British science writer and cartoonist tackles the realm of misinformation in scientific understanding within the general public — that is, an embrace of pseudo-science that makes people suspicious of actual science — in this new book.
It’s a wonderful introduction to many issues, laying out complicated mattes in clear and precise language and layouts, that can help anyone confused by headlines about scientific controversy — and it probably should be mandatory reading for middle and high schoolers.
Cunningham begins, appropriately, with a dissection of moon landing denial arguments, answering them one-by-one and presenting illogical practice, but then he moves onto more everyday denialism that you are more likely to encounter, starting with homeopathy. Cunningham examines the claims, the scientific reality, the research and debunking and, most important, the concept of homeopathy as more a form of psychology that includes ritual and the real harm that can be done, illustrated with claims for homeopathic malaria cures.
When discussing chiropractic, Cunningham traces its origins in the discredited science of phrenology — the bumps on your head — and its total disregard for the germ theory of disease, in that everything was thought to be caused by misaligned vertebrae called subluxations. The internal schism between practitioners is also examined, including the tendency by some to advocate against vaccines and others to overuse x-rays to a dangerous degree, as well as neck-related manipulations that are known to cause strokes.
Cunningham covers some well-trod areas, as well, but in such a way to provide clarity that almost seems effortless. In the anti-vaccine chapter, he does a great job laying out the criminal behavior of fraud Andrew Wakefield in his attempt to make money off his fake study claiming that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
And the chapter on evolution, done in a question and answer format, is simple and effective in explaining the process of genetics and how that results in the wider stroke we call evolution.
With his examination of fracking, Cunningham studies the twisting of science by the gas and mining companies — as well as just clearly explaining the complicated dangers of the procedure. With climate change, he lays out the conspiratorial trappings on both side, and frames it as a life or death situation, and who you want to decide what happens to you and your family.
There is no one message to be gleaned from Cunningham’s effort, but a failure on the part of the media to effectively explain reality against the forces of crooked interests is certainly a major, recurring culprit that cannot be dismissed. What is also clear is that personal experience — or need — can often trump scientific research in the minds of too many people. This feeds into each other when journalists too often report pseudo science that causes mania, and sometimes strips down the public’s trust of the scientific process due to conflicting information that should never have been reported in the first place. It’s a self-correcting system reliant on the understanding that there is no absolute information — news organizations too often insist on the truth, and that doesn’t jibe with science.
The solution? Arm yourself with an understanding of how it works and don’t allow yourself to elevate experience against evidence. Stay patient, be informed. Reading Cunningham’s book is a great place to begin.