We join British journalist and photographer Will Storr for the first time in the hot Australian town of Devil, where the community hall is dense with believers. They are packed in to hear the famous John Mackay, devout creationist and religious leader, give his famous talk debunking evolution. We witness a convincing scene of a prophesying leader, slamming his hands on the podium, attempting to present counter-arguments for a scientific theory widely accepted by society, but there is something off-putting in the way Storr describes the scene — with “sweating air” and sentences that “unfurl slowly” out of Mackay’s mouth. This prose feels coded, like I can already sense Storr “otherizing” the subjects of his reportage.

Just a few pages later, he describes his fascination with people whose beliefs about the world he finds strange: “I have explored the company of Furries, cryonicists, cult members, swingers, mediums, bodybuilders, vampire-detectives… I like to write about these people — it is like being a tourist in another universe… I feel a kinship with them. I am drawn to the wrong.”

While we see Storr is drawn to the weirdness of subculture, he still labels these people as “wrong,” even after spending so much time researching and interviewing. Storr’s last work of nonfiction, Will Storr vs. The Supernatural, was about ghost hunters. He establishes a sense of familiarity with them, but by drawing a distinction between “them” and “him,” he rescinds that kinship almost immediately. It’s this sense of smug superiority that lingers through the book’s journalistic style, creating a distracting inauthenticity and a rather unpleasant reading experience.

Will Storr, The Unpersuadables

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science
Will Storr
Penguin (2014)

Storr does attempt to make sense of his persistent need to be right throughout the book. He questions his own opinions by evaluating his constant hunt for the truth and notes how disorienting and frightening it is when we are wrong. He asks us questions: how can all our beliefs be right if there are so many other opinions to counter them? And if we truly believe all our ideals are correct, doesn’t that leave us possessing the same moral righteousness and conviction of John Mackay, the creationist who believes lesbian nuns are doomed to hell?

There are times when Storr questions the very foundation of belief: “Belief is the heart of who we are and how we live our lives. And yet it is not what we think it is: not a product of intelligence or education or logic.” This reductionist thinking seemed awfully presumptuous in the first 50 pages of the book, and was, once again, representative of the author’s established boundaries for what is “acceptable,” “logical” and “within reason.” These moments did sometimes ask me to evaluate my own belief system — if I’m convinced my opinions are right, does that mean I think all others are wrong? And what if my beliefs actually are informed by these boundaries he has set upon them? But, unfortunately, these instances of self-evaluation are often lost within Storr’s vignettes of the “enemies of science.”

The Heretics, Will Storr

The British release of The Unpersuadables, under alternate title and cover.

Storr doesn’t limit his examinations of these “enemies” to Western religious sects. He explores everything from alien abduction survivors to hypnotists who believe in past lives to holistic healers. Storr makes a strong case against holistic healing when he travels to London for the yoga event of the year. He introduces us to Swami Ramdev, a vocal activist against the caste system in India and yoga master who will run the workshop. Ramdev claims his regime of scientific breathing cures afflictions like depression, obesity, baldness, asthma, diabetes and cancer. Storr notes that a 63-year-old woman named Harita is in the crowd, who has had cancer in her bowels, bladder and spine. She is forgoing radiation therapy for a month to see Ramdev with the hope that it will cure her cancer.

Ramdev spends hours speaking with pranayama yogis who pay extra money to see him. When Storr notices that those with more expensive passes to the yoga workshop get to spend more time with the guru, he points out the injustice to a woman sitting near him, noting the hypocrisy between Ramdev’s political activism and his financial gain from the workshops. She says she understands why he does it: medical science won’t accept Ramdev’s theories unless clinical trials are carried out, and this is how he pays for them.

Storr notes that Ramdev’s empire took a hit over claims that pranayama could cure AIDS — a statement that, after some research, Storr discovers Ramdev denied ever making. After waiting for hours, Storr is finally allowed to conduct an interview, but after asking about the AIDS controversy, Ramdev becomes irate, denying ever making the claim, but supporting the assertion that his breathing techniques cure cancer. Storr is removed from the premises for “asking questions he shouldn’t be asking.” This is an instance where Storr presents a convincing argument against the manipulation that often occurs in the holistic community and its often-deadly results.

Still, his persistent need to be right breaks through the narrative even during his personal anecdotes. At times, Storr is effective in convincing us that he is aware of his bias, but his hammering away at his preconceptions seems like a failed attempt to distract us from the instances where he lacks self-awareness. For instance, Storr takes a 10-day meditation workshop in Blackheath, Australia. He is prohibited from leaving the compound, stealing, sexual activity, telling lies, killing any living creature and from taking intoxicants.

Storr breaks at least three of these rules (he ventures to a nearby town to eat pizza, kills a fly and lies to the workshop leader), even though the agonizing effects of daily, 12-hour meditation start to influence him psychologically and physically. He concludes the chapter by reflecting on power structures through Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment, where Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building. Half the students were assigned as guards and half as prisoners, and the experiment had to be shut down after only six days due to the psychological torment the guards had inflicted on the prisoners.

Storr concludes the chapter with this example and a discussion of the placebo effect to explain his experiences with spirituality during meditation, ignoring any studies that might support the benefits of meditation. Instead of entertaining the possibility that this form of meditation might have a scientific explanation not widely accepted in Western medicine, Storr retreats away from any argument that might challenge his point.

This was my continual issue with this book — the other side never had a fighting chance, even from the first page. Storr fails to be fearless in his engagement with the “enemies of science,” unlike other notable figures in the scientific community, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking, who are willing to have a rounded, hearty debate about the facts. His vignettes never allow the “otherized” to have a proper voice. And, while I’m inclined to agree with Storr’s overarching point that we ignore science, often at our own peril, his distracting reductionist tendencies permeate the book, refuting much of the evidence he presents by revealing his massive bias.

In the final chapter, he reduces the concept of a belief system down to just “stories” that do nothing but distract us from the truth. Storr realizes he is also crafting a narrative, cherry-picked and sampled from a long period of research, but the emphasis that his book is not the whole truth, rings hollow as yet another instance of unconvincing self-awareness. At this point, I no longer felt like I was engaging with the text. I felt like I was being lectured to about my inability to reason with myself, because I believe stories can be the most truthful things we have — that they reveal a part of the truth that otherwise can’t be talked about. That’s why we create fables and fairytales that teach our children lessons. That’s why the novel is such a widely appreciated art form. That’s why some of the best, most world-changing books simultaneously fictionalize and reveal the brutal truths of our world and change social policy.

It was this dismissiveness that I wanted to turn away from because it seemed to forget about huge chunk of our humanity — that we are narrative, creative creatures for a reason. Not just because narrative distracts us, lies to us, tricks us into believing in something that isn’t real, but because narrative helps us set our realities into perspectives we can comprehend. Storr fails to see the truths that his subjects hold to be self-evident within these stories. He refuses to look at the empty spaces in our culture, between reason and science, that religion and yoga and storytelling fill, and why those empty spaces exist in the first place. He fails to consider that, perhaps, science can’t be the explanation for all things, because human creation proves that culture is an amoebic, ever-changing entity that evolves just like people. So, maybe folklore and spirituality, and, hell, even alien abduction narratives exist to explore human truths that we can’t yet grasp. Maybe we should open ourselves up just a little bit and be persuaded.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • malorie_brooke

    Interesting experience! While I landed in the “this guy is condescending and biased” camp about 25% of the way through this book, the latter 75% of the book changed my mind (at least in the fact that I no longer disliked it). Science has shown that we are unreliable when it comes to a strict definition of truth, and I think that Storr’s assessment of stories illustrated just how important narrative is in how we create our own truths. Everyone is virtually inescapably biased, and that to believe that we aren’t is actually evidence of this bias. What I took from his conclusion is that stories and narrative are actually the only things that CAN help us to escape from this bias and grow. Aside from the Morgellon’s, schizophrenia, and David Irving stories being vastly fascinating, it was this conclusion that left me feeling overwhelmingly positive in the face of what I recognize as my own unreliability.