Books

03.16.14

The Unpersuadables: Why Smart People Believe Crazy Theories

Intelligent creationists, scientifically-minded climate-change doubters, and Holocaust deniers—why don’t all smart people believe in facts?

As he was researching his new book, Will Storr met a creationist who said there were dragons on Noah’s Ark, a climate-change denier who maintained that DDT is harmless and can be eaten “by the tablespoon,” and a past-life regression therapist who told him that in previous lives, one of her clients was a tree branch and two others were John Lennon.

Occasionally, Storr found himself frustrated. But the industrious British journalist kept his exasperation in check, deciding that he was less interested in combatting obviously flawed reasoning than in exploring how contentious notions take root in the first place. In terms of the intellectual rigor required to get the job done, Storr chose the tougher path. For this, he deserves a pat on the back.

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, in which Storr asks dissident ideologues to explain their unusual theories, could easily have become a crass look-at-me-I’m-shooting-fish-in-a-barrel expedition. The jokes practically write themselves.

Instead, drawing upon his well-documented store of inquisitiveness about superstition, eccentricity, and idiosyncratic beliefs, Storr has delivered an accessible look at the brain’s capacity for adopting unconventional ideas. Along the way, he makes some convincing arguments but occasionally oversells the obvious. He also introduces us to a roster of vexing characters—some harmless, others quite nasty—and the subcultures in which they circulate.

Storr happens to be a connoisseur of alternative thinking. In newspaper and magazine pieces, he’s profiled occultists, doomsday fundamentalists and Big Foot-believers. Also a novelist, Storr’s last nonfiction title was about people who say they’re in touch with ghosts.

Like a lot of his previous work, his new book emerged from his abiding fascination with groups and individuals who refuse to accept the scientific consensus on everything from the effectiveness of our medicines to the formation of the universe. In one important way, he writes, people who adopt radical philosophies aren’t so different from the rest of us: “we all secretly believe we are right about everything and, by extension, we are all wrong.”

In The Unpersuadables, his curiosity about these matters takes him first to eastern Australia, where he meets John Mackay, a creationist who says the Noah’s Ark story is a literal truth and talks of a gay conspiracy to convert heterosexuals. Storr, to his credit, calls Mackay on some of his wrongheadedness—“‘When I sat there listening to you today going on about gay people,’ I tell him, ‘I thought you were evil.” But as they’re about to part ways, he sounds worried that he’s embarked on a demoralizing project. “What can you do,” Storr wonders, “when common sense doesn’t work? When reason’s bullets turn out to be made of smoke?”

A couple chapters later, Storr attends a yoga confab in London hosted by Swami Ramdev, an Indian guru who says his teachings cure potentially fatal ailments. He speaks with several attendees who testify to the healing powers of the Ramdev-endorsed pranayama breathing method, and he interviews the man himself: “I begin by asking, just to confirm, that pranayama really can cure all diseases. He nods deeply…‘Yes,’ he says.”

Pondering what he’s been told, Storr concedes that the guru’s teachings appear to aid the health of some of his followers. But he suggests that what’s at play is less a matter of respiratory cleansing than a kind of placebo effect. He talks with doctors and scientists who study cognition, and cites a raft of research that bolsters his hypothesis. The “placebo effect is limited,” he writes. “It cannot shrink tumors, mend broken jaws or cure diabetes. But it can have remarkable effects on pain, for example, and inflammation, ulcers and anxiety.”

This, alas, is a rather uninspired conclusion, and when, in the following chapter, he again cites the placebo effect in explaining the appeal of past-life regression therapy, one begins to wonder if Storr will spend the entirety of the book making banal observations. His subsequent consideration of confirmation bias—the unconscious process by which we assemble evidence that supports our preconceptions—is also fairly rote.

But as he delves deeper into knottier concepts, The Unpersuadables begins to find its footing. This is most apparent in his discussion of the many forms of confabulation. A conceptual cousin of confirmation bias, it’s a term we’ve all heard, but one that, for those who study cognition, is particularly useful in explaining our predilections and beliefs. Confabulation, Storr writes, is “what we do when we unknowingly invent explanations for behaviors and beliefs whose causes we” don’t quite comprehend.

Though some in the scientific community will probably find his analysis to be rather superficial, Storr’s distillation of current thinking on the subject is a nice primer for the non-expert reader.

With welcome clarity, he describes the findings of many relevant studies, noting that researchers disagree on how much of conscious reasoning is confabulation. David Eagleman notes that “the brain’s storytelling powers kick into gear only when things are conflicting or difficult to understand.” But Daniel Wegner, who died in 2013, argues that our sense of free will is a confabulation, while Jonathan Haidt says that our moral beliefs are also mostly confabulations.

This is a useful concept when trying to make sense of the ideas espoused by some of the book’s more brazen figures, smart people who seem to be almost willfully misinformed. These include a historian who claims that Hitler didn’t know about his Nazi machine’s genocidal campaign against Jews, and a far-right muckraker who says the idea of manmade climate change is hokum.

This latter fellow, a British viscount named Christopher Monckton, believes that the Hitler Youth were left wing and green, and compares 2009’s Copenhagen Climate Conference to the Nuremberg Rallies. Storr could’ve ridiculed the man’s foolhardy statements, but that wouldn’t have taken much effort. Instead, he uses Monckton as a vessel for exploring how we form our opinions and attitudes. What does it mean to be card-carrying conservative—or, for that matter, a staunch liberal—and why do so many politically-minded citizens adhere to such a rigid set of ideological positions?

“If a person’s set of beliefs all cohere, it means that they are telling themselves a highly successful story. It means that their confabulation is so rich and deep and all-enveloping that almost every living particle of nuance and doubt has been suffocated. Which says to me, their brains are working brilliantly,” Storr writes, “and their confabulated tale is not to be trusted.”