Science has its enemies, but they may not be who you think |262|

Will Storr went looking for science’s enemies and found Creationists aren’t the only threat.

262-will-storr-skeptiko

Investigative reporting sheds light.

Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko interviews author and journalist Will Storr on science, the scientific method and why we believe what we believe.

262-will-storr-book-skeptikoJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with investigative journalist & author Will Storr. During the interview Storr discusses science’s materialistic paradigm:

Alex Tsakiris: …Where’s the man-on-the-moon effort by [science-as-we-know-it] to follow up on your [paranormal] experience? Or we could even start out with: why were you conditioned to believe that [your experience] was a farce. 100 years ago all the best scientists had studied [these paranormal phenomena] — extensively in the UK – that’s where they really started. They came to the conclusion that there’s something to it. We don’t know what it is, but there’s something there. You experienced the same thing. But there’s no-man-on-the-moon effort to say, “… this has the potential to totally change our [scientific] worldview, let’s investigate it.”

Will Storr: …Obviously I can’t answer that question, I’m not a scientist. I can’t speak for the scientific community. I know I’m preaching to somebody who knows far more about these subjects than I do. We live in a materialistic kind of world. And we live in a world in which the vast majority of the scientific community is thinking from that paradigm. You know a well as I do…there’s ideology in science. Absolutely there’s an ideology in science. One of the things people do get really emotional about is this materialistic mindset. In The Unpersuadables I spend some time talking about Rupert Sheldrake…and the experiences he’s had…and quite apart from who’s right and who’s wrong and the science behind that. You only need to look at the way he’s been treated and the things that he’s experienced to see…the people who rubbish him, and the people who seek to have his voice silenced. That’s no exaggeration. As you know, when he’s booked to appear at live events, people agitate and protest until he’s taken off the bill. I mean, it’s quite extraordinary. He’s just a man with some ideas (laughing). They’ve made it sacred. They’ve made materialism sacred, and that’s why I don’t trust them to tell me the truth about materialism.

But sciencee is also about funding…there’s that…if you do find scientists who are sympathetic to these ideas, there’s a chance they’re unlikely to want to study this stuff because they’re afraid of being ridiculed. They’re afraid of their reputations being destroyed…people prioritize. I completely agree that [there are] major questions about reality, and I think a lot of those are being looked at, but are being looked at by cosmologists rather than parapsychologists. These are the people who really are being paid some money and who are celebrated for asking these big questions and coming up with some very weird ideas like the Multiverse and things like this…

 

 

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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome journalist and author Will Storr to Skeptiko. With books like Will Storr vs. the Supernatural in which Will personally investigated all manners of paranormal phenomena that we’re gonna want to talk to him about. And The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science where Will sat down with new-earth creationists and climate-change deniers in an effort to understand why we all seem to believe the things that we believe. Well with these books, Will is a perfect guest for Skeptiko… He’s a attempted to, in my view, kind of walk this razor’s edge of balancing rationality with that which doesn’t fit so easily with our understanding of reality. Will it’s really a pleasure to have you on. Thanks so much for joining me.

Will Storr: It’s a pleasure, thanks for asking me Alex.

Alex Tsakiris: Well you know I’ve been looking forward to this and you know where I thought we might start…naturally, is tell people a little bit about yourself and a little bit more about these books that I just mentioned.

Will Storr: Yes, so I’ve been a journalist for fourteen years now. The first book you mentioned I wrote when I was in my twenties. It’s getting [close to] 10 years old now…makes me feel very old now as you [mention] Will Storr vs. the Supernatural. That followed a sort-of experience I had. It was one of the first stories I ever did actually as a journalist. I kind of found this website for this guy called Lou Gentile, who called himself a demonologist. He was based in Philadelphia and he would go around [to] people who said they lived in haunted houses, sort of gathering evidence. Things like EVP, ghost lights, these kinds of things.

I kind of started this story thinking it was gonna be hilarious…But of course I went along and spent three days absolutely scared witless. I mean everything he said was going to happen, actually happened. And I remember sort of going back to my hotel at 4 in the morning, after the first night with him, and literally not wanting to turn the lights off because I was so terrified (laughing). So that obviously…it really shook me up. I’ve always been an atheist…I was brought up in a very strict catholic household…and I remember when I was…at catholic school, and I was seven or eight [years old] and being told the story of Jesus and thinking this is obviously nonsense. Thinking, you know, Mary’s pregnant, right? But she’s saying that she didn’t sleep with anyone? That was always sort of instinctively my thing. And this [experience] shook me up – really shook me up. And so Will Storr vs. the Supernatural is the story – I spent a year basically hanging out w/ people who believe in ghosts…

Will begins by making an explicit connection between irrationality and the concept of “sacred cows” — [6min.55sec – 12min.48sec]:

SacredCow

Will argues that cultural “sacred cows” are where irrationality is often found lurking.

Will Storr: One of the things I kind of feel about [other] people who do this kind of stuff is that I sometimes worry about their motives. I was genuinely interested in people who believe in ghosts. I was genuinely unsure whether ghosts existed, if the phenomena did exist, if it was real, [and] what was it? It was a sincere attempt at finding the truth…it started off as a cynical exercise in making fun of somebody, I mean that’s the sad truth, but it ended up being a much more serious kind of journey…light hearted in places – and even more so with The Unpersuadables. That kind of deepens the search. I mean I’m 10 years older so I’m taking these things a bit more seriously. That’s also about people who believe things that go kind of against the orthodoxy in some way. As you mentioned in the introduction, whether it be new-earth creationists or people who believe that schizophrenia is a made-up, not-real disease, and that people who hear voices are not actually sick, they just have a different way of experiencing the world. All kinds of groups that go against the orthodoxy in some way…

…I didn’t go to University, I’m really badly educated. But my dad went to Oxford, and growing up I saw him as this amazing, towering figure of intellect. Yet he believed in the Christmas Story, and Jesus, and he actually believes. He still does. He believes the Devil is a real thing prancing about the world, making people do evil things. I mean, he’s crazy [as far as I’m concerned]. Now it’s always a weird thing…my problem with a lot of the skeptical movement, which I kind of came across for the first time when I was researching my ghost book…is they have this kind of idea that people who believe in things that go against the orthodoxy are somehow stupid. You know, I’ve met an awful lot of these people, probably a lot more than most of the people who hang out in these skeptical circles. They’re not stupid…and to call them stupid is an intellectual dead-end for me. It’s boring. Yeah, OK, so they might be wrong about some things, but you know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid.

Alex Tsakiris: …I hear where you’re coming from, and I think that feeling of, or that willingness to be open and respectful is important. And to hear people’s stories — that’s something else I’ve heard you emphasize – is that we have to…separate out people’s own stories, because we all have our stories that keep us going, they keep us getting up in the morning and keep us from staying up all night. So, you have to respect that. But at the same time I also appreciate and relate to your sensibility of we do have to try and get to something close to the truth. I mean we do have to kind of sort this out in a way.

Will Storr: Absolutely, yeah…I’m simply saying that people believe what they believe not because they’re stupid, but because the human brain is a fallible and irrational thing that operates in this sort of story mode. We live our lives with a hero and a David & Goliath kind-of narrative generally speaking. I think…[that’s essentially] the theme of that book…and absolutely we have the scientific method. We have the scientific method which breaks down all those prejudices, and all those biases which kind of lead everybody, no matter who they are – you and me included – sometimes down wrong alleys. And wrong alleys can seem absolutely real; we are convinced we are right. We are convinced the other person is lying, or biased, or whatever. We’re wrong. We’re all guilty of that at some point.

Alex Tsakiris: So how do we sort it out? I mean, what did you come away with…in terms of how we get at the truth?

Will Storr: Well…boring as it sounds the scientific method is that thing that humanity has come across…and [admittedly] it’s not a complete, clean engine. It moves forward in this kind of bad-tempered mode of crotchety consensus. And sometimes it has to have reversals. It’s a difficult thing, but it works. In that great macro view it works. It works in terms of breaking down those prejudices, breaking down those biases, breaking people out of those wrong alleys. The scientific method works.

The other thing that I really took away is the simplest to understand. I’ve become extraordinarily concerned about people who have become overemotional about subjects. One of the interviews I did for the book which really affected me, and kind of changed the way I saw this, was this guy called Professor Jonathan Haidt…he’s a psychologist. He’s written a couple of books…and he’s interested in people’s moral views…He’s interested in political views – how we become left wing or right wing. And he said to me that [to find] irrationality, find things that people have made sacred. And the examples that he used were…so on the Left, he says “I’m a scientist, I believe in man-made climate change. I believe that it’s a real thing…but I do not trust the Left to tell me the truth about climate change,” because they’ve made it sacred. And on the Right, it’s the same with…the power of the free market. People on the Right proselytize the free market, the invisible hand that can only do good things. He doesn’t trust the Right to tell him the truth about the free market because they’ve made it sacred. When you make something sacred, you get really emotional about it. So that’s kind of a red flag to me. Again, you see that a lot…Richard Dawkins always comes up in these conversations…

Will & Alex then attempt to deconstruct the dominant paradigm of materialism & its role as a culturally sanctioned belief system — [14min.48sec – 20min.23sec]:

Dogma1

Do we only accept materialism because it has the superficial label of “socially-sanctioned”?

Alex Tsakiris: …Where’s the man-on-the-moon effort by [science-as-we-know-it] to follow up on your [paranormal] experience? Or we could even start out with: why were you conditioned to believe that [your experience] was going to be a farce…100 years ago all the best scientists had studied this extensively in the UK – that’s where they really started. They came to the conclusion there’s something here. We don’t know what it is, but there’s something there, and you experienced the same thing. But there’s no-man-on-the-moon effort to say, “OK, well this totally contradicts our paradigm, [and] has the potential to totally change our worldview, let’s investigate it.”

Will Storr: …Obviously I can’t answer that question, I’m not a scientist. I can’t speak for the scientific community. I know I’m preaching to somebody who knows far more about these subjects than I do. We live in a materialistic kind of world. And we live in a world in which the vast majority of the scientific community is thinking from that paradigm. You know a well as I do…there’s ideology in science. Absolutely there’s an ideology in science. One of the things people do get really emotional about is this materialistic mindset. In The Unpersuadables I spend some time talking about Rupert Sheldrake…and the experiences he’s had…and quite apart from who’s right and who’s wrong and the science behind that. You only need to look at the way he’s been treated and the things that he’s experienced to see…the people who rubbish him, and the people who seek to have his voice silenced. That’s no exaggeration. As you know, when he’s booked to appear at live events, people agitate and protest until he’s taken off the bill. I mean, it’s quite extraordinary. He’s just a man with some ideas (laughing). They’ve made it sacred. They’ve made materialism sacred, and that’s why I don’t trust them to tell me the truth about materialism.

But science is also about funding…there’s that…if you do find scientists who are sympathetic to these ideas, there’s a chance they’re unlikely to want to study this stuff because they’re afraid of being ridiculed. They’re afraid of their reputations being destroyed…people prioritize. I completely agree that [there are] major questions about reality, and I think a lot of those are being looked at, but are being looked at by cosmologists rather than parapsychologists. These are the people who really are being paid some money and who are celebrated for asking these big questions and coming up with some very weird ideas like the Multiverse and things like this…

Alex Tsakiris: …Let me redirect it a little bit Will because…take your book The Heretics, and one of the stories in there you talk to this really interesting guy…he’s a new-earth creationist, and you really try to connect with this guy. I mean that’s one of the great things about your story with him, is you’re not quick to ridicule and judge him. You’re kind of like, “C’mon man…you don’t really believe this stuff do you?” We all come away from that story reading it and going, “Wow, this guy is locked into this absurd worldview.”

But, when I step back…aren’t we all in these bracketed absurdities that we kind of live in? And we feel comfortable in. That’s what I guess I was relating to in your story with the demonologist…you [also] mentioned Dawkins. I think that’s a great example…the favorite guy for everyone to either laud or pick on depending on what side you’re on. Here’s a guy who’s told us we are biological robots living in a meaningless universe. This is an absurdity. To you it’s an absurdity. To me it’s an absurdity. To everyone…no one lives their life like that. No one really believes it. But because it comes from this kind of sanctioned position we kind of go, “Well, you know, let them go, don’t make too big a deal about it.”…it’s this bracketed bit of absurdity. So I think when we draw out somebody who’s really over-the-edge, this new-earth creationist, now that’s “absurd”. But all these other absurdities, we just kind of live with.

Later, Will expounds on the concept of dealing with our own personal absurdities, and how they stand in the way of progress — [22min.03sec – 25min.03sec]:

Humility

Perhaps humbleness & acknowledgement of uncertainty is the way forward toward true progress — instead of the futile quest for absolutes.

Alex Tsakiris: …Back to your excellent books. How do we sort through our own “stuff”? Our own assumed absurdities that then make us look out at the world and say, “Wow…how can they believe that,” whatever [it is] they believe.

Will Storr: Well I think the answer is in humility. As much as you believe everything you believe is true, [it’s important] to have that basic fundamental understanding that everybody else believes what they believe just as much as you. And they believe the evidence is in just as much as you. And they see their reality just as clearly and as truly as you see yours. To have that humility, to go, “OK,”, so here’s me sincerely believing all that stuff, and there’s that person over there, equally sincerely believing all their stuff”…I don’t know, when you’re at that point of proselytizing and kind of being evangelical about your beliefs, for me that’s he point…you just need to have a bit of humility and understand the brain is an organ of delusion. It is going to tell you you’re right. Everybody suffers from confirmation bias. Everybody’s going to look at good evidence that confirms their beliefs and finds some way, some wiggle room which enables them to [not] dismiss it.

That isn’t’ a sign of not being intelligent. There was a study I read about…that showed that the more intelligent you are the harder it is to challenge your own beliefs, because the better you are at finding reasons to dismiss the arguments of your opponents. So intelligence becomes a sort of trap (laughing). It leads you further into this irrationality. I suppose to me the starting point now is this basic fundamental humility. Even in my writing now. It’s terrible for my career, because the writers who are famous are the ones who are standing up there thumping their tubs, shouting…insulting people…causing a lot of fuss, and I just can’t do that – because what if I’m wrong? I have to give both sides a fair crack of the whip, because what if I’m wrong? I think that’s the correct [way]…once you know this stuff about how the brain works, and how possible it is to be completely wrong and utterly convinced you’re right, with all the best evidence on your side, you can’t ever go back to that place of thinking in a good vs. bad paradigm that so many people [indulge in]…including a lot of the atheist skeptics, [that’s what] they exist in.

We’ve not mentioned James Randi yet. James Randi is the original Richard Dawkins in a way – obviously without the academic background. But [he’s] the original Mr. Angry. You know when you poke the James Randi cult it all falls to bits rather quickly.

Will & Alex attempt to answer the thorny question of what is “truth” and how we’re supposed to “arrive” at some sort of meaningful consensus — [32min.06sec – 36min.29sec]:

Truth

What is truth exactly, and how do we get there?

Will Storr: …[discovery of truth] works slowly on the individual level. People disagree and there are arguments and there is controversy. But the good thing is [on the macro level] the truth leaks out, the right way leaks out. That’s how we move forward.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s a huge leap of faith there Will…it just is…there’s a number of people who I’ve interviewed, really some of the top consciousness researchers in the world, and there’s a completely different theory about consciousness – since we really don’t’ know how consciousness is created. Whether [that is] it’s created in the brain or whether…the brain is like a receiver/transceiver that somehow is tuning into consciousness. But the best evidence we have is some of the evidence you stumbled across in your demonology experiment. But when you [explore this kind of phenomena in] a lab or clinic, you look at NDE, or terminal lucidity, all these things have been done in hospitals…[the experts] say “Hey, clearly our relationship between brain and consciousness isn’t what we think it is.” It isn’t this 1:1 [correspondence] thing…there’s a bunch of good research done in UK on psychedelics…psilocybin…we give someone…a heroic dose of psilocybin, to use a Terence McKenna’s term, and their brain is supposed to be firing off like crazy because they’re having this incredibly hyper-lucid experience. And we find the opposite. We find that the brain is shutting down at different parts, as if it’s tuning into some consciousness from the outside. I don’t need to sell you that whole thing; I just need to come back…

Will Storr: That’s interesting…

Alex Tsakiris: …and point out what would that paradigm shift mean to that whole debate that you’re just reporting on? It would just throw it in the dustbin of history, and the history of science…it isn’t about the brain, it’s about this other aspect of…you mentioned Sheldrake…akin to some field out there, field-event, whatever the answer would be. What’s the old analogy? You’re climbing the ladder of knowledge but you’re leaned up against the wrong wall so it’s never going to work. I think we have to consider that we’re not going to get there from here with the methods and tools that we have in place. What are your thoughts on that?

Will Storr: …Consciousness…that kind of level of neuroscience is extremely complex. And when you drill down and review the arguments between the people who believe in the non-local ideas vs. materialistic ideas, it quickly becomes far too complex for the layman to understand…in my experience…you get the sense that people are arguing about very advanced statistical methods that actually they have no idea about. What they’re doing is picking sides and picking an expert…we pick the professor who argues for our case. But my other thought about that goes back to a chapter I actually did on History. It was about Holocaust deniers…the main peg of the evidence for this [allegedly]…is there isn’t a document, there isn’t a magic-bullet document where he signs saying “Yes, I agree with the Holocaust. I order the Holocaust.”…[but the truth is] as Historians we don’t look for the magic-bullet. We look for a convergence or a nexus of evidence…I love that…because it speaks to me on the brain wars debate as well. I think there can be a million Rupert Sheldrakes, but they’re so emotional in that sphere of [science-as-we-know-it] that they’re not going to [let it] get anywhere. [People like Sheldrake are] always going to be ignored no matter how sound their evidence seems…

Near the tail-end of the conversation, Will explains some of the ways his investigations have spurred on personal transformation — [37min.13sec – 42min.18sec]:

Transform

Will claims his direct contacts with paranormal experiencers have made him more empathetic and less angry at the world/others.

Alex Tsakiris: …How has your work changed you? I mean, changed you in some of these fundamental beliefs? Maybe fundamental is too strong of a word, but…I’ve done 250 shows, and now wrote this little book, [and] I can think of a dozen ways that I was just “Wow, I used to think that. Now I think this.”  What has been the process like for you, because you’ve been right in there on the frontline with this stuff, and I know you take it in personally. What are some ways that you’ve changed?

Will Storr: When I was in my teenage years I was a classic angry skeptical kind of guy. [I was] angry at my parents for being catholic. I was angry at Christians in general for being so stupid and for causing all of the wars. And it’s actually been a journey of…I’ve gained humility. What happens when you go and meet these people with an open-mind, is that before you’ve met them you think they’re idiots or hateful or they’re whatever…and then you meet them, and after you meet them sincerely and show a genuine interest in their story, trying to find out why they believe what they believe, even if you don’t end up agreeing with them, you can understand why/how they’ve ended up where they are. You can understand the story of their lives; the story of how they’ve’ got there. And you leave much more empathetic.

That is kind of a nicer place, because you leave less angry. I suppose the main thing is it’s made me less angry at other people. It wasn’t until I got to the end…that it occurred to me how weird it is when someone disagrees with you [or] someone has an opinion that is not the same as yours – you react with anger. You react like you can’t rest until you’ve kind of bashed them down. You’ve changed the shape of their brain so it mimics yours. I mean, what is that? It’s weird, but we’re all like [that]. We all have those buttons pushed. It’s a very human insecurity that we have to have everyone surrounding us agreeing with us at all times, otherwise we feel unnerved, very anxious. I’m less like that now. I’m not cured, I’ll never be cured (laughing), I’m still a human, but I’m less liable to respond with anger if somebody doesn’t agree with me…I get it now, and I get it because I’m just thinking I’m probably just as deluded as [they] are…

…If you really think about it, there’s something very aggressive about it. It’s almost like an act of violence. Someone comes to you with a different worldview, and you want to reach into their brain and rearrange their walls. It’s a really odd thing, and you notice [it pronounced in] certain personality types…I’ve spent time with James Randi, I’ve spent time with David Irving [the revisionist historian]…what made me chuckle was David Irving once had a 500-pound challenge to anybody that could prove that Hitler ordered the Holocaust…[or maybe it was] 5,000…these angry men who’ve gathered bands of hugely loyal people around them, and just have that charisma. There was something about the personalities of these people that they were obsessed with this mission. They were completely lost in this idea that they were right and everybody else was wrong. They had/have no ability to accept any kind of criticism or accept for a moment that they are wrong. We’re all like this to a certain extent. But there is a certain personality type which is really like this. These [particular] people are the ones who become famous…they have this cult of personality gather around them.

Photo by Susan Melkisethian

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