Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert/Ask the Expert: Bad Science, Mythbusting, and Debunking

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 WrightIncomparable 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?

40 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the Expert/Ask the Expert: Bad Science, Mythbusting, and Debunking

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    1. Thanks so much, Jaymi! I love that quote too, it is just too unfortunately true. Funny enough, I always thought it was Winston Churchill who said it, but double checked while writing this and turns out that’s a myth in and of itself!

      Wasn’t Gross Anatomy so good! I passed that one by at first and so glad I ended up reading it eventually. It was amazing and so entertaining.

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  1. Your topic of bad science/nutrtion is so good. You need to update that collection of titles every month. The news, science, information out there is crazy to keep up with. I’d not heard of ‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’ and have added that to my list. And I just have to say that the cover to ‘The Angry Chef’ is fantastic and may be reason enough to pick up that book.

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    1. Thanks so much!! I wish I could update it that frequently, would be so helpful considering the constant onslaught of bad science, poorly interpreted research, etc. that we get all the time! Are there any titles you can recommend?

      The Woman Who Fooled the World was such a compelling and near-unbelievable read, glad I could introduce you to it. The Angry Chef cover is pretty great, isn’t it…it suits his tone really well too!

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    1. Thanks so much! I agree, there’s just a constant onslaught of the bad information, sensationalist interpretations of studies, barely researched listicles about the magical properties some berry. Any of these are worth reading, and they’re all really accessible for readers without a strong scientific foundation as background.

      Wasn’t Ghostland so good! I need to reread it at some point.

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    1. Thanks! Ooh, Bad Blood is a great one, it’s definitely worth reading if you think it sounds interesting! And you’re right, it is similar – the woman behind that company seemed to be able to get away with fraud at least in part because so many people didn’t understand how the science and tech around the device worked.

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  2. Oh man, I want to read all of these!! The only book that I read this year about consuming information was Factfullness and it really started me thinking about how I consume (or ignore) information. This is such a collection of awesomeness.

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    1. Oh I remember you mentioning Factfullness before and it sounded great but I must not have added it to my list because I totally forgot about it!! I’m so glad you reminded me, I really want to read that one. It sounds perfect.

      And I’m happy you found a lot of recommendations here! These were all stellar, and so helpful and informative. The way these have changed my thinking and made me more informed about my own health, nutrition, news consumption, etc. is just monumental.

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  3. Not a book, but I really recommend James Wong (@botanygeek) on Twitter for debunking of bad food science. I think his latest book (How to Eat Better) might address food fads and pseudoscience as well, but I haven’t read it, only his gardening books, so I can’t give a very informed recommendation.

    I found your recommendations for the debunking of bad medical/wellness pseudoscience really interesting. One of the things I teach in my current job is how to appraise health research for student nurses, who normally aren’t scientists by background. I’d love to one day write a kind of how-to book about assessing and evaluating health research for non-scientists. It’s good to see other people writing books that address similar topics!

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    1. I googled How to Eat Better and saw this from the description “No diets, no obscure ingredients, no damn spiralizer” and knew immediately it was for me, haha! Thanks for that recommendation! Even if you haven’t read it, it sounds like one I want to look into. That’s exactly the kind of topic I find helpful.

      I’m glad you thought the titles were interesting! The work you’re doing sounds SO important. Can you do it in the US, too? A friend was in a hospital waiting room recently and overheard some on-duty nurses talking loudly to each other about the “research” they’d read about how vaccines cause autism. Nurses…at work in a hospital…in front of patients…I mean. I’m speechless and horrified.

      You should definitely read Goldacre’s Bad Science, he talks a lot about interpreting and assessing research and how it’s just much more complicated than what people generally want it to be, i.e. x causes cancer, y cures this, end of story. It was fascinating and really helped me, actually.

      And when you write that book, you know who’s here to review it!

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    1. Oh I bet! It was huge news there, right? I only heard about it a bit and wasn’t sure about the source (I think it was through the Daily Mail or something) so I was happy to read a book that dealt with it so thoroughly and informatively. You might like the book even being better versed in it from your perspective already. It was really reprehensible what she did, the stories in the book from cancer patients who found so much hope in what she was telling/selling them were just heartbreaking. And it’s like she still has trouble acknowledging how harmful that was, or even what she did! Ugh.

      But I read it just expecting to learn more about the con and it ended up being this fascinating expose of the wellness industry as a whole. It’s so good, I highly recommend it if you’re interested. Spook was excellent as well, I haven’t read anything else by her but I want to!

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      1. I watched an interview with her where the journalist was pushing her just to say that she’d never had cancer, simple as that, and she was still resisting and trying to find a way to explain around it. What is her problem, really! I don’t know how she hasn’t faced bigger criminal charges either.

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    1. Thank you, I’m so glad you found so many you’re interested in! Those two were both fantastic, and cover some similar topics so make a good complement to each other. Looking forward to hearing what you think of them!!

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    1. Totally agree! I felt like I was part of the problem for a long time, in that I just accepted a lot of information without digging deeper because understanding science isn’t the easiest for me. I love finding books that make it accessible like this. Glad you liked the list!!

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  4. Ah, so many great-looking titles! The “debunking the supernatural” category is especially intriguing to me, and I’m adding Ghostland to my TBR for sure. The Woman Who Fooled the World also sounds very interesting! I hadn’t heard anything about her, but wow. And I’m aiming to start The Vagina Bible this month, though I’m planning to dip in and out of it so I’m not sure yet whether I’ll finish before the new year or not. Either way, I’m looking forward to it! Great recommendations!

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    1. I love that area too! I’m always looking for something good on that topic. Ghostland is totally fascinating, one that I occasionally pick up and read a bit of again here and there. I only vaguely had heard of Belle Gibson before, but the extent of that con was mind-blowing, and the implications were really sad, in that she was basically telling people that medicine had failed her but changing her diet cured cancer and unfortunately, people listened. It was a great expose into the wellness industry as a whole.

      I’m glad you’ll start The Vagina Bible soon! Definitely to dip in and out of it. Excited to hear what you think of it!!

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      1. Ooh, that sounds like high praise for Ghostland! The Gibson story sounds WILD, it seems so obvious today that diet isn’t going to cure cancer, but I suppose even though I don’t remember hearing anything about her story in the news it must certainly have affected how cancer/medicine/wellness is viewed generally, even for people like me without specific knowledge of that case.

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      2. What was so crazy about her story was how many people bought it without fact-checking her. Apple chose her to develop an app backed by them and she had a book published with Penguin. Just pulling on a couple of threads her story unraveled (aside from the obvious that that’s not how cancer works!) but no one did any due diligence and it just lent her even more legitimacy. There are interviews with doctors in the book talking about how frustrating it is when people with no knowledge make claims about medical remedies and undermine so many years of scientific and medical progress. They also interview some of the people who believed her, so it’s a very well rounded picture of how this affects everyone. I really recommend it, there’s a lot of insight there!

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      3. Wow, that sounds like a Bad Blood situation. It is always kind of horrifying when big companies with a lot of sway try to sell something without looking into it enough. I will definitely add this one to my TBR, it certainly sounds like an interesting case!

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      4. Yes, very much like Bad Blood!! It really is horrifying, and it makes me nervous about how much of this is potentially happening that we don’t know about yet. Glad I could introduce you to that one, it’s such a great and informative read.

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