The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

By Henige, David | Journal of Information Ethics, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science


Henige, David, Journal of Information Ethics


The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science Will Storr. New York: Overlook Press, 2014. 355pp. $27.95

The Unpersuadables is a Plimptonesque tour d'horizon of contemporary gullibility and those who take advantage of it, as well as glimpses of a series of strange people who advocate unpopular causes. As befits the work of a journalist, Unpersuadables is breezy and easy to read, and consists of about a dozen accounts of the author's meetings with a wide range of individuals who believe, or profess to believe, strange things either unevidenced or repudiated by the available evidence. The usual suspects are included: biblical literalists, homeopathists, UFOlogists, faith healers, contemporary TV gurus, and the like.

Three studies interested me most. Storr devotes a chapter to the infamous but spurious satanic ritual abuse allegations of the i980s and i990s, one of the, if not the, most shameful episodes in the annals of psychiatry/psychoanalysis. He takes it for granted that a primarily British audience will know the details, but the cases relate to an epidemic of "recovered memories" of childhood sexual abuse putatively involving family and other care-givers. The alleged offenses took place in both the UK (treated by Storr) and the U.S. (alluded to en passant), and in both cases numerous individuals-oftentimes daycare providers or close relatives-were convicted and spent years in prison. When Storr interviewed one of the primary British exponents, she appeared entirely unrepentant.

A bemusing chapter is devoted to the histrionics of David Irving, the notorious Hitler admirer and Holocaust denier. Taking part in a multiday concentration camp tour in Poland, Storrs interviewed Irving and interacted with several of his fellow travelers. Although the author of several well-researched works on aspects of World War II, Irving comes across as exceedingly loopy and inarticulate. Storr thinks that Irving "is genuinely and sincerely convinced of Hitler's innocence" of the charge of directly ordering the extermination of the Jews. It is hard to disagree with this, given that Irving has fought-and lostseveral court cases that have awarded substantial sums to his opponents, and yet he keeps at it.

Perhaps the most engaging (or enraging) chapter concerns one Viscount Monckton, a paradigmatic modern-day Colonel Blimp-like throwback and most recently global-warning denier. Monckton comes across as easily the most odious character in this work. In addition to denying climate change, whether or not humanly generated, in all else, he adopts a white man's burden attitude to "ex-colonials." Monckton exhibits paradigmatic fascist attitudes, and generally makes it clear that he would reintroduce the world of the i930s if ever given the chance. And all this is asserted with well-modulated British hauteur. Monckton's expressed views are so extreme and so matter-of-factly delivered that readers must consider the possibility that it is all a massive send-up. Unfortunately, that probably is not the case.

James Randi makes an unexpected visit in the final chapter. …

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