Book Review: Deceived Wisdom

Deceived Wisdom
Author: David Bradley
Published: 8 November 2012
Publisher: Elliot and Thompson
Summary: Warm and incredibly insightful – a literary gift.

Several weeks ago I provided a brief round up of what I considered to be some of the most common scientific misconceptions. But, like all good ideas, it seems that I was beaten to the literary punch by Professor David Bradley, who has recently written an entire book on the subject, entitled ‘Deceived Wisdom: Why What You Thought Was Right Was Wrong’.

What is immediately evident from a casual perusal of the contents page is the sheer breadth of topics that Bradley has chosen to cover. Everything from dietary deceptions to computer hacking is placed beneath the cold light of his empirical lens, meaning that every reader is likely to find his or her own topics of personal interest. I was wearing a particularly wry smile whilst reading the chapter on the fallacy of ‘cooling down with a nice warm cup of tea’, having had a very similar conversation with a friend at university. Their staunch refusal to accept my explanation nearly led me to have an apoplectic fit; fortunately, thanks to David, I now consider the matter closed.

It’s not just the breadth and scope of the content that is appealing. The book is also structured in a well thought out and instantly accessible manner. Each misconception is clearly defined in a separate bite-size chunk, allowing the reader to jump back and forth between the issues that most interest them without any loss to the overall narrative flow. Similarly, there is a clear format to each chapter, from the initial framing of the current problem to the subsequent examination of the available evidence and the eventual conclusion, all of which is reminiscent of the methodological approach underpinning most scientific experiments. There are also numerous nuggets of history scattered throughout, providing all of the facts with some much needed context. Many of the topics themselves are also refreshingly relevant, with a clear real-life application. For instance, I was particularly distressed to discover that, despite earlier protestations, my snoring was not in fact a natural phenomenon…I have yet to pass this information on to my girlfriend. Most importantly, each chapter finishes with a handy round-up of the key scientific concepts along with some useful references for further reading. As such, the information is both easy to digest and easy to remember, which means that it can be freely discussed long after the book itself has been discarded. And this is just what modern science needs.

That said, if you’re a bit of a hardened skeptic then you may find some of the information a little dated. The myth surrounding the theoretical implausibility of bumblebee flight has long been debunked, and what’s more, is likely to be of little interest to anyone outside of core scientific circles. There are also times when Bradley has a tendency to wander off topic: Instead of using Amrstrong’s supposed verbal faux-pas to defend the authenticity of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I would have much preferred that the conspiracy theorists were effectually rebuffed using cold hard facts.

However, these are all minor and frankly rather petty gripes. The truth is that this is a brilliant book, which presents some really pertinent information in a fun and enjoyable manner. It’s particularly important given that one of modern science’s principal failings has been a lack of enthusiasm for engaging with a wider public audience. Attempts to start bridging this gap are long overdue, and Deceived Wisdom is one of a new breed of popular science texts that aims to connect with people from outside of the genre’s traditionally narrow demographic. The light-hearted approach is likely to prove popular, and the inclusion of many real-world topics will provide fuel for numerous late night debates. Which is why I find a lot of the criticism leveled at the title to be extremely misguided. Has Bradley written the next ‘Selfish Gene’? No, of course not. Is the content, at times, a little simplistic? Yes, of course it is. But that’s the point. This is not a timeless genre-redefining classic. What it is, is a deeply stimulating read that can, and will, be read by those who would otherwise never have picked up a popular science book in their lives.

In ‘Deceived Wisdom’ Bradley reinforces what science is really all about: questioning what you know. This is particularly pertinent in today’s modern society, where a disheartening number of people rely on hearsay and media gossip, making the promotion of empirical analysis and rational thought more important than ever.

Paul Blakeley

Paul has an MSc in Reproductive Biology, and is currently dabbling in a bit of writing and website design…If someone would like to give him a job, that would be lovely.

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