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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews Will Storr’s book, The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. A shorter version of this review ran in the Wall Street Journal on April 1, 2014.

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On the Margin

a book review by Michael Shermer

Of all the characters I’ve met in a quarter century spent researching the margins of science and society, there has never been anyone quite as enigmatic as David Irving, the British raconteur and historical revisionist of all things World War II, including and especially Hitler’s role in the Holocaust, which may or may not have happened, but if it did the Führer didn’t know about it, or if he did he couldn’t do anything to stop it. What about Hitler’s notorious anti-Semitism and his declaration of war against the Jews?, I once asked him. “Without Hitler, the State of Israel probably would not exist today so to that extent he was probably the Jews’ greatest friend.” Right. This from the man who once sued a historian for calling him a Holocaust denier, but then claimed, “More women died in the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.” Irving lost his case in court, no doubt harmed when he slipped and referred to the Judge not as “Your Honor” but as “Mein Führer.” That might explain another one-liner that I’m sure I’m not the only person he’s told after shaking hands: “This hand has shaken more hands that shook Hitler’s hand than anyone else in the world.”

Irving is one of a pantheon of unconventional characters featured in Will Storr’s The Unpersuadables. Storr’s style is to get close to his subjects by spending enough time with them so that they let down their guard and tell him what they’re really thinking. For example, Storr joined Irving on a week-long tour of Nazi concentration camps, which he narrates in an engaging first-person style that takes the reader right into the gas chamber at Majdanek where Irving announces to his group and anyone else in ear-shot, “This is a mock-up of a gas chamber. Those cylinders are carbon dioxide not carbon monoxide. A typical Polish botch job. There are handles on the inside of these doors,” suggesting that the prisoners could have just let themselves out.

Storr’s purpose is to understand more than it is to debunk, but he gives his readers enough information to test the verisimilitude of his characters claims. For example, he examined those door hinges more closely to find that “there were bolts on the outside, two of them, huge ones, each attached to clasps that would have locked the door closed over airtight seals.” Storr adds that Irving “saw the handle and he used it to angrily damn the manifest truth. He saw the handle. What happened in his mind when he saw the bolts?” Was Irving, Storr wonders rhetorically, “a liar or deluded? Evil or mistaken?” Storr finds his answer in a cognitive process called the confirmation bias, where we look for and find confirming evidence for our beliefs and ignore or rationalize away disconfirming evidence. We all do this. We remember in great detail stories and studies that support our political preferences, forgetting all counter examples. We tend to befriend people who think like us and so reinforce our beliefs. It’s a cognitive bias not restricted to the unpersuadables, but when you’re dealing with sensitive topics like the Holocaust the bias is especially noticeable.

The beliefs that drive the confirmation bias in the first place come from a deeper place. “Follow the sacredness,” the psychologist Jonathan Haidt told Storr. “Find out what people believe to be sacred, and when you look around there you will find rampant irrationality.”

In his chapter on the world’s most prominent climate-change skeptic, Christopher Monckton, Storr finds the sacredness in Monckton’s bemoaning of Britain’s loss of empire: “I felt infinite sadness. And nostalgia,” he told Storr in reference to his boyhood prep school. “When I was at Harrow we had a wonderful school song which said ‘From Harrow school to rise and rule.’” Monckton, Storr discovers, is the selfproclaimed “liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Broderers, this Officer of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, this Knight of Honour and Devotion of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, this former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher,” who is also “the first son of Major General Gilbert Monckton, 2nd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley and Marianna, Dame of Malta.” No wonder he believed that his education “was very much that you are going to be the rulers of the world and the masters of the universe and, therefore, you need to know how to do it.”

What does this have do with carbon emissions and climate change that Monckton has become famous for denying? (Recall his massive 2006 ad campaign to bait Al Gore into a debate.) Hitler could not destroy Britain from without, but the labour party and its welfare state is dismantling it from within by, in part, concocting a phony crisis—global warming —and then grabbing the reins of power. Why? “To shut down the economies of the West,” Monckton tells Storr. “I’ve been told that the left, the KGB, realized that energy was the soft underbelly of the West. They used twin attacks via the working classes and the environment movement. They thought, ‘That’s how we destroy the economies of the West’.”

The subtle brilliance of The Unpersuadables is Storr’s style of letting his subjects hang themselves by their own words. Storr notes that in 1987, for example, Monckton hatched a plan that he published in the American Spectator on how to stop AIDS from spreading: “screen the entire population regularly and quarantine all carriers of the disease for life. …Strict controls would be needed at all borders. Visitors would be required to take blood-tests at the port of entry and would be quarantined in the immigration building until the tests had proved negative.” This, Storr adds, comes from the man who accuses the left of totalitarianism and its drive for “absolute control over every detail.”

Storr’s other subjects include ESP researcher Rupert Sheldrake, the late Harvard alien abductee chronicler John Mack, creationist John Mackay, past-life regressionist Vered Kilstein, and other self-proclaimed heretics, all of whom have a story of “crisis, struggle, resolution.” This narrative arc, says Storr, is the substrate that binds these disparate characters and their fringe beliefs together. They are “Hero- Makers” in their minds, fighting the “Demon-Makers” out to deceive or destroy us. Thus, their battles against the establishment are not just turf wars over some point of arcana, but epic crusades in the name of their highest ideals, however out of sync they are with the world. END

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  1. Sean says:

    My favorite line is, “Follow the sacredness.” Spot on!

    • Bob Pease says:

      Following the Sacredness has been around a long time.

      “A.M.D.G ”
      Was an early mantra of mine ,
      And I had actually considered becoming a Jesuit at one time in my life.

      The problems arise when folks believe they have a duty to use a
      45 Caliber enforcement of their particular sacredness.

      “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”

      I feel safe and comfortable being a retired middle-class American.
      But I don’t think that any “Sacredness” has directed that , especially since my
      conception of the idea has changed a few times.

      A Beatnick mantra goes

      AM I HOLY??
      ARE YOU HOLY??
      IS HOLY HULY ??

      With due respect, “Follow the sacredness” is what Tom said to Mary Hartman
      in Norman Lear’s classic satire television series
      to the question

      “What do I HAVE to do?? ”

      The answer
      “You have to do whatever you believe is right”


      • Sean says:

        I too have had my brush with religion. Still do in a way, more for social reasons than spiritual fulfillment. The CE is definitely vastly different than Baptist churches.

        I believe the book of Revelations has done more to fire up Christians than any other part of the bible. With the doom and gloom portrayed along with the coming of the anit-christ and the trials and tribulations that will be suffered by Christians being persecuted for their faith, it’s no wonder they’re fired up (no pun intended) and ready to fight and “defend” themselves from amoralistic, heathen, non-believers like us.

        The strange thing, is I haven’t once heard doom and gloom in the CE. Mind you, I don’t go every week, but often enough that I should have caught something by now. We Americans can be quick to temper, independence is ingrained into us as part of our heritage after all. Combine that with religious zeal and the 2nd Amendment (which I do support), and some can be a powder keg waiting for a spark.

        Recently I attended the showing of Unbelievers at UNLV (one of the few times I’ve been able to attend something when I return home). In it, I noticed a guy wearing a shirt that stated “God is Love.” Also someone else carrying a sign, “Fear God.” If God is love, then we must fear love. Doesn’t seem like a good way to live life.

        • Bob Pease says:

          Thanks for the reply.
          What is CE?
          in your context it appears to be a Christian Organization of some type..

          “God is Love” is a Christian Humanist mantra.
          On examination, it reduces to a tautology, but the emotional meaning is welcome , particularly in Roman Catholic America, (esepecially Latin America) as an alternative to a stern enforcer of current political directives.


          • Sean says:

            You’re welcome. I often read what you have to say, even if I don’t reply.

            CE stands for the Church of England. I’m an expatriate living abroad.

            I like the friendlier contexts of religion, the more altruistic ones. I don’t care for the fire and brimstone, go forth and convert stuff, and such, which I haven’t encountered in the CE. Mind you, I don’t really bring up my views, which fall somewhere between non-theists and Einstein’s view of God, though closer to the former.

  2. Roy Niles says:

    So Dennett now has free will exiting for humans only? And in a deterministic world where they alone are free to self determine? Lower animals and plants and such are then devoid of any ability to question their determined fates and we are? Or is it that old saw about our intelligence emerging by evolutionary accident not having existed in the cosmos earlier? No humans or their equivalent elsewhere either? Only some sort of God that made the first determinations, one of which was to later redetermine us?

  3. Selden says:

    I read the book based on Michael Shermer’s very selective and misleading review. The Unpersuadables is a fascinating read, but not for the reasons Shermer suggests, and probably less than half the book deals with the people Shermer mentions.

    Will Storr’s primary emphasis is on the nature of evidence, and how our minds trick us into accepting those facts that fit with our world view, aka confirmation bias. He argues quite convincingly that even skeptics are not immune to this blindness.

    Here are a few quotes:

    Evidence of foes, p.86

    Studies have shown that we tend to subject the evidence of our foes to much closer scrutiny than we use on our own. One had people reading two arguments about the death penalty — a first report that conflicted with their opinions and a second that agreed. Most of the participants concluded that the essay that agreed with them was a ‘highly competent piece of work.’ As for the document they disagreed with, they examined it with the eye of a prosecution lawyer until they found genuine flaws and magnified them, using even minor issues as the basis for disregarding the entire thing. As Thomas Gilovich writes in How We Know What Isn’t So, “Exposure to a mixed body of evidence made both sides even more convinced of the fundamental soundness of their original beliefs.” Confirmation bias is profoundly human and it is appalling. When new information leads to an increase in ignorance, it is the opposite of learning, the death of wisdom.

    Chapter 11, p.183

    Throughout childhood and until late adolescence, our brains are building their internal models of what is out there and how it all works — physical, social, emotional and so on. After that, our core beliefs harden and we find change, according to Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, ‘difficult and painful.’ The power of our many cognitive biases skews our view. We attack unwelcome information. The gravity of our personal worlds attracts us to other, similar worlds — people who ‘see it like we do,’ whose opinions give us the warm, reassuring pleasure of comfort, familiarity, safety. It all thickens the illusion that our way is the true way. And some take it even further. In their heroic, heretical and wonderfully human way, they get up and get out there and attempt to change the models of other people to match their own. They write, they blog, they preach, they create.

    Chapter 15, p.272

    I used to imagine that our biases and delusions existed on a layer above a solid and clear-sighted base. Beneath your mistakes, I thought, there is your human nature, which is rational and immovable and seeks only truth. If you came to suspect that you were in error, you could easily work your way back to sense. What I now know is that there is no solid base. The machine by which we experience the world is the thing that becomes distorted. And so it is impossible to watch ourselves falling into fallacy. We can be lost without knowing we are lost. And, usually we are.

    Epilogue, p.309

    For many Skeptics, evidence-based truth has been sacralised. It has caused them to become irrational in their judgements of the motives of those with whom they do not agree. They have also sacralised reason. When we spoke, James Randi was chilling in his expression of where pure logic can ultimately lead. Viewing the matter stripped of emotion, it might make sense to persuade people with ‘mental aberrations’ and ‘histories of inherited diseases’ from having children. But the idea is obviously repellent. Randi’s belief demonstrates a truth that is sometimes forgotten by his followers: reason alone is not enough.

    My encounter with the patron saint of the Skeptics was a crystallising moment. At the [Skeptics] conference in Manchester, I struggled to work out what it was about the movement that made me uneasy. I believe that Randi’s speech resolved the warnings of my unconscious. ‘These are not innocent people. These are stupid people.’ Skeptics can be reminiscent of creationists, who think that I will go to hell because I am not a Christian. They treat belief as a moral choice. If you do not choose as they do, you are condemned. And while beliefs can have moral consequences, which the law must appropriately punish, we should not judge others for thinking their thoughts, nor be censured ourselves for the form of our hearts.

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