Book review: The Heretics, by Will Storr

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 2:09pm


The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

by Will Storr


The book opens with a quote from psychologist Jerome Bruner: "A self is probably the most impressive work of art we ever produce." Will Storr wants us to understand that it is not just "heretics" but all of us who are riddled with untested beliefs.

In his search to understand how we construct our inner worlds, the author talks to schizophrenics who have fought against the prevailing medical model of their disease, and attempted to view the particularities of the way they see the world more creatively. He spends time with a creationist, trying to understand how he can explain away the fossil record. He has a chilling encounter with a therapist whom he suspects of implanting false memories of demonic sexual abuse in the minds of vulnerable patients.

But it is when he meets rightwing ideologue Lord Monckton and Holocaust denier David Irving that he begins to excavate darker and more dangerous territory - the places where humanity's wilful self-delusion can lead. Going undercover with some neo-Nazis he finds himself standing in a gas chamber, listening to Irving point out how the chamber is a fake, a "typical Polish botch job". Storr turns away from the group, shuddering with horror, and begins to cross himself - and so the fearless defender of reason finds himself warding off evil with a gesture from a religion that he professes to have disowned.

This is a revelatory moment: he has demonstrated that we are all capable of prejudice, and each of us is an "enemy of science" in our own way. But what matters most to Storr is that we don't find ourselves enemies of compassion and understanding as well: we can believe what we like, as long as we don't hurt others with our beliefs.

The book could have ended there, but there are two more chapters (on extrasensory perception and arch-sceptic James Randi) and then an epilogue, none of which builds on Storr's moment of clarity in the gas chamber - the real climax of this uneven but thought-provoking book.

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