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VINE VOICEon 14 February 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I really enjoyed this. It is a little like The Believing Brain inasmuch as Storr says that belief comes first and only then do we justify that belief. We discard evidence against our belief and give too much credence to evidence that supports our belief - this is the confirmation bias. A large part of our belief is hereditary, e.g. political views. Oddly, and to paraphrase the author, being clever doesn't make one any more impartial, it just makes one better able to defend one's prejudice that was arrived at purely emotionally! We are all unable to escape our biases, because that is who we are - it is impossible to look beyond them. Nervous "pulses" combine in the brain and the brain makes a model of the world and at the centre of this model is the illusory self - the hero and centre of the universe, but apparently this, too, is a deception and an illusion. An illusion we will do anything to preserve and protect, leading to such cognitive contortions like cognitive dissonance (a kind of intellectual ambivalence to protect integrity of self) and confabulation (making up strange excuses to preserve one's model, that one honestly believes, but which are untrue). One amazing insight is on page 349 when he says that the scientific method is a tool humans have developed to break the mind's storytelling narrative and model-making (everything we perceive and experience is a model the brain has made of the world, not the actual world) - its prejudices and biases. To remove emotion and anecdote. But it isn't easy because science is difficult to grasp and understand and heresy is usually easy and instinctive - 'instinctive' should start alarm bells ringing after reading this book. Anyway, this book sometimes descends into a stream-of-consciousness, but that isn't a criticism at all - the author is regularly painfully, embarrassingly, candid about his feelings, motives and shortcomings - like when he admitted "envying" privileged, young Oxford students. I thought that was brave, even unnecessary. There is some science in here and some investigative journalism. The prose is a pleasure to read. Really natural language.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Will Storr writes this book as an agnostic with a strong-belief in science, he spans subjects as varied as religion and the paranormal, to the power of the Placebo effect. It makes an attempt to explain why some people will stubbornly cling to their (often well-established) beliefs, despite concrete evidence to the contrary. The resulting discussions can be rather inflammatory as Will tries to argue with creationists, psychics and the like.

Frequently, the major examples of proof are rather dogmatic themselves and sometimes I did think to myself a couple of times "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" but Will's arguments are sound for the most-part. Large sections towards the end are purely recounted diatribes (the section on famous 'investigator' Randi for instance) which Will has little to add to. Despite these points, this does a good job of trying to explain the reasons humans will not or cannot change their perspective despite the best efforts of the majority, explaining a lot of the reasons niche beliefs are still so popular (homeopathy) and the reasons the human brain works this way.

Well referenced, humorous at many points but intriguing nonetheless. A cynic's bible.
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on 16 February 2013
Will Storr's book addresses the people who hold 'anti scientific' beliefs, but instead of a broad-brush assault on unreason, he also investigates the ways that people come to believe - be that in scientific, skeptical or supernatural ways. I really enjoyed the book, and I thought that the way that Will Storr explored the narrative worked on a number of levels - it's a clarion call for a recognition that all of us arrive at conclusions as a result of our emotions and experiences, as well as rational, reasoned thought, and the book also works as an outstanding example of applied psychology in action. I'm a research scientist, and the book did make me explore my own feelings about why a fellow scientist might, for example, become convinced enough of the reality of psychic abilities, that they devote themselves to scientific study of such events. I don't believe in them, but can I truly say that this is a result of my objective reasoning alone? In other words, it's easy to laugh a pseudo-science and religion, but important to understand that we all are affected by our emotions and our histories when understanding the world - we need to remember that all of us can and do hold 'irrational' beliefs.
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VINE VOICEon 18 April 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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on 17 December 2015
I found this book genuinely quite frightening. I sat reading it at night wondering if I might see a ghost, which is ironic because neither I nor the book's author believe in such nonsense. But Storr takes his reader on a tour of the human mind and shows us that it simply cannot be trusted. We are slaves to our brain, which is never as powerful as we imagine. We make assumptions based upon emotion and we create stories to justify these false leaps.

Is that just for dumb people? No. Storr looks at people most of us would consider stupid - creationists, holocaust deniers, the "Illuminati!" crowd - and shows that oftentimes they're intelligent people who have for some reason chosen to believe absurd ideas. Can we change their minds with facts? No, because the truth simply becomes invisible. Our brains create stories and literally reward us for ignoring the facts that contradict our confabulations. It is frightening to think how easy it is to be wrong - spectacularly wrong - about important things in life. If this book doesn't leave you wondering if that is true of you... well, then you're probably one of the heretics.
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VINE VOICEon 29 January 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Although dealing with the kinds of subjects of interest to "skeptics" and invoking the likes of Richard Wiseman in the advertising blurb, this book isn't really coming from the same starting point that readers may expect from that sort of advertising.

The good parts of Storr's book are concerned with the strength of our inbuilt personal bias - the fact we start with possibly predetermined biases which we go through life adding to by picking out anything that agrees with us and giving it undue importance while ignoring or actively discounting things that would clash with our prejudices. There's a brilliant example of Holocaust denier David Irving pointing out handles on the inside doors of gas chambers in a concentration camp visit, saying they couldn't be for killing people if the handles were on the inside, while ignoring the significance of the huge locking bolts on the outside of the same doors. Most examples of selective observation in our lives are far more subtle, and concerned with less emotive subjects, but the psychology is surprisingly similar.

Storr also covers how we use our own biases to effectively depersonalise and perhaps literally demonise those who hold opposite views. This polarisation will be depressingly familiar to most in sport, politics and in a more up to date context, internet arguments. If there's one key argument made in the book, it is about how our psychology draws us into "us vs them" mindsets.

The book falls badly though when it tries to address scientific subjects. This is a real shame as the title and introduction would make you think it was going to do a better job. Science, as a process, is concerned with eliminating these same biases to draw conclusions. One example would be medical trials where a new therapy would be tested by giving some people an active version and others a placebo so that the real effect could be measured. Even more than that, the people making the assessment of how well the new treatment is doing are also "blinded" as to which patient is on the active form or placebo, thus eliminating another type of bias.

What Storr does in discussions of scientific arguments is to set personality and opinion on each side of a dispute against each other - two sets of "arguments from authority"- and comes to conclusions based on who he finds more credible or likeable. That's how journalism may work in some cases and how internet arguments are made, but it's not how scientific issues are settled. The "he said but he said" sections of the book really don't work.

Likewise , to readers who may be drawn in by the title and the "if you like Richard Wiseman" advert, it will be disappointing to read a trend to credulity that runs through the book. Storr tends to approach most of the "science heretics" as a non believer but in most cases comes away with "new doubts" about the scientific consensus. Arch skeptic James Randi, who is given a rough time in general this account, is criticised as closed-minded for saying nothing in his investigations has made him change his opinion to date. Given Randi investigates paranormal claims, and nobody has ever proven a single paranormal claim, this seems a harsh criticism.

Overall, there are many interesting parts to the book and some sound and important points made. Sadly, other parts fail by ignoring the impartial evidence which exists to settle many of the arguments described.
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on 7 August 2014
Both the title and sub-title of this excellent book only partially do justice to the content. Storr sets out his stall to debunk those with beliefs across a wide spectrum of subjects, where these beliefs differ markedly from current mainstream scientific conviction. What he ends up doing, by design or default, is exploring what makes people believe what they do, be that in line with current scientific understanding or not. We are all believers, simply appealing to different things to sustain our position.

This approach makes for an interesting book as the author discovers (of course through his own bias) where genuine belief, however erroneous, intermingles with, and appears more common than, conscious lies and determination to deceive others. The diverse and fascinating people and subjects he has selected for inclusion make for a lively read and illustrate some relatively common features from seemingly diverse starting points.

Storr focuses on the ability of our brains to weave a self-acceptable narrative in the face of patently ill-fitting facts, assisted by an emotional drive for an appealing story. He goes on to show how groups of like-minded people can adopt and reinforce similar positions. As a scientist, where I would have appreciated more is in exploring the power of dialogue between those holding opposing views. My experience is particularly of scientists, who often reach consensus when placed in a room together for an extended period of time, finding themselves drawn to greater objectivity through adherence to the scientific method they aspire to. The more generalizable effect of relationships and interaction on convictions might have yielded a more powerful glimmer of hope than the ultimately rather bleak self-deception Will Storr appears willing to leave us with. Nevertheless, this is a really stimulating book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 December 2015
Good book that takes you through interviews that Will Storr has with different people and looks at the differing beliefs / ways of thinking and makes you look at subjects such as religion from a new angle.

Rather than just dismiss people as ignorant or stupid, Storr looks to understand their thinking and motives.

Overall an interesting read.
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on 5 February 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book is described as a unique mix of highly personal memoir, investigative journalism and the latest research from neuroscience and experimental psychology. In it Storr revals how we can be so easily lead to self-deception, toxic partisanship and science denial. Aimed at fans of Ben Goldacre, author of the book 'Bad Science', this book uses interviews to advance its arguments. This lightens a narrative that could otherwise be dauntingly intellectually challenging. Recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 September 2014
What is probably most fascinating about this book is the understanding one gets, after reading it, of the way the minds of people who believe in conspiracies work. Will Storr set out here to find out why people believed weird things, and finds that our minds are just designed that way. While he may insert himself a bit too much into the stories he tells, this remains a fascinating look at the conspiracy theories that exist, and the way people convince themselves, in spite of evidence, that they are real.
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