________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 19 . . . . May 15, 2009

cover Nibbling on Einstein's Brain: The Good, the Bad & the Bogus in Science.

Diane Swanson. Illustrated by Francis Blake.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2009.
151 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $24.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-186-0.
ISBN 978-1-55451-187-7.

Subject Headings:
Science-Methodology-Juvenile literature.
Fraud in science-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

**** /4


Imagine what happens when inadequate, faulty, or phony science creeps into your life. It's used incorrectly to declare products "safe" or "unsafe." It persuades you to buy goods that are trash. It promotes poor medical treatments that don't help and discourages you from getting the care that does. (From "Chapter 1: Beware of Bad Science," p. 3.)

It's easier to accept ideas than to question them, to ignore information than to change your views, to follow your heart instead of your head. Easier, but risky. Quacks can take advantage of people who aren't using their heads. So stop and think –– it'll help you avoid these Mind Traps. (From "Chapter 4: Mind Watch," p. 83.)

Being wary, watchful, or even suspicious of scientific research is not being negative. It's using your head to protect yourself –– a very positive thing to do. Ask questions, demand evidence, and insist on clarity and you empower yourself to form wiser conclusions and make better decisions (From "Chapter 5: Winning Strategies," p. 116.)

In the May 21, 2004 issue of CM, I had the opportunity to review Diane Swanson's Turn It Loose: The Scientist in Absolutely Everybody. This is a book I believed was written to inspire readers to achieve great things by remaining curious and full-of-wonder and, as Swanson encouraged, to feel "free to do the things your inborn scientist has always been eager to do." Nibbling on Einstein's Brain: The Good, The Bad, and The Bogus in Science is Diane Swanson's most recent contribution to the juvenile science literature, and it is outstanding.

     Swanson's goal is to assist readers in distinguishing good science from bad science, "and the bad reporting of good science," by helping them to know and develop the necessary skills. Foundational to these skills are attitudes of skepticism and open-mindedness and an enduring desire to know and understand science and scientific research. It is the cleverness with which Swanson brings this all together for adolescent and pre-teen readers that makes the book unique, engaging, and utterly informative.

     Swanson begins the first of five chapters with fabricated and actual examples of inadequate and poorly communicated science to establish the need to be circumspect when presented with reports of scientific research (see the Chapter 1 excerpt above). This is followed by the identification and description of what she refers to as "the general characteristics of good science." These include, among other things, the development of theories, experimentation, and cross-checking which "bad science" rarely, if ever, embodies. Bad science, readers are told, is a consequence of faulty research (i.e., "poorly trained researchers, flawed study designs and methods, weak data, incorrect analyses, or off base conclusions") and "theories" that are impossible to test. Interestingly enough, the title of the book, Nibbling on Einstein's Brain, does not originate in bad science, but derives from cross-checking research on edible memories. Swanson tells about scientists who in the 1950s and 1960s believed that memories were stored as proteins in the brain. Their experiments with flatworms suggested that these protein-based memories could be transferred by eating brain tissue. In 1966, however, 23 researchers who repeated these edible memory experiments were unable to come to the same conclusion. Swanson writes, "Thanks to the time honored tradition of scientists cross-checking one another, the theory died. So even if you could nibble on Einstein's brain……it wouldn't make you any smarter"" (p. 11). Episodes such as this and others created by Swanson are scattered throughout the book's five chapters. Like the "Baloney Busters" in Chapter 2, "Media Alerts" in Chapter 3, "Mind Traps" in Chapter 4, and "Winning Strategies" in Chapter 5, they shed light on the abstract ideas presented by placing them in contexts that readers will find interesting and intelligible.

     There are 21 "Baloney Busters," and these are framed as questions one should "always ask" when determining the soundness and credibility of all aspects of scientific research. Each question flows out of a scenario that readers are asked to consider from a perspective provided by Swanson. As one example, Baloney Buster 10 is titled, "Letting the Cat Out of the Bag." Swanson states that it possible for a researcher to influence the results of an experiment "by letting the test subjects know what's expected of them." She then presents Susie Scientist who is trying to determine the effects of eating carrots for breakfast. Rather than asking the participants in the study to report the effects they notice, Susie Scientist asks that they report side effects like thirst. Swanson maintains that Susie's suggestion will cause some of the participants to feel that they need a beverage when they may not. As a result, the question that must be asked of similar reported research is, "Did the researchers have opportunities to influence the results?" The remaining 20 questions either challenge the research design (e.g., "Did the sample represent the population?"), analyze the analysis of the research results (e.g. "Were results hidden in percentiles?"), or question the conclusions drawn from the data analysis (e.g., "Did the conclusions overstep?"). Nine of the 21 Baloney Busters include a "Your Turn" component that encourages the reader to either test their understanding of the "bad science" described or apply the unscientific practice in order to determine the erroneous consequence.

     Media Watch, the third chapter, is focussed on the reporting of science news, particularly the importance of reviewing the manner in which scientific research and research results are conveyed and the value of critiquing advertisements that use research results to sell products. The format in this and all remaining chapters is identical to the format described for Chapter 2. There are 11 "Media Alerts" and four "Your Turn" components. The Media Alerts encourage readers, among other things, to question the thoroughness and clarity of the research reported and to look for the author's use of sensationalism, personal point of view and assumptions. The use of technical words, jargon, is also considered problematic because information is not presented in a way that allows for understanding. One example that Swanson provides to illustrate the use of jargon occurs in Media Alert 3, "Talking the Talk." A reporter praises the use of "vertical landscape design features" when writing about trees. The "Your Turn" associated with this Media Alert asks that the reader "turn gobbledygook into plain English" by reducing the following sentence to three words: "The utilization of standing devices made of wood and wire eliminates the meandering of populations of bovines." The solution is given on page 139.

     The final two chapters in Nibbling on Einstein's Brain are titled "Mind Watch" and "Winning Strategies." Swanson makes the point in Mind Watch that "Baloney Busters" and "Media Alerts" are not enough to ensure that good science will be distinguished from bad science. She attributes this to 18 mind traps (see Chapter 4 excerpt above). These include such things as hearsay, the false claims of advertisers, opinions of a favourite source, circular reasoning, and folk wisdom. They get in the way of thinking, especially logical thinking based upon a sound understanding of science. The winning strategies of Chapter 5 are attitudes and actions that are necessary to avoid mind traps and to distinguish good from bad information and claims. This means being open-minded, wary, willing to search for evidence, and able to evaluate and question assumptions, claims, and conclusions generated by research in both science and pseudoscience. In order for these winning strategies to be developed, Swanson encourages readers to "plug in, clue in" to science in order to become familiar with key scientific concepts, the methods of scientific research, and the impact of science on society. Such knowledge, she argues, when combined with critical thinking skills enables one "to sift evidence from propaganda, logic from superstition, conclusions from assumptions, and science from folklore." Swanson concludes the chapter by calling upon readers to "speak up" and "speak out" by "joining other voices who are calling for more complete, easy to understand scientific information and better funding for quality science education and research." The book ends with the normal glossary and index and a section labelled "Where to Get Help." It is this section that points readers in the direction of magazines, internet sites, and books that enable them to "plug in" and "clue in" to science.

     The illustrations by Francis Blake and the interior design by Irvin Cheung and Kimberly Ang bring a merriment to the text that helps to lighten the seriousness of the content. Given the age-group for which Swanson created Nibbling on Einstein's Brain, I can't imagine a more appropriate use of Blake's whimsical characters and Cheung and Ang's ability to lay out various texts and illustrated components on a page in what one comes to perceive as carefully organized and logical.

     Younger readers of Nibbling on Einstein''s Brain: The Good, The Bad and The Bogus in Science will need guidance from parents, guardians, or teachers. This is not a book to rush through. Like all knowledge that is in the process of being developed, readers will need time to think about and practice what Swanson is suggesting. Given the scientific skills and scientific attitudes that are outcomes in many curriculum documents for science, this is a book that should be required reading for all teachers, whether generalists or science specialists, who are responsible for teaching Grades 4 through 10 science. I suspect it will be on the list of required texts in many teacher education programs with science specific curriculum and instruction courses.

Highly Recommended.

Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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