March 19, 2015


Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation. By John Grant. Zest Books. $12.99.

Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries from Joan of Arc to Malcolm X. By Jeff Fleischer. Zest Books. $13.99.

     One of the most immediately useful volumes in the Zest Books line, John Grant’s Debunk It! is an attempt to explain the many lies and elements of misinformation that pervade our modern world (in which sense it is descriptive) and show readers what they can do about them (meaning it is also prescriptive). Books like this are surprisingly rare and always welcome, since they serve as a counterbalance to the punditocracy as well as political rhetoric and the idiotocracy that seems to rule the Internet. “Reality isn’t political,” writes Grant, but that is a problem for people who insist that everything is political and can and should be spun in a particular direction for purposes of political power, money-making or similar reasons. That means history, science and other factual realms are fair game for constant manipulation, whether that means retelling history from a particular ethnic or racial viewpoint (Holocaust denial, Afrocentrism), creating “medicines” by diluting active ingredients until they are no longer active (homeopathy), or using non-expert bloviators – within or abetted by the media – to “counter” near-unanimous agreement among scientists with expertise in a particular field (climate change). Grant shows how nonsense driven by personal agendas can cause great human tragedies (refusal to use AIDS drugs because of belief that the virus was created by the CIA to use against black people); can lead to the persecution and imprisonment of innocent people (“repressed memory” of childhood sexual abuse, extracted by social workers who “knew” how to get young children to recover what they forgot, so the information could be used against alleged predators); and can make nonsense seem real just because a lot of people believe it: “Plenty of people reckon they’ve seen ghosts, fairies, the Loch Ness monster, and other elusive figures. …Of course, it’s always possible that the anecdotes really do stack up to something that is worth further investigation. But we have to do the actual investigation of the anecdotal evidence, not just assume the collection of anecdotes is the investigation.” Again and again, Grant emphasizes that investigation – using, whenever possible, the scientific method, whose precepts he explains clearly – is required when checking on whether a particular statement or assertion is true. He discusses the many ways people try, for various reasons, to mislead others, including ways in which people inadvertently mislead themselves. He talks about cherry picking (using only the data that support what you want supported), ad hominem attacks (go after the person you disagree with, not after that person’s arguments), false balance (a common media failing, which involves giving 50% of time to two opposing viewpoints even when one is responsible and the other is ridiculous), confirmation bias (our tendency to notice more things that go along with what we believe than ones that undermine our beliefs), and much more. And he explains ways to try to determine whether people – including the author himself – are presenting truth or bull. Among his 15 recommendations is to “think about whether the authorities that someone’s quoting really are authorities” – that is, authorities in the field being discussed, since you would not want even the most expert plumber to perform the work of, say, a brain surgeon. He also warns about checking to be sure quotes are in the correct context, looking for raw data rather than someone’s interpretation of it, and trying to be sure that people are not deliberately misusing words to attempt to sway an argument (a common tactic of creationists who say evolution is “just a theory” – the word “theory” in scientific context meaning “as close as you can get to 100% scientific certainty,” and in the case of evolution something that was known and accepted long before Darwin). There are a couple of missteps in the book, such as a passing reference to “Fred Phelps” without explaining who he was (a virulently anti-gay pastor of a church he created) and a reference to peer reviews being explained on page 37 (actual page: 72). But by and large, Grant lays out a clear, compelling and, most important, actionable case for identifying and responding to the widespread errors and outright lies that we encounter daily in what could easily be called the Misinformation Age.

     This is not to say that misinformation is in any way new. It has been used for centuries, if not millennia, to skew reports of history in the direction favored by historians working at particular times and in particular circumstances. Hence the widely quoted aphorism, “History is written by the victors” – which is how Winston Churchill put it, although there are plenty of earlier versions of the comment (Napoleon’s: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”). Yet this notion has not stopped stories, and exaggerations, from being produced about various revolutionaries, both successful and defeated, in the years after their attempts to overthrow a government or society have come to an end. Jeff Fleischer collects information on 50 such revolutionaries (more if you count some of his stories-within-the-stories about people with whom the primary ones he discusses interacted). The book’s title and subtitle show both its strength (history written to be brief, pointed and interesting) and weakness (a style that cannot decide whether or not to be serious). Actually, the book’s subtitle is significantly in error in a way that quickly calls into question what Fleischer is writing and why: he arranges the profiles according to the date of birth of each subject, on which basis the book goes from Hannibal, the scourge of Rome (with Joan of Arc being the 12th entry) to Martin Luther King, Jr. (with Malcolm X being the 46th person profiled). The most interesting element of the book is its inclusion of people whose names will likely be unfamiliar to readers, at least in North America: Vercingetorix, who fought Julius Caesar in Gaul; Arminius, an early leader of the Germanic tribes that eventually took over the remnants of the Roman Empire; Metacom, leader of attacks against Pilgrim colonies not long after the first Thanksgiving; Hone Heke, a tribal chieftain who fought the British settlers of New Zealand; Mary Harris Jones, who battled unfair labor practices and for whom the magazine Mother Jones is named; Michael Collins, who launched numerous Irish Republican Army attacks against British forces; and others. Presented along with these are stories of such well-known revolutionaries as Spartacus, Julius Caesar (not usually thought of as a revolutionary), Cleopatra (also not usually seen as a revolutionary), Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. Fleischer’s (+++) book follows a straightforward approach: each short chapter starts by noting a person’s dates, location and opponent, which can be a nation or group of people (Rome, Great Britain, Spain, English settlers) or a perceived societal ill (slavery, taxes, unfair labor practices). The write-ups are scarcely revelatory and often are little more than a sequence of dates and events – not the most enthralling way to present history. Along the way, though, Fleischer does bring up some little-known elements of the past, such as the facts that the English did not capture Joan of Arc (a French faction, the Burgundians, did, turning her over to the English for punishment) and that more than a dozen feature films have been made in France about Asterix, a comic-book character whose adventures are set in the era of Vercingetorix (who sometimes appears as a character). For the most part, though, Rockin’ the Boat is pretty plain stuff. Fleischer’s attempts at a brighter style tend to fall flat: he captions a bust “Cleopatra, marbleized,” for example, and calls a full-length portrait of the first U.S. president “George Washington: tight in tights.” As a surface-level, easy-to-read look at some familiar history and some of its byways, the book is fine, but there is scarcely anything revolutionary about its selection of its subjects or its presentation of their lives.

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