Tuesday 5 August 2014

Will Storr - Of Heretics and Skeptics

Or, a warning for the ultra-skeptics amongst us.

I’m not a book reviewer. I’m not a scientist. If I was, I’d be writing a proper piece  using reams of notes, annotated margins, and perhaps dictaphone recordings of interviews with some of the protagonists. Tucked behind the mantlepiece would be a copy of my contract with the Times Literary Supplement.

Instead I’m writing this in a works second string canteen, with a mound of banana peel by my left elbow, and a brain possibly of insufficient ability to attempt this task.

“The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science” is a book by Will Storr, a writer with an apparent religious family background, and issues with mental health in his past. In it, he makes Louis Theroux style visits on “independent thinkers” - a hardline creationist homophobic preacher, devotees of extreme yoga therapy, homeopaths, UFOlogists, and in one memorable chapter, Holocaust denier (or perhaps no longer) David Irvine and a merry band of right wingers as they tour the Extermination camps of Europe.

He also spends time with the Skeptic movement movers and shakers, as they attempt a mass homeopathy suicide, and original Skeptic hero James Randi.

The book is fascinating, although sometimes you feel that the time he spends with his subjects is almost cut short just as his visits get into their stride - something you never feel with Theroux, say - and that he has to throw some proper, but tough to follow, science as a little bit of padding. However, this may just be myself as a non-scientist who prefers the character case studies.  Saying that, the chapter dealing with Recovered Memory Syndrome is truly dramatic, and here Storr really does get to grips with the damage that can be caused by dabbling with this sort of therapy, especially when the investigator is so convinced the abuse exists that any rational refutation is ignored.

And this is the crux of what the book is about. He finds that in some cases, the Skeptics are just as dogmatic, if not more so, than the so called cultists, and a lot less sympathetic in a kind of striving for uniformity of thought. Their methodology is also called into question, when really there experiments should morally be far more stringent than those they seek to discredit.

Ultimately, however, all the evidence in the world is pointless if your brain is going to ignore anything that doesn’t agree with your own innate prejudice, deeply ingrained by years of seeing the world from your own perspective. This is something called “Confirmation Bias”, a way of skewing the world to fit your own vision that both the cultists, and the Skeptics, and myself, are guilty of. And to me this is quite frightening.

How can we be possibly open minded, if our brains won’t let us? Is everyone who says that they are truly open minded, nothing other than a bigoted liar who sees only what they want to see?

It is disturbing. And a point brilliant explored by this book.

Copyright Creamcrackered 05.08.14

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