Will Storr, The Heretics – adventures with the enemies of science

Will Storr The Heretics – adventures with the enemies of scienceMost of us with a scientific background consider ourselves to be rational, critical thinkers. Then again, most of us like to be flattered. In his new book Will Storr initially appears to be our ally, setting out fearlessly to investigate those he (fairly) identifies as "enemies of science" and what makes them tick. I happily follow his lead as he tries to understand persons holding beliefs that most of us would consider counterintuitive, contradictory to available evidence and, to be frank, plain strange.

However, something is lost along the way. As Storr burrows deeper and deeper into human psychology, and the way we perceive the world, he loses the necessary division between individuals and method. Will Storr focuses relentlessly on the individuals, from creationists and historical revisionists to persons perhaps with false memories and, in the latter part of the book, skeptics. I would have preferred to have seen the scientific method presented as an idea rather than just through the individuals claiming to be advocates of it. Let me try to explain just what I mean.

This book makes me uncomfortable. At first, I am the problem, because when Will Storr starts interviewing a creationist there is a never verbalised question soaring above the text: how does anyone know stuff? Anyone who has been involved in science knows how hard it is to collect objective knowledge of the world. Later on, the problem is in the book itself when it fails to provide an answer or a guide to knowledge, because not everything can be validated by what individual persons say or do. It is not up to me that two plus two equals four, it's a necessary fact. Similarly, the historical existence of non-avian dinosaurs is independent of the persons that discovered their fossils.

Creationists are not the problem. We all know that they refuse to see any of the vast heaps of evidence that goes against the Biblical creation myth, like the fact that the world is 4.7 billion years old and not just above 6000 years, or that the non-avian dinosaurs are extinct. As E.O. Wilson, evolutionary biologist, once said: "we have the fossils". Creationists are a living example of what is called confirmation bias – our tendency to make observations that confirms our view of the world. But the scary part is that confirmation bias is something that affects us all. We have to learn how to avoid it, but what happens if we're not aware of it? Will Storr does not provide me as a reader with any help.

In the latter part of the book, Storr sets his sights on Skeptics – with the amazing James Randi crowned king of the Skeptics. This part makes me uncomfortable.

First he rightfully criticises skeptics at the pub for being just as uncritical as any person involved in pseudoscience. Just as the evidence for the existence of dinosaurs consists of fossils, not scientists, the reason that homeopathy does not work is due to chemistry, not the opinions of Skeptics. There are, to be sure major differences between individuals espousing similar worldviews – between, say, renowned Skeptic Steven Novella and the young skeptics Storr meets at some pub: Novellas science is about the evidence, and Novella knows his science. But why take my word for it? The above only goes to illustrate why the argument from authority is no argument at all: on whose authority? In fact, science as a method – conducted in the right way – helps us to acknowledge and remove human errors like confirmation bias. This is where Will Storr loses me, because he lets one person carry the validity of the scientific method – and that person is James Randi.

I think James Randi is neither a problem for science nor a rational world view. As a figure who has had a huge influence on the Skeptic movement, I see why Storr would want to interview Randi: will he fall into the same traps as the creationists, the homeopaths or whoever? Indeed, he will. Behold, Randi is a human being as well, and humans will make mistakes. Will Storr's error as an investigator seems to me to be greater, however. He fails to elucidate the difference between an individual attempting to apply a rational method and one applying an irrational method, or no method at all. So along the way, I lost my own trust in Will Storr.

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