Notes On Will Storr’s The Unpersuadables: Adventures With The Enemies Of Science

Overall I enjoyed Storr’s book. I didn’t know if I was going to finish it at first because I really didn’t care much for chapter 1 but as I continued on I began to enjoy Storr’s writing style. The chapters are all quite short and they are all based on his own life experiences.

My one main complaint is that he has notes at the end of the book about things he mentioned throughout the book. While I think the notes are a good addition, I found them difficult to navigate because there are no numbers attached to them to help with locating them. This meant that if there was a note about something I had read, I had no way of knowing there was a note about it until I read through the notes one by one and spent time determining exactly where the identifying number would have been placed if it had been placed.

Chapter One focused on Creationism and the author’s experiences with that. I found Chapter Two more captivating. It focused on UFO’s and the author’s experiences investigating the people who believed in them. An interesting story was brought up about Harvard University’s Professor John E. Mack. Mack published a book in 1990 that ended up putting his job on the line for about 14 months. Reportedly, the college was embarrassed by Mack’s publication and launched an investigation to determine whether or not he would be allowed to keep his tenure. It got to the point where Harvard was misrepresenting Mack’s work before they finally dropped their inquisition.

Maybe the reason Mack’s story stuck out to me so much was because of my interest in Anatoly Fomenko. Fomenko has published a series of works collectively known as Fomenko’s New Chronology and he has received quite a bit of heat for it. I don’t think he teaches any of that in the classes he gets tenure for but I have heard a lot of people express their wish that he would lose his professorship because of his independent academic studies and publications. For similar reasons to Mack, I think Fomenko and anyone else who is a professor should be able to study whatever they want in their free-time.

Aside from the Fomenko stuff, another thing I found interesting in Chapter Two was the way Storr changed his mind over time after interacting with these people who he believed were not being rational. Originally he thought them all to be stupid but as time went on and as he learned more about them he began looking for other, more reasonable explanations as to why people would accept some of the beliefs in question.

I found Chapter Three to be interesting too. Storr shared his time at what sounded to me like a yoga retreat. While there, he noticed some contradictions between the message being shared and the actions being practiced. He also had the chance to meet the leader of the event and ask him some questions. The leader got upset by the questions and banned Storr for asking questions he shouldn’t have. This makes me reflect on how “authorities” of history might react when confronted by questions that I ask. Storr’s weren’t loaded with any fallacies. They were simple and direct. The swami just didn’t like them. I haven’t been banned from any retreats or institutions for asking questions but based on Storr’s experience, I don’t think it’s entirely outside of the realm of possibility that it could happen to me.

Chapter Four focused on a tale about Storr’s visit to a Past-life Regression Therapist. Something I found interesting from this chapter was the report of there being studies done to show that therapy might be nothing but a placebo. Apparently multiple studies show that patients visiting trained and untrained individuals had about the same amount of improvement, meaning training wasn’t necessary for therapy.

Chapter Five centered on Storr’s experience at a 10-day Vipassana Buddhist retreat which sounded like an incredibly unpleasant experience. The end briefly covered some psychological studies on authority and peer pressure.

Chapter Six begins by giving an account of the history of man that I think aligns with the theory of evolution; the world formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago, humankind was born around 200,000 years ago, humans the populating of the earth grew out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, and some 40,000 years ago humans became more creative, artistic, and innovative. The chapter focuses on the brain and how it operates. It talks about the deceptions it causes for people and the way in which cultural expectations influence it. It covers a lot of what I remember from when I was doing Think Well to be commonly discussed topics in the realm of cognitive biases and errors.

Towards the end of the chapter it gets into how people with good intentions can do serious harm. It reminded me of the old saying that I think goes like “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. In the medical field, I could see it being easier to determine the results of good intentions. For example a surgeon who has to amputate an arm in order to save someone’s life. You can only go up from that position. But in the case of an historian who is attempting to piece together the fragments of the past to provide a history of a people, it is much more difficult to gage if what you’ve done is correct, much less what harm it will cause. This is something that I think about occasionally given the ways history has been used to justify atrocities such as slavery or genocide. If their conception of history is wrong, then the horrible acts were committed based on fantasy. But is an historian responsible for how others use the histories written? I don’t think so, unless the historian wrote it with the purpose of justifying the atrocities. I think as long as the historian is doing their best to write an accurate representation of past events without any other reason than to want to accurately represent the past then I don’t think serious harm can be done. I’m open to discussing this more if anyone wants to comment or contact me about it, I’m open to hearing what other people have to think about what harm an historian can do.

Chapter Seven was mainly about skeptics vs homeopaths. One thing that stuck out to me was that Storr noted how many of the skeptics were not familiar with the scientific literature on which they placed their confidence. The closing bit also stuck out to me. Storr was having a conversation with someone who recovered from cancer and she attributed it to homeopathy. Storr asked if she would believe God if she had died and went to heaven and God told her that homeopathy was fake to which she responded “no”. Can God lie? Let me know what you think.

Chapter Eight focused on something called Morgellons. I’ve heard of this before but it was interesting to read Storr account of it. One thing that I found sad was that people were suffering from something that they had physical evidence for and they would get labelled mentally ill by other people. Some tests were conducted and I think most of the samples were dismissed as common, known things such as cotton. I don’t know what to make of it. It is an odd case that I would be interested in reading more about if anyone reading this can point me in the right direction to some good literature on the topic.

The main topic of Chapter Nine was mental illness. It opened talking mostly about people who hear voices. Professor Marius Romme suggested that hearing voices was not solely a symptom of mental illness and that people could hear them and still live happy lives. His superiors reacted to him in a similar fashion to the way John Mack’s superiors reacted, where they resorted to lying and distortion to try and get rid of him instead of trying to rationally address what he was saying. There was also a mention in this chapter that 20-30% of a person’s memories are false.

Chapter Ten opened with a story about a family who lost a member named Carole. Apparently when this woman had spoken with clinical psychiatrists she lied to them and they never questioned it. She had told lies I think unwittingly because the stories she shared were developed by RMT (recovered-memory therapy).

About halfway through the chapter is turned to focusing on memory and the issues with memory. There was quite a bit in this section that discussed implanting fake memories and just how easy it is to do such a thing to someone, as well as how the targeted individual will construct even more elaborate details about the fake event. I wonder how this plays into ancient and medieval historical narratives.

Chapter Eleven honed in on how mental models are created, whereas previously the book had largely hovered over how mental models are defended. One word which kept popping up was “confabulation”, which is when the mind unwittingly distorts a memory.

“What Gazzaniga’s experiments revealed was the profoundly disturbing fact that our own explanations for our own actions and beliefs can have no basis in truth – and yet we believe them utterly.”
– Will Storr[p.192]

This isn’t to say that all our own explanations have no basis in truth but that they potentially they can. How do we determine if an explanation has a basis in truth? I would attempt to verify the explanation. Please let me know what you would try.

Chapter Twelve was mostly about climate change, political power, and the fight between progress and tradition.

In Chapter Thirteen, Storr shared his experience with a famous Holocaust-denier, David Irving. The thing I found most interesting was the claim that people with higher IQs had shown they could make up more reasons for why they are right compared to people with lower IQs. However, both groups were about equal when it came to making up reasons for why they were wrong.

The opening to Chapter Fourteen piggy-backed off of Chapter Thirteen by recalling the behavior of Irving, who ignored information which went against his fundamental belief and accepted information which supported that belief. It then proceeded to discuss psychic ability and Storr’s experience with Rupert Sheldrake and then Richard Wiseman.

“…I’m a supporter of people proposing wacky ideas because every single major advance started off as a wacky idea. We’re at a very young period in our science right now.”
– Prof. David Eagleman as quoted by Storr[pp.268-269]

James Randi was the focus of Chapter Fifteen. The chapter was captivating but I disagree with its closing sentence that “stories are never true”. Maybe I’d change my mind depending on how the author defined stories, but to my understanding a story can be any account of past events. If I said, “I took notes while I read through Storr’s book”, it is not fiction, it is true. I could add more elements to the story, “before I read Storr’s book I had not yet read it, and after I read it I had read it”. I could go on and on with examples of how stories can be true but I think the brief ones I’ve provided suffice for making my point. Stories can be true. On second thought, is the final sentence for Chapter Fifteen an admission that Storr invented all the stories in his book using nothing but his imagination? I think that’d be an interesting ending to a chapter all about trying to determine if Randi was a liar because the whole book would be nothing but lies. I doubt this is the case and think there are numerous explanations for that final sentence. Maybe I’ll get around to contacting Storr about this.

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