Throwing new light on our belief systems
You experienced a number of genuine revelations while researching The Heretics - did the book ultimately take a different shape than the one you were expecting?
I suppose the main surprise for me was in the fact that the atheist-sceptical community are so often on such shaky ground. They are just as vulnerable to the processes of bias and assumption as the rest of us. If I can reduce the answer down to a single moment, it would be the one in which atheist-sceptic hero James Randi admitted to being a liar. This is something that people on the paranormal side of things have been saying for years - but no one listens to them, because of their various unusual beliefs.
Did you find it easy to keep an open mind during your adventures?
I was constantly trying to identify my own biases so that I could work against them. For instance, I really liked Rupert Sheldrake, who believes that dogs are psychic. It didn't make me believe that dogs are psychic, but I really wanted it to be true. I was probably more cross at James Randi, and more driven to find evidence of his questionable behaviour, because I 'fell' for Rupert's story, of his victimhood and expulsion from the scientific community for perusing 'forbidden' beliefs. That's not to say his story isn't true, but it worked on me. I fell into its emotional landscape, and it triggered feelings in me of sympathy and anger – a dangerous place for a journalist.
You must have come across hundreds of irrational theories while putting this book together - are there any that stuck? Are you, for example, more open to the possibility of alien abductions, or ESP?
None of them stuck, but I am intrigued about the mystery of how the brain creates the sensation of 'I', or consciousness. We've spent a generation trying to find out how it does it, and we've not got very far. A small number of neuroscientists are proposing a theory about 'non local' consciousness which, as I understand it, posits that consciousness is 'out there', and our brains process it like a TV set, rather than creates it. It's a fringe idea, but it would theoretically allow for things like ESP. It's also extremely complex, and a long way above my pay (and brain) grade.
Do you have any plans to explore this subject further in future books?
I do have an idea for another non-fiction book, which is in a similar area to this, whilst not being about irrational beliefs. I also want to do something new with the form of non-fiction writing. The best longform stuff is in The New Yorker, and most stories in there read as if they're written by the same person ("It was a rainy May Tuesday in downtown New Hampshire, when Bob Oldson got the call. A veterinarian with a specialism in erectile dysfunction in zebras, he had a limp, one eye and a fondness for extremely large hats..."). I'm really excited about the idea of fiddling with it a bit. That said, I'm not sure whether I'll get to write the book or not - it's not easy getting anything published these days.