Review: The Heretics

I’ve just finished Will Storr’s The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of ScienceThe book deals, as one might expect from the subtitle, with people who disagree with one or more accepted principles of science. Storr discusses creationists, folks who believe that they’ve been abducted by aliens, Holocaust deniers, proponents of psi powers and others.

Perhaps because at least some of it was published as articles before finding a home in this book, some of the flow is disjointed. Additionally, there are some abrupt style changes, especially in the chapter on David Irving, someone who believes that Hitler was a jolly good chap, friend to the Jewish people, and who would have certainly have been appalled if he had just known what his underlings had been up to (please take as much time to splutter at Irving’s view as you like. I read about it yesterday and I’m still having a difficult time). This chapter is reminiscent of a series of diary entries, while much of the rest reads as longform magazine entries.

However, even beyond that, the book lacks a certain amount of focus. Storr attempts to write journalistically about the people he encounters, scientifically about theories of mind and how people might come to their beliefs, confessionally about his past and difficulties with his own thought processes, and anything else he thinks might be interesting (and most of it, to be fair, is). But these three things don’t necessarily flow together well.

Having said that, however, the book and the people that he encounters are fascinating. Almost all of the explanations he finds for why people believe things that mainstream people would reject are compelling. As I tell my argument students, people have good reasons to disagree with you. Storr is incredibly even-handed with folks that others might dismiss as “nuts.”And while I found the shifts in tone jarring, I also sped through this nearly 400 page book.

If you are interested in how people form beliefs and how those beliefs can contradict the norm, I would recommend this book. But be warned–one of your precious beliefs might be held up for scrutiny (one of mine was!), and you might not like what Storr sees.

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