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Who on earth compared this to Ben Goldacre and Jon Ronson?
on 18 April 2013
This is a very enjoyable but deeply flawed book.
It's a mix of profiles of people who go against established truths, personal introspection and psychology.
That's a hard balancing act and it's a credit to the writer and editor that this is such a good read.
However, this is a deeply flawed book and I wonder just how much the author knows about science.
Pretty early in the book, for example, he shows some surprise that we are not descended from apes. The idea of men sharing a common ancestor with apes is nothing new or difficult - it's been around for over a hundred years and is taught at secondary school. This should not be an epiphany to any educated adult, let alone someone writing a book about people and science.
Around the same place, he makes a logical fallacy that comes up again and again throughout the book - the argument from authority. Although he admits some unease at believing in evolution (or rather, his half understood version of it) because Richard Dawkins says it's true, he spends most of the rest of the book asking us to believe in often sketchily outlined psychological studies because Professor So-and-so at the University of Bla says so. In other words, he makes exactly the same mistake as the creations he lays into first.
An example: he refers to research showing that religious people in Israel suffer less anxiety when under attack. No word of the methodology - were the subjects wired up during the rocket attacks or did complete a questionnaire? During, soon after or a month after? This, coming soon before an attack on skeptics for trusting research without doing the donkey work themselves.
A pattern is starting to emerge.
His treatment of skeptics reads like an attempt at balance regardless of actuality. His assertion that skeptics don't engage with Islam suggests he didn't bother so much as reading the likes of Dawkins and PZ Myers online. He strays into ad hominems which again emphasises his misunderstaning of science - he seems to believe it is a body of knowledge instead of a method. Major fail.
The chapter about David Irving is outstanding, despite having absolutely nothing to do with science. Although he misses a trick by not delving into Irving's autodidacticism, Storr gives us a fairly compassionate portrait of a brilliant, disappointed, wasted talent.
He suggests that Irving and his ilk are too easily seduced by elegant, coherent solutions. Ironic, given that elegance and coherence are a feature of maths and physics.
Doubly ironic, given the book's banal conclusion. The upshot of all this research, all these interviews, all his soul searching, is that we all have personal narratives which feature ourselves as the hero, narratives that depend on our upbringing and relationship with authority. An elegant and coherent solution that can be found in self help books from the 1960s.
It's this lack of self-awareness, the repetition throughout the book of the very errors he criticises in others, combined with a fairly slapdash approach to science that drags this book down.