Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Myth Busters

Myths are not lies, not exactly. Myths are popular beliefs, because they are plausible; they have some empirical support and, most of all, because they are vigorously promoted by powerful interest groups. Myth busting books make great reading and provide valuable tidbits for cocktail party small talk.

But myth busting is also important. The popular belief in myths generally benefits the special interest groups while harming the public at large. As Dennis Prager says, clarity is more important than agreement.

Katelyn Sills at Stand Up and Speak Out is writing about the science myths debunked in the book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. Her first post is about the benefits of radiation from Hiroshima to Three Mile Island. It is must reading for all who believe America should aggressively develop nuclear power.

Since myth busting is so much fun, I’ve decided to follow Katelyn’s lead and explore the myths that are exposed in several books in my home library. In this post I’ll catalog the books in several areas including politics, education, economics, energy and history. I’ve already written about the myths of Darwinism in the posts “Myths of a Godless Science” (10/2/05) and “Icons of Evolution” (12/26/05).

The best myth busting books about politics, IMHO, are written by Ann Coulter. In Treason, Ann wrote about “liberal treachery from the cold war to the war on terror.” My favorite example is the myth of Senator Joe McCarthy. From a baseless “sweat drenched fear” of Communists, McCarthy conducted a Stalin-like “Great Terror” that included Hollywood blacklists, broken careers, divorce, depression and suicides. Except it is all a myth that has been promoted and well used by liberals and Democrats for 50 years.

I also loved Coulter’s Slander that begins with a famous quote from Margaret Mead: “The natives are superficially agreeable, but they go in for cannibalism, headhunting, infanticide, incest, avoidance and joking relationships, and biting lice in half with their teeth.” Ann’s talking about liberals.

The subtitle of Education Myths by Jay Greene is “What special interest groups want you to believe about our schools and why it isn’t so.” Greene talks about the money myth: “Schools perform poorly because they need more money” and the Exeter myth: “Private schools have higher test scores because they have more money and recruit higher-performing students while expelling low-performing students” and the myth of decline: Schools are performing much worse than they used to,” … eighteen myths in all. This is an important book.

In Our School, Joanne Jacobs tells the inspiring story of a charter school in San Jose that recruits underachieving students and promises to prepare them for college. It completely explodes the myth of helplessness, that poverty causes students to fail and schools are helpless to prevent it.

Economics, the “dismal science,” is chock full of myths. Freakonomics by the two Steve’s, Levitt and Hubner, is an amusing account of a serious subject. One chapter asks: “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” In it the authors deal with crack, how it’s invention was the “worst thing to hit black Americans since Jim Crow.” They study the impact of Roe v. Wade on violent crime statistics. Freakonomics applies the tools of economics to the serious problems of society, and destroys myths along the way.

A more serious but equally interesting book about economics is The Myths of Rich and Poor by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm. According to Investor’s Business Daily, the authors “take on the merchants of pessimism and show their tales and predictions of woe to be myths.” One of the myths is that in America the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. In fact, in the land of income mobility, the poor are getting richer faster. I’ve used the book as a reference for an upcoming post called “To Be Poor in America.”

A recent book about energy myths is The Bottomless Well by Peter Huber and Mark Mills. Talk about a gloomy subject. You know, we are running out of oil, the only solution is strict conservation, increasing energy use is destroying the planet. Woe, woe, woe! Wouldn’t it be nice to know that, while efficient cars and light bulbs will never reduce demand, the supply of energy will never run out. Read this book.

History is a subject rife with myths, and some might say that myths are the subject. In the last few posts I used the excellent history by Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery. Starks latest book is The Victory of Reason.

Myth busting is Rodney Stark’s passion, and mine.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a science channel that has myth busters. I show them to the kids once in a while.


4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leave my hubby's aliens alone...lol...


8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superb post. Well done!!


10:32 AM  

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