Cunningham Tackles Science Denial in "How to Fake a Moon Landing"

In his first book, "Psychiatric Tales," British cartoonist Darryl Cunningham examined the reality and the challenges of mental illness and psychiatric help. His new book from Abrams ComicArts, which takes a look at science in a similar fashion, is "How To Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial." Previously published in the UK as "Science Tales," Cunningham's new book is more ambitious than his first, tackling the misconceptions and debunking the conspiracy theories around a number of issues. From whether the moon landing was real to Andrew Wakefield and his attacks on the MMR vaccine to evolution, Cunningham looks at these issues with a clear eye and delivers a series of thoughtful, pointed essays that show what the medium of comics is capable of.

CBR News: Your previous book was "Psychiatric Tales." What made you decide to look at science and debunking how people misinterpret science?

Darryl Cunningham: It was a natural extension of what I was doing in my previous book, "Psychiatric Tales," which was, initially, a stigma-busting book. I was working in a world which I knew very few people knew a lot about. I wanted to blow that open and show what that was really like and destroy the misconceptions about these very serious illnesses. Moving onto "Science Tales," as it was originally called in the UK, it was a natural extension to think, what other subject is misunderstood by the general public? What other subjects could I really tackle and try to explain? When I'm drawing I listen to a lot of podcasts and some of these podcasts are science podcasts. Among the skeptical podcasts if you like, like The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and Pod Delusion and things like that, the same hot button subjects kept coming up as subjects that are really misunderstood by the general public. Things like evolution, some of the alternative medicines and conspiracy ideas like the idea that NASA never landed on the moon. I wanted to look very clearly at the actual evidence. To me it was a natural extension to move from one book to the other.

You initially posted these stories online, and you mentioned this briefly in the book about how it was a good experience as far as helping to fix small details.

Obviously I'm not a specialist in biology or many of these subjects that I'm looking at, but my readers are. That's very useful because they're able to correct me on areas where I've gone wrong. I'm glad to say that I didn't get a lot wrong. There were teeny areas. There was a section in the Evolution chapter where I talked about the peppered moth. In Britain during the Industrial Revolution, originally it was a very light-colored moth. During the Industrial Revolution, when there was a lot of pollution and a lot of trees and buildings became covered in dark soot, the light colored moths sort of died away leaving those with a darker pigment behind. This is an example of a type of life responding to its environment changing. Originally I got some details of that story a little bit wrong and I was able to correct that after someone who knew about the biology of it was able to point it out. Things like that I was able to change.

I would imagine that it also helped to see what was explained well and clearly.

One of the things I wanted to do -- I mean I have a fairly simple drawing style already, but because some of these issues are so complex, I wanted to make it as plain as possible. Someone -- it might have been Art Spiegelman -- was talking about "Nancy," the Ernie Bushmiller strip. That often by the time you decided not to read "Nancy," you'd already read it. I tried to bring that kind of immediacy to the strip so that I could get the information directly into people's psyche without them really noticing they were reading it. If there was any confusion, I was very happy to have that pointed out to me and then I was able to make it plainer. That was my aim all along.

I think one of the problems that science has is that it's seen as hard and complicated and so anything that makes it seem easier helps.

That's certainly true. Things like climate change, there's such an enormous amount of disinformation as well. That's the one chapter that I'm not entirely one hundred percent happy with. In a future edition I may look again at that chapter to just try and clarify a little more because it is such a difficult thing to understand. I'm not entirely certain I got it across as well as I would have liked. Many of the other chapters I'm very happy with how they worked out. I was particularly pleased with the evolution chapter.

That was a very good chapter and lays out the argument in a much shorter space than I thought was possible.

Well, yes. It seems it's not as complicated as you think. Darwin obviously missed a trick when he didn't draw it as cartoon. [Laughs]

You're working on another book right now about politics. I don't know how much you want to say about it, but can you tell us anything about it?

I'm going to be looking at the whole financial crisis, really. And underneath that, the free market libertarian thinking that brought about the situation where the financial industry was so unregulated that it could bring this disaster on the world, basically. I'm working on the first chapter on Ayn Rand, looking at libertarian thinking from that point of view, and I'll be moving onto looking at the history of the financial disaster. I'm going to try to end it with a sort of psychological makeup of the differences between "liberals" and "conservatives" and the different ways that people think. I'm being vague about the structure of the rest of the book. I'm sure it'll change as I move towards it but these are roughly the kinds of issues I'm looking at.

I can see how this is very similar to your other books, but looking at it with a historical perspective is a different approach for you.

Yes. A lot of the Ayn Rand stuff is set in the '30s and '40s and it's fascinating to look at that time. That's such a different world and it interests me how times can fade into one another really. I'm being nebulous about what I'm saying here really but in a future book I'd like to look at that in more detail. You hear stories about the Apollo astronauts meeting Charles Lindbergh. The meeting of these two eras which seem so very different and yet they overlap. In a future book I'd like to look at that how these things overlap. We tend to think of these things in separate parceled eras and history's not really like that.

I suppose part of that is just how we were taught history in school.

I think that is. It's not really shown as a line, but as a broken up thing, and it's not really like that obviously. We live as we get older through different eras. I'm not in the first flush of youth and so I'm old enough now to be able to think back and see how things have changed quite a lot in my own life.

Similarly, when science is taught, it's often taught in small discrete and disconnected ideas that don't necessarily relate to each other or to us.

I think that's true. It's interesting when you look at the early eras of computing. You go back to [Charles] Babbage, who was using a punch card system in Victorian times to create a calculating machine. He got the idea from the textile industry. They used punchcards to weave carpets and things like that. If you really go back to the origins of computing, you really looking at how they wove fabrics. It doesn't start where you think it might start.

As a final question, what do you hope people will take away from the book? Obviously, you'd like people to think about misinformation and rethink some ideas they might have, but did you have any other goals?

I'd like people to be more questioning of stuff that comes out through the media. Just because something is written in a paper doesn't necessarily mean it's true. To really think, where did this information come from. If a newspaper presents some information coming out of some scientific paper, to really think about how the newspaper is presenting that paper. They may be having a particular slant on it, but the original scientific paper, whatever it's doing, might not be attempting to say that. Just to question things more closely, really. To understand that the media has certain biases and its own interests.

Here in the U.S., we have a vocal anti-science, anti-evolution minority and part of their argument is that they're questioning things and refuse to accept things like evolution at face value.

That mostly comes from the religious right. We don't really have that problem in Europe. I think it's very particular to certain cultures and the U.S. has a particular problem there. I don't know what to do about that, but as a whole, the U.S. is a more liberal country than it realizes it is, really. On social issues, it's becoming increasingly progressive, much to the fear of the far right. I think there's a lot of hope there. They don't have as much power as they think they have on the far right. It's eroded away because it tends to be an older set of people that in time will die off and younger more open-minded people will come along. That seems to be what's happening. I think it's almost in the last throes of the religious right having power and influence, really.

Things can sometimes seem in the world like they're never going to change. I remember when I was in my twenties and we looked at the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain and it looked like it was an eternal thing that could never change. Then in the space of a few months, it was just simply gone, much to everybody's amazement. Looking back with hindsight, it was inevitable that it would disappear. Things can change very suddenly when you think that they're eternal, but nothing's eternal.

"How to Fake a Moon Landing" is on sale now.

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