Last night I finished the new book by Will Storr, The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science (Picador). It was clever, well-written, honest and challenging, a book not so much about the heretics as about belief and the way our brains construct our various and very personal worlds.
Often compared to other explorers and chroniclers of the myriad worlds of unusual belief such as Jon Ronson, Adam Buxton and Louis Theroux, Storr is an award-winning journalist who 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?
Storr travelled 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 – and knew this because she ‘remembered’ these events. All these people and their beliefs are intriguing but Storr also becomes fascinated with those who feel they are fighting for reason and science against these heretics.
Storr has some good questions about the skeptics, scientists and followers of Dawkins et al who pride themselves on their freedom from dogma and adherence to logic and open-mindedness. What he observes is that the fundamentalists on each side have far more in common with each other in terms of how and why they believe what they each believe, than either side is at all interested in acknowledging. Our brains really, really like things to stay the same and have many, many clever, hard to detect, harder to turn off, processes to ensure that each of us continues to see, experience, interpret and believe of the world just what we always have – or want to.
Reading this book is a bit disconcerting, the ground under your beliefs is suddenly a little shaky – especially when Storr suddenly turns around and tells you, the reader, to stop thinking that you wouldn’t get caught out like that, that you are not any more aware than anyone else – just when you are congratulating yourself on both those things…
Using a unique mix of highly personal memoir (Storr is appealingly open about his reactions to the people on both sides of the debate), 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.
Not me of course – now I’ve read the book I know just how to avoid such developments, you read it too and you can become as enlightened as me!