I confess that I picked this book up because I thought it would be a staright-up debunking of what I personally am convinced are the erroneous beliefs of science deniers. It was so much more than that. Will Storr spent some serious time with all sorts of people around the world who believe in some pretty unbelievable things, trying to figure out how it can be that people retain certain beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. He visits creationists who deny evolution, skeptics who deny anything they call “woo woo”, a group of people who believe that they have a disease their doctors say is imaginary, a meditation retreat that claims to cure all…he even tours Holocaust sites with David Irving. No matter which side he himself was on in each case, he tried hard to remain as objective as possible and collect as much actual evidence as he could, to see if he could figure out why people cling to the side they’ve picked.
What he learns is disturbing. This book is fascinating, but now I am depressed because I can’t help thinking every time I form an opinion how I am not actually in control of my brain like I thought I was before I read it. Basically, Storr demonstrates time and again that people form opinions about issues intuitively right from the beginning, and then accept information that reinforces their belief while rejecting information that contradicts it – even while they are convinced that they are critically examining the facts and rationally choosing a side. In other words, you believe the things you believe before you even realize that you’ve adopted the belief, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for you to change your mind no matter what evidence you find. And even if you know you’re doing it, you can’t stop doing it.
The book is helping me to be more patient with other people’s partisan opinions, so I guess that’s something, but I sure wish I could continue believing that I’m rational (and that my partisan beliefs are the right ones). Sigh. But as Storr points out, what we each accept as truth may or may not be what others accept as truth. And if we assume that we are right and people who have different truths are wrong, well, that can’t be true for everyone, can it? (But we are right, we know it. Trouble is, “they” think this too. And they are not interested in our evidence, they have their own – which we don’t believe because it’s theirs.)
As a side note, this book is worth reading simply for the parts in which Storr ruminates on the ideas of sanity, rationality, and memory. He keeps coming around to the conclusion that no human is ever completely sane or rational, and that no one’s memory records the literal truth. This may not be what he set out to discover, but it seems to me the most important revelation of the book. We are beings who need stories, whether the stories we tell ourselves are true or not. We need heroes, we need villains, we need a struggle, and we will find them and wedge them into our narratives to make our world make sense. The trouble is, not all people are going to agree on the identity of the hero, the villain, or even agree on the events in the plot. And even when we know that this is how our brains work – even when it is pointed out to us, we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we are somehow the exception, and that we would never be fooled this way. But we are.