Scientific literacy has taken a hit. Facts are absent or distorted by spin doctors, leaving people to flounder when interpreting complex issues, writers argue in this new collection of essays. Edited by former Science News editor Kendrick Frazier (now editor of Skeptical Inquirer), these engaging, insightful and often surprising essays by researchers and journalists describe what science is and is not, and what happens when the facts get twisted.
“Discovering new evidence about nature is what science is all about,” Frazier writes, but public discourse rarely involves such evidence. Clear, fact-based evidence should trump emotional, vitriolic attacks concerning flash point issues like the creationism-evolution debate, the antivaccine movement and global warming, the essays argue.
The writings are loosely divided into three sections: science and skepticism, current scientific controversies and examples of pseudoscience. Some pieces breezily poke fun at pseudoscientific breakthroughs, including “electrically activated” oxygen water and healing magnets, both purported to cure just about everything. Other essays describe frightening true scenarios: A piece by former Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner describes how errant mental health workers in the 1980s and ’90s manipulated children’s memories through methods including hypnotism, leading to a slew of false molestation accusations.
Although the essays cover various topics and range from technical to conversational in tone, the overarching message is clear: Any claim, evidence-based or otherwise, must be met with a healthy dose of skepticism that comes only from a scientifically literate perspective.
Prometheus Books, 2009, 370 p., $21.98.
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