Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Katie @ Doing Dewey): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
Bad Science, Mythbusting, and Debunking: As a non-sciencey person — so someone who finds it easier to read articles and material written for laypeople and can’t easily parse scientific data on my own — I’m probably the ideal target audience for pseudoscientific misinformation and watered-down reporting that does more to create dangerous or unhelpful myths than establish facts.
But I’ve wanted to make an effort to better understand topics that I’ve shied away from or accepted surface explanations for in the past. I love the concept of mythbusting and debunking in relation to these scientific areas, because as the saying goes, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In these cases, even when the truth catches up fully dressed, it’s complicated, nuanced, and requires a skilled expert to break it down for a layperson. Pretty Instagrams about how coconut oil works miracles mean that the lie often sounds better and is easier remembered, too.
Here are some books I’ve found helpful in my mission to be better informed (not an expert yet!) on these topics.
Debunking bad science in health and nutrition:
The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness Industry by Beau Donelly & Nick Toscano – Covers the story of Belle Gibson, an Australian blogger who claimed to have cured her brain cancer through diet. She raked in oodles of money from projects like a high-profile app and cookbook before it came out that she’d never had cancer in the first place. The authors use her case to examine greater issues within the “wellness” industry, like Gwyneth Paltrow-types and Instagram influencers who make impossible promises based on questionable data and capitalize on vulnerable, desperate people. It includes interviews with doctors and scientists explaining why the way certain data or studies are interpreted is so problematic, and how much they have to contend with in challenging these beliefs and the sowing of distrust against conventional medicine, which has spread exponentially thanks to the internet.
Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, by Barbara Ehrenreich – Self-professed mythbuster Ehrenreich learned with her own breast cancer diagnosis that a disturbing industry exists around blaming sick people for their conditions because of negative thinking. This kind of belief has been co-opted in some form by religious leaders, businesses, and self-help gurus along with its place in health care. Ehrenreich looks at its various iterations and the dangers and frustrations they pose alongside their financial motivations.
Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, by Ben Goldacre – NHS doctor Ben Goldacre has no patience for sloppy scientific reporting. But that’s a big part of this problem: what we can extrapolate from studies and data is frequently not as simple and straightforward as media reports and “quacks” — people trying to sell you something, basically — make it out to be. He repeatedly stresses that the results of scientific studies are more complicated than they seem. This is an invaluable book for better understanding science and health news and trends the way they’re commonly reported, and he makes it accessible, intelligent, and frequently hilarious (review coming soon!).
The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating – Chef Anthony Warner argues against the myth of superfoods; so-called “miracle” ingredients; the faceless, indescribably vague enemy of “toxins”; and in favor of a better understanding of what chemicals and processed foods really are and how they’re used and affect us. Plus an argument for being reasonable and realistic in our dietary choices: there’s a place for many processed foods in modern life and you shouldn’t feel guilty about using them. Looks at what “processing” actually is (wellness people get it wrong constantly) and what some unpronounceable chemicals do were remarkably helpful and informative.
Mythbusting misinformation about the female body:
The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina — Separating the Myth from the Medicine, by Jen Gunter, MD – As gynecologist Dr. Gunter explains, exasperatedly, several times in this book, “Look, I don’t make this stuff up, I just report on it.” (I think that’s when she was debunking the practice of putting parsley in your vagina in order to induce a period.) In addition to tons of valuable info and the reasoning why certain studies, practices, and treatments need to be approached with nuance and caveats, she makes short work of old wives’ tales, explains why treatments are or aren’t scientifically sound, and sets out how to inform yourself online, so where and how to search for reputable sources. And more, it’s incredibly comprehensive. It saddens and enrages me that so much misinformation exists around women’s health, lots of which she traces, unsurprisingly, to the patriarchy. We have to do better.
Gross Anatomy: A Field Guide to Loving Your Body, Warts and All, by Mara Altman – There’s a lot in this book relevant to non-female bodies too, to be fair. (The chapter on fainting was a favorite and obviously applies to anybody, as do warts and head lice, among others here. Very inclusive!) Beginning with an in-depth look at hair removal, Altman breaks down myths and misconceptions about breasts, butts, and myriad other parts. She has a Mary Roach-style approach, developing her own questions and finding experts to clarify and demonstrate. It’s more memoir than other books on this list, but doesn’t shy from the science either. Plus: wildly entertaining and hilarious.
Shifting gears from health, food, and body myths to another favorite: debunking of the supernatural.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, by Colin Dickey – The more I learn about how the world works, the more easily explained are things I used to find mysterious and supernatural, thus inexplicable. I love when solid explanations are found for stories that seem otherworldly. A mind-blower here was about West Virginia’s Greenbrier Ghost, a story that’s long fascinated me and seemed to have no easy explanation for its oddities. But guess what — it does. The historical and cultural context around many of these supernatural myths ends up being even more interesting than the ghost stories themselves.
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach – Roach applies her signature brand of curiosity, research, and sourcing expert analysis to try and scientifically pin down answers about whether an afterlife exists, and it’s funny, enlightening, and tough to argue with. (P.S. – Pleased to Meet Me also contains one of the best arguments against the afterlife via a thorough but understandable explanation of brain function.)
Remembering Satan: A Case of Recovered Memory and the Shattering of an American Family, by Lawrence Wright – Incomparable journalist Wright examines a Satanic Panic case in Washington, where a family was turned inside out by recovered memories and accusations of satanic ritual abuse. He uses it as a case study to explain the psychology around the Satanic Panic as a whole, the moral and cultural atmosphere it arose in, and how it was substantiated by exactly zero facts (even though just mentioning it is enough to make people cringe because its myth still looms larger than reality).
Now I’m asking: what books on bad science, mythbusting, and debunking you can recommend?