The Heretics: thoughts from a skeptic who used to be an enemy of science

hereticsJust six years ago I could be found sitting at a table in a dark room, eyes closed with concentration as my team mates and I built up psychic energy to allow ghosts to use the table to communicate with us. Earlier this month the president of the James Randi Education Foundation, DJ Grothe, referred to me and others as the workhorses of skepticism who actually do scientific paranormal investigations of claims’.

Why am I telling you this? So that you know exactly the kind of skeptic that I am. There’s a stark difference between who I was and who I am, and it’s one shaped by belief.

I’m not content with simply pointing out ‘it can’t be a ghost because ghosts defy the rules of physics’. The difficult and often lonely transition that  I went through – discarding my beliefs and picking apart the very things that had defined me as a person – makes me the kind of skeptic who knows what it is like to be wrong, to hold her hands up and say ‘holy shit, look how wrong I’ve been all of this time!‘. I’m the kind of skeptic who is sympathetic to those who believe weird stuff because I know why they do and how easy it is to convince yourself that you are right.

It’s this theme that runs through The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Sciencein which journalist Will Storr documents his often scary adventure to discover why people believe strange and bizarre things. It isn’t just the unconventional belief systems that Storr is interested in though, it’s why those he meets believe what they do, and how they interpret the skeptical world around them.

Storr also speaks to a wide range of experts about neurological, psychological, and environmental factors that cause people to reach weird conclusions, with fascinating insight being presented that often demonstrates how everyone is biased and susceptible to irrational thinking – but he has received criticism for giving scientific research an equal footing to the ideas promoted by the likes of Holocaust denier David Irving, homeopathic practitioners, and ESP researcher Rupert Sheldrake.

“It is not enough for Storr to consider why people believe weird things; he also wants to challenge whether these things really are weird. He seems to accept, deep down, that they are, but he doesn’t want to admit this. He is like the child who still wants to believe in Father Christmas, but who is just old enough to know better. Life would be more magical, more fun, if the story were true. So it is that homeopaths are given a more sympathetic hearing than sceptics, with no discussion of the harm that unscientific medicine can do” Mark Henderson, The Guardian

Although at times it did feel as though Storr was too trusting of people with faulty reasoning, the reviewer at The Guardian could have stopped to ask why those with odd ideas are given a more sympathetic hearing. In Heretics Storr admits that when attending a Skeptics conference he cannot justify why he feels a dislike of those in the audience. Perhaps, as one of the skeptics on stage with Prof Chris French I should feel offended, yet Storr goes on to wonder if it might be because of the time he has spent with people who might be considered as stupid by those who identify as skeptics, and as someone who used to be mocked by skeptics I can confirm it probably is that. Even now, as I stand in front of audiences of skeptics as a speaker, I sometimes feel as though I don’t quite belong. Like I’m some sort of an imposter who will be outed at any moment – ‘you used to *feel* psychic energy, get the fuck out!’

That said, not all skeptics are killjoys who parrot every word of the big name skeptics such as Dawkins, Goldacre and more. Storr writes about peoples beliefs stemming from their stories, and it’s exactly the same for nonbelievers. Someone who has never believed in ghosts probably isn’t going to be as sympathetic to the biased thought-processes that someone who does believe in ghosts is going to use to convince themselves they are right. People arrive at their skepticism through different means, and that’s often reflected in their approach to different ideas and topics. Skeptics often have an image problem because the conclusions they reach and the ideas they are skeptical of are what other people use to form their worldview. That cannot be helped, but the way in which skeptics communicate can be. It’s something I’ve written about many times before – how the ‘Ghost don’t exist, move on’ approach isn’t going to convince anyone who disagrees with you that you’re right.

A therapist happily explaining to Storr how Satanic cults eat babies might sound like a ludicrous idea to an outsider,  but when you know how easy it is to fall into the routine of validating your ideas, you know why that sounds plausible to her. A voice-hearer whose fantasies of being recruited as a spy turned into an alternative version of reality for him tells Storr how he used to turn the radio on and “detune” it to pick out messages being transmitted to him by those recruiting him as a spy. To demonstrate this to Storr, he “detunes” the kitchen radio and a voice on the radio says ‘…the British Government has a shoot-to-kill policy’ shocking Storr and the others in the room. It’s a random broadcast, but listened to by someone convinced secret messages are being transmitted, it becomes something entirely more than just a chance coincidence. It reminded me of the hours spent listening to Dictaphones to hear the voices of the dead – when you seek validation you often find it, even though it isn’t even there…

Listening to people with strange beliefs, getting to know both them and what they believe can make you more understanding of them than you might feel if you’d just heard about the ideas they think are true. That isn’t a bad thing. A passage at the end of the book summed things up perfectly:

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. We are creatures of illusion. We are made out of stories. From the Heretics to the Skeptics, we are all lost in our own neural tjukurpas, our own secret worlds. We are just ordinary heroes fighting phantom Goliaths, doing our best in the service of truth when the only thing that we really know are the pulses.
– Will Storr, Heretics, 

Go and buy this book,I loved it. Read it, and read it again. Take notes, explore the ideas being discussed for yourself, and take time to ponder. Be warned though, fans of James Randi might be forced to make some difficult considerations about the leader of the JREF. Though, it’s important to point out that unsavory views held by an individual do not represent all of those who identify as a skeptics, and that surely the comments made by Randi just provide further proof that we are all biased in our beliefs one way or another, intelligent or not…

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Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

3 thoughts on “The Heretics: thoughts from a skeptic who used to be an enemy of science”

  1. A good review. As a ” never have” belived person I enjoyed reading your “ex believer” perspective.
    My main criticism of the book was that he let a lot of his personal life situation bleed through into his thoughts of these people & he seemed to have a real struggle in separating the two. Also his belief that if you haven’t studied deeply something like Homeopathy then you can’t really be skeptical of it
    I thought his treatment of the people he interviews was done really well.
    The part where he’s speaking to the racists following David Irvine & they ask about his wife, not knowing she is from a Pakistani background, was really gripping.

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