Brian Dunning is the author responsible for a series of weekly podcasts debunking and analysing a variety of dubious, pseudo-scientific, un-scientific and downright loony ideas, claims and myths common or persistent in the pop (and not so pop) culture. Skeptoid 2 is essentially a written version of those podcasts, a collection of fifty pieces of which many can be also read or listened to at his website.
This is both the weakness and the strength of the book: a strength, because it gives many short texts on a wide variety of subjects, and virtually everybody will be able to find something of interest there. Most people will also find something genuinely educational and enlightening.
From The Detoxification Myth to How to Argue with a Creationist to Super Sized Fast Food Phobia to conspiracy theories surrounding the collapse of the WTC, the variety of subjects means that reader’s reactions will vary from shocked if not outraged disbelief to well, “I knew it all along to surely, nobody could possibly believe in THAT”.
But being a collection is also a major weakness of Skeptoid 2, as the items included appear to be pretty random. Apart from reinforcing the not very original idea that seemingly sane and respectable people are capable of believing the most astonishing bunkum, and that it’s a Good Thing to question most of the science and health related news even in the mainstream media, Skeptoid 2 doesn’t offer a consistent, clearly guided argument.
I don’t think it intended to, though, and as it exposes individual cases, Skeptoid 2 also provides examples of critical thinking as applied by Dunning to checking and debunking outrageous claims. It’s a decent educational tool in itself, and Dunning conversational tone is accessible and friendly.
Dunning is neither preachy nor excessively arrogant (although a degree of arrogance is, admittedly, something of a defining species trait for debunkers and sceptics) and his pieces are usually very well researched and often surprisingly balanced.
He does, though, seem to place an excessive trust in official, United-States-government produced information. He takes the integrity of institutions like FDA and others very much at the face value despite known problems with many of their procedures, often quotes the US government sources as the final authority which doesn’t need to be questioned at all, and doesn’t seem to ever question them, at least in this book. To quote from another excellent debunker, “just because big pharma is evil, doesn’t mean homeopathy works”. Which we can probably all agree on. But what Dunning seems to forget is the other side of the equation “just because homeopathy is a con, doesn’t mean that big pharma isn’t evil”.
He never contemplates the possibility of corruption by vested interest agendas, and, like many US sceptics, has a faintly noticeable libertarian bias.
Recommended to those interested in bad science, conspiracy theories, urban myths and misrepresentation of science in the media.
Publisher: CreateSpace September 2008