The Unpersuadables, by Will Storr

The Unpersuadables

It took me quite a while to get a feel for this book and where author Will Storr was coming from. In keeping with the subtitle—Adventures With the Enemies of Science—I was expecting a typical skeptic book, making fun of the various loons from the world of New Age hokum and creationism and such. But it’s sort of that and sort of not.

The Unpersuadables is a very personal book. Storr is front and center as narrator, telling you as much about how he’s reacting to what he reports as he tells you about what he reports. Further, he gives you plenty of background about himself to make sense of why he’s reacting the way he is. If anything it’s probably more personalized in this way than Joel Achenbach’s Captured by Aliens or most of David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction.

That’s a style of writing that can work for me, especially when it’s done well, and I’d say The Unpersuadables is indeed well written. But for whatever reason, especially in the early going, I found a lot of Storr’s reactions odd, or at least significantly different from how I’d have likely reacted in the same circumstances. Despite his invitation to do so, it felt difficult to walk in his shoes on this journey through the battle between mainstream science and its dissenters.

Gradually I got a better sense of Storr and of The Unpersuadables. With the benefit of hindsight, I’d summarize his tale something like this:

Intellectually, Storr recognizes that those who are skeptical of supernaturalism and pseudo-science and the like are probably correct, but emotionally he’d prefer they not be. He openly roots for the oddballs, the people on the fringes, the folks scientists dismiss as pests or worse. In part that’s because he has always thought of himself as something of an oddball like them who was more comfortable outside the mainstream—to the degree of borderline mental illness, at least as he describes it. So he feels some kinship with some of these people. He also just thinks the world is a lot more boring if the mainstream people following the methods of science and rationality are always right.

So Storr visits numerous creationists, psychics, and other believers in an alternate reality. He mostly likes them, but is honest enough to admit that unfortunately they’re often as kooky as the skeptics make them out to be. He certainly wants someone like John Mack—the notorious Harvard professor who went off the deep end and decided people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens really had been—to be proven right, but, alas, he can find no grounds for believing they have been.

He also visits skeptics, who he mostly finds to be unappealing—more on this in a moment.

The Unpersuadables includes some particularly strong sections on the psychological reasons people come to have irrational beliefs, and why we are so reluctant to change our minds whether our present beliefs are justified or not.

These sections reminded me of some other solid books I’ve read about such psychological and social phenomena. Indeed, he even refers to some of them, including Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I also was put in mind of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, especially since Storr quotes Zimbardo at length.

He argues that the factors that lead folks astray from rationality operate on all of us, not just the believers in nutty stuff unsupported by evidence, and is a reason for all of us to develop the virtue of humility about our beliefs and values, to recognize that as strong as it may feel to us that we’re the exception in that we adhere strongly to rational principles, in fact we’re fooling ourselves in thinking that.

Indeed, it’s precisely the lack of humility, the arrogance, the smug superiority, that turns him off about so many of the skeptics he encounters. While he finds the enemies of the skeptics mostly likable folks, he clearly doesn’t react that way to the skeptics.

Plus he thinks they’re often no more justified in their positions than are those they criticize. He delights in pressing the skeptics about their evidence for their confident claims, and exposing how often they can’t cite much of anything that they have personal experience with. At best they mention a study that someone else has conducted, or an article or book that someone else has written, whereas other times they can’t come up with much more than hand waving about how some position is “well-established” or “the scientific consensus.”

To him this shows that when you dig even a little below the surface the skeptics are typically just as much basing their beliefs on faith as are, say, creationists who derive their scientific positions from the Bible.

While I think his cautionary points about being too sure of oneself, or thinking one is somehow able to maintain one’s rationality while one’s opponents are not, are of value, I think he’s guilty of making too much of this, and that his equating skeptics and believers in woo woo stuff is a false equivalency. Let me make a few points in support of this assessment.

One, the fact that we’re all imperfect as rational beings doesn’t mean we’re all equally imperfect. People have differing degrees of commitment to truth, and differing intellectual abilities to conform to that commitment. At one extreme, there are plenty of relativists and postmodernists and such who pretend (incoherently) that there is no such thing as truth, and thus who certainly don’t guard against being led astray from the most promising path to achieving it (i.e., rationality), whereas there are also plenty of others—both individuals and institutions—who place a very high value on believing what is true and disbelieving what is false.

I freely accept that I can make mistakes, that I have at least some tendency to prefer my beliefs because they’re my beliefs rather than because they’re most likely to be true, and that I should continue to work on improving my rationality. I’m human, in other words. But I certainly don’t think that I’m exactly equal to everyone else in that regard, that is to all the billions of people who have not based their philosophy of life, their values, their educational and other life choices, etc. on an arguably obsessive commitment to truth the way I have. If believing that makes me delusional in Storr’s eyes, then so be it; we’ll just have to disagree.

Two, to believe something based on what one is told by others rather than direct experience is an argument form called “appeal to authority,” and not all appeals to authority are of equal merit (or lack of same). When I used to teach critical thinking, this is one of the most important points I would attempt to impress upon students. Appeal to authority is not a fallacy in and of itself. It can be a fallacy depending on how it’s used, but you have to consider each appeal to authority on a case-by-case basis to determine that.

Easily 99% of our beliefs are based on appeals to authority, and it’s absurd to dismiss them all as a matter of faith. I doubt, for instance, that the reason you think that arsenic is poisonous is because you once swallowed some and died, or that the reason you believe that the United States once had a president named Abraham Lincoln is because you personally watched him taking the oath of office. But those beliefs are hardly the equivalent of believing Jesus was born of a virgin because you read it in a book you’ve been told is infallible when taken literally.

As I would teach my students, there are various factors you need to look at in assessing how cogent or fallacious a given appeal to authority is. Is the source you’re relying on likely to have the knowledge they’re purporting to transmit? Are there reasons the source could be seeking to deceive? Do other equally well-positioned and equally honest sources make the same claim? Is there a realistically easy way for you to find out about the matter directly rather than rely on an appeal to authority? And so on.

I think it’s a safe bet the sources the skeptics are relying on in their appeals to authority are vastly superior to the sources the Holocaust deniers and alien abduction proponents and such are relying on. Their beliefs aren’t all equally unjustified due to supposedly being based on faith.

Three, while Storr mentions the common expression of scientists and skeptics, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” he doesn’t seem to have taken it to heart. But this is actually a crucially relevant principle in this context.

Let’s say someone claims to have seen a newspaper dated a week from now, and his hypothesis to explain this is that it was brought back to our time by some time traveler, whereas skeptics assert that it’s far more likely there is some more mundane explanation, such as that the person made an honest mistake when he looked at the date, that he’s lying, that he’s crazy, or that the date was a misprint.

Well, these supernatural and natural explanations don’t somehow all start equal, where a preliminary preference for one over the others is simply bias. If somehow the evidence superficially seems roughly equal or even favors a supernatural hypothesis, this is only because we’re ignoring the massive pre-existing evidence about how the world works and how uncommon time travel is compared to someone being mistaken about what they think they saw, newspapers having misprints, etc.

In fact, the non-time traveler hypotheses deserve an enormous head start over the time traveler hypothesis when we investigate a case like this, and thus it’s not a matter of “bias” to afford them one. In order to justify believing this newspaper was in fact printed in the future, you better have some extraordinarily powerful evidence.

So even if the appeals to authority and other evidence specific to a given case that the woo woo folks and the skeptics rely on were somehow equal—which they rarely if ever are—the skeptics would still win. The burden of proof is on those claiming something extraordinary, and that burden can be very large.

Four, it may be that some skeptics are assholes, and that some of those they criticize are appealing mavericks, but it is an ad hominem fallacy to assess their beliefs based on such considerations. You may find Richard Dawkins a disagreeable and arrogant fellow the way he rails against those who first decide their conclusions based on their religious beliefs and then shape the scientific evidence to fit those conclusions—I don’t, but you may—but so what? That has nothing to do with the validity of his claims.

Like I say, though, there are times Storr acknowledges that the skeptics probably typically have the better case—even if he notes it with disappointment—so I don’t mean to say that he’s necessarily unaware of these points. But at times he seems to forget them in his rush to false equivalency.

By the way, skeptic hero James Randi comes off quite poorly in the book, and only some of the points Storr makes against him are irrelevant ad hominems (like that he speaks disparagingly of stupid people and speaks disturbingly favorably of fascist-sounding ideas of limiting their influence and indeed procreation). More importantly, he cites evidence that Randi is frankly a liar, and if pressed will even admit—testily or mischievously, depending on his mood—that he’s a natural self-promoter and bullshitter without too firm an attachment to the truth.

Now that could still be irrelevant if Randi’s dishonesty only had to do with matters unrelated to his skepticism, but it does not, at least if Storr is to be believed.

Storr notes instances where Randi issued vehement insults and accusations against opponents, was proven wrong, and never properly retracted what he’d said. He also produces evidence that when it comes to Randi’s famous million dollar challenge to woo woo folks to prove their claims, he has at times been guilty of at least moving the goal posts if not worse.

I’ve always liked the million dollar challenge in a way, but at the same time not been fully comfortable with it. My concern is that Randi could be overestimating his ability (and the ability of those he works with) to spot fraud. As an accomplished magician, I’m sure he’s excellent at spotting when someone is seeking to circumvent scientific methodology in favor of some supernatural or outlandish hypothesis, but is he infallible? Is it really impossible that some charlatan could be clever enough to outmaneuver a set of conditions Randi thinks is scientifically foolproof?

Imagine if that ever happened what a public relations disaster it would be for skeptics. I’m not talking about if the challenge were legitimately met. I think however Randi personally would react, the overwhelming majority of scientists would be fascinated by proof of some phenomena heretofore regarded as impossible. I’m talking about if a cheater figured out a subtle enough way to defeat whatever scientific safeguards Randi came up with for a given test and thus made it look like they’d proven something extraordinary when in fact they hadn’t.

Does Randi have some concern along those lines too? Is that why he discontinued the challenge for a while (he was eventually prevailed upon by the skeptic community to reinstate it), and why he apparently sometimes stalls, doesn’t follow up on things he says he’s going to do, and adds additional hurdles and technicalities at the last minute to make some planned tests much more inconvenient and possibly unrealistic to move forward with?

I seriously doubt it’s because he secretly thinks the woo woo folks might be right after all, and he’s trying to make it as hard as possible for them to establish that. But I wouldn’t be shocked if, especially at his advanced age, he doesn’t know that he’ll always be able to keep one step ahead of the charlatans.

If you pick up The Unpersuadables looking for the usual laughs when a skeptic—or at least someone who’s not crazy—reports on the weirdness of those on the fringe, this book certainly includes that. Storr may not be a hard core skeptic himself, and he may at some level hope that some of the woo woo people can make a good case for their beliefs, but he’s honest enough, and desirous enough of being entertaining, to display for the reader just how goofy they often are.

Case in point: The leader of a UFO group takes a bunch of members out to some location that supposedly is something of a hot spot for UFO sightings and alien encounters. They have every expectation that their little field trip will indeed include a “close encounter.” Addressing the group, the leader cautions: “First and foremost, health and safety. If a UFO lands, you must wait until it’s stopped completely before approaching. Only invite the ETs to come closer if it is absolutely safe to do so. If anyone gets zapped, the first-aid kit is in the back of my tent.”

Hmm. “If a UFO lands, you must wait until it’s stopped completely before approaching.” This puts me in mind of nothing so much as an amusement park ride. “Do not attempt to board the Wild Mouse until it has come to a complete stop.” Also, how is one to know when it is “absolutely safe” to invite aliens to come closer? Is there something in what they do or what they say (are they speaking English?) that would make their good intentions and harmlessness unmistakable?

And just what kind of “zapping” does she have in mind? Do aliens have ray guns like in a 1950s science fiction movie? If they do, how likely is it that something found in a common first aid kit will get you back fit as a fiddle if you get shot with one?

Yet I’m sure the people in such a group respond to this advice with nodding approval, as if she were in her right mind.

I’ll take the skeptics over this lot any day, even if some of them could stand to be a little nicer and more humble.

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