that may arise from some beliefs.
For we all need a scaffolding to support ourselves, and living in constant doubt of our actions and motivations may be an honest way to live, but it can make the actual living of life a difficult and sometimes drab affair. In many cases, science offers many evidence-based struts that we can use to good purpose in protecting ourselves (though perhaps not as many as some over-zealous scientists and skeptics might claim). But we also – all of us – need a belief system within that scaffolding to varying degrees. So perhaps the two central messages we should take from Will Storr’s The Heretics are that we should always try to be skeptical – firstly of others’ claims, but even moreso of our own beliefs and justifications, because they will affect the outcome of the former (or maybe I’m just saying that because it suits my own philosophy…). But also to realise that we also all have our own beliefs, and fool ourselves to varying degrees – so we should be a whole lot more humble, and less evangelical, when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true to those around us. For as Robert Anton Wilson once said, “If you think you know what the hell is going on, you’re probably full of shit”. So let’s all get over the idea that our way is the way.
The Heretics is a brave book, at the very least for discussing a topic that – if Storr is correct – most of our brains will be trying to dismiss as quickly and superficially as possible (which I have already seen in a few reviews): that we spend much of our lives fooling ourselves in order to live our lives thinking we are correct. But also because this is also a deeply personal journey: in The Heretics, Storr not only confronts others, but also himself – his own flaws, his own beliefs, and the lies he has told both himself and others in order to make himself the Hero of his own story (another of the major themes of the book). If we could all be as honest and questioning of our beliefs and motivations as Will Storr is in The Heretics, the world would likely be a better place.