BOOK REVIEW: Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future

In July 2013, former model and actress Jenny McCarthy was announced as a new cohost of ABC’s daytime talk show, The View. Soon after, geologist and paleontologist Donald Prothero wrote a post for Skeptiblog, an online column from Skeptic magazine, arguing why the decision to give McCarthy – who pushes the notion that child vaccinations cause autism – a public platform is irresponsible – and dangerous In “Lethal nonsense on ‘The View’,” Prothero writes: “McCarthy’s false ideas are more than just another idiot talking head blathering on about stuff they don’t understand on TV. As the leading celebrity spokesperson for the anti-vaxx movement, she is a symbol of this form of virulent anti-science, and everything she says (even if she never speaks a word about anti-vaxx on the show) is colored by that perception.” Then in August Prothero reviewed the latest book about intelligent design from The Discovery Institute, Stephen C. Meyer’s Darwin Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, and wrote: “Almost every page of this book is riddled by errors of fact or interpretation that could only result from someone writing in a subject way over his head, abetted by the creationist tendency to pluck facts out of context and get their meaning completely backwards. But as one of the few people in the entire creationist movement who has actually taken a few geology classes (but apparently no paleontology classes), he is their “expert” in this area, and is happy to mislead the creationist audience that knows no science at all with his slick but completely false understanding of the subject.”

The common theme here, and similarly with many of Prothero’s pieces for Skeptic, is that the public more often trusts celebrities or non-experts than scientists when it comes to scientific knowledge. McCarthy nor Meyer fully understand their subjects, yet one continues to speak out falsely about vaccines (and in so doing, some parents are not vaccinating their children, and this has unfortunate consequences) and the other publishes a book that many will see on a shelf and mistake for a proper book about science. Not knowing how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience surely contributes to the general lack of science literacy in the United States, but it also speaks to the influence that politics, religion, fame, and money have on the public understanding of science (just think of The Discovery Channel’s recent show that made countless Americans believe that the giant prehistoric Megalodon shark still swam the seas or earlier in 2013, Animal Planet’s program on the existence of mermaids). Scientific topics which are influenced by nonscientific ideologies are the core of Prothero’s new book.

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Donald R. Prothero, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 392 pp.

The battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country—all are reaching a fevered pitch. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line. To shed light on this darkness, Donald R. Prothero explains the scientific process and why society has come to rely on science not only to provide a better life but also to reach verifiable truths no other method can obtain. He describes how major scientific ideas that are accepted by the entire scientific community (evolution, anthropogenic global warming, vaccination, the HIV cause of AIDS, and others) have been attacked with totally unscientific arguments and methods. Prothero argues that science deniers pose a serious threat to society, as their attempts to subvert the truth have resulted in widespread scientific ignorance, increased risk of global catastrophes, and deaths due to the spread of diseases that could have been prevented.

The value I find in Reality Check is that Prothero brings together important scientific information along with descriptions of the groups of people that deny the scientific evidence for each topic. He counters each groups falsehoods and biases with accurate science, and provides useful resources. In the second chapter, Prothero discusses what science is (noting that it is never “the final truth” and clarifying for the reader what “theory” in science means). But he notes that “science is also a human enterprise.” Mistakes and errors happen; so does fraud. Yet such things get weeded out by the scientific process: “science is checked against an external reality that other scientists can check.” Experiments are checked for accuracy and the process of peer review keeps what is good and throws out that which is bad. Yet, nonscientific ideas persist in the public perception of what constitutes science. “[I]t is often hard to tell who is telling the truth, and who is just a shill for a powerful industry or political faction or religious group,” Prothero writes.

In the following ten chapters, he details the most pervasive scientific topics that some groups of people deny the scientific evidence for: the link between cigarettes and cancer, environmental topics such as acid rain and DDT, climate change, evolution versus creationism, the modern anti-vaccination movement, AID denialism, alternative medicine, astrology, oil and nature resources, and human overpopulation. I won’t go through each of the chapters specifically, for I believe that’s part of the fun of reading Prothero’s book (if it can be “fun,” because much of it is rather a sad state of affairs). I was already very familiar with a couple of the topics (evolution and creationism, DDT) but got a lot out of other chapters (anti-vaccination, climate change) with which I was not very familiar. Prothero applies what Carl Sagan called a “baloney detection kit” to all of the claims made by science deniers, and gives some of the most common examples of ways that scientific information is misrepresented, distorted, and at risk of influence: quote-mining; not having expertise in the topic being discussed; conflicts of interest; not placing the burden of proof on the dissenter; the use of subjective anecdotes over objective data, not understanding that correlation does not imply causation, and using ad hoc explanations. One can find these in all of the cases set out in Reality Check. In others, the public relations strategy to push doubt on the public’s mind that a claim is true or not is often used, such as in the tobacco industry.

I particular liked this sentence: “Scientists are human, they are not perfect, and they can be misled by their own biases and ideologies, but in most cases, the harsh scrutiny of other scientists soon weeds out the bad data and gives us some basis on which to decide whether an idea has merit. Scientists are not immune to cultural forces, but by and large they are not openly ideological, either.” However, perhaps Prothero’s disdain for religious conservatism (which is fine with me, by all means) paints a picture of the history of science that is less accurate than “reality” (or, this speaks to an unfortunate lack of “history of science literacy”). In his second chapter, Prothero rightly notes that “[s]cience and technology have produced the practical benefits of our modern society,” but continues erroneously with “which were held back for the entire Dark Ages while religious dogma held thrall over the human mind.” The lack of inquiry and knowledge through the Dark Ages is a notion not held by historians of science (see myth 2 in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, “That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth off Science”).

Prothero’s final chapter bring it all together to consider the state of science literacy in the United States, and how the denial of science is dangerous. He notes the increasingly recognized notion that simply pushing more evidence into the faces of deniers is likely to counter the goal of persuading someone that something is true. Showing more evidence of evolution by common descent to a creationist most likely will urge them to hold on to their cherished beliefs. And the media does not help, what Prothero calls the “Science TV Wasteland.” I grew up watching The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, and am saddened by what those channels have become. For now, I will stick to watching BBC documentaries for science and nature programming, either online or DVDs from the library, for I don’t have a TV at home (perhaps that’s the key: get rid of your TV!). Prothero then discusses reasons for why a significant portion of the American population can’t or refuse to accept scientific evidence for a wide variety of topics. There’s the influence of politics and ideology, lack of science education, and lack of critical thinking skills. The influence of media, the sorry budgets given to scientific research, and the short attention spans of American youth. Prothero also shows that the acceptance of evolution within a country is “a very strong predictor of overall science literacy.” You have probably seen graphs over the last few years that show the United States very low in a list of countries for either science literacy or acceptance of evolution. We’re always down at the bottom, one up from Turkey. Prothero notes the influence of all those other things above, “but they all miss the elephant in the room… the stultifying influence of creationism in U.S. science education.”

But why is this important? My children are exposed to all manner of science learning (some at school; but mostly through my parental initiative). Should I be concerned about what others’ kids – and their parents – are learning? The obvious answer is Yes. If someone pushes creationism in my son’s school, that affects us. If someone does not vaccinate their kid and sends them to a public school, that might affect us. If children don’t learn the importance of our environment and the effect our consumer lifestyle has on the planet, that will affect us all. So, for all those antievolutionists, anti-vaxxers, and anti-climate change advocates, the science is clear. Stop denying and get a reality check!

If interested, you can listen to Prothero discussing his new book on a podcast with Indiana University Press, here.

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3 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future

  1. Wow! I HAVE to read this book! I often complain that even countries with good science education in schools still focus to heavily on teaching facts and formulae and not the scientific method from which they were derived, which is far more beneficial and educational. Even in getting my science degree there was no devotion to the method and there are far too few popular science books discussing it (I have picked up a new edition of Chalmers What Is This Thing Called Science, but haven’t read it yet). I toy with the idea of writing my own if I have kids. You make a good point about documentary channels as well, thankful for the BBC.

  2. Pingback: BOOK: How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial | The Dispersal of Darwin

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