Heretics

image source: http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/display_title.asp?ISBN=9780330535861&Author=Storr,%20Will

I’ve decided to stop playing games and pick up books again. My daughter is 10 months old and is imitating everything I do, and I want her to stop patting my 3DS and pick up a book instead. My unread pile isn’t very huge, but didn’t look too appealing. So I made a quick trip to my favourite bookstore and picked up a few new books. Richard Dawkins’ autobiography was one of them. Heretics, by Will Storr, was another. I’m less than a 100 pages in but already liked it enough to write about it.

Heretics is a kinder book than the ones I’m used to. Storr tours the world, meeting people with.. odd beliefs, from creationists to UFO nuts. Anyone who (like me) has spent hours arguing with friends and family on skepticism, the placebo effect, rationality and so on, will notice how stubborn and defensive people can get when pushed to a corner. The facts don’t matter to them, and perversely, make them less inclined to change their minds. It’s not often you see a mind changed when faced with convincing data.

An excerpt stood out, early in the book:

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. Because to accept that would be to confer upon myself a Godlike status. It would mean that I possess a superpower: a clarity of thought that is unique among humans. Okay, fine. 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 and all the rest of it… well, I know that I am right about that… and that… and that and that and — 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. I believe these two things completely, and yet they are in catastrophic logical opposition of each other.

The book goes on to explore why otherwise intelligent people delude themselves into believing things that are so obviously not true to the rest of us. Well worth a read (so far). As a plus, the book is also a lot funnier than I expected, and there’s more than one laugh-out-loud moment when Storr undergoes some excruciating ritual or the other to get into the minds of these people.