Open Book

What Makes Fanatics Tick?

Exploring the Psyches of People on the Fringe

Magazine Issue
July/August 2014
The Unpersuadables

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science
by Will Storr
Overlook Press. 416 pp.
ISBN: 9781468308181

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.”

Group pressures and authoritarian leaders can further amplify adherence to belief, Storr observes when he attends—and ultimately flees from—a supposedly healing yoga retreat that forces participants into a regimen so severe that it won’t let them interrupt their meditating, not even to assist a woman screaming in pain. And then there’s faith itself, the need for certainty in a world filled with uncertainty. Factor it all together, he concludes, and our brains come ready-made to create—and rationalize—our own ideologies.

The most illuminating insights come from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose book The Righteous Mind synthesizes much of his thinking on morality and moral emotions. To discover the source of fringe convictions, he advises Storr to “find out what people believe to be sacred, and when you look around there, you will find rampant irrationality,” the impetus for a moral crusade based on emotion, not evidence. For Lord Monckton, the climate-change denier, Storr suggests that conserving the status quo is the sacred narrative. Those views derived from his wealthy, upper-class upbringing in a family that believed in the myth of British Empire and military superiority. Seen from that perspective, the spread of the welfare state represents for Monckton a tragic fall from the country’s one-time state of grace. “His emotional instincts were to conserve the world, to defend hierarchy and order and tradition,” Storr concludes. Fueled by that mindset, he sees himself as the knight in shining armor ready to defend his heritage against a “corrosive alliance between the left and atheist scientists.”

Storr conjectures that the loss of the British Empire also undergirds the anti-Semitic outpourings of Holocaust denier David Irving. World War II “was no business of ours,” Irving angrily tells Storr. “We had no business getting involved with it. And because we did, we lost the empire, which was a huge force for civilization around the world. What the empire was doing was worth everything and we should not have risked it. We were fighting somebody else’s war because Churchill had been bribed by the Jews. He had been hired by them in 1936.” The more Storr tries to engage him, the more contorted and bizarre Irving’s view of history sounds. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Storr holds out little hope that “unpersuadables” can ever change their minds.

What’s disturbing is Storr’s oddly wishy-washy relativism, his tendency to equate creationists who deny evolution with scientists who deny the existence of the paranormal. I don’t argue with him that it can be difficult to mark the boundaries between the merely eccentric and the delusional, but it’s important to differentiate between a mindset that’s decidedly odd but harmless from a worldview with potentially dangerous ramifications. Wacky, unscientific, counterfactual beliefs can cause real harm and need to be identified as such, but Storr portrays those who vocally oppose homeopathic medicine as being as extreme as those who fanatically advocate it. In equating the two, he loses sight of the fact that those who use homeopathy instead of conventional medicine can put themselves in real danger.

Most startling of all, even after talking to the hate-inciting Irving, as well as to a group of his racist followers, Storr blithely suggests that Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt is also an extremist for worrying that Irving’s beliefs present “a clear and future danger” to historical knowledge. Given that a California school district recently gave its students an essay assignment (later retracted) to argue whether or not the Holocaust actually happened, I’d say Lipstadt is completely rational. To imagine that these enemies of science and history have no impact is the real delusion. In a world that seems increasingly divided between the antiscientific and the rational, Storr should have known—and served his readers—better.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.