Book Review: The Unpersuadables by Will Storr

I spent most of the past weekend lazing about reading a book I picked up on impulse. I haven’t done a book review before but I thought I’d give it a shot because I think many atheists and skeptics could benefit from some of the insights in it. The subtitle of the book is certain to appeal to those two groups, “Adventures with the Enemies of Science,” and the first chapter, which starts out among creationists, is certain to appeal to skeptics. Later in the book, there is a chapter in which skeptics themselves come in for a great deal of criticism. Although I think Storr has taken a subset of skeptics and had them stand in for all skeptics and his criticism, while not entirely off base, is a little harsh on that account. Yet many of his insights would be especially beneficially to skeptics and movement atheists, who often identify with skeptics, so reminding oneself to not give in to our initial emotional reaction and become highly defensive might be necessary in order to give his ideas a fair hearing.

One of the things I liked most about Storr as an author was his readiness to doubt his own opinions. He starts out by asking why some people believe things that are easily disproved. The list is diverse, creationists, UFO abductees, people who object to western medicine, homeopaths, believers in past lives, ritual Satanic child abuse, and a couple of other items I’m missing. By passing the easy answers, that they’re charlatans or fools, he looks into more general questions of why people believe the things they do. In doing so, he discovers that human beings are, in general, unreliable narrators.

I consider – as everyone surely does – that my opinions are the correct ones. And yet, I have never met anyone whose every single thought I agreed with. When you take these two positions together, they become a way of saying, ‘Nobody is as right about as many things as me.’ And that cannot be true…. So I accept that I am wrong about things – I must be wrong about them. A lot of them. But when I look back over my shoulder and I double-check what I think about religion and politics and science all the rest of it… …. – it is usually at this point that I start to feel strange. I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am….

It is as if I have caught a glimpse of some grotesque delusion that I am stuck inside. It is disorienting. It is frightening. And I think it is true to say that it is not just me – that is, we all secretly believe we are right about everything and, by extension, we are all wrong.

I, myself, have experienced many times just this sense of disorientation. In fact, it was the main reason I started writing down my memories. It is clear that a great many people don’t believe as I do on many subjects, often people I estimate to be perfectly rational and intelligent. I started writing my memories down to explore how my own biases came to be in place.

At another point later in the book, he explores the question of how it is possible to be a journalist if a person believes he might be an unreliable narrator.

Storr is, by his own accounting, an atheist. Much as I would myself, I would call him a skeptic, but not a Skeptic. In other words, he seeks and expects naturalistic explanations for events but he does not belong to any organized skeptical organizations. As a Brit, he makes the distinction between the two groups by using the British spelling. A detail which has its own interest to me that I’ll get back to later.

In between episodes talking to people who believe hard to believe things, Storr paints a picture about how our minds work. That picture is one of a brain that is not always rational and works to deceive us. He introduces the reader to “situational psychology.” Giving well-known examples such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Stanley Milgram, he explains that individuals are far less in control of themselves than we believe ourselves to be.

According to Zimbardo, there is a kind of recipe for creating evil. ‘How did evil come about during the prison experiment?’ he asks. It was people playing a role…. Although you start off thinking those roles are arbitrary and not the real you, as you live them, they become you. the second thing is the power of the group…. Groups can have powerful influences on individual behavior…. You take away somebody’s individuality. You make them anonymous. The next process is called dehumanisation, where you begin to think of other people as different from you and then as different from your kind and kin, and then as less than human.

Later, he describes how the brain makes an interior model of the world. When we look, at any given moment we are not seeing as much as we think we are seeing. As our eyes dart around a room, for instance, the brain fills in the gaps and we think we are seeing more than we are at any given moment. As Storr phrases it, our senses are “fact-checkers.” However, that model must be good enough that we can function in the world.

The next point Storr brings up is tribalism. We have a strong tendency to divide ourselves into “us” and “them.” We will do this even if we are assigned to arbitrary groups.

“Cognitive Dissonance” is uncomfortable feeling we have when we are introduced to facts that don’t fit our interior models of how the world works.

We find ourselves chewing over something that we have done or heard or experienced. It can last for hours, days or sometimes longer. That upstairs agony, that bickering between the warring voices in our head – that is what it feels like to have your brain taking apart an experience and rearrange it in such a way that it doesn’t have to rebuild its models.

The next factor Storr introduces is another one my skeptical friends will recognize, “Confirmation Bias,” which Storr describes as the “makes sense stopping rule.”

…when confronted by a new fact, we first feel an instantaneous, emotional hunch. It is a raw instinct for whether the fact is right or wrong and it pulls us helplessly in the direction of an opinion. Then we look for evidences that supports our hunch. The moment we find some, we think ‘Aha!’ and happily conclude that we are, indeed, correct. The thinking then ceases.

When we arrive at that point of “that makes sense,” when our cognitive dissonance is eased, the reward center in the brain is activated. Storr quotes Carole Tavris and Elliot Aronson: “Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high.”

One point Storr hammers over and over again is that we are all subject to these effects. It’s an inherent part how the human brain works to which none of us are immune. To some extent, I believe he underplays the positive role of this. We make countless decisions everyday, most of which are far more mundane than whether or not UFOs exist. If we had to stop and wonder about how we know the things we know, we would be paralyzed. Sometimes, when we skeptics and atheists criticize the “argument from authority,” I pause and think to myself that much of what I believe I believe based on “authority.” I think eggs, spinach and bananas are healthy things to eat, and that if you’re exercising bananas are really important. Why do I think this? Because my competitive speed skater grandmother told me so.

Another important element of the picture is “the spotlight effect,” which I always think of as “the candle effect.” The best description I’ve read of this effect is in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She describes a table covered in a million random scratches with no pattern. Yet, if you hold a candle up to it, the light will make it appear as if the scratches are in concentric circles around the point of the light. So our own egos lead us to believe that the world revolves around us. Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing.

The roles of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and the spotlight effect are summarized:

Our prejudices and misbeliefs are invisible to us. The form in childhood and early adolescence, when our brain is in its heightened state of learning, when it is building its models, and the  they disappear from view.

These models of the world we build, they are the stories we tell ourselves to explain how the world works.

This notion that we are all deluding ourselves all the time leads to the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the line between the sane and the insane is not as clear as we would like to believe. Studies have shown that even perfectly sane people have unreliable memories. Healthy people can have false memories implanted.

Professor Loftus was interested to see whether it was possible for a therapist to generate a memory of an event simply by suggesting it. In a further study, she gave twenty-four adults a brief description of four past events that they were told had been supplied by a close family member and asked to write about them. Unbeknown to them, one of these events was false. Six of them – 25 per cent of the croup -= actually remembered the false event. When asked to choose which of their memories was fiction, five got it wrong.

Another important aspect of how our minds work is that our emotions guide our behavior. I, myself, have long thought this to be true and the tendency for skeptics to downplay the importance of emotions in our thought processes has always bugged me a bit.

If you are about to do something that your models predict will be good, you will get a subtle encouraging hit of pleasure. If you are about to do something inadvisable, you will feel bad.

Of course, one of the funny things about reading a book like this is that it makes you doubt your own ability to judge the contents of the very same book. Storr just confirmed my own model. Of course, I had that satisfying sensation of “yep – makes sense.” Is Storr making sense or do I only believe he makes sense because he agrees with me?

When my grandmother was going senile, we would catch her doing odd thing. Digging out her old ice skates in the middle of the summer and heading out the door with them. Walking around in odd clothing. When my mother would confront her, she would momentarily look confused and then come up with an “explanation.”

“My friend is coming to pick me up and we’re going skating.”

Then my mother would get furious and start yelling, “Why are you lying. It’s summer. No one is going skating! What friend are you talking about? No one is coming!”

My grandmother would look confused and start crying.

This is a funny trick our brain plays on us. Sometimes it makes up explanations.

There appears to be a lack of consensus on exactly how much of our conscious reasoning is confabulation. Opinions range from those of Professor David Eagleman, who says that ‘the brain’s storytelling powers kick into gear only when things are conflicting or difficult to understand,’ to those of Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner, who argues that even our sense of having free will is a confabulation….

The final chapter is titled “Hero-Maker.” According to Storr, the key elements of a story are crisis, struggle and resolution. Our brains take in the chaotic events in the world and, in order to make them understandable, weave for us a narrative, and in our narratives we are the heroes of our own lives and our own stories. We do not weigh the evidence objectively, even though we may believe we do. We fact check them against our models. When the evidence conflicts with the models, we experience negative emotions. We search for more evidence. We must either rebuild our models, a very difficult thing for adults, or find evidence that fits our preexisting models. That is the struggle. When we finally have a resolution, we feel good.

The scientific method is the tool that human have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and to leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. Who among us hasn’t had an argument in which he or she felt fairly confident about the facts and then came across someone making a statement that was easily refutable. You go, you get link. You have what you feel is nice solid proof to refute the assertion, and the person will not accept it. I had that just the other day with a comment that someone made about affirmative actions and quotas. As it happens, quotas are illegal in the United States. That was a fairly straightforward bit of information, I thought. I wasn’t arguing the pros or cons of affirmative action because that a far more involved argument and I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to correct the record about one smallish fact, quotas. The response of the other person was to move the goal posts. It was, to say the least, maddening and frustrating.

Of course, it wasn’t about facts. We had opposing stories. Or at least he had a story into which my facts didn’t fit. I, myself, am ambivalent about affirmative action. He, however, had a story about how affirmative action was put in place to hurt white people. In his story, he was bravely standing up to the PC establishment that won’t admit the truth. I got frustrated and gave up.

I think atheists, skeptics and liberals need to be more sensitive to the narratives we tell. One of the most brilliant pieces of propaganda I’ve ever read was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As literature, I only enjoyed it intermittently. The Victorian sentimentality was hard to take. I couldn’t wait for that fucking little Eva to die. Apparently, the Victorians had a think about sweet, innocent girls suffering bravely. Me, I was sick of it after five pages, shouting, “Die already!” at my paperback. Still, I had to marvel at Harriett Beecher Stowe’s talent as a propagandist. The most brilliant move she makes is that she gives everyone someone with whom he or she can identify and still feel good joining the abolitionist cause. I believe that it was important to the effectiveness of the book that there were sympathetic slave owners. Instead of insisting that all slave owners are inherently evil, Stowe reassuringly says, “Of course, you are a good person, but you should oppose slavery because everyone is not as good as you.” If you are Northerners who would like to stay out of the question, you have the Birds. In later years, the name “Uncle Tom” would become a slur because African-American activists would view Tom as too passive. However, the novel is a carefully constructed piece of propaganda that was clearly effective in its day.

One of the reasons I object so regularly to people who say that Americans are dumb, and other negative things, is because it is a statement that, while satisfying to the speaker, undermines any larger goals of getting Americans, those people you just called dumb, to agree with you. This is part of a narrative that many people on the left enjoy, especially in the United States. They live beset on all sides by ignorance and prejudice, superstition and complacency. The US is evil, possessing as it does the original sin of slavery, or if that doesn’t suit you the original sin of conquest, evil that can never be expiated. However, they are “fighting the good fight,” out numbered on all sides. In order to bolster their ego, they exaggerate the threats. No country is as awful as the U.S. No people are as religious. None is as poorly educated. Hell, we’re even the fattest.

Personally, I don’t like this narrative because it requires that we lose. We fight nobly, but we lose.

People do sometimes change their minds and I wish he had explored a little bit more about why that happens.

I may write some more posts inspired by this book in the future.

One last thing, the Skeptic vs. sceptic question. Storr, being a Brit, writes “sceptic,” not “skeptic.” He notes that many of the organized skeptics, even in Britain, prefer the American spelling. It becomes a weird little bit of us vs. them. Storr, the sceptic, vs. the Skeptics. Storr’s writing about skeptics had an air of “both sides do it.” As Paul Krugman famously quipped, if George Bush said the Earth was flat the headlines the following day would read, “Shape of Earth, Views Differ.” Likewise, Storr writes, “Psychic Phenomenon, Views Differ.” Storr’s own story is that of an irrational, messed up teenager and young adult who somehow got his shit together to become a reasonable, well-balanced person. There are the fervent people, the extremists, and in this view Skeptics and UFO abductees are on the same side, and then there are the adults in the room, like Storr and Jonathan Haidt, a professor he frequently quotes. Generally, Storr is pretty aware of his own biases, but he seems to miss this one, so I found it amusing.

(The British edition of the book appears to be called “The Heretics.”)

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2 comments
  1. Now you’ve done it. I’m wondering how I could have come the the silly belief that there are analogous structures in nature that predict results in the analogue, giving rise to the unwarranted notion that there must be a natural explanation for everything. I watched Going Clear about Scientology last night, and now everything makes sense. I now realize how hard it’s going to be pulling that last Operating Thetan out of my ass — something that L. Ron Hubbard was never able to do. Listening to the stories of how ex-members of the Church came to believe the unbelievable was truly amazing.

    Really, though, what would be a good rationale for thinking that nature has a natural explanation? Other than that I can’t find any other method that is as satisfying?

    • fojap said:

      I watched Going Clear with my mother the other night. I had already read the book, though. Fascinating stuff to me. My mother said if I wasn’t there she would have turned off the t.v. “I have no patience for craziness.”

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