Prothero on The Unpersuadables

Another review of a review: Donald Prothero (a geology professor at Occidental College in LA, and a lecturer at Caltech), has a review of a new book by Will Storr, The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, that develops the argument of recent months that evidence simply will not dissuade true believers from any number of dogmatic beliefs, from UFOs to homeopathy to Holocaust denialism to creationism.

According to the review, the author spends considerable time interviewing and hanging out with deniers of various sorts, letting them speak, and eventually – but let me quote his words:

He describes the events in a non-judgmental way, and lets the people speak for themselves—and hang themselves with their own words, especially as his questions lead them to say weirder and weirder things. This is especially apparent as he spends many days with Holocaust denier David Irving and his pack of neo-Nazis, watching them delude themselves as they spout one racist statement after another—and then they claim they’re not prejudiced or anti-Semitic.

And the author arrives at the current understanding that

As many other people have shown, despite our best efforts our brains are not “objective” or “rational” in any way. Instead, we form a “belief network” around ourselves, and use confirmation bias to resolve the inherit conflict caused by the cognitive dissonance of what we want to be true, and what the world shows us. We easily fall for anecdotal thinking.

What makes this review notable is that reviewer thinks the author goes a bit too far; the author is skeptical of the skeptics. The reviewer quotes the author:

His monoculture we would have, if the hard rationalists had their way, would be a deathly thing. So bring on the psychics, bring on the alien abductees, bring on the two John Lennons—bring on a hundred of them. Christians or no, there will be tribalism. Televangelists or no, there will be scoundrels. It is not religion or fake mystics that create these problems, it is being human.

Then everything is relative to personal preference and nothing is true? I am on the side of the reviewer, who concludes,

Storr seems to be saying that since no individual has a clear view of the world, therefore there is no reality out there, and any truth or view is as good as the next. Unfortunately, he misses a key point here. Yes, individual scientists are not perfect, and have a viewpoint limited by their backgrounds and assumptions. Yes, small communities of scientists could be wrong. But Storr never discusses the real reason that he (and most people in the world) accept that there is a scientific reality outside of us: because it works. Science is the only method we know to get past individual blind spots, and subject our cherished ideas to the harsh gantlet of peer-review. Scientific ideas are unlike anything that an individual believes, because they are scrutinized and tested and criticized by the rest of the scientific community. Scientific ideas lead to predictions about the real world that can be tested, which would not be true if the scientific world were only a construct of our brains (as some allege). Only if ideas survive this intense testing phase do they eventually become part of our canon of “scientific reality”—and thanks to that scientific reality, we can launch spacecraft into the unknown and predict what they will do; we can conquer most diseases and physical ailments; we can have technology and inventions that were not possible before the scientific revolution, and our world is vastly different since then.

Science is the way to overcome individual human imperfection. Because (again quoting the author):

We are all creatures of illusion. We are made out of stories. From the heretics to the Skeptics, we are all lost in our own secret worlds.

Except for those willing, and having demonstrated, that they are capable of changing their minds, because evidence. Says I.

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