Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #259: Is That a Fact? by Dr. Joe Schwarcz

Joe Schwarcz -- "Dr. Joe," of course, since he's a media figure -- is something like the Carl Sagan of Canada, a working scientist who is also a tireless science popularizer, equally adept at explaining new actual science and debunking pseudo-scientific frauds. (He's even an amateur magician -- maybe he's actually the James Randi of Canada -- which has a great help for many debunkers.)

His most recent book is Is That a Fact?, which collects a hundred or so of what seem to be individual articles or columns. (The book itself doesn't explain their origin, though, and it's possible that he wrote this book straight out in this info-nugget form.) It's organized by plausibility, or quackery, starting with a "black" section about out-and-out frauds and misrepresentations of science, moving on to a "gray" section where there could be some doubt, and then ends up in "white" writing about gee-whiz stories of science and technology.

This is an unfortunate structure, for this reader at least, since it places all of the most interesting and fun material up front. I'm sure the story of Sir Humphry Davies is very historically significant, but the last third of this book is primarily made up of Schwarcz being really enthusiastic -- he's a popularizer; it's part of the job -- about things that aren't actually all that interesting or out of the ordinary.

Schwarcz's training is in chemistry, which is particularly good when he writes about food-based quackery, which is a large portion of the beginning of the book. (A lot of your first-generation debunkers had physics or astronomy training, so they focused on perpetual motion machines, UFOs, and free energy cranks; Schwarcz has a relatively open field of stupidity in front of him.) But recent breakthroughs in chemistry are few, which also tends to make the end of this book somewhat more dull -- he doesn't have string theory or new exoplanets to fall back on like the physics guys do.

Still, it's a well-written book by a smart guy that carefully explains why a lot of things many people believe -- our old friend homeopathy, colon cleansing, food "toxins," quacky cancer cures -- are complete bunkum, and discusses in a friendly and lively manner actual science. It will have an entirely positive affect on the world, no matter where it lands or who reads it, and you can't say that of many books.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment