Personal truth trumps facts in Will Storr’s new book about beliefs

Author Will Storr takes a look at why conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers and UFO-spotters, etc. refuse to accept the facts in his new book.

Exploring the minds of Holocaust deniers and UFO-spotters who deny common sense – Yahoo! News UK.

He takes a tour of a Nazi death camp, goes on a UFO-spotting trip, and even a fossil excavation with a renowned creationist, all in the name of investigating outlandish belief systems.

Storr studies not only the thought process behind conspiracy theories, but also the unwavering rationalism of their opponents.

His result, ‘The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science’, has been described as hilarious and gripping in equal measure, owing to the characters he meets along the way.

Storr admits that some of the beliefs he came across were more offensive than others, but says ‘confirmation bias’ plays a large role in how we form our views.

This means that many people subconsciously only choose evidence which supports their views, while selectively rejecting evidence which goes against them.

Storr studies not only the thought process behind conspiracy theories, but also the unwavering rationalism of their opponents. The article mentions how Storr talks to skeptics who eschew and decry homeopathy even though they haven’t read the studies, because we don’t want to believe it. No, that’s not really correct. We don’t buy homeopathy because MANY MANY qualified people have read the research and concluded it’s nonsense. Skeptics rely on scientific consensus. Homeopathy does not even make sense in terms of a mechanism. Some of these beliefs are wholly implausible and need more than someone saying “I want to believe” to justify taking them seriously.

I’m looking forward to reading this book. DN does book reviews, y’all. Drop us an email.

  10 comments for “Personal truth trumps facts in Will Storr’s new book about beliefs

  1. Chris Howard
    February 15, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    I pretty sure that we (skeptics) are guilty of dismissing, what we view as, outlandish beliefs from time to time without actually reviewing the source data.

    Of course if his claim is that skeptics always do this he is mistaken.

  2. February 15, 2013 at 11:53 PM

    How is it even possible for “many people to subconsciously only choose evidence which supports their views”? And what evidence might that be exactly…..there is no evidence to support homeopathy/UFO’s/Creation/etc. Those people are choosing to reject all evidence, not just some of it. Everybody knows homeopathy tinctures contain nothing but water so the people who believe it works simply reject all of the evidence. Testimonies, anecdotes and wishful thinking do not constitute evidence, confirmation bias is not evidence.

  3. February 16, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    I am told that he attended TAM9 and one of the QED events, and that’s where his stuff about what skeptics believe came from – he canvassed people in the halls and such.

  4. Chris Howard
    February 16, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    The more I read stuff like this, the more I come to understand that Andrew Keen is, in all likelihood, right about a lot of things.

  5. Bobbi Snow
    February 16, 2013 at 4:54 PM

    I think lots of people are programmed from birth to accept the views of their parents and grandparents. There are some of us who (when exposed to alternative thinking) are curious and brave enough to begin to think for ourselves. But if the only people we ask, are the people who have been programming us all of our lives, we won’t get very far. My great grandmother thought libraries, public schools, and televisions were the Devil’s Way of stealing our souls. But when I asked her, “What about Grandpa wiring the house for electricity, and getting the telephone (in 1949 our number was 1165-M) and your kitchen radio; don’t those things fit in the same category?” she just told me I was a stupid child and shouldn’t be asking so many questions.

    So perhaps OldLimpy has a point – perhaps people pick & choose their beliefs according to whatever fits each one’s paradigm and comfort zone.

  6. February 17, 2013 at 5:09 AM

    I have not yet found anyone who can explain to me how I can possibly be in charge of my own life. Simple logic has always taught me that I am not. Surely people who have strange or nonsensical beliefs cannot help being the way they are?

  7. One Eyed Jack
    February 17, 2013 at 5:24 AM

    When somebody claims that magical pink butterflies once picked them up and carried them across a mountain, I don’t need to see any research. Not all things are worthy of deep consideration. Homeopathy falls into that category. Its premise is ridiculous.

  8. Ruth Bygrave
    February 17, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    I got his previous book (“Will Storr vs. the Supernatural”) secondhand, hoping for a good giggle, and had moments of wanting to throw it across the room.

    He has a basic misunderstanding of what scepticism is (i.e. thinking it’s ‘dogma’ rather than a belief in properly-supported evidence), and he jumps right from ‘some things I couldn’t explain that felt ghosty happened to me’ to ‘there is an afterlife’, and then back to his early lapsed Catholicism.

    There are some fairly funny bits where he picks up what’s happening, like getting a well-deserved knife into Derek Acorah’s brand of cheating, or realising (without picking up on the ideomotor effect) that a particular dowser has a left-hand tremor which leads to ‘the spirits’ answering every question with ‘no’ (‘Are you a man?’ ‘No’, ‘Are you a woman?’ ‘No’, ‘Oh it must be our old dog’).

    There’s an absolutely heartbreaking example of one of the more appalling examples of US faith-led interpretation as a terrified autistic boy in the States is ‘exorcised’ — sometimes, as Storr notes, it’s the people most convinced of their own righteousness that cause suffering.

    But like several journalists who’ve come a slight cropper on the subject, he has far too high an opinion of his own judgement, and feels he can easily judge rationality versus irrationality so that the rational ones ‘must really have seen the Unexplained’. He doesn’t seem to realise that the human brain is really good at deceiving itself, and can see things that aren’t there and miss things that are there very readily. He gives an example of a very bonkers woman whose life fell apart around her when she began seeing things (part of schizophrenia), without realising that there are in contrast relatively functional people who ‘see things’ without the Only Possible Explanation being Actual Ghosts. AFAIK perceptual disturbances often fall short of definable mental illness. Just a bit of actual research might have got him a bit further; one of the things he swallows whole is the ‘stone tape theory’ (a favourite of New Age devotees who want to add a touch of shiny pseudoscience), without apparently realising it was made up for a television play and taken up because people who don’t know anything about science think it sounds scientific.

    From the start where he meets a demonologist and manages to, er, *spook* himself into thinking a ghost poked him in the side to the end where he’s convinced a ghost hangs around a particular room to pester him with heavy breathing (which sounds to me like one of those experiences people have on the edge of sleep), he doesn’t realise thinking it happened to him isn’t a good enough reason to believe. I have so much more respect for people like Susan Blackmore, who had an out-of-body experience and spent years trying to analyse paranormal ‘science’ by seeing what the actual evidence was, before realising there wasn’t any! Subjective experience isn’t always evidence. Often it isn’t.

    Once I woke up in a fright when I was a toddler with the distinct feeling a ghost had breathed in my ear, at least as convincing as the ‘experience’ Storr had with the heavy breathing. But it didn’t take me long to realise it wasn’t real!

    Of course there’s something going on, and there are ‘spooky’ coincidences in how people describe ghosts or spirits, but Storr doesn’t seem to realise these are events between the ears rather than in the outside world.

  9. February 17, 2013 at 1:56 PM

    Thanks for posting this. Very interesting. I have seen many anti-skeptics take an overly self-confident tone you mention. It’s just as distasteful as the self-righteous skeptical tone they hate from us.

  10. February 18, 2013 at 6:22 AM

    How right you are Ruth. I’m sure that most if not everything we experience, but cannot explain, happens between our ears. Most of us can still not accept logic. This is probably because a block was made in the very early cultural evolution of our species. This would be when ‘consciousness’ first started – at the time our ancestors were proto-human. Possibly it evolved as part of a survival mechanism. We needed superstition to give us answers.
    It surprises me that today, after we have lived in an increasingly scientific world for at least two hundred years, so few accept the simple logical truth. Perhaps this will change if the Human race goes on long enough.

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