Non-Fiction Reviews

50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True

(2012) Guy P. Harrison, Prometheus, 12 / US$18, trdpbk, 458pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14495-1


Sadly we have largely lost the fairy tales of yore and have acquired modern folklore. A shame because at least the fairy tales of yore were meant to be tales for youngsters that were clearly fiction, whereas modern folklore is presented as fact, not for entertainment but supposed serious contemplation. And so we have those who sincerely believe that the Apollo Moonshot missions never took place, that alien technology is kept at Roswell (a truly silly notion as we all know it's at SF2 Concatenation mission control), alternative medicine is better and so forth. Guy Harrison has provided a rough-and-ready debunking of such popular myths.

Each of the 50 myths is allocated a couple to several pages and collected in topic sections such as 'strange healings' (or health to you and me). There is also a subject index at the back for reference purposes. The sections interestingly often include MORI /GALLUP standard survey statistics of popular belief of these myths. For example a 2009 Harris poll indicates that 42% of folk in the US believe in ghosts (and before you laugh in Britain the figure is 40% believe that ghosts can haunt houses). And then there are the occasional cartoon drawings to enliven matters.

Quite simply, this is a book parents should get their teenagers as an essential part of growing up.

Although I do recommend this book, life scientists at least might be just a little worried at the thin veneer of political correctness that colours the necessary superficiality of the topics. Now of course one cannot expect great depth in summarising a subject in just a few pages each topic warrants a book of their own but that does mean care needs to be taken. In the section 'Biological races are not real' Guy Harrison rightly highlights the difficulty we (biologists) have in defining race. Having said that we know that certain genes have certain prevalence in certain parts of the world. This is why you can use genomic analysis to ascertain roughly from which parts of the world your ancestors came. And so there is no talk of strains or in botany cultivars or that Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are the same species (Brassica oleracea) with just a couple of genes and/or gene expression difference between the two. Similarly the section on 'Race based medicine is a great idea' in which the author correctly says it is not makes no mention of pharmacogenetics whereby medicines may soon increasingly be prescribed depending on the individual patient's genome. This thin veneer of political correctness means that we risk our failing to celebrate our biological diversity (as a biologist I can tell you that biodiversity really is a good thing) and indeed appreciate the value of scientific progress that could benefit us all. But this is what comes of having to cover so much ground in a single volume. Nonetheless notwithstanding these quibbles this is a most useful work and the further reading in the 'go deeper' appendages to the chapters should in the main steer readers back to the straights.

So if you do not want your teenagers from growing up believing that an angel is watching over them, or the Bible contains a code that reveals the future, or that global warming is purely a political issue, then give them this book.

Jonathan Cowie

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