Picador (2013), 464 pages
The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science is a through the looking glass view of the world. Storr’s subjects range from sympathetic characters suffering from mental illness (Morgellons sufferers), the deluded (Creationists), and the reprehensible (David Irving and his cabal of Holocaust deniers as well as AIDS deniers). Storr’s approach is similar to that of Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux but Storr is more focussed on challenging the beliefs of others in the manner of Ben Goldacre.
From the outset Storr challenges his own belief systems. Most people believe that their opinions are largely correct yet recognise that they are fallable. Here we hit a faultline between the rational and the irrational, “I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am.” (p.10) For many of “the heretics” in Storr’s book there is no room for doubt. The yogi Swami Ramdev charges large amounts of money and extols the value of his yogic practices as a replacement for conventional medicine. Obviously this is potentially very dangerous to someone suffering from cancer or AIDS. But Ramdev is unrepentant about the dangers of “Western medicine” and there is no room for doubt in his belief system. Ramdev is one of a number of cases where his propagation of irrational, and potentially dangerous, beliefs make him large amounts of money.
David Irving is a reprehensible man. He is a Holocaust denier whose polished appearance gives a gloss of respectability to anti-Semites around the world. Irving, while travelling on a tour of World War II sites with a group of acolytes, shows the arrogance, bitterness, and anger not uncommon among extremists of all kinds. Storr successfully shows Irving’s ability to delude himself by exaggerating any evidence that supports his theories and dismiss any evidence that contradicts his beliefs.
Sufferers from the mysterious Morgellons syndrome are a far more sympathetic group. Morgellons sufferers feel their skin itching, scratch the itch (often until they bleed) and find fibres or other particles they believe to be coming out of their skin (although laboratory analysis usually shows the fibres to be made of normal materials such as cotton). The causes are mysterious but are almost certainly psychological in nature. One interviewee discovered that his Morgellons symptoms stopped when he stopped scratching, which seems to suggest the cause of the itching is external. Morgellons sufferers are at war with the mainstream scientific community who see the condition as psychological in nature. Morgellons sufferers may be deluded but their delusion elicits sympathy unlike the derision reserved for the likes of David Irving.
The Heretics take on superstar skeptic James Randi is also enlightening as Storr presents a not altogether pleasant side to the cantankerous rationalist. Ironically, Storr shows Randi’s own life to be partly created from the fictions that he deplores in others. Storr isn’t against either the scientific rationalists or the ascientific irrationalists. Indeed, at the extreme fringes, both the rational and the irrational have a belief in their own infallibility. The Heretics greatest asset is Storr’s ability to criticise both the binary reductionism of rational sceptics and the dangers of irrational panaceas whilst showing the flawed humanity that lies behind both worldviews as we struggle to find meaning in a complex world.