Sunday, October 19, 2014

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

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a modern journalist walks into a Creationist seminar in Australia, notebook in hand, ready to observe and ridicule. Nothing he sees there convinces him. But something stops the joke before the punchline. He can't follow the script because his own eyes tell him that there is a log in his own eye. It's not that the creationists are right. It's that they aren't stupid and that they are sincere. They are wrong, but the journalist isn't equipped to really engage with how they are wrong. He recognizes that his take on what is true, despite its rootedness in science, is nearly as tribal as the creationists he is trying to mock.

This bothers the journalist (Storr) so much that he visits a dozen or more of different categories of intellectual warriors, including the usual targets (homeopathy, ESP, alien abductions, repressed memories) but turning the same methods and spotlight on his own beliefs and those of the militant materialists (a skeptics convention and James Randi himself). This is not so much about these sundry paranormal beliefs as it is about the nature of knowledge, of certainty, and of doubt itself.

Storr's cosmic scope, his true fairmindedness, and his dogged insistance on interviewing the personalities behind bizarre ideas is what sets this book apart. It's also what sets it back in a few places. He's a bit shaky on the science (brain science especially) but I don't think it's on the substance of matters, and mostly, I'm impressed by how he is clearly willing to step out and learn. He also doesn't really acknowledge the silent majority, both today and yesterday, who have struggled with these same questions and come away with a much more nuanced view than the militants on either side. He briefly alludes to Plato and Aristotle but I think some more reading in the classics and philosophy could be fascinating as he continues on his journey. In particular, many of his questions are theological, but due to his history as described in this book, he doesn't really know how to break into that literature. I think he'd love Owen Barfield for example.

For all its breadth, this book is just a beginning. But as an honest and searching beginning, I recommend it as an example of what it's like to try all these diverse paths. In the end, I think orthodoxy has some surprisingly satisfying answers to Storr's questions -- and I'm also confident that if he continues to ask them the truth will out. May he keep at it.

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