The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

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4.5/5 Stars.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but when a friend mentioned this book, I was immediately intrigued.

Once I started reading it, I was hooked.

Will Storr is successful in so many ways in the writing of this book: He’s an enthralling storyteller. He’s a tenacious investigative journalist. And somehow he manages to tackle everything from Creationism to Morgellons, from homeopathy to alien abduction, from ritual abuse to false memories, from Holocaust deniers to psychics…without coming across as condescending or self-righteous. That in and of itself is quite the feat.

Storr’s main thesis is essentially this: We all have our own set of firmly held beliefs and opinions and none of us has ever met anyone who has all the same opinions as we do, yet we each assume that we are right about everything. The conclusion? We are all wrong in that assumption. But what makes us so sure of our convictions?

What follows is an in-depth epistemological exploration of the nature of truth, knowledge and belief. Rather than making it easy on himself and interviewing the abundance stupid people out there who hold tight to preposterous beliefs, Storr is more interested in why intelligent, seemingly rational people believe in Creationism and deny climate change, to use two examples.

Here are some of the takeaways that stood out the most to me. Part of the reason I’m including them is because I want to be able to reference them in the future; they are that fascinating to me.

  • Psychologists conducted a test among groups of people in which they showed them lines that were two different sizes. In each group, all except for one person was an actor. When the actors all said that the lines were the same size, the test subject said the same thing. Further tests showed that he may not have been purposely deceitful, that the consensus of the group may have actually changed his perception of the lines. This is a fascinating example of the powerful influence that groups can have on individual behavior.
  • Storr makes the claim that we are each invisible actors at the center of our own worlds. He writes about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, claiming that we are guilty of both. We think we are above being biased, but we aren’t. Furthermore, our brains can only process so much information at a given time, so they will easily accept opinions that fit with our world views so as not to have to rearrange themselves. Even when we attempt to challenge our biases, we often reinforce them because we wind up holding the opposition to much tougher scrutiny.
  • Maybe everything isn’t so black and white. Maybe there’s a gray area. For example, homeopathy can “work” by triggering a powerful placebo effect. Morgellons sufferers may be crazy, but it’s because they’re afflicted by an undiagnosed disorder.
  • Studies show that many of our memories are false, and even go as far as to reveal that recovered memory therapy and hypnosis can cause us to recover memories that didn’t really happen. Test subjects have been prompted to recall a list of memories – one of them completely made up – and haven’t been able to tell which one was false.
  • False accusations are typical in people who subconsciously seek to blame crappy things that happen to them on some outside force. There are even cases in which it is believed that therapists have planted false memories in their patients.
  • We confabulate and tell stories: If there is an obvious explanation, we accept it. When there isn’t, we generate one. We need cause and effect. This can explain why people say that homeopathy works, for example. They feel better and tell themselves that it’s because the remedy worked.
  • Why do we create stories? To make us happy. To give us certainty. One study showed that out of a group of people who had a 50% chance of developing Huntington’s Disease, those who chose to find out if they had it and did have it were happier one year later than those who chose not to find out. They got that certainty, and then they were able to build their narrative around it.

So, what does Storr conclude? Essentially, we can’t ever really know the black-and-white truth about anything. How can we in a world where everyone – including well-respected scientists and psychologists – has his or her own subconscious agenda? When we are each guilty of things like confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and false memories? You’ll find two brilliant and accomplished individuals who hold completely contrary truths, and who villianize each other to the point where it’s hard to come to any objective conclusions.

We are all crafting our own narratives. Everything we tell ourselves is a story: cause and effect plus emotion. We have certain feelings, and then we subconsciously look for evidence to support these feelings. We confabulate. But ultimately, our stories work against the truth.

Storr concludes that human consciousness is a “hero-maker.” Most of the heretics who he speaks with throughout the course of the book have something in common: They all believe they are fighting against something. And of course, to be a hero, we must have an enemy. We tell stories, we cast monsters, and then we become vulnerable to our own delusional narratives of heroism.

I can honestly say that this book has changed the way I think and altered the way I view the world.

On False Memories

(Preface: I’m currently reading a book called The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr and it’s blowing my mind.)

Studies have shown that many of our memories are false. Furthermore, when individuals have been told briefly about completely made-up things that have happened in their past, they have then been able to generate real-seeming memories about those events that never happened, and even embellish upon them as if they did.

For example: As part of an assignment set by Professor Elizabeth Loftus, a student told his 14-year-old brother, Chris, to describe the day that he had gone missing at the mall when he was much younger. Chris then recalled a detailed memory of the day at the mall when he wandered off to the toy store and realized he was lost, only to be rescued by an elderly, balding man wearing glasses and a flannel shirt. The thing is, the man doesn’t exist. He had never been lost at that mall. He had never been rescued. Chris essentially made up this entire memory, but had no idea he was making it up.

Multiple studies have supported this.

How fucked up is this? Think, for a minute, about what this says about witnesses to crimes, or even the act of interrogating a suspect. Or the impact that the media can have on a case. Research shows that false memories can be implanted in us without us knowing it, that the power of suggestion can cause us to recall memories that never even happened.

So. Fucked. Up.