The first thing that strikes me about this book is that Will Storr and Picador must have some pretty expensive lawyers; the second is that I would have loved to have seen the unexpurgated version. The reason for this is that Storr takes on a whole range of scientific and other heretics, and some of their critics. Several of these are known to be notoriously litigious, and there are some pretty minefield topics here.
Storr’s selection of heretics ranges from a homophobic creationist, to a well-known holocaust denier, to the battles in psychiatry between supporters and opponents of the 'hearing voices' network, through homeopathy to a UKIP climate change denier and conspiracy theorist, to recovered memory enthusiasts who unearth past lives, alien abductions and satanic abuse, through to the battles between Rupert Sheldrake on the one hand and Richard Wiseman and James 'The Amazing' on the other. Storr's search for the truth in the numerous accusations and counter accusations in these matters is always eye opening, and there is much here which should interest Magonia readers.
Storr does not however present these people, as Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson are apt to do, as grotesques to be laughed at, but rather uses some extreme examples to explore the very nature of belief, of how the brain constructs reality and provides overarching narratives, of how society and its various cultures and subcultures reinforce beliefs. Storr presents these stories against his own self-admitted periods of at least near madness, exploring the nature of obsession and irrationality. He explores how belief can make us impervious to contradictory evidence, even in front of the eyes.
The pervasive nature of group think is illustrated by how a sick hoaxer managed to persuade staff at a Macdonald’s restaurant to humiliate and even sexually abuse a staff member by pretending to be a police officer acting with the support of corporate headquarters. Storr evades perhaps the central lesson of this story, the dictatorial power of the boss-class in large corporations, and that there are far more concrete threats to our freedom than the 'new world order'.
This book shows how close madness and sanity are to one another, and how close are farce and tragedy. It also leads me to a heretical thought of my own. The people who hear voices in their heads, those whom society would label as 'mad', seem in many ways to be saner, to have more insight, than several of the 'heretics' reported on here, which perhaps hints that it is possible to be madder than mad. If madness is chaos and disorder, then on its other side there is a mirror order, which allows its possessors to function in society - sanity, but not as we know it.
Recommended. -- Peter Rogerson