I’ve just finished Will Storr’s The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. Mainly because the medication and the agony of my swollen face with sinusitis won’t let me sleep, but that’s a digression.
I think the book is an exploration of how humans come by opinions and beliefs using contrasted interviews of climate denialists and scientists, creationists and evolutionary biologists, Storr and his own father. Storr presents his flaws and at times I found him unlike-able, while his book explains both his behaviour and why I felt that. I became suspicious of his motives. Was he being honest, or trying to get me to go along with his premises? By the end, because of his conclusions and through my own efforts at self appraisal, and due to of my own biases, his book was reconciled to me. His enemies of science are not just touters of homoeopathy or faith healers, but also those sceptics who are as dogmatically tied to their stances as those they debunk. He explains it is because of our individual histories, neurology and youthful emotional triggers by which we convince ourselves we are the heroes of our own stories and therefore can’t be wrong.
Thus, he explores placebo effects, miracle cures, recovered memories and how those diagnosed with schizophrenia can be helped by non-psychiatric methods. I could do with a placebo effect or miracle cure right now (#justsaying), you know, in addition to the three types of medication I’m on.
Anyway, I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of this book, except I know because of my own history and biases that I often feel I fall between systems. On many issues, I am neither adhered believer or avowed sceptic. Things others may not accept – I may – provisionally. Not because of evidence, but because I think they make the story of the world – our own stories, richer. This is my own bias towards Storr’s conclusions about the importance of stories, and how the mind constructs narratives to survive trauma and heal. As a story-teller, his conclusions support my own valuation of stories. I didn’t know the direction of his argument until he got there, but because of him, I understand more about why he became pretty convincing to me.
Before I read this book, I was going to write about my stance on balance. Writers need balance. Writers require a healthy dose of self belief to keep writing amid rejections, being ignored and being criticised. But writers also need to be willing to accept criticism, and to see the flaws in their works, to learn and grow. They need to balance esteem and clear sightedness about themselves and their work.
After reading Storr’s book, I realise this balancing act can be as difficult as seeing your own flaws. It’s tricky. It’s tempting to fall into your own hero myth and be grandiose about failure as a sign of unrecognised genius, or dismiss the success of others as accidental, just as it is easy to quietly accept the stories are rubbish and chuck them aside. No belief is the truth.
Now, I can see how balance can also be construed as fence-sitting, and equivocation. In short, it is a weakness to those whose sides are always clear.
I can only say, where some see lies, and others see literal truth, I can see poetic truths. If I am someone who wants to believe, but can’t let go of doubt, then poetic truth is the edifice I cling to. I’m neither Mulder or Scully but appreciate each. Even if it’s just another way my brain/mind works to assert the correctness of my ego. I know though, if pushed, I would harden my stance, as most people do and as Storr described. I would cling to the fence like a clam. And I would do so in full awareness it’s futile trying to convince others who are always on one side or the other.
But just consider, in terms of writing, an ability to see different sides, or accept competing world views could be seen as useful in lending complexity to created worlds and characters.
I like to think I’m flexible in my thinking, but it’s how I like to think. On some matters, such as Holocaust denial, there can be no flexibility. It happened and those who deny it are wrong and dealing in dangerous delusions. Similarly, science supports climate change and it shouldn’t be about ‘belief’. No one says they believe in gravity, it’s accepted.
But then, Douglas Adams described Ford Prefect wondering why we can’t see the garden is beautiful without inventing fairies at the bottom of it. I suspect Adams knew why, and the answer was his stories. His love of fact and science and technology didn’t stop him inventing. So, sure, gardens are beautiful, but with the addition of fairies, there is a fence to climb up and perch upon to write a story. I don’t deny horticulture can’t be fascinating, but to my mind, fairies are a portal to a kind of poetic depth that I will always head towards to lend my imaginary garden a grander mystique. I see no problem being a fabulist and a science fan.
You can argue with me, but as Storr demonstrates in his book, it won’t do you any good. Plus, one ear is blocked and I’ll not hear you.