Skepticism With Vulnerability

Will Storr’s Heretics: Adventures With the Enemies of Science is an exceptional book which I cannot recommend highly enough.

As the title suggests, most of the book comprises Storr’s adventures in rounding up some of the planet’s best known s├žientific pariahs and interviewing them. Typically, Storr spends several hours or days with his interviewees, and sometimes even travels around with them. We get to see Holocaust denier David Irving, Rupert Sheldrake, Richard Wiseman, James Randi and several other slightly less notable figures up close and personal.,

Will Storr shows himself to be a very talented writer and journalist. What I particularly liked about this book was Storr’s personal courage in having the vulnerability to be completely honest about the questions and uncertainties which filled his own mind in the writing of the volume. This is a rare beast indeed: skepticism with self-reflection! What I also love is that Storr is a very, very fair in his appraisal of the people he meets and interviews. He shows himself willing to question his own preset assumptions. This is an attitude that many so-called professional skeptics could do well to mimic.

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As Storr’s encounters with several skeptics in the book reveal, many are just as dogmatic and irrational as the “woo” masters they despise. This becomes particularly clear in a chapter where he digs into the dispute between radical biologist Rupert Sheldrake and professional skeptic Richard Wiseman – over their testing of a dog who allegedly knew when its master was coming home despite having no warning about the return times. Although Storr comes to no firm conclusions about Sheldrake’s work, Storr is willing to present the cases of both men, including allegations that Wise,man misrepresented his own study to make a positive outcome look negative. Most skeptics would not even bother to give Sheldrake the benefit of the doubt, instantly siding with the skeptic. Storr does not fall into that trap.

Nor does James Randi – when interviewed – come out looking like the irrepressible, hyper-rational genius his fans often portray him to be. But Storr is willing to point out the good he has done as well. And this is something many in “alternative” circles typically fail to do. As I said, Storr is very fair.

Storr does not fall short of criticicising – or even ridiculing – various “believers” who seem willing to believe almost anything, irregardless of the evidence to the contrary. Some of his stream-of-consciousness judgments of their deep irrationality make for amusing reading.

Storr concludes that the human mind is a story maker and that it is impossible for us to avoid this – regardless of how “rational” we think we are. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance to some degree. And he is right. Given this the only truly “rational” way to gaze upon the thinking of others is with a gentle appreciation that their distortions are just part of the madness of being human. I suppose the most obvious caveat is in deciding when such thinking is harmful to others – as is the case with David Irving.

If I am pressed to identify any shortcoming of the book, it might be the writer’s failure to adequately address the limits of scientific enquiry and rational analysis. I feel that any genuine attempt to sceptically question the world has to acknowledge the limits of different kinds of perception. There are mindful traditions which have come to the same insights as has Storr, but through introspective means. Some do offer a step beyond the kind of postmodern impasse at which Storr finds himself imobilised at the end of the book. This is, I believe, a civilisational roadblock that we now face. Storr is clearly prepared to explore such possibilities (he relates an agonising Vipisana meditation retreat he attended), but it seems he is yet to resolve this cognitive tension in his own mind.

But then again, it is not Storr’s stated aim to look so far ahead, and it does not make this book any less readable. It’s a great read.

This is one of the best books I have read this year. Buy it and read it. But don’t expect a comfortable ride. You might even finish it feeling a little disturbed.

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