We can't all be experts in everything – this idea marked my philosophical starting point as I launched headlong into Will Storr's 2014 book The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. It is inherent to human temporal finitude that even the very best of those lucky enough to have received advanced education will have only enough time to become experts in a few areas, if any at all. As individuals, a necessary consequence of our inevitable participation in more activities than we can personally and deeply understand is that we end up making use of knowledge that has been generated by others. Today's technology has gifted us with the opportunity to be flooded by the knowledge of others in any subject we should choose at the mere click of a button. However, technology has also proliferated opportunities for forgery, allowing frauds and scammers to fool the public into accepting and even purchasing their false, underdeveloped "knowledge". It would be no understatement to say that the task of identifying reliable information has become a defining challenge of our time.
A benefit of relegating the generation of knowledge to society at a whole is that each person is then relieved of the burden of keeping it all in mind. Modern knowledge-building has largely been taken from the hands of individual intellectuals and trusted to networks or institutions like science that produce new facts at a rate never before seen in human history. That is not to say that there are no longer knowledgeable individuals, certainly there are, and we have developed an increasing number of cognitive heuristics to identify them when researching new ideas. Signals of expertise include pieces of paper that indicate achievement in the most rigorous institutions of learning, publications in journals that are meticulously reviewed by other experts, and competitive success in the development of products for markets where truth dominates falsity. Heuristics and signals help lead us to good information quickly; that is, to the most reputable people and institutions that have developed knowledge that we would like to make use of despite our inability to create it on our own. Our society depends on the success of these people and institutions, and the comfort with which we repeat the simple, standalone facts we learned in school (which often took loads of time, money, and brilliance to generate) reflects our confidence that they are indeed functioning well.
Storr's book, which I will examine in more detail below, represents the challenge that our most celebrated knowledge-building institution, science, is in fact less rational and more flawed than we realize. He presents this challenge in the form of a memoir – a string of stories that detail his journey to infiltrate apparently intellectual communities that hold beliefs explicitly in opposition to the scientific consensus. In a world where science has a rightful monopoly on knowledge of nature, how do these communities justify their own existence? Have these heretics, these "enemies of science," found cracks in the fleshy armour of an all-too-human institution, or are they merely victims of the biases and error that science is meant to eliminate?
Storr’s first chapter is illustrative of a pattern that will recur through the book. He first approaches a scene that represents a public controversy, in this case a presentation from the Creationist exponent John Mackay. He then goes undercover as a true believer in order to draw out opinions from the crowd before interviewing the figurehead directly. His rhetorical strategy – clever and effective, but potentially dangerous as we'll see – is to let the figurehead make just strong enough of a case to cast doubt into the heart of the reader before tugging back with some resistance. This doubt will come from a new and important direction in each chapter, slowly stitching together a quilt of concern that is persuasive if only for the pessimism it accumulates.
"By education and by thinking, Mackay considers himself to be a scientist. And it is by these rigorous and testable methods that he had promised to prove the creation hypothesis to me" – five pages into the book and the doubt is festering already. Mackay is not some mystic claiming to have reached the secrets of the universe through a felt intuition, he is supposedly making use of the same prized method that has built the very evolutionary theory he so vociferously opposes. Those of us familiar with the public debate over evolution in the United States will quickly recognize the Creationism tropes that follow: we all start with faith, Creation is testable and confirmed, the evolution of new kinds has never been observed, etc. Writing off Mackay for such beliefs is likely, by now, a matter of habit. But should it be? "Like so many people who hold strong opinions about it, I have never studied evolution. I have exercised no critical thinking on the topic whatsoever, I have simply put my trust in the people that culture has directed me towards." Storr the author finds common ground here with the passionate but imperfectly educated reader. His reaction to Mackay is an extension of his trust in the scientific culture, as he presents a short list of Mackay's beliefs to a local doctor of molecular biology, who promptly tears them apart. Intellectual righteousness re-established, both author and reader can now proceed with relief that their doubts were unfounded. But plenty more are to come.
I haven't the space or patience here to summarize the debates contained in each chapter of the book, interesting though they are. Moreover, doing so would feel like missing the point. Though his research is impressively thorough and sincere, Storr is not an expert in any of the topics he explores, which forces him to spend a significant amount of time recruiting new authorities to joust with his unbelievers. What we find as we progress through the book is that even these authorities show flashes of human weakness and indulgence in emotional repulsion over reasoned argument. Psychiatrist John Mack, a Harvard professor who compiled a book of case studies about self-proclaimed alien abductees, suffered a "sustained assault on his job and reputation" by the University for investigating a taboo phenomenon. Individuals suffering from a puzzling ailment known as Morgellons are medically dismissed and forwarded to psychiatrists, who – when they're not busy inundating their patients with false memories – insist on treating dissociative identity disorders with harsh medications rather than sympathetic counselling. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt condemns the political Left as a whole for sacralising climate change, turning the issue into a "moral crusade," and forcing the conclusion that “they cannot be trusted to think straight about it.” Finally, Storr's chapters on James Randi and the Skeptic community stop just short of being resentful, as he delves into a realm where the rhetoric has perhaps fully outstripped familiarity with the evidence, and rampant ridicule replaces reasoned rebuttals. Little of this sounds much like the subtle weighing of evidence and publishing of papers that we imagine makes up most of the scientific battleground.
The first thing to keep in mind when pondering this new image of the scientific landscape is the following: it isn’t the scientific landscape at all. Rather, Storr investigates cultural controversies that aren't necessarily representative of disputes between practicing experts. An attentive reader will get the sense that the author is in the borderlands from the silly quips that are communicated from the mouths of his heretics. "...dragons, they're real", "I experienced myself as a blade of wheat", "Communist world government," and deep breathing curing cancer (but not AIDS!) are a few doubtful claims among many. These subtle flags act as signs of the potential unreliability of our anti-heroes, and nudge us back onto the course of the dominant narrative. Had Storr omitted these captions and perhaps gone out of his way to present equal samples of evidence from both sides of each debate, readers would no doubt be left in at least few positions of complete ignorance, unable to take a reasoned stance on either side. But fair and equal hearings are not always justifiable, especially in a short book where the majority of experts and weight of the evidence is often overwhelmingly pointed in a single direction. This writer can appreciate that Storr managed to foster doubt in his audience without creating a false impression of the sensibility of his conspirators.
The public debate around evolution in the United States, as an example, could give the impression that evolutionary theory and Intelligent Design are locked in a vicious war for intellectual supremacy. Among the hearts and minds of the American public this is no doubt true: surveys have shown that a vast number of Americans are at least skeptical about the natural origins of human beings. The mistake would be to infer from this particularly American spectacle that evolution is scientifically controversial, rather than merely culturally controversial. Biologists Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne make this distinction in an article for the Guardian:
"This is not a scientific controversy at all. And it is a time-wasting distraction because evolutionary science, perhaps more than any other major science, is bountifully endowed with genuine controversy.
"Among the controversies that students of evolution commonly face, these are genuinely challenging and of great educational value: neutralism versus selectionism in molecular evolution; adaptationism; group selection; punctuated equilibrium; cladism; "evo-devo"; the "Cambrian Explosion"; mass extinctions; interspecies competition; sympatric speciation; sexual selection; the evolution of sex itself; evolutionary psychology; Darwinian medicine and so on. The point is that all these controversies, and many more, provide fodder for fascinating and lively argument, not just in essays but for student discussions late at night.
"Intelligent design is not an argument of the same character as these controversies. It is not a scientific argument at all, but a religious one. It might be worth discussing in a class on the history of ideas, in a philosophy class on popular logical fallacies, or in a comparative religion class on origin myths from around the world. But it no more belongs in a biology class than alchemy belongs in a chemistry class, phlogiston in a physics class or the stork theory in a sex education class. In those cases, the demand for equal time for "both theories" would be ludicrous. Similarly, in a class on 20th-century European history, who would demand equal time for the theory that the Holocaust never happened?"
In addition to being energized by cultural controversies rather than scientific ones, our heretical communities show other common properties. When they do present scientific evidence, it is rarely of the quality or size of that held by the orthodoxy. Homeopathy serves as an important example of this, where small sample sizes are actually defended in the book based on the bogus "treat the individual" philosophy of the discipline. Anti-science movements often rely on intelligent and charismatic figureheads, who give the illusion of victory by encouraging one-on-one debates that they can win, rather than dutifully taking on entire institutions that would prove to be insurmountable. Propagators of woo leave themselves open to persuasion by placebo effects, and frequently rely on personal anecdotes over carefully collected data. They become increasingly sensitive to what they perceive as a dull, homogenized scientific community while failing to interrogate their own hidden motivations and narratives.
The message of Storr's book may not be new, but its presentation here is enthralling and educational. We frequently establish beliefs for faulty reasons, and our cognitive machinery is designed to reinforce these beliefs with networks and narratives that put us at the center of a moral mission to satisfy our desire for truth. What our intuitions conveniently hide, so well that we might not realize it if it weren't for decades of progress and education, is that tracking down actual, objective, impersonal truths about the world is fucking hard. The people who get to spend their lives trying to do it are selected from amongst the most detail-oriented and factually informed of us all, and then pitted against each other in a giant competition to prove each other wrong. This behaviour is actually incentivized within the scientific system, as new theories that better explain old results become the basis for careers and tenured professorships. Maverick individuals outside of this system, as smart as some of them are, face a grand challenge in opposing this esteemed collective, especially when that collective sits behind the scenes producing the very research that could eventually be turned against them.
This isn't to say that science doesn't face a load of challenges to the rationality of its structure, but the most concerning of these challenges are system failures, not the emotions or personalities of passionate individuals. The publish-or-perish environment encourages a desperate dishonesty in the quest for significant results. Universities looking for a return on investment publicize local findings with aggrandizing claims that don’t match those of the papers themselves. Misleading statistics and p-hacking massage power from otherwise unconvincing evidence. However, the best way to respond to these concerns about science is to do more science. The strongest scientific results appear across a wide range of replicable studies and make progress by breaking observable phenomena down into provable mechanistic components. Results that don't yet meet these criteria can be challenged by further investigating to see if they will. These results transcend individuals as a body of knowledge that becomes increasingly purified over time, despite the permanent imperfections of the creatures that produce it.
The final line of Dawkins and Coyne above is predictive. Storr's last chapter sees him undercover in a circle of white supremacists who deny the truth of the Holocaust. No chapter does a better job of demonstrating how opening the door to sympathy for conspiracies can lead to the denial of the most evident historical facts. The best substantiated orthodoxy will always produce resistance as a matter of course, but the existence of this resistance itself cannot be a comment on the strength of the orthodoxy, else we risk degenerating in the know-nothing state from which we began.