Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #21: How to Fake a Moon Landing by Darryl Cunningham

I don't think there's a term for the set of books whose titles are facetious reversals of their true purpose -- the great category-definer being Darrell Huff's How to Lie With Statistics, which I reviewed a few days ago -- but ours is a cynical and ironic age, so they're not uncommon. Darryl Cunningham's How to Fake a Moon Landing is another in that line, explaining in eight comics chapters -- this is a graphic novel of non-fiction, or whatever convoluted term you may prefer -- the lies and half-truths and special pleading behind a passel of kinds of science denial, and (more importantly) the real science and facts and theories that those ideas are denying.

(There may also be a difference in cultures; the US edition has this title, but the prior UK edition had the much more sedate name Science Tales on the same material.)

My sympathies are entirely with Cunningham and the forces of real science against the deniers and conspiracy theorists and special pleaders and industry flacks -- if yours are not, you will not enjoy this book, though it could possibly help to open your mind a bit. Not all that much, though: the comics format does make Fake a Moon Landing breezy and fun, but it limits Cunningham to highlights, which could easily feed the nitpickery of the denialists -- their whole point is that if you can't prove something to 100% confidence, then it's not real. (But of course none of science is at 100% confidence; there's a minuscule chance even that the sun will not rise as usual tomorrow morning.)

So: Cunningham goes through the arguments for and against the NASA moon landings, homeopathy, chiropractic medicine, MMR vaccinations, evolution, the mining of oil and natural gas through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and climate change. Not all of those are as clear-cut as others -- 97% of climate scientists believe the world is warming due to human activity, chiropractic has some uses for back pain, and fracking is an effective real-world mining technique with great benefits but potential flaws and side effects, to show the spectrum -- but, in every case, there's a group with a near-religious set of beliefs denying what is generally understood to be the truth by the educated and informed population. Cunningham doesn't get into one of the great frustrations of skepticism -- that you cannot reason a man out of an opinion he didn't reach by reason in the first place -- so he presents a possibly overly rosy picture of the possibilities and options. The people who believe these things often do so for emotional or religious reasons -- or because, in some fracking and climate-denial cases, because their lucrative employment depends on it -- and so no amount of books like Cunningham's, or any logical argument, will ever sway them.

Cunningham does cover denialism more generally in his last chapter, where he also sketches out how science actually does work -- incrementally and competitively -- and some of the dangers of ignoring science and facts. I worry that books like this will mostly be read by the already-converted and so have little effect, but Cunningham's accessible comics format may be a strong asset against that possibility: if non-skeptics, especially teens, see it and pick it up, they could actually learn something.

How to Fake a Moon Landing is a book I'd like to see in every middle-school classroom in the country for that reason. That will never happen, but it could have a similar effect on a smaller scale if given a chance. Good luck to it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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