As the book makes clear, Shermer is always ready to debate and actually seems to be in a semi-perpetual state of debating. He’d debate the Holocaust denier David Irving — even with the devil himself, hence the book’s title —with the same courtesy that he has debated with the semi-mystical Jordan Peterson and the prolific pseudo-archaeologist Graham Hancock. It’s not the person he’s objecting to, it’s their errors, whether of science or logic. In his short accounts of most of these men and their works he’s pleasantly lacking in rancour while often being quietly damning about their ideas.
Though this book is billed as “a timely and full-throated defence of free speech”, that is sadly a field in which it makes no substantive contribution. The basic problem is that, like any polemicist masquerading as an impartial observer, Shermer proceeds from so many questionable premises that he raises far more questions than he answers. All human communication requires rules, merely to be intelligible. And it’s at least arguable that the freedom to debate any subject, however contentious, might legitimately co-exist with, or even depend on, rules of civility or evidence. But that’s too nuanced an approach for Shermer; or perhaps it smacks of the “identity politics” and “far-left dogma on college campuses” that are among his pet peeves.