cover image A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind

David J. Helfand. Columbia Univ, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-231-16872-4

Advertisers, public figures, and the media in general regularly misinform the public, but the Internet has taken this to a new level, reports Helfand, former chair of Columbia University’s department of astronomy. This cheerful corrective defines and demolishes many categories of nonsense. Warning that the brain is programmed to find patterns where none exist and to prefer simple, vivid explanations for reality, Helfand proceeds to show how competent scientists work and how to tell good evidence from bad. This turns out to be no simple task. Even scientists fail regularly, and readers must be prepared for meticulous explanations of scatter plots, Gaussian and Poisson distributions, proxies, and probability. Popular science writers traditionally boast that they will go light on mathematics, but Helfand will have none of that. As Jonathan Swift wrote, “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion which by reasoning he never acquired,” so this book will not attract climate-change deniers, anti-vaccine activists, creationists, astrology lovers, and the like. Darrell Huff’s delightful 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics may be more accessible, but Helfand’s work is an admirable response to a long-standing problem of sloppy thinking. (Mar.)