Exploring the Psyches of People on the Fringe
By Diane Cole
Review of The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science
By Will Storr
Overlook Press. 416 pp.
I began journalist Will Storr’s The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science with high expectations for learning how fringe ideas get embedded in people’s minds and why they’re so hard to displace. His interviews with a broad spectrum of fanatical men and women who’ve dedicated their lives to proving any number of antiscientific and antihistorical claims promised to be an insider’s guide to the twisted reasoning that fuels such passions. After all, Storr describes himself as a skeptic who specializes in writing about “adventures with men and women whose beliefs about the world I find strange.” In his previous book, Will Storr vs. the Supernatural, he sought to debunk ghosts and the paranormal, and now he was going to challenge unsavory types like Holocaust denier David Irving (who declares the gas chamber at the Nazi death camp Majdanek a “mock-up”) and climate-change denier Lord Christopher Monckton (who asserts that DDT is so harmless “you can eat the stuff by the tablespoon”).
My expectations were partly met—enough to keep me reading, but not enough to keep me from longing for more answers. On the plus side, Storr’s chronicle is both intriguing and informative. His attempts to engage in rational conversation with people whose long-settled irrational beliefs defy all evidence vividly spotlights the stubborn walls behind which these “unpersuadables” live. And some of these exchanges would be funny if they weren’t so infuriating. For instance, when fundamentalist Creationist proselytizer John Mackay dismisses evolution and insists on the literal truth of the Bible, Storr asks, “Wouldn’t that mean that dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time?” Mackay responds, yes: “When you look at so-called mythical stories of dragons, they’re real. St. George really did fight a dragon.” And not only that, Noah had dragons on his ark, too, Mackay insists.
Storr also teaches us not to assume a lack of intelligence among fringe thinkers—a lesson he learns when he debates the credibility of alien-abduction stories with a UFO enthusiast who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering. Storr listens aghast as this otherwise brainy fellow explains, “Extraterrestrials have been living on this planet forever,” their mission being to transmit spiritual teachings and warnings to conserve planetary resources.
Storr reminds us that, just as some paranoids may have actual enemies, some delusions may have some merit. A case in point is Morgellons syndrome, in which sufferers believe that parasites infest their skin, causing nonstop itching and unsightly lesions. But is it merely delusional? Storr’s interviews with both victims of this syndrome and investigators of it suggest it’s not so simple. The symptoms could be caused, one doctor tells him, by a rare skin and nerve sensitivity, or by another physical ailment altogether. Plus, automatically assuming that anyone claiming to suffer from Morgellons is delusional could cause the patient to become even more insistent on the reality of the symptoms and more resistant to any treatment, medical or psychiatric.
Still, some of Storr’s investigations can seem facile. He traces one woman’s belief in the power of homeopathic medicine to her certainty that it cured her of cancer after conventional doctors had abandoned her to a death sentence. Storr uses this case as an example of homeopathic medicine itself creating a placebo effect, but he never checks for the most obvious and common reason behind such cases: a misdiagnosis. He never examines her original medical records or speaks to her doctors, nor does he provide the kind of depth and nuance in his question-raising that I would hope for, leading to ultimately unsatisfying chapters on recovered memories and on the Hearing Voices Network.
Storr spends a great deal of pages pondering how we come to accept the particular beliefs and convictions we live by, even as we reject others. And in this, too, he partly succeeds, providing hints and glimmers that only begin to answer his larger question. He points to the broad stew of psychological impulses, cultural biases, personal motivations, neurological hardwiring, individual life histories, and possible genetic inclinations that contribute to individual beliefs. More to the point, he inventories the familiar mind traps that typically lull us into wrongheaded beliefs that, in turn, lead us to keep on rationalizing. He gives special emphasis to the cognitive blindness known as confirmation bias. Those who already believe in homeopathy or the paranormal, for instance, seek out examples to confirm that belief while ignoring statistics that could prove otherwise. Or as Storr puts it, “We tend to see and hear what we expect to see and hear, not necessarily what is there.”