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book review

Zoe CormierRandy Quan/The Globe and Mail

It is a weird time for science.

In some ways, this is a golden age. Science is everywhere, impacting our lives in countless and previously unimaginable ways. The Internet has allowed cutting-edge research to be at everyone's fingertips. Research on topics such as genetics, stem cells and even the fabric of the universe continue to reveal unexpected and awe-inspiring insights. And, rightly or not, governments throughout the world are increasingly turning to science to drive our economies and remedy our individual and societal ills.

But at the same time, the embrace of all things pseudoscientific appears to be on the rise. Fad-diet, exercise and supplement trends have become billion-dollar industries. Bunk therapies devoid of even a scintilla of scientific credibility are becoming increasingly popular. More worrisome, trust in traditional sources of scientific knowledge appears to be sliding, fuelling belief in a host of ridiculous conspiracy theories and scientific myths (most notoriously, that vaccination causes autism).

We are in desperate need of some critical thinking and a tad more scientific literacy.

Enter Guerilla Science, an international collective that has the goal of "connecting people to science in new ways." This group of scientists, artists and communication experts hopes to do more than thrust facts on an uninterested public. They seek to practise "science by stealth" in an effort to inspire curiosity and demonstrate that science doesn't need to be dull, dry and the sole domain of "men in white coats."

Admirable stuff.

Zoe Cormier's new book, Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science, is, no doubt, a direct result of the Guerilla Science philosophy. There are few things less dull, dry and white-coatish than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Cormier, a co-founder of the collective, uses these topics to review what science says about our core hedonistic tendencies.

The book uses a nice mix of approaches. It covers the odd history of things such as the first experiments with mind-altering drugs, the misguided early research on sex and sexuality, and the rationales behind the frontal lobotomy. Cormier injects both well-known scientific curiosities (spiders on speed!) and stuff that will likely be new to even the most well-read science geek. And the book has plenty of fascinating factoids (are you aware of the origins of the term "junkie"?).

True to her stated mission, the Toronto-born, London-based Cormier does make science fun. She has a gift for explaining seriously complex areas of science in a manner that is both engaging and technically accurate. For example, her explanation of epigenetics, an emerging and often misunderstand area of science, is as good as it gets. "[I]f your genome is the cookbook for your body, you can think of epigenetic changes as bits of sticky icing that have glued two pages together, bookmarks here and there, and rough pencil markings scratching out key instructions."

In a few spots, the book does read like a list of studies – albeit a zippy, quirky and wonderfully researched list. To be fair to Cormier, when seeking to convey the state of science in a given area of research, it can be difficult to avoid the inventory approach. (Heck, I've certainly tried.) But given the science-by-stealth mandate of her Guerilla Science collective, a bit less textbook vibe and more creative stealth would have been nice.

Still, this is an enjoyable and very readable book. And Cormier comes to some valuable, science-informed conclusions about human nature. But Cormier also recognizes – and celebrates – the complexity of the topics she is covering and what science can and can't tell us. In doing so, the book conveys a critically important aspect of science that is so often missing in popular science. Science is not a catalogue of facts, but a method for understanding the world. It moves forward slowly; haltingly nudging us closer to a clearer picture of reality. It is a tool, not an ideology.

At its core, the book is really just an excuse to talk science. And I am fine with that. We need books like this as a counterweight to all the pseudoscience nonsense circulating in popular culture today. Perhaps a riff on the science of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is exactly what is needed in order to inject some guerilla-style science into the popular discourse.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, a Trudeau Fellow and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.