We all swim in a sea of Big Data, dangerously vulnerable to the unscientific thinking that now replaces the critical faculties we used to rely on. We seek simple explanations where complexity is required. But as we endeavor to solve global problems of energy, food, and water shortages, a planetary biodiversity crisis, and emerging threats to our public health, the development of scientific habits of mind becomes even more essential for our survival. We fear numbers and prefer neat and simple solutions to complex problems, but scientific reasoning plays a central role in combating misinformation and is one of our best tools for meeting the upcoming crises of our century.
From confronting our fear of quantitative reasoning and demystifying graphs to elucidating the key concepts of probability and data analysis and the use of precise language and logic, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age supplies an essential set of apps for the frontal cortex while making science both accessible and entertaining. Who says it has to be dull to learn to think like a scientist? Who says only a few can do it? Not David Helfand, one of our nation's leading astronomers and science educators. Helfand has taught scientific habits of mind to generations of Columbia University undergraduates, where he continues to wage a provocative and necessary battle against sloppy thinking and the encroachment of misinformation.
Introduction: Information, Misinformation, and Our Planet's Future
1. A Walk in the Park
2. What Is Science?
3. A Sense of Scale
Interlude 1: Numbers
4. Discoveries on the Back of an Envelope
5. Insights in Lines and Dots
Interlude 2: Language and Logic
6. Expecting the Improbable
7. Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
8. Correlation, Causation, Confusion and Clarity
9. Features of the Scientific View
10. Applying Scientific Habits of Mind to Earth's Future
11. What Isn't Science
12. The Triumph of Misinformation; The Peril of Ignorance
13. The Unfinished Cathedral
Appendix: Practicing Scientific Habits of Mind
David Helfand is the former chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University where he has been on the faculty for nearly four decades. He has also served as a visiting scientist at the Danish Space Research Institute and at Cambridge University. He is president and founding tutor at Quest University Canada and has published commentary in Nature, Physics Today, the Globe and Mail, and the New York Times, among other publications.
"A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age is a no-holds-barred paean to the scientific mode of thinking. Helfand's wide-ranging, interdisciplinary, humorously cynical intellect comes through at every turn."
– J. Craig Wheeler, The University of Texas at Austin
"A Survival Guide for the Misinformation Age is an impassioned plea for science literacy. Given the state of the world today, in which scientifically under-informed voters elect scientifically illiterate politicians, Professor David Helfand has written the right book at the right time with the right message. Read it now. The future of our civilization may depend on it."
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History
"David Helfand's Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age gives readers a chance to spend time with one this country's clearest and best critical thinkers. Helfand channels Steven Pinker's ability to dissect language with John Alan Paulos's ability to explain numbers with Richard Dawkins' ability to explain our existence (to obtain food, to avoid being food, and to reproduce) with George Carlin's ability to make us laugh. Using personal anecdotes (he's a Red Sox fan), Helfand teaches us how to think through questions as diverse as why the moon doesn't make us lunatics to why it only takes twenty-three people to have a 50:50 chance that two will have the same birthday. A real pleasure."
– Paul Offit, University of Pennsylvania
"Important and timely."
– Library Journal
"Helfand's work is an admirable response to a long-standing problem of sloppy thinking."
– Publishers Weekly