A book you absolutely must read: David J. Helfand’s A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, February 12, 2016

I’ve known quite a few astronomers over the years who I consider to be geniuses. And David Helfand is one of them. Former chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University; a founding tutor and president of Quest University in Canada; former president of the American Astronomical Society; and much more, Helfand is a man brimming with incredible insights on the universe.

Some of you know that I’ve written about the current miserable state of scientific thinking in this country and in the world overall. One wonders if progress in understanding is moving backwards, snuffed out by crazy entertainment and web-blog and social media nonsense.

But this book makes quite a claim to cure what ails us, with a big dose of reality. And scientific sense. To anyone who asks me what they should read these days, I will answer this book: David Helfand’s A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age.

The work (325 pp., hardcover, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016, $30; ISBN 978–0–231–16872–4), begins with a walk around the Columbia campus and a description of various observations about the universe Helfand relates to his students. It is grippingly written. And the journey takes many a turn from there.

Helfand brilliantly explores the philosophy of science in many ways, with a definition of science, an examination of scale, and witty discussions of numbers, graphing information, logic and language, statistics, correlation and causation, pseudoscience and quackery, and a dive into the perils of ignorance.

He concludes this absorbing essay by further addressing skepticism as a way of thinking and asking us what is really worth knowing, and why.

This is the kind of book that we need a whole lot more of in this world. Helfand creates it authoritatively, entertainingly, and as a master of his topics.

It ought to be required reading for anyone who genuinely loves knowledge and wants to know how the quest for truth takes place on our planet, and how it must take place throughout the whole of the cosmos.


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