Finally! The Perfect Book for Geology-Loving Comic Book Fans!

Have you dreamt of a richly-illustrated, geology-themed superhero comic for kids? One that not only gets the science right, but encourages great study habits, turns ordinary encounters into fantastical geologic adventures, models kindness and heart-warming family dynamics, and encourages creativity, all without talking down to kids for an instant? My darlings, your dreams just came true:

Image shows the cover of The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic.

The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic.

When I first got my hands on an advance copy of The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic, I squeed. I did. Because I am a nerd, people. I love geology, and I thoroughly enjoy superhero comics, and I adore media that put someone other than a generic white male in the spotlight for a change. And this comic book is written by Kanani K. M. Lee, an actual geophysicist whose specialty is the interior of the earth – and writing rocking great geologic comics. Illustrator Adam Wallenta brings her characters to vivid life, with blazing, bold color illustrations.

Our hero is George, a sweet and brilliant African-American boy who lives with his grandma and has a secret identity. He’s an ordinary boy worried about getting to school on time and passing his earth science test. But when cracks in the sidewalk menace, he transforms into Geo, a geologically-savvy superhero. His skateboard becomes a rocket-board, and his backpack becomes Rocky, his faithful robot dog. The sidewalk cracks morph into tectonic plates; an open manhole erupts as a raging volcano (from which he saves a visually-impaired woman). He encounters earthquakes and tsunamis, ties the geological drama to the lessons on the earth’s structure and plate tectonics taught by his science teacher, and after heroic feats of recall, aces his test.

Detail from The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic.

It’s a richly-imagined world that vividly shows the way the plates move, and how those movements are driven by titanic forces deep within our home planet. Using diagrams, analogies, and dramatic illustrations how the varied geologic phenomena Geo experienced can all be tied to those plate motions. Dr. Lee manages to pack a textbook-worth of information in, but paces it in such a way that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. And the characters she’s created are a delight.

This may not be a suitable comic for very young children (unless they’re the kind of kids who started using complex technical terms at the age of five), but you can feel quite comfortable getting a copy for anyone from grade school to senior citizen. Anyone who loves comics, science, or both will enjoy this tale. And the second half of the book is an excellent prose tutorial on plate tectonics, paleomagnetic reversals, the earth’s structure, seismology, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, and finishes with a primer on what geologists actually do that will help everyone realize there’s more to it than just rocks. The final section gives links to geology activities suitable for trying at home. Neat!

I can’t tell you what a relief The Incredible Plate Tectonics Comic is after spending over a month buried in creationist textbooks that not only mutilate geoscience, but have severely stunted imaginations. This is the comic I’ll be slipping to kids who are stuck learning sham science. It shows the real thing, and in a gorgeous way. It’s the book I’ll be giving to kids who want to know more about geoscience, and the people who think rocks are boring, and the folks who care about diversity in STEM, and anyone who needs a gentle nudge to see how rewarding diversity can be. I can see this as the lovingly-battered book people slip off a shelf to show as the comic that got them in to science, or helped them understand the news when things like the Napa quake happen.

And I’m so thrilled we’ll be seeing Geo again – I’m told more adventures are already in the works. I can’t wait!

Go introduce yourself to Geo here, and reserve your copy here.

Image shows Misha asleep on the keyboard and my paper copy of the above review. I was supposed to be transcribing it, but she was so darned comfy...

Misha’s idea of helping me get this review online for ye.

This review was originally published at Rosetta Stones. But you guys are the only ones getting the bonus kitty pic!

Homeschool Sex Machine: The Unreliable (Horny) Narrator Par Excellence

A lot of the stuff I read by homeschool alumni is poignant, rage-inducing, eye-opening, jaw-dropping, and quite often terrifying. These kids were raised in the straitjacket of extreme Christian fundamentalism, subjected to educational malpractice, threatened with hellfire and damnation, raised with an extreme emphasis on gender roles and chastity, indoctrinated for decades. Yet they still managed to emerge with sharp minds, a willingness to question, and the ability to share their journeys. They have my undying respect. They’re amazing people.

But this is the first time one of them has had me nearly peeing myself with laughter in the wee hours of the morning.

Book cover for Homeschool Sex Machine. A young, gangly Matthew in a red turtleneck holds a clarinet and half-smiles at the camera.

I downloaded Matthew Pierce’s Homeschool Sex Machine: Babes, Bible Quiz, and the Clinton Years because I needed a bit of easy-but-related-to-current-project reading at bedtime. But mostly, I did it because of the title. I mean, we’re talking about someone raised in the purity culture, folks. You cannon even imagine how jarring the idea of someone raised to be pure and virginal, not even supposed to date or kiss until marriage, being a sex machine is. Also, I’d been seeing alumni reviews here and there, which were all positive, and the thing was $2.99, and so it seemed a safe bet.

Don’t make that bet if you’re still recovering from abdominal surgery, because you’ll bust your stitches.

Now, you may have heard this of this book being blacklisted by some Christian sites. This is because they can’t stand the idea of sex, and also, there are bosoms. (I suspect those declining to carry this book are the same sorts who flipped their shit when they got a brief sex scene at the beginning of The Wedding Party. Seriously, read the one-star reviews – they’re hysterical.)

I do have to warn you: there are bosoms. And sex appeal. And *gasp* dancing.

Matthew Pierce has a cutting sense of humor, which he most often uses to undercut himself. Take learning the clarinet, for example: He talks about being placed “in the class that wore red turtlenecks, which was probably the class for prodigies.” Now, woodwinds weren’t quite what he’d had in mind when his parents said they were putting him in a band. He’d expected more rock star than orchestra. But it went well:

The entire class would soon bear witness to my meteoric rise, as I soared to the position of fifth chair clarinet in a section of six clarinets.

Yep. Meteoric, indeed. This former member of the concert choir that often performed with the high school orchestra larfed and larfed.

But you came here for the sex machine part, didn’t you? Never fear! There’s plenty of salacious detail as Matthew makes us witnesses to his stellar career as a sex machine. He didn’t even begin as a homeschool one: his first assignation was as a public school student. Alas, he didn’t save his first kiss for marriage, but gave it away willy-nilly to the luscious cheek of a kindergarten classmate – and promptly passed out from the magnitude of it. With such a promising beginning, you know that homeschool doesn’t put the brakes on this sex machine. His mad Bible knowledge, his amazing ability with the clarinet, and his gift for crushing opposing teams at Bible Quiz take him from one torrid affair to another. The fact they were all in his head and rated GA does nothing to detract from our admiration. He is the James Bond of the homeschool circuit.

Marvel as he resists the pressure of mother, siblings, and peers, and avoids being “knighted into purposeful singlehood.” Which is good, because it would have been a shame to waste an opportunity to use all the Xian pick-up lines he’d been composing during the purity lecture.

Admire his determination and cunning as he uses his grocery store earnings to escape homeschool and attend a Christian private school, and his extraordinary height to join their basketball team – all for a girl. Hijinks, of course, ensue.

Feel your heart melt as he attends a prom. Of sorts. No dancing, because that is a heathen pleasure denied to good Christian teens.

Instead, CHS was hosting a Spring Banquet. There was to be no cleavage (thanks, Presbyterians), no touching, no dancing (thanks, Baptists), and essentially no fun of any kind. And just to make sure we left the event edified, the school had booked a Christian performance artist to act out the Book of Jonah is a one-man play.

At the after party, he asks a strict Baptist what dancing is, and the climax comes as the most eligible bachelor on campus drags him out to dance with destiny. Well, with Sporty, the love of his life, the woman of his dreams, the lady he had moved heaven and earth and spent his money on private school for. Since he had to ask a strict Baptist what dancing is, and had to be manhandled onto the dance floor by his chief romantic rival, you can imagine how odd the conclusion is.

The fact that Matthew Pierce survived those strictly-repressed and terribly sheltered years with a wicked-sharp sense of humor and a healthy outlook on love, I put down to the power of his Inner Romeo.

You’ll come out of this book with aching ribs, a different view of the cloistered homeschool world, and a huge measure of affection for a narrator you know is unreliable, but is always all heart. And sometimes flowers.

Taking Liberties: A Book We Need Right Now

So you may have noticed lately that the right-wing ratfuckers in state governments are busy trying to roll us back to the Dark Ages. Women aren’t people, they’re “hosts” to those precious babies that will be cherished so long as they’re in the womb; once they’re out, both host and infant will be despised as social parasites if they have the audacity to be unmarried and/or poor. Some jackass is trying to slip prayer into schools by forcing teachers to read congressional prayers. In my former home state of Arizona, the frothing fundies boiled over, and decided to give religious people the right to discriminate against gays, because apparently, refusing to let them patronize your business is an act of worship. Other states have jumped on that horrible bandwagon. And let’s not forget the Russia-envy they’ve got going on. They’ve got a stiffy for totalitarian shitlords who hate on the same groups they do.

Outraged? Good. Here’s a book that will help you channel that rage more productively: Robert Boston’s Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do.

Taking Liberties Cover

This is the sort of book you pointedly give to the fuckwads in your family who insist their religious beliefs and practices be made mandatory for everyone, because freedom. It won’t scare them away by mentioning atheists right up front, either.

Robert Boston’s thesis is simple: “Religion is not the problem. Fundamentalist religion that seeks to merge with political power and impose its dogma on the unwilling is the problem. I have a big one with anyone who considers the raw power of government an appropriate vehicle for evangelism.”

Preach it, Brother Boston!

We see that religious freedom at this country’s founding meant government out of religion, full stop. Baptists were especially keen to separate church from state, with no room left for declaring this a Christian nation. These fire-and-brimstone Baptists were all about freedom, genuine freedom, of religion – and that included Jews, Muslims, polytheists, and atheists. They were better men than the ones preaching hate in the name of religion from the Statehouse floor these days.

Robert shows how court cases placed certain restrictions on religious practice, of necessity: “You have the right to believe whatever you want, but… your ability to act on those beliefs may be subject to certain restrictions.” And he boils the balance between faith and freedom to this: “Does the private choice of another person prevent you from attending the house of worship of your choice? Does it stop you from joining your co-religionists in prayer and worship? Does it require you to bow before an alien god?” No? Then cease being an overbearing asshat.

He highlights church interference in health care, education, civil rights, and politics. “In this country where the right of conscience is precious, all religious groups have the right to be heard – but none have the right to be obeyed.” Can I get a hell yes?

Robert boils it down to a power grab. These churches want our money, and our obedience, and if we want to remain the secular nation that’s always been a beacon of religious and political freedom in the world, we need to remove the theocrats from power. We need to oppose their agenda. Our fellow Americans need to realize that religious freedom does not mean that the people with the theocratic ideals and barbaric notions about women, LGBTQ folk, sex, science, and education get to have everything their way. Just because you’re religious doesn’t mean what you’re doing is right. And those 18th century clerics would be the first to fight the merging of government and church.

This book goes a long way toward ensuring we have the awareness and ability to stop and reverse this trend toward theocracy.

How Religion Targets the Vulnerable: Beyond Belief

Give me a genie and three wishes, and I’d probably ask for the following: an end to poverty worldwide, give people the desire and ability to protect and restore the environment, and an end to religion.

Religion is at the root of much of what’s wrong with the world. When we go chasing after invisible gods, all of our worst human tendencies remain, but are given God’s stamp of approval. I’m sure you’ve noticed how what God wants so often matches the desires and prejudices of the person saying what God wants. That, or they’re parroting what the people who wish to retain power over them tell them God wants. Either way, the desires always track back to people.

Image is the cover of Beyond Belief

And in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, we see just how destructive and devious religion can be. This book is full of slices of fundamentalist life from a broad range of faiths. The editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, wanted to explore the commonalities between women who found themselves sucked (or born) in to extremely restrictive religions. They weren’t intending “to refute or belittle religion.”

They didn’t have to. The religions do that quite well all by themselves.

One common theme I noticed, and that infuriated me, was the way all of these sects, from Judaism to fundie Christian to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Islam and more, preyed on vulnerability.

Within hours of the Twin Towers falling, members of a cult were at a vigil on a college campus only a few miles away. They weren’t praying for the victims so much as seeking people whose world had just come crashing down, and preying on them. Spreading Jesus was more important than rendering aid.

Another cult used a young woman’s intense desire to heal her mentally ill brother to suck her in, turning her into another money-collecting drone for the cult.

Women searching for clear, simple rules to navigate complicated lives. Women trying to overcome anxiety and depression. Women trying their best to be what pastors, parents, prophets and parishioners want. Women needing to feel loved and safe and whole. Religions descended on them like hyenas, tore them apart while promising to put them together, and spit out the pieces. Taught them to fear the wrath of God and hell so viscerally that they would do anything for salvation. Taught them they were worthless and damned if they strayed from that incredibly narrow path.

The stories these women tell grab you by the gray matter and demand you pay attention, no matter how awful they become. We sit in a mortuary chapel with Naomi Williams, surrounded by the stench of decayed human bodies, as the pastor conducts the congregation’s regular service and the parents lie.

Why couldn’t these people, who had not the slightest hesitation about telling their children that they would burn forever in hell when they died, be honest about the real-world manifestations of death? Here, surely, was the real “end” of man – dead, breaking down into volatile organic compounds, a mortician’s project. Talk about a powerful object lesson. But all we got by way of explanation was dead fish.”

We kneel on the carpet in a pastor’s office with Pamela Helberg, as her father and pastor pray “the demons of homosexuality” away.

If life begins with the splitting of a cell, my lesbian life began that night in Pastor Gary’s study. I was not made free from my burdens, but I split into two selves. My inner and outer being were forced to separate, setting me on a long and arduous path to rediscover what would make me whole again.”

We stand in Leila Khan’s room as she rejects an arranged marriage, and faces her mother’s wrath:

You have disappointed us so much. If you refuse to marry Amir, I will curse you so that you never succeed in life. You will fail and fail, and when you come crawling back to me, begging for forgiveness, you know what I will do to you that day?” She stared at me with unblinking eyes. “I will kick you so hard in your face, you will never be able to get up.”

These women all overcame their indoctrination and have gone on to live rich, fulfilling lives. These glimpses into their lives before freedom are infuriating, inspiring, and always riveting. They’ve given me a deeper understanding of life within the confines of a constricting religion. That little piece of them will always be with me.

The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Book That Triggered Mild PTSD In Me

There aren’t many books that have me lowering the temperature of my bathwater for fear of triggering flashbacks to severe burns I’ve never actually suffered. Actually, there’s only been one: this one.

Book cover of Last Days of St. Pierre, showing a photograph of Mont Pelee in eruption.

Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives.

Remember La Catastrophe? Yeah? Forget it. This is your book about Mont Peleé.

For one thing, the geology’s much better. Pretty amazing that it took a guy with what appears to be a mostly physics and math background to give us some of the geology of this eruption, but there you go. I would’ve liked a lot more, but I didn’t feel cheated. There were a few places where the fact he’s not a geologist by trade comes through – he uses an earlier date for the beginning of plate tectonics than seems to be current consensus, and his description of the Atlantic plate as “squeezing a huge bulge of hot magma toward the surface” made me go nah – but it’s okay. He gets it good enough, and he actually includes some geology, including the geologic setting of Martinique, which is a lot more than I could say about bloody geology Professor Scarth.

In fact, for the most part, he takes us through the geology from the point of view of the folks dealing with an alarming, nasty, and new example of it. After giving us the gist of what we know now, he goes back and shows us what no one knew then. We experience this terrifying eruptive sequence from the perspective of those trying to figure it out. We’re told – well, mostly shown, Dr. Zebrowski’s quite good at that – what they knew. Not much. They had no real idea what a volcano like Peleé can do. So they made some terrible mistakes.

Here’s the beauty of Dr. Zebrowski’s writing: they’re mistakes. He really delved the minds and histories of Governor Mouttet and members of his short-lived science commission, men like Gaston Landes. He read everything they’d produced that had survived, put himself in their shoes, at their time, and shows us they did the best they could. He writes with incredible empathy for pretty much everyone, with the exception of the bureaucrats back in France who refused all responsibility, and the new governor, who got 2,000 more people killed through inexcusable incompetence.

Remember Father Mary’s death? You won’t see people bringing a dying priest water called stupid for forgetting footwear. All of the people who suffered through this are treated with the utmost empathy, and honesty.

Now, that’s not to say Dr. Zebrowski’s gentle. He’s brutally clear about what a volcano can do to people. It never felt like he was dwelling on grotesque details for the sake of salaciousness, but he didn’t discreetly shroud the scenes of devastation in euphemism. No, you will come away with a thorough understanding of what a pyroclastic flow does to human bodies, and why. You won’t be able to read these parts without an adamantium stomach. If you faint when Trauma: Life in the ER or similar comes on, skip those pages. I can tolerate a lot of gore, but there were some seriously rough times – and, like I said, I had a hard time taking a hot bath afterward. Steam burns are awful.

There’s plenty else: the excellent sketches of the people and the city, the skillful tale-telling, and the perfectly-chosen passages written by the people of Martinique as the disaster unfolded. Mont Peleé is assigned no malice – it’s a volcano, not a villain, and is treated as such. We explore its slopes with some very brave souls. We uncover its secrets along with them. And we are given explanations, satisfying if not thoroughly detailed ones, for the various phenomena surrounding the eruptions.

The book doesn’t end with Peleé’s May 8th eruption, but goes on, following the first scientists to arrive. And lemme tell you: those dudes had some adventures. A whole new book could be dedicated to them alone, and perhaps someday, I will write it. Dr. Zebrowski’s laid a good foundation.

In the epilogue, we see St. Pierre today: a shadow of its former self, built on and of ruins, but still lovely, and we know why people would make a reasoned, rational decision to live under that threat.

I’d still like to see a popular book with a stronger focus on the geology, but this one does reasonably well in that department, and has much else to recommend it besides. It has my gold seal of approval.

A horribly crafted seal of approval, which is a gold circle that says "Seal of Approval," and has an awfully edited picture of my smiling face in the middle.

The book’s much better than the seal, never fear.

Crowdsourcing Books By and/or About Women and People of Color in the Geosciences

You know those moments where you suddenly notice the ism in the background? Had one recently meself. I spent a few weeks going through every single geology book available for Kindle on Amazon. I downloaded a ton of samples. And then I started sifting through them.

I noticed a few disturbing trends.

First, the samples are overwhelmingly by men. Not that this surprises me, but I’d hoped for a larger ratio of women. There were practically none. Hullo, background sexism!

A white peacock's gaudy display overshadows a peahen. Image courtesy Darkros via Wikimedia Commons.

A white peacock’s gaudy display overshadows a peahen. Image courtesy Darkros via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, the samples are overwhelmingly white. Again: disappointed but not surprised. Hullo, background racism!

A black swan lost in a crowd of white swans. Image courtesy Colin Smith via Geograph. Click photo for details.

A black swan lost in a crowd of white swans. Image courtesy Colin Smith via Geograph. Click photo for details.

Third, most of the books by women are either for children, or they’re fiction. That one really got to me. And it got me to thinking of cultural assumptions.

I have to wonder how many books on the earth sciences by women are overlooked by editors unless they’re in the traditionally female-dominated realms of education, or a good lady-like pursuit such as literature?

So I’m sure, although I know of no study that specifically proves, there’s an unconscious bias that editors have that goes some way toward explaining why the kids books and geology-themed fiction are much more likely to be by female authors, and why there are even fewer earth science books by women than I’d expect even with a lower ratio of women in STEM careers.

Even worse, I have to wonder if my unconscious bias has skewed that ratio even more in my samples. I’ll have to go back and look. One of the things I’ve learned palling around with social justice people is that we have to be aware of what our culture has wrought – and mine has so effectively taught me to overlook women that I do it without thinking, even though I am a woman.

Time that stopped. Takes effort, and a conscious commitment to noticing what culture wants us to ignore, aside from a few tokens so it can feel great about itself.

So here’s your mission, should you choose to accept it: if you know of earth science books by women and/or people of color, tell me all about them. Let’s get a list going.

And let’s see about making editors aware of their blind spot. It’s not that they’re being deliberate arseholes (in some cases), I’m sure, but our culture has spent generations telling us that it’s white dudes, usually older white ones, who do the science, so the women and people of color become practically invisible.

We need to be aware of that blind spot, and compensate by actively forcing ourselves to see. Otherwise, things won’t ever change. And people who cold have expanded our vista beyond our imaginings will remain overlooked.

We can do better. We have to do better.

Happiness is The Happy Atheist: A Review

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers

 

I should probably begin this review by admitting that PZ Myers was my gateway drug to atheism, and some of the essays in this book helped me become the type of unapologetic atheist that haunts the nightmares of deeply religious people. I stumbled upon Pharyngula during a determined effort to decrease the deficits in my scientific knowledge, specifically biology. I learned there that this squidgy, squishy, ofttimes smelly branch of science was actually quite a lot less boring than I’d believed. I also learned that, contrary to what society had shrilled at me for over 30 years, you didn’t have to be a despairing, suicidal, evil, and unpleasant tool of Satan in order to be an atheist. You could, in fact, be charming, witty, rapier-tongued, wicked-smart, adventurous, full of lust for living, in awe of this grand old world, and… actually happy. Not to mention completely Satan-free.

This book might just be the gateway for a great many other people to become happy heathens as well.

For me, this book was a nice, concentrated dose of Pharyngula, from which many of the essays originated. I could catch up on some bits I’d missed, and enjoy old favorites (“The Courtier’s Reply” will remain an atheist classic for centuries to come, I like to think). The whole book rolls smoothly along, shading from religion and the excoriating thereof into the wonder and beauty, the exquisite truths, of science. All along the way, atheism is unapologetically presented. This isn’t an accommodationist’s book. No forelocks are tugged in due deference to religion; no beliefs quietly tip-toed around; no ugly bits of faith discreetly papered over or studiously ignored while a cringing case is made for atheists to please, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, be allowed a place at the table, maybe at the foot, or perhaps underneath it if actual atheists in actual chairs are offensive to delicate religious sensibilities.

No.

Religion is given no quarter within these pages. The concealer is scrubbed from all its pimples and warts; bandages ripped from its oozing sores; its sheep’s clothing stripped from the mangy, devious wolf* within. Religious people are treated with respect and compassion, as long as they’re not frauds and cons like Ken Ham, but religious beliefs are not spared.

I think you can get a sense of what they’re subjected to by this quote: “Religion is the Mega-Shark of culture.”

But it’s not all bashing Bible bashing beliefs. Myths about atheists are dispatched, and a whole new universe, free from superstition, is opened up. Unfettered by belief’s chains, we can explore, learn, grow, and savor. Science is celebrated. Lives free from faith are shown to be far from meaningless. And every page is suffused with PZ’s quirky, sometimes caustic, sense of humor.

This book made me a happy atheist indeed. Hopefully, it will do the same for you and yours.

The Happy Atheist book cover, which is a blue smiling Darwin fish.

 

*Apologies to wolves for the above analogy – they don’t deserve to be insulted so, but I’m afraid ebola doesn’t have a folk tale about it sneaking round under false pretenses

Can You Recommend a Good Petrology Book?

You know those times where your woeful ignorance rises up like someone in a slapstick comedy and smacks you right in the face? Yeah, this is one of those times. Some recent research (having nothing to do with Christianist textbooks – yet) has caused me to again confront the fact I know bugger-all about petrology.

It’s about bloody time I fixed that problem.

So, my darlings, can you recommend to me a good beginner’s book about petrology? Preferably one that gives good coverage to as many types as possible? Hopefully one under $50? Do you have favorite websites, sources and such? Tell me all about them! I promise to give you lovely results. Lockwood and I certainly get around enough to find you some gorgeous examples of petrology in action, and I’ve already got a piece I’m working on that’s all about garnets in rhyolite. Oh, indeed.

Image is a calico cat sleeping on petrology textbooks. Caption says,

Evelyn’s kitteh Samira, being a petrology cat. Caption by Lockwood DeWitt.

Thank you in advance! You know I couldn’t be the science writer I am without you. I never forget it!

Also, have some slapstick comedy. Just because.

A (Metaphorically) Magical Review of Dr. Offit’s Magnum Opus on Woo

Do You Believe in Magic? The and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Dr. Paul Offit.

Cover of Do You Believe in Magic. It has got all sorts of herbs emerging from a top hat. Very cute and clever.I have friends who drive me mad with alt med crapola. People who shun vaccines, people who chug mega-doses of Emergen-C (and catch colds regularly anyway – but still swear it worked!), who go on and on about natural this and herbal that, until I wish to scream. There aren’t enough links to enough studies to explain why I get heartily sick of this bullshit.

Fortunately, I can now direct them to download this quite-reasonably priced ($1.99 for Kindle, last I checked – yowza!) book by a man who 1. knows his shit, 2. thoroughly mucks out the bullshit, and 3. is just kind enough to the placebo effect of some alt med treatments to placate these people.

Those of you who’ve been in the trenches of the vaccine wars probably know Paul as one of the despised enemies of anti-vaxxers. This book is an excellent example of why they hate him: it’s clear, concise, and full of citations to studies that make it very, very difficult to counter him. Also, he’s fair almost to a fault. Alt-med? He’s tried it himself. He’s given things like glucosamine a spin. He’s had less-than-satisfactory experiences with conventional medicine, so he gets why you might like something different. Sure. But then he says, let’s look at the studies – and there we have bad news. No better than placebo. Oh, dear. Better stick with the stodgy stuff, then, unless your condition is amenable to treatment by placebo, in which case, alt-med yourself out (on the safe stuff, anyway).

That’s the book in a nutshell.

Within these pages, many darlings of the alt-med scene are given a harsh dose of reality. Fans of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Depak Chopra, Dr. Andrew Weil, Suzanne Somers, Stanislaw Burzynsky, Jenny McCarthy, Joe Mercola, and other such purveyors of woo will become distressed as their darlings are demolished. People who pop vitamins are in for some very severe shocks. Supplement sectarians are about to get a rude awakening. Most of the book is merciless, and rightly so.

Most of these fatal blows are delivered with calm precision and gentle reliance on the facts, but the message is driven home with the occasional zinger, like this (my favorite line in the book): “Unfortunately, Vitamin O [oxygen] users lacked the one thing necessary to extract oxygen from water: gills.” Beauty.

I felt he went a little – perhaps a lot – too easy on the purveyors of placebos at the end (a trait he shares, interestingly enough, with Mark Twain, who had a big softy for Christian Science for just that reason: the placebo effect). I’m afraid those prone to such things will seize upon this and shriek that their pet nostrum really and truly works. I would guide their attention to the paragraphs in the final section that throw a bucket of cold water over the love fest. These are the four ways Paul divides practitioners of placebo medicine from outright quacks. For those who are curious, or need the crash course as an immediate inoculation against woo for self or others, they are these:

“First, by recommending against conventional therapies that are helpful.” If it quacks that you don’t need that chemo, it’s a quack. Run.

Second, “by promoting potentially harmful therapies without adequate warning.” If it quacks that its horrid green goo is 1000% safe despite being full of arsenic, it’s a quack. Run.

Third, “by draining patients’ bank accounts.” If it quacks it can heal you, but needs extravagant amounts of money to do so, it’s a quack. Run.

Fourth, “by promoting magical thinking.” You know the drill by now.

After reading this book, I feel much better prepared for the next dissertation on the wonders of alt-med I’m subjected to. And I have a handy tome to hand them that may, just possibly, save their lives. At the very least, it should make them wiser about their medical choices, save them some coin, and promote some harmony between them and the skeptics in their lives. Not bad for one little book, eh?

Dr. Paul Offit is a gray-haired man with brainy-specs and a suit, posing at a podium, smiling the smile of a man who's quite famous and just a bit embarassed about it.

Dr. Paul Offit, bane of woo-meisters everywhere. Image courtesy Michael Spencer for the National Institutes of Health Record via Wikimedia Commons.

Dana’s Super-Gargantuan Guide to Atheist Books Suitable for Gift-Giving (Part II)

We covered a lot of territory with Part I of our super-duper guide, and there ain’t many shopping days left. But we’ve still time for more of the specialized stuffage. Let’s go!

Image shows a kitten perched on an open book, looking as if it's reading, with the caption "Reading Rainbow." History

 

Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

This is a sweeping study of religious doubt, spanning the Ancient Greeks up through the Jews, the Romans, and even Asian doubters. You’ll meet freethinkers you didn’t even know existed, from 600 BC until the present. This is a most helpful book for understanding that doubt isn’t a modern invention. History’s full o’ freethinkers, and we are in excellent company. There is a fine tradition of doubt behind us. This book demonstrates that doubt is part of our humanity. It’s a strangely comforting truth after doubt has been so demonized by demagogues for so very long.

Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby.

Did you know American history is full of freethinkers? No? Well, Susan Jacoby aims to remedy tha. This book covers the entire period of America’s history from the first European settlers to the present. It explores the important contributions secularists have made to movements such as Abolition and feminism. You’ll see the history of the culture wars beginning with the religious opposition to evolution, and be reminded that America, for all its devout citizens, has always been a land of freethinkers.

You should totally give this book to Uncle “America’s a Christian nation!” Ralph.

 

Culture Wars

 

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by Greta Christina.

I can’t believe some of you thought I wouldn’t remember Greta’s excellent book on all those things that piss us off. Do you have a friend or relation who wonders why atheists seem angry? Do you need to get your angry thoughts in order? All of you will benefit from this book. Give it freely.

Marriage: A History by Stephanie Coontz

This is an excellent book for shattering the notion that there’s any such thing as “traditional marriage.” In it, we learn that marriage has always been in crisis, probably since about five minutes after the first human couple got married. There’s nothing new under the marital sun: this heterosexual nuclear family thingy is the real oddball. In these pages, Stephanie Coontz explores the smorgasbord that is marriage throughout the world, and discovers that traditional marriage is really in the eye of the beholder, even if you ignore all of those different types from the ancient times of a few centuries ago. This book contains truths inconvenient to culture warriors. And that is why it’s a book every atheist should have handy.

Freedom to Love for All by Yemisi Ilesanmi.

Written for an African audience, this tome will be quite helpful for anyone with African friends or family, or those interested in political struggles for equality in Africa. But it’s broad enough to be of use to anyone fighting that battle anywhere fundies rear up and attempt to legislate their morality. It debunks some of the common myths fundies love to spread: that homosexuality et al is unnatural, that gay marriage is a slippery slope to a whole new definition of animal husbandry, and that if the majority of people support so-called “traditional marriage,” that somehow gives them a license to discriminate. This book, while not large, accomplishes a lot.

Liars for Jesus by Chris Rodda.

An utterly thorough, unimpeachably sourced beatdown of the lies Liars for Jesus tell about America, this book is a vital necessity for those of us on this side of the culture wars. It combats right wing authoritarian bullshit with actual truth, which is always refreshing. It’s indispensable to those of us who are trying to disabuse lied-to people of the erroneous notions stuffed into their heads. It’s suitable for giving to those religious relations who love to spout America-is-a-Christian-nation nonsense at the feast table – and quite handy for those who must endure them.

Dishonest to God by Mary Warnock

This is a very British book, investigating the intersection of religion and public policy in a country where, despite an established church, secularism is strong and fundie religion rather weak. Despite Warnock not being a fire-breathing New Atheist, and rather more indulgent towards religion than many of us atheist activist types feel comfortable about, she argues strongly that morality must be decoupled from religion when it comes to the law. Eminently sensible, and containing good ideas suitable for all countries.

 

Science

 

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers.

Despite the awful title which he didn’t choose, this is an excellent collection of PZ’s finest atheist thought, including much biology. Chapters are short (basically blog posts) and include many of his most famous essays, including The Courtier’s Reply. The majority of the book isn’t about science, but builds to the science section, and those chapters are inspiring and meaty. This book is perfect for people who need unapologetic atheism and beautiful science in bite-sized morsels.

For the Rock Record edited by Jill S. Schneiderman and Warren D. Allmon.

I’m so excited about this book. Within, geologists take on – and take down – creationism and Intelligent Design. Biologists are already in the ring and have been for some time: with this collection of essays, geologists get in the cage and crack their knuckles before delivering a victory by knockout. Written by geologists and earth sciences educators, this book faces the fact that geology is just as much under attack by creationists as biology – after all, the rocks hold a lot of the evidence for evolution and an old, uncreated Earth. It covers geologic and paleontological claims made by creationists; their encroachment into earth sciences education, politics, and philosophy; and in a final section, covers the clash of geology and religion. It reflects on evolution with a focus on the earth sciences, and doesn’t forget that Darwin was, first and foremost, a geologist. Got a geologist/atheist on your list? This is their book. You just have to get it for them.

God and the Folly of Faith by Victor Stenger.

With this book, Victor has mounted up as one of the horsepeople of the atheist apocalypse. Seriously. No quarter is given, and if you want a book that will make religion ashamed to play at science, this is the one.

 

Women and Minorities in Atheism

 

Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

A gut-shot of a book, in which Ophelia and her coauthor show us the religious terror perpetrated upon women. It slays the “cultural” argument for brutal practices and gives religion no quarter. Its main focus is on Islam, but it also blasts Orthodox Judaism, Hinduism, the FLDS branch of Mormonism, Catholicism, and more. It shines a very harsh light on the fact that, actually, according to most of the World’s Great Religions™, God does indeed hate women.

Women Without Superstition by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

You know how people are always having a hard time remembering that women have been doing the atheism thing for half of forever, too? Give them this book. It has 51 female freethinkers in it. It spans a slice of history from just before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein up to our own Taslima Nasrin. It includes both bios and excerpts, and if you walk away from it without being able to recite the names of at least a dozen hugely influential freethinking women, you didn’t read the damn book.

Moral Combat by Sikivu Hutchinson.

An excellent book exploring black infidels and African American secular thought, which fiercely challenges religion’s stranglehold on morality. Social justice is crucial in minority communities, and this book shows that secular humanism can step up to fight for that justice, no religion necessary. And you’ll see how atheists of color are providing an alternative to the unrelenting whiteness of new atheism.

 

Here endeth Part II, mostly because my router is being an asshole. I’ll do me best to get Part III up tomorrow, which is all about the young folk – and if we get super-ambitious, may include some atheist fiction as well. (Also, if you would like to suggest a good, inexpensive, easy-to-use, and awesomely reliable router, please do feel free. This one’s getting chucked in a body of toxic water as soon as I can find a suitable replacement.)