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‘Science Tales’ Battles Hoaxes and Pseudoscience with Knowledge

In Psychiatric Tales, Darryl Cunningham sought to demystify mental illness in eleven short tales. Combining scientific fact with anecdotes from his work as on a psychiatric ward, Cunningham explained schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and more with a clarity and sympathy that not only helped readers understand these ailments, but also underscored the importance of properly understanding them. He tries to work similar magic in his new book of comics titled Science Tales: Lies, Hoaxes and Scams, which tales the ignorance born of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism. Cunningham takes great, inky swipes at everything from homeopathy to climate change denialism, explaining the science and history behind the controversies.Cunningham starts his tour through scientific controversies with a topic that would have been at home in his previous book: electro-convulsive therapy, or ECT. It’s a curious place to start, because Cunningham has less clarity on ECT than on the other subjects. It’s also the place where Cunningham has inserted the most of himself. He explains how ECT is performed, that the science of how it works isn’t understood, and the benefits and side effects experienced by people who have received the treatment. He notes that, despite the knee-jerk sense that ECT is barbaric, some patients have experienced some remarkable turnarounds under its effects.

There’s a sense throughout the short comic that Cunningham is having a dialogue with ECT, acknowledging that he dislikes the procedure, and trying to work out whether his discomfort comes from an emotional place or a factual one. It ends on a frustrated note, with Cunningham sighing that he feels science should have given us something less invasive by now.

After this prelude, Cunningham charges into the war of facts vs. emotions with much clearer eyes. He outlines the histories behind homeopathy, chiropractic manipulation and the anti-vaccine movement. He answers conspiracy theories about the moon landing point by point. He responds to the typical challenges to evolutionary theory, and draws parallels between HIV denialism in South Africa and the dangers of political pundits holding sway over scientific policy.

Cunningham employs a deceptively simple style, one that relies on a strong visual vocabulary over rendering skills. He thanks Scott McCloud in the notes, and you can see McCloud’s influence throughout. Science Tales is meant to be an accessible book, relying on a clear interplay of images and text. When his own artwork would fail, Cunningham adds washed-out photos and illustrations from other sources, collaging them with his own comics.

In Psychiatric Tales, this simplicity held a particularly emotional power, one that clearly conveyed the pain felt by sufferers of mental illness and the people around him. Here, it’s used for more didactic ends, allowing Cunningham to convey a remarkable amount of information in just a few panels. One thing that Science Tales does expertly is to explain scientific concepts in a clear and concise way. I suspect Cunningham’s comics would make sense even to someone with just a rudimentary understanding of the topics he covers, and he injects enough whimsy and dry humor that the descriptions are never dull.

Science Tales is weaker, however, where it tries to ape Psychiatric Tales‘ balance of the scientific elements with the human. When Cunningham explains the history of a pseudoscientific movement, it works well, revealing how the extent to which the spread of notions like “vaccines cause autism” depends on individuals, their mistakes and sometimes, their greed. But when he adds to his analysis of homeopathy the story of a famous alternative medicine advocate who died of cancer while receiving homeopathic treatment, it feels too anecdotal. Such anecdotes were important for humanizing illness in Psychiatric Tales, but here they’re in conflict with his appeal to facts and data. An in other comics, notably his evolution comic, Cunningham proves that he doesn’t have to rely on these sorts of anecdotes.

One thing that kept nagging at me as I read Science Tales was that I couldn’t quite figure out who the target audience for the book is, aside from people who like to see simple scientific information presented elegantly. Readers already familiar with these controversies will find little scientific information. When I was reading his fascinating background on chiropractic manipulation, I found myself wishing that Cunningham had written a book on science history instead. I’m not sure how many subscribers to homeopathy or young Earth creationists will be picking up copies of Science Tales, either.

Perhaps Science Tales is best suited to those who have respect for science but little scientific knowledge and want the tools to argue others away from pseudoscientific misbeliefs. Cunningham never accuses people who are swayed by conspiracy theories or pseudoscience of being evil or stupid, and his tone is polite enough to win hearts and minds, provided they’re open minds. It’s more likely that Science Tales will find its home in classrooms and houses with children, where young people will find it and then prick up their ears anytime an adult mentions “getting an adjustment” or “seeing a homeopath.” It will remind them that science is a matter of facts, not politics. And really, that’s probably just where this book belongs.

Science Tales is now available from Myriad Editions.

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