Questions & Answers
You trace our current self-obsession back to, among other things, the doctrine of individualism that has become particularly influential in the West. Do you think that individualism, though it has given us economic freedoms and human rights, has had a broadly negative effect on society?
Individualism is a kind of system of thinking – a way of seeing the world. As Westerners with an Ancient Greek cultural inheritance we tend to see reality as being made up of individual pieces and parts, compared to other cultures, such as that of East Asia that are far more aware of context, nuance and the connectedness of things. This basic, fundamental difference leads to an incalculable number of real world differences – from the street scene in an Asian city which can seem chaotic to the average Westerner, to what our positions tend to be on, for example, moral blame – individualists tend to blame the individual for what they do wrong, whereas someone from East Asia will be far more aware of the situational forces that cause anyone to act in a certain way. So I think it’s not really possible to say that one is simply better than the other (although I love the fact this question – ‘is this system right or wrong?’ – is so very individualistic!) Individualism isn’t a ‘thing’, it’s a system, and so has both good and bad outcomes. It certainly has great positives. Our idea of the all-powerful, perfectable individual is quite intoxicating and I’m sure pushes people to take greater risks and try harder to achieve amazing things. But the downside is that, when we fail, we tend to blame ourselves for that failure – and this leads to a lot of misery.
You describe movingly the detrimental mental effects, on an epic scale, that the goal of self-perfection is having on young people at the moment. Did you light upon any potential solutions to this problem while researching the book?
For me the solution can only be that we, as a people, learn to have a more accurate understanding of what a human actually is. Our hyper-individualistic culture has an incredibly toxic lie at the heart of it – that we can be whoever we want to be, and achieve whatever we want to achieve, if we just dream big enough and try hard enough. This is not true. We are not ‘as gods’, as the humanistic psychologists and the early Silicon Valley technologists liked to say. We are biological machines, with all the limitations that implies. We’re limited, and there’s nothing we can do about that.
The journey you embark upon in the book turns into quite a personal one. Did you learn anything about yourself? Did it make you want to ‘improve’ anything, or just the opposite?
It did have an effect on me – finding out about the role of genes and how we pretty much become who we are as a combination of our genetic inheritance and childhood experiences over which we have no control has meant that I don't give myself such a hard time in my own head any more when I fail. A writer’s life is 90% failure, so that’s been incredibly valuable!
You talk a lot in the book about the effects of social media and how the internet functions as an amplifier of perfectionism and narcissism. What did you find were the most worrying aspects of this and do you think it is possible to control the digital space in a way that would mitigate these effects?
I think social media is here to stay, but I do hope that we’re entering a period in which we stop valourising the technologists and bowing to their every wilful, entitled demand. They need regulating because they have proved with their actions that they have an almost sociopathic libertarian worldview. They just don’t understand why they should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their products. This is where state, with its responsibility for the collective good, needs to step in.
How long did it take you to research the book, and did you notice any changes in politics or society during that time?
The book took me three years and, yes, when it was conceived was going to focus on selfies and selfie culture. As I was writing it, we began seeing these odd and intolerant happenings on campuses in the US and the UK – sushi vendors being accused of cultural appropriation and Nietzsche societies being banned - that became part of the story. Also, of course, there was Brexit and Trump, which I really see as a twist in the story of neoliberalism – this was the first time we saw mass revolts against some of the effects of globalisation, which is a neoliberal project.
Did you come to believe that the notion of self-improvement is wrong-headed in itself, or do you think there are situations where it can still be a good thing? I’m thinking of criminal rehabilitation or if a person wants to lose weight for their health perhaps.
Of course, you could never say self-improvement was wrong in itself. It’s great that people strive to overcome what they perceive as their weaknesses. I do think we have a naïve view of what’s actually possible though.
In this book, as in your previous work, ‘The Heretics’, you unearth some fascinating characters. Have they read the book and, if so, what has their reaction been?
Nobody in the book has read it yet! It’s pretty nerve wracking, actually.
It seems almost impossible to avoid mentioning Donald Trump. Was there anything you discovered in your research about how we’ve evolved into our current state that might help to explain his rise?
When Trump was elected I had to pull the manuscript back from Picador to add a whole new section and what I found fascinated me. On the left we tend to sneer at this idea of a ‘mythical golden age’ that Trump referred to when he promised to ‘make America great again’. But there was a kind of golden age for America – the era that’s known by some economists as ‘the great compression’, in which there was far less inequality than there is today. The changes that we’ve seen since the 1980s have negatively impacted the white working class enormously. A lot of the people that swung to Trump were right in their suspicion that something had gone badly wrong for them since the 1970s, and life had been much better for their parents and grandparents. But we see some of the uglier ramifications of this when we look at some basics of how the brain forms the self. Brains tell make-sense stories about the world using observations of cause and effect – which are often wrong. It seems to me that many Trump voters make fundamental mistakes about cause and effect. For instance, they see their reduced quality of life, and they see that there are more immigrants around since the problems began and make a simple error – the one must have caused the other. So they vote for a leader who promises to tackle the ‘problem’ and build a wall at the Mexican border. When America was in its period of ‘great compression’, which is where they want to get back to, it was indeed a simpler pre-globalisation era. But it was also much more socialist. Taxes were higher, more people were members of unions, those unions were more powerful, there was more regulation on business and banking, and so on. This is why the arguments we see about ‘are Trump voters reacting from financial anxiety or racism?’ are slightly simplistic – I think it’s very hard to separate them out. They’re anxious and angry about their declining quality of life, as they have every right to be. But in all too many cases that anxiety leads to a misguided and sadly racist story about causes.
Interview with Will Storr about The Heretics
In your journalism, you've tackled a wide range of topics, from sexual violence against men to the kangaroo meat trade. Were there any investigations which prompted to you to come up with the idea of writing The Heretics?
The great privilege of my work is that I get to ask interesting people anything I want. And more than a decade of doing this has very much taught me that the truth is messy and lies in nuance and grey. I'm very rarely not surprised by the stories I do. My interest in irrational and unusual beliefs certainly taught me that a common assumption - that people who believe in unlikely things do so because they're stupid - is not true. That crystallised when I was reporting from the north of Australia with a creationist called John Mackay who believed some outrageous and unbelievable things and yet was clearly intelligent. That inspired the mission of The Heretics: to discover how it is that otherwise clever people come to believe what they do, often in spite of overwhelming evidence.
Do you feel that any of the beliefs you encountered are dangerous and ought to be subject to more legal restriction?
Not particularly 'more' legal restriction. It's clearly actively dangerous for people to promote alternative medicine as a cure for cancer, for example, but that's already illegal. I do think that, very often these days, irrational belief can be demonised. My view is that if people gain esteem by thinking that they were John Lennon in a past life, then they should be permitted to do just that. More than that, I love the fact that we live amongst people who sincerely believe they co-wrote Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Eccentricity enriches the world.
You seem to come out of the book more open-minded about some of the areas you cover. Which heretic did you feel you most wanted to give a voice to?
I'm not sure if more 'open minded' is exactly right - I'm no more convinced of the truth of past life regression, for example. More 'accepting' would be more accurate. I think that people should be permitted to find comfort and esteem in belief in God and past lives. I think that fantasies of visiting UFOs might fill people's humdrum Wednesdays with a sense of awe and hope.
With the obvious exception of people such as David Irving, I think I was glad to give a voice to the heretics in general, for exactly these reasons. They may be wrong about what they believe, but they often gain a lot by believing in them. And, you know, life can be a complete cunt. We're all just trying our best to push through it with as little misery as possible. If dreams of heaven work for you, then why not dream of heaven?
You seem to suggest that those who campaign against alternative treatments such as homoeopathy are fatally undermined by their inability to cite scientific studies. Are their views not validated by the fact that their views are guided by peer-reviewed scientific studies whose conclusions have objective standards of proof?
No, absolutely not 'fatally undermined'. The danger of this book, which is already apparent in the reactions of a good proportion of readers, is that they will expect a straightforward debunking narrative, of the kind that Richard Wiseman or Michael Shermer do so well, and be frustrated when they don't get it.
The Heretics is not that book. It's about why people believe what they believe. Why does Rupert Sheldrake believe in dog ESP? Why does Richard Wiseman believe Sheldrake to be wrong? Why do people believe in homeopathy? Why do people not believe in it? My mission is not to reveal the truth about dog ESP or alternative medicine. It's to find out why people in them and don't believe in them. It's a subtle difference, perhaps, but crucial - and the answers are often not what you might assume. The answer is often not 'data'.
The passage you refer to involves my asking a series of attendees at a 'Skeptic' conference, which was culminating in a protest against homeopathy, if they'd read any studies that tested homeopathy. How had they become so incensed by the idea of homeopathy that they wanted to strike out against it in this way? Did they arrive at their conclusions through a deep and even handed examination of the scientific data? None of those I spoke with had. But that's not to dismiss their conclusions at all. I think they're absolutely right about the efficacy of homeopathy.
But, in that chapter, some important nuance comes into play. I'm also looking at my own beliefs, and how they're affecting my reporting. Why do I feel hostile to these Skeptics? Why did I prefer the company of the homeopath I'd met who believed that sugar pills cured her cancer? I'm biased too, and my biases have little or nothing to do with data or scientific studies. My walking around demanding to know if people had read studies was rather passive aggressive and arguably unfair, and that's one of the reasons I included it in the book. The Heretics is as much an account of my potentially faulty reasoning as it is of anyone else's. But what I don't believe is that the Skeptics that I met are any more rational than me. They don't have some special claim to be 'free thinkers', or some sort of magic inoculation against dogma and ideology. They read books that reinforce their prior beliefs, and believe what's in them. That's not to say the books are wrong, just that they're behaving much like everyone else.
The first heretical belief you cover is Creationism, but your book then moves away from the subject of religion. Was this because you feel religious beliefs should be judged by different criteria?
No, quite the opposite. I don't think it particularly deserves any more space than any other irrational belief. I have one caveat, though, and that's that if I had had the space, I would've looked at the sudden conversion experience. I find that fascinating - how, in a moment, someone's whole life-view and even personality seems to change. But, you know, I also wanted to cover the anti-vaccine movement and people who believe yoghurt can cure Aids. Where do you stop?
Climate change sceptic Lord Monckton seems to be the most articulate and broadly knowledgeable of the people you interview. Is his certainty about a leftist UN-led conspiracy for totalitarian world government not just as much of a conspiracy theory itself?
Absolutely. My intention with Lord Monckton was not to have a big argument about the science of climate change. By that stage in the book, we've burrowed much deeper. I wanted to look at the 'whole man', to look out at the world through his eyes, and see how the entire narrative of his life underpins his beliefs about climate change. The conspiracy theory about the UN is a crucial component of that narrative.
The one individual whose ideas you never suggest might be worth exploring further is Holocaust denier David Irving. Do you feel his case is different, given that the matter revolves around historical facts rather than scientific research?
The first reason it's different is that so much exploration has already been done. As well as all the books, there's been an entire court case that specifically looked at Irving's treatment of evidence. If I'd devoted an entire year to that chapter alone, I doubt I'd be able to add anything new to that side of things. And, as I mentioned before, that's not really the purpose of this book.
What I do hope to have achieved is to have shed some light on how Irving's personality has influenced his dangerously heretical beliefs. His love of 'stamping in puddles', as he puts it, and his emotional devotion to the British Empire, whose loss he blames on our decision to fight Hitler.
Do you feel that many heretical beliefs are held because they offer simpler explanations than the neurological complexity of how the mind perceives, recalls and fills in the gaps where reason fall short?
Absolutely. What heretical beliefs so often have in common is that they are compelling stories, that happen to coincide with what people already believe about the world.
Online comments about your first book, Will Storr versus the Supernatural, seem to disagree about whether you ended up a sceptic or a believer about ghosts and similar phenomena. Do you think readers will reach similarly diametric conclusions about this book, perhaps based on their own initial beliefs?
This is a brilliant observation - and it was absolutely true. A close friend, who is a huge fan of Richard Dawkins, read it and said that he loved how thoroughly I debunked all these crazy fools. Whereas one of the first reviews I received online said the book was fatally flawed by my gullibility, which was so acute that I was even sucked in by the TV show Most Haunted. Neither of these views were correct. It wasn't a completely straightforward debunking account, and I certainly wasn't persuaded by Most Haunted. On the contrary, the entire chapter is based on my discovery of the 'psychic' Derek Acorah's running sheet, that had all his "happenings" scheduled in advance to the minute. Writing that book really demonstrated the tendency people have to experience something that isn't on the page.
The Heretics is a deeper exploration, and there are many more controversial subjects covered. There's something in there to annoy pretty much everyone, so I'm expecting quite a bit of criticism. I think, because I'm going against the popular grain, slightly, and negotiating a middle course between believers and sceptics, people will become angry and so read the book with a kind of vindictive mind-set, interpreting what I've written in the worst possible way. That happens all the time, of course - we see it every day on Twitter, for example - but I'm bracing myself for a bit of a bouncy ride.
You also have your first novel, The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone, published on 7th March. Did you work on the two simultaneously? And how would you go about persuading people to try your fiction?
Most of the work on the novel was finished by the time the real work on The Heretics had begun. But that work hugely influenced The Heretics, as it was my focus on storytelling - the addictive rhythms and archetypes of fictional narrative - that lead me to realise that I was seeing the same rhythms and archetypes in the life accounts of the heretics I was meeting. And that, in turn, lead to the conclusion of book, which is that people's experiences of their lives have many similarities to fiction: we're heroes in a dramatic plot in which we're battling to make better futures. It's adherence to that 'plot' that can so often lead to irrational beliefs.
My novel, though, is very much a reaction against my journalism. Because my professional life is immersed in revealing truths about society - the 'state of the world' - I don't want to get more of that when I pick up a work of literature. As brilliant as authors such as Jonathan Franzen or Ian McEwan undoubtedly are, what I seek in a novel is that kind magical, effortless escapism that I used to get as a child when I was utterly immersed in a book. My intention with The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone was to write a story for adults, that had psychological depth and interesting things to say, but also retained that sense of complete dramatic immersion.
It's set in the 1980s restaurant scene, and the central character is a young apprentice cook who is bullied mercilessly by the famous chef he works for. He inherits a 17th century cottage and finds a walled off garden, which contain herbs with quasi-magical properties. He uses those herbs to try to get revenge.
It's an exploration of the damage that a loveless childhood can inflict upon a personality. But, more than that, I'm hoping that people just think it's a really great story.