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Science Tales

Darryl Cunningham

2012 Myriad Editions 178 pp

ISBN 978-0-9567926-8-6

Hardcover £11.99

Darryl Cunningham, a gentle and thoughtful man of imposing height, does not pull his punches when it comes to giving the spurious claims of homeopaths and chiropractors a sound drubbing. His new book Science Tales seeks, through the application of common sense and good science, to expose and dismiss the ‘lies, scams and hoaxes’ perpetrated by lazy journalists, corrupt corporate spin doctors and peddlers of snake oil.

A comic book with a bibliography is a rare thing. Cunningham is admirably erudite and engages in extensive research while constructing his polemical strips. The result is persuasive rhetoric: popular science not overly technical, but communicated clearly and with conviction. I use the word polemical advisedly: the tentative, provisional language of academia is noticeably absent. Rather, Cunningham writes with the courtroom eloquence of the prosecuting barrister, denouncing the accused in capital letters, his words as precise as his drawing style is hard edged. Just the treatment these defendants deserve, In my view.

In the name of transparency I should declare my competing interests in writing this review: Darryl is a friend; I’m an admirer of his work and I also find myself sharing the majority of his views, chuckling at his vehemence in trashing the ridiculous claims of healthcare profiteering quacks, so this is not an impartial review, but I mean every word of it.

The book is composed of seven graphic essays, afterword and the bibliography. The final chapter, Science Denial, serves as conclusion, effectively summing up the rest of the book. The opening chapter, Electroconvulsive Therapy, provides a handy link to Darryl’s first book, the very successful Psychiatric Tales (Blank Slate 2010). ECT is a treatment that he witnessed first hand during his work as a psychiatric care-worker and trainee nurse, so he has seen positive results come from measured use of this rather alarming treatment as well as the commonly reported side effects. As a prolific blogger and tweeter, Darryl’s modus operandi is to post samples of his strips online as he draws them, as well as stating his intentions as to what his future projects will be. I love the fact that corespondents who email him sometimes find themselves incorporated into the emerging work, as did the man who wrote in about his own experiences of ECT. The chapter concludes by lamenting the fact that such a fear inducing treatment hasn’t, in this age of high tech medicine, been replaced by a more effective but less invasive treatment.

After the gentle start of the initial chapter Darryl takes off the gloves to deliver Homeopathy a series of punishing body blows. The paddling duck depicted on the title page preceding the chapter, gives a hint to the author’s view that homeopaths are quacks, dangerously duping their clients with ridiculous claims of water-held memories of toxins being able to cure serious diseases. The following chapter castigates Dr Andrew Wakefield, the man who caused the MMR scare. As someone who was practicing at the time I remember the debacle well, having to field questions from concerned parents who seemed only too willing to believe in some sort of conspiracy as sensationalist headlines stoked the panic. The chapter reveals the corrupt pecuniary interest Wakefield had in developing single vaccines and criticizes lazy journalists, too busy whipping up a scandal to examine evidence or research the background story.

Indeed, most chapters see Darryl denouncing the press as sensationalist and lackadaisical: more interested in selling copy to a conspiracy-hungry populace than in journalistic rigor and balanced reportage. A fine example is the press coverage of the controversies surrounding climate change, where scientists were accused of manipulating research results in order to support preconceived ideas. These claims were later roundly disproven but the media gave five to eleven times more coverage to the accusations of malpractice compared to the resulting exonerations. The media tend to insist on giving equal weight to marginal views or eccentric claims as it does to hard science.

Other chapters examine the moon hoax, the very existence of which darryl finds exasperating, chiropractic and evolution. Darryl appears as his square headed, bespectacled avatar throughout, explaining the nature of science or the way theories are built and tested to various unnamed foils. He has a knack of being able to explain things in a straightforward way, in clear and precise language, using the comics medium to entertaining effect. I find myself chuckling at the fact that climate change is partially explained by a small erudite penguin, who also appears later in the book wearing a space suit. Novel examples are chosen to further his arguments,  such as the description of testicular decent in the fetus to furnish evidence against the existence of divine creator. Some might criticise the use of isolated cases of harm to build an argument against alternative medicine, but in my experience this very same tactic is used by the practitioners of these techniques and by journalists to heap disparagement on a mainstream practice that is supported by a strong evidence base, and Darryl points out that while cases of overt injury are rare, the greater harm is done in the rejection of mainstream therapy that these ‘disciplines’ encourage.

Science Tales replaces the stark black and white imagery of Psychiatric Tales with subtly hued panels. I love his sense of colour and the background washes he uses in the ECT chapter are very appealing. I admire Darryl’s courage in taking on notoriously sensitive groups such as chiropractors and homeopaths, stating his perspective with total conviction. He is bound to attract criticism, even hate-mail for his assertions, but Darryl Cunningham is steadfast in his view that ‘only science can reveal the nature of the world’.

Ian Williams