A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

Scientific Habits of Mind

David J. Helfand

Columbia University Press

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

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Pub Date: August 2017

ISBN: 9780231168731

344 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $22.95£19.95

Pub Date: February 2016

ISBN: 9780231168724

344 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $29.95£24.95

Pub Date: February 2016

ISBN: 9780231541022

344 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $28.99£25.00

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

Scientific Habits of Mind

David J. Helfand

Columbia University Press

We live in the Information Age, with billions of bytes of data just two swipes away. Yet how much of this is mis- or even disinformation? A lot of it is, and your search engine can't tell the difference. As a result, an avalanche of misinformation threatens to overwhelm the discourse we so desperately need to address complex social problems such as climate change, the food and water crises, biodiversity collapse, and emerging threats to public health. This book provides an inoculation against the misinformation epidemic by cultivating scientific habits of mind. Anyone can do it—indeed, everyone must do it if our species is to survive on this crowded and finite planet.

This survival guide supplies an essential set of apps for the prefrontal cortex while making science both accessible and entertaining. It will dissolve your fear of numbers, demystify graphs, and elucidate the key concepts of probability, all while celebrating the precise use of language and logic. David Helfand, one of our nation's leading astronomers and science educators, has taught scientific habits of mind to generations in the classroom, where he continues to wage a provocative battle against sloppy thinking and the encroachment of misinformation.

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age is a no-holds-barred paean to the scientific mode of thinking. Helfand's wide-ranging, interdisciplinary, humorously cynical intellect comes through at every turn.

J. Craig Wheeler, University of Texas at Austin

A Survival Guide for the Misinformation Age is an impassioned plea for science literacy. Given the state of the world today, in which scientifically underinformed voters elect scientifically illiterate politicians, David Helfand has written the right book at the right time with the right message. Read it now. The future of our civilization may depend on it.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History

David Helfand's Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age gives readers a chance to spend time with one this country's clearest and best critical thinkers. Helfand channels Steven Pinker's ability to dissect language with John Alan Paulos's ability to explain numbers with Richard Dawkins' ability to explain our existence (to obtain food, to avoid being food, and to reproduce) with George Carlin's ability to make us laugh. Using personal anecdotes (he's a Red Sox fan), Helfand teaches us how to think through questions as diverse as why the moon doesn't make us lunatics to why it only takes twenty-three people to have a 50:50 chance that two will have the same birthday. A real pleasure.

Paul Offit, University of Pennsylvania

Important and timely.

Library Journal

Helfand's work is an admirable response to a long-standing problem of sloppy thinking.

Publishers Weekly

Helfand is a man brimming with incredible insights on the universe.

Dave's Universe

A must–read for anyone presuming to call themselves a scientist and a should–read for anyone just trying to make sense of the overwhelming volume of data and real and concocted 'proofs' of nearly everything that spews forth from the Internet on demand. This book provides a road map for teaching students how to both celebrate science and how to view their primary source of information with skepticism and caution. Every science teacher should read this book.

John Ziegler, NSTA Recommends

For those with an arts and humanities background, this book offers many valuable lessons.... For everyone else it provides a vital antidote to the ills of misinformation by teaching systematic and rigorous scientific reasoning.

Marina Gerner, Times Literary Supplement

Highly recommended.


How I wish everyone would read, appreciate, and follow [David J. Helfand's] guidance.

Physics Today
Introduction: Information, Misinformation, and Our Planet's Future
1. A Walk in the Park
2. What Is Science?
3. A Sense of Scale
Interlude 1: Numbers
4. Discoveries on the Back of an Envelope
5. Insights in Lines and Dots
Interlude 2: Language and Logic
6. Expecting the Improbable
7. Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
8. Correlation, Causation . . . Confusion and Clarity
9. Definitional Features of Science
10. Applying Scientific Habits of Mind to Earth's Future
11. What Isn't Science
12. The Triumph of Misinformation; The Peril of Ignorance
13. The Unfinished Cathedral
Appendix: Practicing Scientific Habits of Mind

Read the chapter, "A Walk in the Park":

2016 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

About the Author

David Helfand is the former chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University where he has served on the faculty for nearly four decades. He has also been a visiting scientist at the Danish Space Research Institute and the Sackler Distinguished Visiting Astronomer at Cambridge University. He was a founding tutor and served as president and vice chancellor at Quest University Canada; he recently completed a term as president of the American Astronomical Society. He has published commentary in Nature, Physics Today, the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications.