Friday, February 15, 2013

Conspiracy Theorists and Other Enemies of Science

Journalist Will Storr recently wrote a book called The Heretics: Adventures With The Enemies Of Science which explores why so many conspiracy theorists seem to have trouble accepting facts... even when those facts are right in front of them.

This is an interesting subject and one which I've explored myself - which is why I'm certain this book would be an interesting read (the book was just published this week and I haven't had a chance to read it yet). Chris Parsons over at Yahoo! News wrote an article about the book entitled "Exploring the minds of Holocaust deniers and UFO-spotters who deny common sense".

Parsons' article begins:
"Will Storr is a man who deals in facts. As a journalist of more than 10 years, undeniable evidence and rational data are his bread and butter.
There are groups of people, however, who deny the irrefutable; who see cold, hard facts as mistruths or simply inconvenient.
Whether they are Holocaust deniers, creationists, or those who believe in UFOs - there are plenty out there whose view of the world defies centuries of scientific evidence. 
So why are there intelligent, seemingly rational people like this, who are capable of such unreasonable logic?"

Although I do agree with much of what Parsons wrote in his piece I would take issue with his statement that speaks of "intelligent, seemingly rational people", because the truth of the matter is conspiracy theorists are the farthest thing from rational. I might even debate whether most of these people are intelligent, although perhaps my personal bias is due to the lack of intelligence presented by the typical antivaccinationist. Rationality however... well there isn't much room for debate on that point. Not only do antivaxxers trample upon basic common sense, but they do so with impunity almost as if they have no desire to engage in any sort of discussion which may require it.

Either way, Storr's book might help shed some light on the thought processes that so many conspiracy theorists seem to share even when faced with evidence that counters their opinions. Unfortunately, Storr didn't include antivaxxers within his book that I've seen, but the same lack of logic and unreasonable nature most certainly applies to all conspiracy theorists regardless of form.

Whether it is someone who denies the moon landings, a Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist, a 9/11 "truther", an antivaxxer, or simply someone who believes Lee Harvey Oswald was innocent they all seem to share several things in common - a blatant disregard for logic, a stubborn refusal to accept facts when presented to them, and an complete and total inability to admit when they are wrong.

I wonder what it might take to get an antivaxxer to review Storr's book? If you are interested, you can pick up a hardcover copy from Amazon, or if you are patient you can probably wait for the paperback or (hopefully) even the ebook version.


  1. Over at Doubtful News it was revealed he also questions those who are skeptical about homeopathy. There is a comment from Tim Farley that he was at the JREF's TAM9 in 2011 roaming the hallways to interview skeptics.

    I would give you a link, but for some reason my wifi router's ISP has blocked the website (it also blocked the anti-child abuse site "dontshake", go figure), so I read it at the library.

    1. I'm slightly confused - is he interviewing those who are skeptical of homeopathy, or those who are proponents of homeopathy? Either way it may make the book more interesting to read - I've already added it to my list so hopefully I'll get to it eventually.

    2. Oh, and then this review says: It is the very quality of these chapters, however, that makes Storr's book disappointing and infuriating. For having shown he can achieve the kind of sceptical distance that makes Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux such effective chroniclers of weirdness, he casts it aside in an indulgence of wishful thinking. 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.

    3. I love that fact that Storr actually took the time to comment on the review, and that they engaged in some discussion. It doesn't address all of the reviewers concerns, but it does add a bit of context around it.

      Of course in most cases when we read a book we may not agree with all of the conclusions - and that is part of the fun. That is what drives us to learn more and to discover alternative views. Fair minded people are always open to shifting their view on an issue if the evidence steers them that direction - which is why scientists are always willing to eliminate a hypothesis and move onward when the evidence suggests they do so.

      Unfortunately, most of the antivaxxers I've stumbled across are unwilling to let the science, the data, or the evidence guide them. They form their opinions first, and ignore anything that gets in the way of those views. This is part of the reason why they tend to believe in conspiracy theories and why no amount of evidence ever convinces them that they just might be wrong.

  2. From what I read he was critical of those who were skeptical of homeopathy. From this review: He attends a conference of 'sceptics', who insist there is 'no evidence for homeopathy'. When he asks the sceptics what scientific literature on homeopathy they've read to support these claims, many admit they haven't read any.

    I have a back load of reading to do, so I'll see what other reviews say.

    1. Granted Storr may simply be misunderstanding the responses, because the terms "scientific literature" mean something quite different to an actual scientist or researcher than they do to someone who obtained their knowledge from a variety of Google searches.

      Perhaps the reason homeopathy 'skeptics' haven't read any scientific literature to support their claims is because such literature simply doesn't exist, and it is impossible to prove a negative. The burden of proof would actually lie upon proponents of homeopathy to prove their treatments actually work - and since there is little to no peer-reviewed scientific documentation in support of these types of treatments, it stands to reason that skeptics haven't been able to read anything in support of their claims.

      This is one of the issues with homeopathy - because if there was any science supporting the treatments, those treatments would soon become mainstream and would be adopted by the medical community. This, in turn, would suggest they are no longer alternative treatments.

      After all - what do you call alternative medicine that actually works? The answer of course - medicine.

    2. "Perhaps the reason homeopathy 'skeptics' haven't read any scientific literature to support their claims is because such literature simply doesn't exist, and it is impossible to prove a negative"

      Actually there is a large number of studies on homeopathy. The problem is that most of it is dreck. The better the study, the less likely it shows homeopathy does anything.

      The problem is that the whole premise requires a complete re-writing of all physics and chemistry. If you dilute something it usually does not make it better. The most common dilution of homeopathy is 30C, that means one part of active ingredient to 10^60 parts of solvent, which is more atoms than on this planet a few others. The problem is that most people confuse homeopathy with herbalism (which has real, and sometimes dangerous ingredients).

  3. Sharon Hill of Doubtful News has started a discussion of the book here:

    There seems to be some disgruntlement over Randi quotes.

  4. As a sidenote, here's some lovely footage of Tenpenny showing the world just how completely clueless she really is.

  5. Will Storr was interviewed on Little Atoms:


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