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Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin

Popular Science

By: Cornelia Dean(Author)

281 pages, no illustrations

Belknap Press

Hardback | Mar 2017 | #234812 | ISBN-13: 9780674059696
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £15.95 $20/€18 approx

About this book

"I'm not a scientist" is a familiar refrain among people asked to evaluate scientific claims they feel are beyond their ken. Most citizens learn about science from media coverage, and even the most conscientious reporters sometimes struggle to offer a clear, unbiased explanation to readers. Politicians, activists, business spokespersons, and religious leaders with their own agendas to pursue also influence the way science is reported and discussed. Meanwhile, anyone seeking factual information on climate change, vaccine safety, risk of terrorist attack, or other topics in the news must sift through an avalanche of bogus assertions and self-interested spin.

Making Sense of Science seeks to equip nonscientists with a set of critical tools to evaluate the scientific claims and controversies that shape our lives. Cornelia Dean draws on thirty years of experience as a science journalist with the New York Times to expose the flawed reasoning and knowledge gaps that handicap readers with little background in science. Shortcomings in K–12 education are partly to blame, but so too is the public's indifference to the way science is done and communicated. Dean shows how venues such as courtrooms and talk shows become fonts of scientific misinformation. She also calls attention to the conflicts of interest that color scientific research, as well as the price society pays when science journalism declines and government funding for research dries up.

Timely and provocative, Making Sense of Science warns us all that we can no longer afford to make a virtue of our collective scientific ignorance.

"[An] engagingly written guidebook [...] Not only are we irrational, but we are mostly ignorant about science, and Dean explores both the reasons and the effects, including our erroneous ideas about probability and risk [...] Dean's long and varied experience in the world of science reporting makes for an articulate, well-structured, and easily understood account filled with good stories and sound advice."
Kirkus Reviews

"Current and future scientists and journalists, as well as advocates for science, will appreciate Dean's effort to combat scientific illiteracy."
– Nancy R. Curtis, Library Journal

"Dean's excellent primer will be welcomed by those who find themselves lost in the fog of rival claims about scientific issues that affect us all."
Publishers Weekly


    1. We the People
        What We Know, and What We Don’t Know
        The Belief Engine
        Thinking about Risk
    2. The Research Enterprise
        What Is Science?
        How Science Knows What It Knows
        A Jury of Peers
    3. Things Go Wrong
        Science in Court
        Researchers and Journalists
    4. The Universal Solvent
        A Matter of Money
        Selling Health
        What’s for Supper?
    5. Political Science
        Constituency of Ignorance
        The Political Environment
        Taking Things on Faith
    Appendix: Trustworthy, Untrustworthy, or Irrelevant?
    Further Reading

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Cornelia Dean is a science writer for the New York Times and Writer-in-Residence at Brown University.

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