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mcasias's picture


Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter (2009)
            I first came across Michael Specter when I was researching my second webpaper on synthetic biology. It turns out an article of his in The New Yorker that I used in the paper was actually an excerpt (or a very similar draft) of a chapter of Denialism. So what is denialism and what does it have to do with synthetic biology, or for that matter, science at all? According to Specter, denialism, as discussed in the context of science, is a more moderate, but also more widespread form of denialism in the tradition of HIV and Holocaust denial: “Denialism is denial writ large – when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”(pg. 3) As part of this rejection of change, people have developed and over applied their perception that not all scientific discoveries and advancements actually move us forward as progress. Furthermore, this adds to the idea that science has moved away from nature. Before we were just discovering the functions and logic of nature, now we are subverting it in dangerous ways. Specter thinks that people have responded to modern science by jumping onto certain bandwagons and that while this behavior is influenced by fear, it is ultimately more destructive and dangerous than the science they reject.
            What I like most about Specter’s approach is that he tries to provide explanation for why people behave this way and is not entirely dismissive of the fears. There is logic to our behavior, but it does not stand when new arguments and perspectives are introduced. Or, Specter might argue, at least this would happen if the counterevidence was actually heard because in denialism, evidence is put into pre-assigned categories and not seen independent of the debate. However, while Specter gives a good background for his examples, he does come to some conclusions that are too extreme and definitive for me to be entirely comfortable with them. For example, he weighs everything in terms of overall outcomes. In his chapter on organic food he thinks that even the worst results of using genetically engineered crops pale compared to the amount of people that would die if everyone used organic farming and enough food wasn’t produced. This is very hard to argue against – but only because Specter’s conclusions are very black and white. Why can’t both organic and genetically engineered crops be used – depending on different locations and their needs and risk? He also uses the argument that we have been using genetic modification practices since ancient times so this is nothing that new. This is true, but haven’t domesticated plants and animals already caused problems for native populations?
            Another topic Specter tackles is Vioxx. This drug was pulled off the market after it was found to increase the incidence of heart attack and stroke.  He agrees that there was unethical marketing and lack of disclosure with the drug, but he also says that the number of people it would have saved, had it been left on the market, makes up for those who would have had complications. In theory, I agree with this utilitarian approach and in finding fault with Merck. Where I have hesitation is when he connects this outcry to our expectation of perfection from drug companies. Yes, driving a car is more dangerous than taking Vioxx, and, as his discusses in another chapter on vaccines, measles is more dangerous than the vaccine against it. His point is that people don’t compare the risks of various things or understand how to evaluate them. However, his arguments are sometimes too complacent with what happens. I don’t know enough about prescription drug death rates or how the FDA’s criteria stacks up with other countries to fully understand why Americans judge prescription drug performances too harshly. Of course I may just be part of this denialism that incorrectly weighs consequences and picks the wrong battles.
            The chapter I found the most thought provoking was “Race and the Language of Life” which covered using race as a diagnostic tool. As Specter sees it, political correctness has discouraged doctors from using race, even though different diseases are associated more with some groups and some treatments work better depending on race and gender. The fear comes from our reversal of thought on race. In the past, people saw different races as biologically similar, but now it is treated as a social construct with no biological basis. When the human genome project showed that all humans shared over 99% of their genes with each other, this was taken as evidence that there were no race differences. Now that 1% difference is being studied because it may explain the predominance of diseases in certain races or their reaction to medicine. I found this interesting because while I knew about other factors like income, diet, etc. that groups share that can contribute to or lessen chance of disease, I never thought that there might be a genetic explanation as well. However, there is a distinction that Specter does not make clear that might clear up some of the issues. In his writing, he mentions race and he mentions ethnicity but does not bother to define them and so they are used almost interchangeably. Race is disproven, but ethnicity as the reason difference occurs has already been accepted to some extent. Even his example of the different rates of asthma among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans that begins the chapter is not based on race difference. Nonetheless, the implications of using race or ethnicity in medicine are alarming and while political correctness is the block for denialists, the way this could foster racism is what stops me. Like so many of the quandries presented by Specter, the science needs monitoring as it develops.
Overall, Denialism is about skepticism gone wrong. While I wouldn’t say that Specter fully makes his case about his definition of denialism as a real way of thinking, he does bring up some interesting issues and presents clear description and analysis of the positions in the debate through showing why most of public opinion is wrong or misguided.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Denialism: distinguishing observations and interpretations

Sounds a bit like the distinction between "observations" and "interpretations" ("stories").  "Denialism" is the refusal to accept certain observations because of a dislike of interpretations they might lead to?  Perhaps it could be helped by more clearly distinguishing between observations and intepretations, and more fully recognizing that observations have multiple possible interpretations?