Book Review: The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

Will Storr

I am writing this past 1am, I just finished reading it and I could not wait to write my impressions. This is a most unusual book. I was curious about how would the author construct a coherent story with so many different characters and circumstances. Just think about the following, he explores beliefs and lack thereof in such disparate topics as creationism, holocaust denialism, the placebo effect, alleged alien abductions, Morgellon’s disease, the creation of false memories, climate change denial, psychiatry and some others, all from the perspective of believers and deniers.

As this were not enough, he tried to unbiasedly interview Rupert Sheldrake and James Randi, who are polar opposites on virtually everything they stand for. Storr somehow manages to create a logical whole of all these points of view and narratives, and he does it brilliantly. He effective illustrates the point that scientists are human, with everything that it entails courtesy of our three pounds of brain matter.

I liked the book, although I suspect that I would not like him personally based on his autobiographical expressions. I dunno, it’s an impression. Anyway, I hope that I am wrong.

Back to topic, I **really** liked the book; in no small part because he even threw in a significant chunk of good neuroscience throughout, the neurosciences are a topic that I am fond of not just because I know a thing or two about the matter, I happen to think that neuroscience is one of the most interesting scientific areas there are and I found that Storr had unique yet very logical points of view on it

My main complaint? He repeats the fashionable, yet unconfirmed and unreplicated trend of stating that the human brain is composed of 86 billion neurons as opposed to the “accepted” figure of 100 billion. I admit this is a minor point, but it is also a pet peeve of mine. I have read the original paper that reports this number (not just the popular article in The Guardian) and the authors themselves did not make the “86 billions” the main message of the report. I even corresponded with the main author about the paper.

I have written about this matter in several blog posts here, here and here, as well as in my own neuroscience-themed popular science book (see below), so I will not, dwell on this any more.

Carrying on, there was a statement that puzzled me: “We do not get to choose our most passionately held views, as if we are selecting melons in a supermarket.” The thing is that we do, and quite frequently too. Maybe not all of us, but a sizable fraction at least. To the author’s credit, a couple of paragraphs later he writes: “I am also concerned that I have overstated my argument. In my haste to write my own coherent story, I have barely acknowledged the obvious truth that minds do sometimes change. People find faith and they lose it. Mystics become Skeptics. Politicians cross the floor.”

My favorite sentence? Easy:

“I will try to remember, though, that as right as I can sometimes feel, there is always the chance that I am wrong. And that happiness lies in humility: in forgiving others, and in forgiving myself”

Maybe I would like him personally after all.
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Picture credit: Overlook

 

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**I wrote the first chapter on this technical book.

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