Book Review - A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind, by David J. Helfand

By Robyn Kalda

"This world faces daunting challenges--from energy supplies to food supplies, from biodiversity collapse to the freshwater crisis, and, at the root of many of these issues, global climate change. Yet we shrink from confronting these challenges because we don't like numbers and are more comfortable with beliefs than with rational thought" (loc 46)

Evidence, and being evidence-based, is a major theme in health promotion work right now. Of course evidence is a good thing, but what counts as evidence from a scientific perspective, and what skills do we need in order to evaluate whether it's good evidence or not?

David J. Helfand's book (published February 2016) is a good overview of the basics of scientific thinking. Helfand clearly loves science and his writing conveys the wonder and excitement of a scientific perspective.

"Adopting these habits of mind opens up worlds both unseen and unseeable to understanding. It allows us to read the history of the deep past and to predict the future. It provides us with context: our "pale blue dot" is but one of eight planets and a few dozen moons orbiting one of a hundred billion stars (many of which, we now know, also have planets) that make up the Milky Way, one of a hundred billion galaxies in our visible corner of the universe. That, far more than a "rainbow in heaven," is awe-full -- it inspires awe."(loc 232)

Helfand uses relatable examples to illustrate the habits of mind he describes: how much does a rainstorm slow down a baseball? If the US national debt is $1.7 trillion, how much is that per person? Based on a coin-toss rule, who should pay for lunch? The last chapter neatly pulls all the ideas and habits together, working through the example of climate change.

His tone tends toward the curmudgeonly, which I enjoyed tremendously:

"US consumers spent over $3 billion on homeopathic medicine in 2007, obtaining distilled water from which the last trace of such invaluable ingredients as crushed whole bees, red onions, and white arsenic were originally dissolved (a terrible waste of bees in my view)." (loc 3068)

I do worry that he may have pitched the book slightly higher than its ideal audience -- those who, as per my first quote, don't like numbers -- might require. But if you made it through high school algebra (whether you remember any of it or not) and understand the basics of how graphs work, the math here shouldn't be too frightening. There are formulas, but if you're comfortable enough with the concepts Helfand is discussing, parsing the exact details of each calculation isn't necessary to follow his argument. It's the habits of mind and general approaches he discusses that are important, not the calculations in his examples. I'm sure he'd agree, given that one of those habits is "back of the envelope" estimation.

It is, of course, fully referenced and includes appendices with tips and practice questions for each chapter.

Recommended for anyone who'd like to stretch their science muscles or who frowns when someone mistakes "less" for "fewer".