Why do we believe what we do? We all appear to be driven by our inherited predisposition to confabulate reality to conform to our need to be the self-conscious hero at the center of the whole universe. Because we all follow this same routine we each become “unpersuadables” when subjected to new information that doesn’t conform to our preexisting reality, and we have remarkable abilities to twist things to fit what we already know to be true. Even scientists are subject to these processes, but their methods of checking each other’s published works allows the scientists as a profession to challenge assumptions and perform tests of physical reality that affirm or deny each other’s ideas. It is a self-correcting process that has created modern high-tech society. However, individual scientists are as prone to confirmation bias as are other people.
In The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, author Will Storr literally goes to the ends of the Earth to find remarkable people who have astonishing stories to tell about the hows and whys of their unique world views. We visit with creationists in Australia, climate change deniers, UFO abductees, an Australian aborigine painter, performers of past life regressions, Morgellons itchy-skin sufferers, Swami Ramdev, schizophrenics, a Hitler holocaust denier, a researcher of the extrasensory perception of dogs, and the magician/skeptic James Randi. Mixed with these visits are chapters about hard science and the analysis of how beliefs form. Below are some quotes to give you a flavor of these chapters.
Once your mind has made its mind up, “From then on, its treatment of any new information that runs counter to those views can sometimes be brutal. Your brain is surprisingly reluctant to change its mind. Rather than going through the difficulties involved in rearranging itself to reflect the truth, it often prefers to fool you. So it distorts. It forgets. It projects. It lies.” (p. 76) “It makes us happy. It has even been demonstrated that depressed people, with their dysfunctionally gloomy predictions about themselves and the world, are more accurate in their outlook than the mentally ‘healthy’. The world, and your life within it, is far bleaker than you have been led to believe.” (p. 90) “We look for evidence that supports our hunch. The moment we find some, we think ‘Aha!’ and happily conclude that we are, indeed, correct. The thinking then ceases.” (p. 85) “‘All decisions we make are based on whether to approach or withdraw, including our moral decisions.’ Without emotions, we would be incapable of making these decisions.” (p. 184)
We are all unpersuadables – and once you realize that, you can be more comfortable with yourself and kinder to all those other foolish people.