That “the human mind is a sink of irrationality” is the assumption behind this engagingly written guidebook.
New York Times science writer Dean (Writer in Residence/Brown Univ.) previously approached this situation from another tack in Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (2012). Here, she aims to help the public deal with “a world in which researchers gather data, politicians, business executives, or activists spin it, journalists misinterpret or hype it, and the rest of us don’t get it.” Not only are we irrational, but we are mostly ignorant about science, and Dean explores both the reasons and the effects, including our erroneous ideas about probability and risk. With dozens of examples, many from recent events, she explains how science is taught or not taught in schools (nearly a third of science teachers are creationists), how scientific research works, how it is financed, and how it is influenced by politics and religion. Among the many topics Dean introduces are climate change, genetically modified organisms, organic foods, cancer screenings, cloning claims, genome engineering, medical malpractice litigation, misconduct of researchers, and the defects of cost-benefit analysis. She also reveals the disconnects between science and law and between science and religion. Advice for the nonscientist abounds—e.g., don’t accept anything at face value, consider the source, beware of stories about trends, and keep in mind that the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence.” For patients facing treatment decisions, Dean even provides lists of questions to ask the doctor. Her summarizing list of recommendations for nonscientists includes the admonition to acknowledge ignorance and uncertainty, to consider other views by sources outside one’s comfort zone, and when it comes to conclusions, consider it again.
Dean’s long and varied experience in the world of science reporting makes for an articulate, well-structured, and easily understood account filled with good stories and sound advice.