Apr 21 Thu 7pm 450 Columbus BookCulture David L. Helfand on A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind

A very distinguished, not very academic academic introduces not only his excellent guide to double checking claims from science to pulp media, but also describes his four years starting Quest University in Canada with its highly revised approach to college curricula, banishing departments, tenure and following two years study of a mandated 18 subjects raning widely from science to the arts, two years of exploring a question dreamed up by the individual student. David Helfand’s temperament is joyously exploratory but he has no time for misleading information, which he says should be discovered by skepticism starting with back of the envelope checking calculations. Advised that he may be too trusting in ignoring the politics of the CDC and autism as exposed by the film VAXXED he genially allowed that one should indeed be on the lookout for official spin from institutions and he was prepared to revise the four pages he wrote on the vaccine issue if presented with new data as the film promises. A highly exploratory and open minded but analytically rigorous mind.

Columbus BookCulture David L. Helfand on A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind

David J. Helfand. Columbia Univ, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-231-16872-4

Some of this is too obvious for critical minds but for most of the population might be a good guide to skepticism

Publishers Weekly:
Advertisers, public figures, and the media in general regularly misinform the public, but the Internet has taken this to a new level, reports Helfand, former chair of Columbia University’s department of astronomy. This cheerful corrective defines and demolishes many categories of nonsense. Warning that the brain is programmed to find patterns where none exist and to prefer simple, vivid explanations for reality, Helfand proceeds to show how competent scientists work and how to tell good evidence from bad. This turns out to be no simple task. Even scientists fail regularly, and readers must be prepared for meticulous explanations of scatter plots, Gaussian and Poisson distributions, proxies, and probability. Popular science writers traditionally boast that they will go light on mathematics, but Helfand will have none of that. As Jonathan Swift wrote, “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion which by reasoning he never acquired,” so this book will not attract climate-change deniers, anti-vaccine activists, creationists, astrology lovers, and the like. Darrell Huff’s delightful 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics may be more accessible, but Helfand’s work is an admirable response to a long-standing problem of sloppy thinking. (Mar.)


We live in the Information Age, with billions of bytes of data just two swipes away. Yet how much of this is mis- or even disinformation? A lot of it is, and your search engine can’t tell the difference. As a result, an avalanche of misinformation threatens to overwhelm the discourse we so desperately need to address complex social problems such as climate change, the food and water crises, biodiversity collapse, and emerging threats to public health. This book provides an inoculation against the misinformation epidemic by cultivating scientific habits of mind. Anyone can do it―indeed, everyone must do it if our species is to survive on this crowded and finite planet.

This survival guide supplies an essential set of apps for the prefrontal cortex while making science both accessible and entertaining. It will dissolve your fear of numbers, demystify graphs, and elucidate the key concepts of probability, all while celebrating the precise use of language and logic. David Helfand, one of our nation’s leading astronomers and science educators, has taught scientific habits of mind to generations in the classroom, where he continues to wage a provocative battle against sloppy thinking and the encroachment of misinformation.

3.0 out of 5 starsleft me wishing for a clearer and more forceful articulation of the book’s main points
By Susan M. Hagadorn on March 6, 2016
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is an interesting and (for the most part) readable book. Unfortunately, it won’t accomplish its mission of fostering “scientific habits of mind” in those who don’t have them. The reasons for this are mostly related to clarity, and to wordiness. His discussions of the important topics of probability and statistics are cluttered with too much difficult-appearing math and discussion thereof for anyone not already familiar with the topics. His extended discourse on the difference between correlation and causation — a very important distinction — isn’t as clear as it should be (unless, again, you already understand the point), and misses the opportunity to hammer the concepts home in a simple, direct way. Still, his discussion of how the connection between vaccination and autism was debunked is interesting and valuable. His long discussion, with data and examples, on climate change and climate change denial also goes a long way toward discrediting the deniers, while also shedding light on a couple of myths too commonly accepted by those who do accept the fact of human-caused climate change. I’d read the book again, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the topics…but it left me wishing for a clearer and more forceful articulation of the book’s main points.


David J. Helfand

e-mail: djh@astro.columbia.edu

Telephone: (212) 854-2150

Teaching (Spring 2010):

-Core Curriculum: “Frontiers of Science”
My version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, useful for illustrating the limited range of human vision compared to the breadth of information about the Universe reaching us in parts of the electromagnetic outside the visible band, is available for non-commercial use. Both audio and illustrated versions can be downloaded from here.

Research Interests:

– Large-scale structure and AGN in radio surveys
– The origin and evolution of neutron stars and supernova remnants
– Active galactic nuclei and the X-ray background

I have recently completed a radio survey of the Galactic Plane that is 30 times more sensitive and has 30 times the angular resolution of the best existing Plane surveys. MAGPIS (the Multi-Array Galactic Plane Imaging Survey) was designed to complement the GLIMPSE infrared PLane survey withe the Spitzer Space telescope.

More about Helfand

NYT 2012 AFTER 35 years at Columbia University, where he was chairman of the astronomy department and co-director of the Astrophysics Laboratory, David J. Helfand is on leave to serve as president of Quest University Canada, a tiny liberal arts college in British Columbia that graduated its first class last spring. It is Canada’s only private, secular nonprofit university.

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