Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

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There are some writers for which you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get. Donald R. Prothero is one of those writers. I expect a well-researched, comprehensive treatment of the topic with a flavor of emotion here and there. That’s what I got with Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, 2013, Indiana Univ Press.

The core of the book is summed up in the John Burroughs quote given on page 1:

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

RCOnce you observe the methods of creationists as the classic example of science denialists, you can recognize the same tactics in those that reject climate change. I have also noted the same tricks in environmentalists or those holding contrarian views about vaccines, the paranormal, and various consumer products.

The premise of Reality Check is that when “a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality” the believers in this system will actively discount, ignore or distort the facts that go against it. They may stop at nothing to defend their belief – they will lie, hide evidence, manufacture evidence, pay people off, bully, harass, discredit, and even threaten the scientists who are  supporting the “inconvenient” conclusion.

The book highlights denialism rampant in the fields of environmentalism, global warming, evolution education, vaccine information, AIDS treatment policy, medical claims, energy policy and population size and growth. Each chapter exposes the hidden agendas of those who reject the scientific consensus and provides the reader with the solid, established evidence.

As one example, Reality Check exposes the devious doings of the tobacco industry. I learned the history of the manufactured controversy surrounding the dangers of smoking about 5 years ago in my Master’s degree program in Science and the Public. I was appalled. I had no idea that there were people running an industry that was knowingly making people addicts and killing them just so they can keep their profit margins. The lies and deceptions were hard for me to accept but it was real! The facts are out there now and we know the truth about tobacco.

Citizens and consumers would be smart to learn the pattern of denialism as outlined in this book. Democracies need well informed citizens. Instead, we have a population that seems to prefer their news spoon fed from the internet or television, choosing outlets that support only their worldviews to begin with. There is no deliberation taking place, no deep thinking. Many are happy to exist only in their echo chambers never hearing the whole story.

The absolute strongest part of the book is the second chapter entitled “Science, Our Candle in the Darkness”. It enlightens the reader about what science is, what it isn’t, and how some exploit the public’s weakness in understanding how science works to convince them that the consensus is inaccurate. The “Baloney detection” section was particularly pointed, as Prothero explains the harm in false claims: “Pseudoscience robs people of their time or money or resources they really need in moments of stress and hardship and sells them phony answers and snake-oil just for temporary reassurance.” (Page 19)

Fake claims anger me. Fake claims backed by an agenda are even more devious and dirty. This compels me to do skeptical advocacy as I do. I know Don Prothero feels the same. Don is a wealth of knowledge.  What he has to say is important, not because it provides him income or notoriety. It’s because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what society needs to know in order to function to its highest purpose. I would pull out Chapter 2 and make it required reading in all senior high school classes. Kids need to be armed with information that can save them from losing money, health or wits by falling for nonsense ideas, quack cures and fast-talking dealers.

I learned many new things from this book, which is why I read books in the first place. Reality Check can be used as a college textbook and students will find their own personal well-entrenched belief system challenged. I recommend it for anyone interested in science, society or politics.

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6 thoughts on “Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

  1. I’m skeptical about the myth of the evil tobacco companies paying off scientists to claim cigarette smoking was safe. The headlines of the 1964 newspaper my mother saved with my birth announcement was that the surgeon general had officially warned the public that smoking caused cancer (or is harmful to your health). Tobacco ads were banded from broadcast media before I was old enough to remember.
    If we are going to impugn the motives of hiring scientists to collaborate into convincing the public the financial resources that have been marshalled toward squashing even the mildest expression of skepticism.

  2. cont..dwarf what paltry amount paid by automakers or oil companies. Now these corporations send grants to fund climate change or renewal energy research. it doesn’t make sense to spend money that damages public relations. We are still using gasoline for now and for a long time to come.

  3. One Eyed Jack

    Instead, we have a population that seems to prefer their news spoon fed from the internet or television, choosing outlets that support only their worldviews to begin with. There is no deliberation taking place, no deep thinking. Many are happy to exist only in their echo chambers never hearing the whole story.

    Excellent point, Sharon. The Internet is double edged sword. While it offers easy access to an unprecedented amount of information, that information is rarely vetted. For a large number of people, “research” means finding information that supports their position, not finding the facts.

    OK. I’m sold.

  4. I have to say that it was very difficult to read this book due to the number of grammatical and typographical errors and some less than stringent editing. The subhead, “Is Our Children Learning Science” was the coup de grace. Our scientists and university presses need to learn English so that the ideas they present are credible.

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