The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies, and Make a Killing in the Corporate World by Jennifer Jacquet. Pantheon, 2022 ($28)
Trusting the scientific process is undeniably the right thing to do when trying to make good decisions in a complicated world. But it can also be no fun. Many of the truths science reveals—that burning fossil fuels harms the environment, that smoking cigarettes causes cancer—are real bummers. Wouldn't it be fun to side against the scientific consensus for once?
If you feel exhausted from constantly taking the high road, The Playbook offers an enticing alternative. Author Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, indulges a reader's fantasy of acting as a company executive for whom science is simply another facet of corporate propaganda. Presented as a how-to guide for co-opting or covering up science in the name of Business, the narration never breaks character.
I wondered more than once if a bad actor could take the book at its word and thrive in the corporate world by, for instance, conducting industry-sponsored studies and burying undesirable results or pointing fingers at others when legitimate issues with a company's practices arise. The Playbook is loaded with “success” stories of spun science, from retro classics of oil, cigarette and Big Pharma giants to modern-day malfeasance by technology and vaping companies.
Without Jacquet's dry humor suffusing each chapter, the book would have made for a depressing, exhaustive history of corporations duping consumers, bypassing regulators and silencing critics. But her tone is gleeful, mimicking the rhetoric of a motivational speaker turned corporate consultant, advising retired professors to “put your emeritus title to work” shilling for companies. When a conflict arises between science and your company's products, she advises deflection: “DDT might kill birds, but malaria, which DDT helps prevent, kills people.”
One effect of the book's tongue-in-cheek format is a chilling realization that the villains in The Playbook are extraordinarily banal. The tactics that enable their misconduct have been recycled across decades. Perhaps a powerful first step to stopping the misuse of science, then, is noticing these hackneyed themes— and calling them out. —Maddie Bender
Bitch: On the Female of the Species by Lucy Cooke. Basic Books, 2022 ($30)
In this effervescent exposé, British zoologist Lucy Cooke documents the “scientific phallocracy” that has warped our perceptions of biological sex in the animal kingdom. Cooke reveals how sexist cultural and historical influences, particularly those of the Victorian era, led scientists to misinterpret, undervalue and ignore the female of the species. Her playful, enlightening tour of the vanguard of evolutionary biology not only highlights animals that disrupt our assumptions about biological sex and its “natural” behaviors (lesbian albatrosses, jezebel bluebirds, infanticidal meerkat matriarchs, orgasmic female macaques), it also celebrates the underappreciated scholars whose research is shifting this reductive paradigm. —Dana Dunham
Lapvona: A Novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press, 2022 ($27)
Ottessa Moshfegh brings her trademark brutality to the Middle Ages in this allegorical pandemic novel. In the fictional Eastern European village of Lapvona, a boy named Marek befriends a proto-scientist named Ina, whose experimental tinctures with herbs and flowers bring relief to a community suffering through plagues, droughts and famines. Meanwhile Lord Villiam stays isolated in his luxurious home, weaponizing religious faith to keep the dying masses angry with one another instead of him. Moshfegh puts Marek and Ina on a thrilling collision course with Villiam to take over the village, while interrogating the role faith plays in social and environmental abuses of power. —Adam Morgan
What Your Food Ate: How to Heal Our Land and Reclaim Our Health by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé. W. W. Norton, 2022 ($30)
Seeking to improve our health through nutrition, we might count carbs, go keto or become vegan. But other drivers of nourishment go deeper. In this timely investigation, geologist David R. Montgomery and biologist Anne Biklé dig into the earth to determine how we are not just what we eat but also the land our food comes from. They call out agricultural challenges, such as microbial deficiencies in soil, which affect both crops and livestock. And they detail transformative farming tactics, both functional and economic, because “we still have time to choose the regenerative path for our soils, our planet, and ourselves.” —Mandana Chaffa