Presented as “one giant inoculation against bad science, deception, and faulty thinking,” the book succeeds superbly.

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THE SKEPTICS' GUIDE TO THE UNIVERSE

HOW TO KNOW WHAT'S REALLY REAL IN A WORLD INCREASINGLY FULL OF FAKE

Why and how to become a skeptic.

Steven Novella (Clinical Neurology/Yale Univ. School of Medicine), a founding fellow of the Institute for Science in Medicine and host and producer of the titular science and critical thinking podcast, pulls no punches in his attack on the misinformation, myths, and biases that surround us. Aided here by several writing associates, the author demonstrates his vast experience explaining the mechanisms of deception and the tactics used by pseudoscientists. To prepare readers, Novella first shows the ways in which our memories are faulty and our perceptions fallible, the glitches in our brains that trip us up, and the many logical fallacies that screw up our thinking. In lively, highly accessible prose, he helps readers understand these peculiarities and limitations and learn how to recognize deceptive claims. Science, he writes, is “the process of making our best effort to know what’s really real.” His chapters are filled with examples of pseudoscience and deception, some of which are old chestnuts, such as the “Clever Hans” effect. Others include intelligent design, pyramid schemes, exorcism, conspiracy theories, ghosts, and witches. Inevitably, some of Novella’s examples will challenge some readers’ treasured beliefs, but their inclusion here makes the challenges especially effective. As the author makes clear, some false beliefs come around again and again; new ones, however, confront us daily. A section on skepticism and the media, which looks at the difficulties of reporting science well, is rich with examples of science journalism gone wrong in the age of the internet and social media. Of special interest is the chapter on false balance, the common practice of TV news programs and documentaries giving equal coverage to two points of view that do not, in fact, have equal credibility; his prime example is climate change scientists debating climate change deniers.

Presented as “one giant inoculation against bad science, deception, and faulty thinking,” the book succeeds superbly.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5387-6053-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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