An appropriately named book

Via The Millenium Project, I’ve learned that some of the “Dummy” books may be living up to their names a bit too literally:

I almost didn’t believe it when I was told that Understanding Autism for Dummies contains advice about how chelation might be a useful treatment for autism, so I used Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature and there it was. Perhaps the authors could get a testimonial for the next edition from Abubakar Tariq Nadama. Oh that’s right, Abubakar can’t give testimonials because he’s dead.

Understanding Autism for Dummies, indeed. Peter Bowditch is right. It’s all there, if you search inside the book using the term “chelation,” including a list of chelating agents. There’s also a credulous treatment of Mady Hornig’s infamous “Rain Mouse” study. Brief and flaccid caveats are presented in a brief paragraph at the end of the section.

I never expected high science from the Dummies series books, but I at least expect semiaccurate information, particularly given the popularity of these books among lay people as introductions to a wide variety of topics.


  1. #1 clone3g
    December 11, 2006

    The first title for this book was simply “Autism for Dummies” but they decided to add understanding to make it more politically correct.

    I had no idea it included topics such as chelation. Should be renamed “Quackery for Dummies”

  2. #2 Chris
    December 11, 2006

    While we’re on the subject of autism, do you know anything about the particulars of the Combating Autism Act that is presently being considered by Congress? I looked for some information about it online, but found mostly vague generalities. I was disappointed to see that several quack organizations are listed among the act’s supporters and that “research into environmental causes” is prominently touted as one of the bill’s achievements. There’s also a lot of throwing around of the dubious 1-in-166 number, with the associated confusion between whether they are talking about “classic” autism, the entire spectrum lumped together, or anything in between.

    Even the name of the act reveals a somewhat hostile mentality, IMO. I’m concerned that it may fail to distinguish between legitimate research and quackery, and/or be oriented toward “normalizing” autistics rather than helping them (or should I say us?) adapt to society without trying to undermine their identities.

    Accordingly, I’d like to see an analysis of the Act by someone with strong anti-quackery credentials and some knowledge of autism-related issues; if you don’t have time to write such an analysis yourself, do you know of any?

  3. #3 Alain
    December 11, 2006

    For now (due to lack of time, i have an exam this wenesday), the only detail i can comment is the 1 in 166 figure. the number has mostly been influenced by the change in criteria among old DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the latest one, in the old version, the criteria were very limiting compared to the latest one and I believe there will be some changes again in the DSM-V (which is supposed to come out in 2010).

    There is a free article in Nature Neuroscience from october 2006:

    this article question the basic assumption that the three impairment (social, behavioral and cognitive) defining autism must be explained together and instead, propose that each impairment be studied separately. I did review the article a few times but I haven’t studied its possible consequences on future diagnoses or the legal implication (WRT disability laws) of the proposed changes if psychiatrist would use them for new diagnoses.


  4. #4 Phil Plait
    December 11, 2006

    “I never expected high science from the Dummies series books…”

    Actually, “Astronomy for Dummies” is an excellent book. I was the technical editor. 😉

  5. #5 Orac
    December 11, 2006

    Then that book would have exceeded my expectations. 😉

  6. #6 Infophile
    December 11, 2006

    I wish it were possible to do a “Quantum Mechanics for Dummies” to clear up a lot of misconceptions people have, but sadly, even the most basic tenets of QM are likely out of reach of laymen.

    But anyways, I think Phil has hinted at an important point here: It all depends on who they have looking over it. With a legitimate, good scientist, you get legitimate, good science. With a quack (as was apparently the case here), you get quackery.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    December 11, 2006

    I always wanted to write a book called Artificial Intelligence for Dummies.

  8. #8 notmercury
    December 11, 2006

    Is there an “Astrology for Dummies” book or is that redundant?

  9. #9 Elaine
    December 11, 2006

    The author, Stephen Shore, is an autistic adult. I’m sure he has a lot of helpful advice in the book, but the chelation stuff just discredits the whole book IMHO.

  10. #10 Blake Stacey
    December 11, 2006

    notmercury asked:

    Is there an “Astrology for Dummies” book or is that redundant?

    Ask, and ye shall receive: Astrology for Dummies, by Rae Orion. The book description alone is a powerful concentration of distilled fallacies:

    Did you know that Sir Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus, and discoverer of the universal laws of gravity and thermodynamics, was interested in astrology? Or that, in his day, the seventeenth century astronomer, Johannes Kepler, was more famous for the uncanny accuracy of his astrological predictions than for his three laws of planetary motion? Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Carl Jung…the list of greats who followed astrology is a very long one. Like you, those distinguished women and men sensed that the stars play an important role in shaping our characters and our destinies.

    . . . and there’s plenty more where that came from. Yuck.

  11. #11 T. Bruce McNeely
    December 11, 2006

    Actually, there is an Astrology for Dummies in the series. A few years ago a writer in the Globe and Mail referred to it, saying something like: “Astrology for Dummies? What’s next, Watching Teletoon Network While Taking Bong Hits for Dummies? Drooling on Your Shirtfront for Dummies?”

    I startled a few people when I read this, then pumped my fist in the air, and shouted “OH YEAH!!!”

  12. #12 The Ridger
    December 11, 2006

    When I saw “System Administration for Dummies” I nearly died laughing … I can’t say that I’d want an SA who had to read that book. (It’s possible I have some, though… Shared directories that are Read-Only, and student accounts that expire on the last day of class – before 8 am on the last day of class… Unfair, I know, but still!)

  13. #13 Bartholomew Cubbins
    December 11, 2006

    Actually, Quackery for Dummies might be really interesting. I’d love to see a flowchart/mindmap (metabolic pathway, KEGG-style), map out the history of quacks and the techniques they use. For instance, a map dealing with chelation and the morphing of the “science” from cardiac disease to autism and everything in between would be cool. It might be especially fun to watch Dr. Quack753 jump from one disorder to another using the same tired techniques.

  14. #14 William the Coroner
    December 11, 2006

    I’ve wanted to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Books for Dummies.

  15. #15 notmercury
    December 11, 2006

    “What’s next, Watching Teletoon Network While Taking Bong Hits for Dummies?”

    I’d buy that title.

  16. #16 HCN
    December 11, 2006

    Last week while at a bookstore with my 12 year old daughter, she asked me if all the “Dummies” books were written by the same person. I told her “no”, since if the person who wrote “Chemistry for Dummies” was asked to write “Homeopathy for Dummies” they would go nuts since anyone who knows just basic high school chemistry would understand why homeopathy was pathetic.

  17. #17 Brian X
    December 11, 2006

    Unfortunately, consistent editorial policies don’t seem to be a hallmark of Dummies/Idiots books. (The Idiots books seem to have more woo than the Dummies books, but both are guilty. The Dummies books, as it happens, have changed hands a few times, but their current publisher, Wiley, I thought was a respectable technical publisher…)

  18. #18 ts
    December 11, 2006

    Here’s the text for “Quantum Mechanics for Dummies”

    Go to college and take courses in Physics and Math up to the graduate level, find a mentor to study with who is doing the most advanced work, wait five or ten years.

    Oh by the way you better get straight “A”s.

  19. #19 Lucas McCarty
    December 12, 2006

    Quantum Mechanics is easy! Superman did it when he rewinded time!

  20. #20 tim gueguen
    December 12, 2006

    I advocate watching Teletoon whether you want to smoke some of the wacky tabacky or not.

  21. #21 Ruth
    December 12, 2006

    Off topic, but I just saw a great bumper sticker-“I need a good quantum mechanic!”

  22. #22 Renee
    December 12, 2006

    The publisher of these ‘Dummies/Idiots’ books aren’t too particular about who they contract with to write these books. I’ve met a nurse who was asked to co-author a ‘Dummies/Idiot’ book about osteoporosis; the other co-author was a gynecologist. The nurse worked for a fertility specialist, and the doctor was just a general one. Neither of them specilized in treating patients with this condition.

    Why either of them got picked wasn’t clear to me.

    BTW, I got a lot out of ‘Powerpoint 3 for Dummies’. Well written, and full of a lot of useful tips.

  23. #23 Liz
    December 12, 2006

    The “Overcoming Dyslexia for Dummies” is about 80% good. It dispells myths and lays out the science pretty well. However, the author is insufficiently skeptical about some of the woo treatments (Davis Dyslexia Correction, Tomatis, Irlen/Meares/ Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome).

    I’ve used several of the Dummies / Idiots books to get a basic handle on fields with which I am unfamiliar. I think of them as Cliffnotes/Sparc notes — you still have to dig into the underlying material, but it offers a map.

  24. #24 Lucas McCarty
    December 12, 2006

    The thing about Scotopic sensitivity is that an Occupational Psychologist has reccomended I go for a test and I did find reading a lot easier in a short test the OP gave me when reading through a pink filter.

    So I’m in a position with three complications: 1, I know of no evidence that the condition exists except for my own ancedotal experience. 2, I did find it a lot easier to see writing and not lose my place on the page. 3, But this was through a PINK lense!! If the actual test itself goes the same way, I’ll end up wearing PINK reading glasses!

    It’s just not manly.

  25. #25 Graculus
    December 13, 2006

    It’s just not manly.

    Start eating soy.

  26. #26 anomalous4
    December 13, 2006

    “I need a good quantum mechanic!”

    I can’t take credit for this; it was posted on another blog this past Sunday by someone named Azkyroth. But I thought it was priceless:

    Quantum mechanics are bad news. They can’t diagnose your engine without changing the state of it, they tell you your battery is both dead and alive, and they insist they can never be certain exactly what is wrong with the car…and they still charge an arm and a leg!

    Sounds like the last time I took my van to the shop.

  27. #27 Samantha Vimes
    December 13, 2006

    Not pink, Lucas, rose. As in “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses” which is not a gendered trait at all.

    Good luck convincing people you aren’t an optimist, though. 🙂

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