Following up his widely-acclaimed first book, Psychiatric Tales, which drew on his experience as a health care assistant on an acute psychiatric ward, Darryl Cunningham’s latest graphic novel, Science Tales, again takes the form of a series of charming and deceptively simple cartoons. The creative blend of graphic novel and science journalism presents and dissects ‘lies, hoaxes and scams’ in popular science with great precision and wit.
Several of the graphic stories take the form of a conversation, either with the reader, or in the case of the story on climate change, a talkative penguin. This is a neat device, as it helps drill to the heart of some of the problems in a direct and relatable way.
Each chapter covers a different topic, including homeopathy, chiropractic and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. In addition to alternative medicine, the book also covers climate change, the idea than the moon landing was faked, and evolution.
The central theme of Science Tales is an examination of science denialism. A strong thread of skepticism and evidence-based thinking runs through the entire book, which ties the ideas together and makes for a powerful defense of the strength and importance of the scientific method. Giving examples of individuals who have died as a result of being duped into alternative therapies, the book doesn’t pull any punches, and powerfully lays bare the arguments of those who say that alternative medicines like homeopathy are harmless.
Cunningham acknowledges some of our frustratingly persistent cognitive biases, that corporations, with (not always) hidden agendas, and quack-peddlers, cleverly take advantage of, but much of the blame for the persistence of alternative medicines and science denialism is laid at the door of the media. The insistence that both sides of a debate be given equal voice, regardless of the fact that it’s often the weight of the entire scientific community pitched against a small, but vocal, band of people, is one that is driving anti-science ideas and creating controversy where there often isn’t any.
The opening chapter on electro-convulsive therapy feels a little out of place amongst all the contemporary hoaxes and bad science that currently dominate the public conscience, and is perhaps a leftover from Psychiatric Tales. That said, the book is no less interesting for its inclusion, and for the seasoned skeptic it’s perhaps a welcome addition as it saves Science Tales from treading on too much familiar ground.
The detail in some of the chapters is a little patchy, but that’s less of a criticism and more of a wish that this excellent book was longer. Cunningham really drills into the history and workings of homeopathy, chiropractic and Andrew Wakefield kick-starting the MMR vaccine scare, but creationism is regrettably covered a little more superficially.
It takes a real talent to pack in so much information and so many ideas and arguments in a book that contains no more than a few hundred words. As a science primer that presents complex ideas in a simple, but never simplistic, way, Science Tales, cannot be recommended enough.
The original version of this book review (sans the links, obviously) appeared in the latest issue of Argument, which was released on Saturday the 27th of October, under the title: A Comic Antidote to Science Denial.