We live in a time when facts are often treated as mere inconveniences. People who claim to be knowledgeable about important topics like global warming, immunizations and evolution appear all the time on TV spouting opinions that have nothing to do with the actual facts of science and everything to do with ideology, foolish theories and an often overwhelming sense of proud ignorance of facts.
And while most of us are smart enough to understand the truth behind such issues as climate change — the facts are unfortunately pretty much impossible to ignore on any level — how many of us are smart or well-informed enough to have considered opinions on some of the more complex issues of our time. For instance, what are we to think of fracking? Is fracking an almost miraculous way to extract natural gas from the ground with few ramifications or is it a dangerous process that destroys aquifers and has devastating environmental consequences? I'd like to think I'm smart and well informed on most issues, but I have to admit that I know next to nothing about the impact of fracking.
Darryl Cunningham is a respected scientist and cartoonist whose new book How to Fake a Moon Landing aims to address exactly those sorts of issues, Subtitled "Exposing the Myths of Science Denial," Cunningham attempts to throw real facts at those who simply assert uninformed opinions — or worse, pseudo-science — as real facts. Unfortunately, while I admire Cunningham's passion, intelligence and persuasive powers, this book falls a bit short for me in its ability to open up my eyes and changing my mind.
In 172 dense pages, all drawn in a six-panel grid, Cunningham addresses seven different areas in which science and some set of popular opinion are often in conflict:
- The moon landing and conspiracy theorists who believe it was faked
- Homeopathy: does it work at all?
- Chiropractic: can resetting the back help all kinds of problems?
- The MMR vaccination scandal
- Evolution vs. creation
- Climate change
Obviously these are all very large and complex subjects; a simple look at the math of this book shows that Cunningham can't really go into depth on all the subjects that he covers. Each of these topics has obviously filled shelves of books on their own, so Cunningham's book is simply an introduction to many of these subjects.
And while those short introductions are just fine for topics like addressing the mythology around the moon landing — Cunningham absolutely shatters the assertions of the moon landing deniers in a mere 15 pages, with a devastating summary ("Conspiracies are messy, complicated affairs. History has shown us repeatedly how difficult it is even for the most powerful to keep their dubious affairs secret. How credible is it, then, that in the world of the Internet, of talk shows, film and book deals, not one astronaut or NASA employee has blown the whistle on this alleged hoax?"), the brief length of this book doesn't allow for a more nuanced look at topics that deserve attention at length.
For instance, Cunningham does a fine introduction to the MMR vaccination scandal, presenting an outstanding take-down of the kind of pseudo-science that led to completely specious connections between the MMR vaccine and the rise in childhood autism. But the chapter becomes much more about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor whose claims helped lead to the stuffing of his own pockets, than a focus on the real and substantial struggles of parents who used the MMR vaccine as a convenient explanation of the pain that they were feeling in daling with an autistic child. Because the chapter is so short, it prevents the reader from getting a nuanced picture of both sides in this conversation. There's no need for an NPR style balance between one side and the other, but I'd hoped to find more empathy for the terrible stress drove otherwise rational people to reach rather irrational decisions.
The most difficult chapter for me in this book is the one that addresses the issue of fracking. Cunningham clearly has strong opinions that this technology is horribly devastating. He devotes the longest chapter of How to Fake a Moon Landing to exploring this topic. I was really happy to read an exploration of the topic of fracking, since I've never really been able to spend much time reviewing any of the literature around that issue. Frankly the competing opinions around fracking often seem like a set of competing hurricanes, continually swirling violently around each other and never quite colliding. Cunningham presents a very negative view of fracking, describing the many problems with the technology — problems with the disposal of waste, of inconsistent uses of concrete and other similar problems that, to him, argue strongly against the adoption of fracking as a tool in our society. As Cunningham acknowledges, his take on this issue could be labeled as extremely liberal and thus dismissed out of hand, but that's not at all what he's trying to do in this book.
I sympathized with Cunningham's viewpoint. I'm politically liberal. I care about the environment and want to make sure this major new source of energy is clean. I want to be sure that fracking doesn't devastate our planet's delicate ecosystem even more than it already has been. But I've also read many opinions from good, intelligent men and women that I respect, who all tell me that fracking is not bad in any way and that that technology has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of everyone in America.
How am I to navigate those opinions? I know that Darryl Cunningham is not trying to dictate to me how I should feel about such an important issue — the last chapter in his book specifically asks readers to use the scientific method to help drive their opinions on issues — but this is not a case where, as the epigraph of this book states, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however, everyone is not entitled to their own facts." There are conflicting facts about this new technology, major conflicts between people of good faith and intelligence. So how should I decide on it? Cunningham's book is so short and concise that it has trouble with ideas that are extremely complex.
How to Fake a Moon Landing is a succinct and direct rebuttal to those who deny the realities of science and reason. It's a smart and intriguing book. Unfortunately, the book is a bit too concise for the author to make his points extremely well. If Cunningham had either addressed fewer topics in this book or created a longer book, I can't help but to think it would have been much more satisfying.