Saturday, January 18, 2014

The De-Textbook; maybe not all it's Cracked up to be

First of all, I'm so sorry for that pun.

I love Cracked. I read the website almost daily, I cite their articles in conversation all the time, and I think it's a great way to fill time and learn more about all kinds of things. However reading this book has made me realize that there's one huge difference between reading the website and swallowing the same factoids that are presented here in book form. That difference is the internet and the wide, wonderful world of hyperlinks.

When you see BS on the web, especially if it's got a link to the cited study right there in the text, it's pretty easy to jump up and go "BULLSHIT!" and then proceed to be an asshole in the comments section. When you're reading the same BS in a book, you've got to remember that you've seen this bullshit before, where you've seen it, hope that you're able to fight your human nature enough to argue against something that you want to believe, and be contentious and pedantic enough to make the effort to write a blog that no one will read just for the sake of proving your point (this is sort of my deal, in case you couldn't tell yet.)

Two things in The De-Textbook jumped out at me right away as problematic for a book that's supposed to break down myths and replace them with totally awesome facts.

The first one comes early in the book, when talking about your body and how you don't know shit about it because all of your teachers lied (or were at least very misinformed). A lot of the information in the chapter is pretty spot-on, but when you get to the end of the Discussion Questions section and the questions turn to medicine, you are given this gem: "Sugar pills and other forms of fake medication have been found to help and even cure everything from warts to heart disease to asthma if the patients just believe that they're taking real medicine."(The De-Textbook, p. 15) Asthma is what really caught my attention here, because the holistic medicine industry is doing its best to convince asthmatics that they don't need inhalers, they just need homeopathy. The problem is that the article that this came from (click on "warts" to see it) links to a Wikipedia page of disorders treated by placebo, which in turn links to a psychological study done on asthmatics (please note, that's a psych study, not a medical study) that proved that placebo worked to treat asthma! Cool! Except that the study was done on 12 people. In 1986. And that recent similar studies have shown that patients may feel better, but their lungs aren't actually performing any better with placebo. Which, if you have asthma, is not really comforting because now you know that you can feel just fine and still end up straight-up dead. And Cracked should know better than to promote this kind of bullshit because just two days ago they published an article that discussed how the majority of medical studies are critically flawed - you know, like the ones they just used to justify telling you that no one knows how medicine works on page 15 of their book.

The second thing that really jumped out at me probably wouldn't have if I hadn't just finished reading a Pulitzer Prize nominated biography of Benjamin Franklin. It's in the American History section of The De-Textbook, and much of it is based on this article about how the founding fathers were dicks - which, while often true, is not really true based on the reasons that the article gives. There is SO MUCH that's wrong, or misleading, or purposefully obfuscated in the book and the article that I'd have to write a few thousand words to explain exactly the ways that it's wrong in, so let's focus on the analogy they use in the book, that England is a patient father with a rebellious son who causes him problems and costs him money.

In the book, the son is rebellious and starts the French and Indian war because he wants to grab Ohio. In the real story, France and Canada are also father and son, and England and France have been at war for a few centuries, and France has encouraged his son Canada to stab the Colonies' in the junk as frequently as possible. Because of this, the Colonies decide to beat the living shit out of Canada, eventually getting the support of his loving Father to stop getting stabbed in the junk (by which I mean seeing hordes of farmers and families slaughtered by Native Americans encouraged by the French at the borders of the Colonies). When it's all done and the son's junk is starting to heal, though one testicle will never be the same, the father says "Dude, I had to come all this way and I hurt my shoulder. You should pay my medical bills." Meanwhile, the son is cradling his swollen, stabbed testicles, which are bandaged with dirty gauze and washed with the sweat of war, and saying "maybe I'd pay for your poor shoulder if I hadn't gotten stabbed in the balls for a year and STILL been the one on the front lines." The father gets pissy and essentially sends his son to a re-education camp, sending in royal governors to take charge of the people who had no political voice and forcing them to pay for the room and board (so mansions and feasts) of the hated re-education governors and generals. All of this is going on while the son's hands are broken and he can't earn a real income because the father broke his hands and took his clothes so that he wouldn't get too independent (the British didn't allow the Colonies to do things like build foundries or make hats because it might allow the Colonies to make their own shit and thus hurt trade in England, so things like beaver fur came from the Colonies, were shipped to England where they were made into hats, and were then shipped back to the Colonies where they not only had to pay the fur-to-hat markup, they also had to pay the two trans-Atlantic crossings markup in spite of the fact that there were perfectly able haberdashers in the colonies). So long story short, portraying England as an indulgent father and the Colonies as a crazy, rebellious, expensive son is more than a little disingenuous.

So these are two big problems that I found in The De-Textbook. Can anyone guess the bigger issue that they raise?

 If this book is supposed to be factual it helps to be, you know, actually factual. There are some things that I know it got right; Longfellow's Paul Revere poem was totally propaganda, the tongue map is stupid, Victorians were into some freaky shit, and Kellogg's Corn Flakes were created by a madman. There's a lot of stuff in the book that is provably true and well documented, but the inclusion of stuff that is provably false and supported only by 30 year old studies on tiny groups of people puts a whole lot of sweet, sweet facts under the suspicion of being bitter filthy lies.

Again, I love Cracked. I think the site is fantastic and there is a lot of information on the site that is well worth reading - some of that ended up in the book (almost verbatim, in a few places) and is good information to have. You SHOULD learn how to poop the right way, and that Einstein was a freak, but you shouldn't have to question every single page because there's no way to verify the information that you're being handed. There isn't even an index, which there REALLY should be because a) the entire construction and marketing of the book is built on it being a TRUE textbook, and I dare you to find a textbook without an index and b) because it would be SO FREAKING EASY to cite your sources in an index or footnotes or something because you are the people who run and curate the website where all of these facts are compiled, though maybe you need a fact-checker and I will selflessly volunteer to be paid for that job if you really don't have enough fact-checkers on your staff.

Also? I know that Cracked is used to having to rely on advertisers and so they edit photos on the site, but pixelating the nipples off the Venus de Milo is a confusing editorial decision. Especially when you DON'T bother to censor cartoon boner drawings photoshopped behind Einstein, or to blur out the side-boob and butt-crack off of the lady who you've added Ulysses S. Grant's head to (and by the way, when you call him a fancy lady instead of an antisocial nutbag because he won't shower with his troops during the war, it comes off as kind of sexist, as does the whole cartoon dicks vs. ancient artwork tits thing).

Oh, there's another reason to have an index instead of just a picture credits page - I couldn't find the uncensored drawing from page 69 (heh). That would be useful. And one of the great things about not having advertisers: here is the results of my search for that drawing, the greatest Wikipedia page I never knew about (NSFW).

For all the issues of fact, the book is funny. And it ends with a great message that the staff is totally right about: the world is incredible and you should go explore it because holy shit, is there a lot of awesome stuff out there.

ED. O'Brien, Jack. The De-Textbook. Plume Books. New York: New York. 2013.

(This post is for Skoolstah, my awesome brother-in-dick-jokes, who sent me The De-Textbook as a gift that I was happy to criticize, but even happier to read. Thanks man!)


  1. Nice analogy with only the smallest amount of hyperbole.

    1. Hyperbole is better than sleepybole; makes the facts more bouncy.