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Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives Paperback – 6 Dec 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (6 Dec. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0715639439
  • ISBN-13: 978-0715639436
  • Product Dimensions: 15.7 x 2.2 x 23.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 910,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Michael Specter has written a lucid and insightful book about a very frightening and irrational phenomenon - the fear and superstition that threaten human science and progress. A superb and convincing work' --Malcolm Gladwell, author of 'Outliers', 'Blink', and 'The Tipping Point'.

About the Author

Michael Specter writes about science, technology and global public health for the 'New Yorker'. He has twice received the Global Health Council's Excellence in Media Award, as well as the Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful By P. S. Braterman on 26 Jan. 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although this book is called "Denialism", you will find nothing but passing references to Holocaust denial or evolution denial, and nothing at all about the rampant climate change denial industry. Instead, there is a ragbag of mainly medical and biological topics, ranging from the Vioxx scandal through irrational fear of GM foods to the pernicious anti-vaccination movement to the moral challenge of designer babies. The only unifying thread is a shotgun attack on unreasonable and unscientific thinking, but the analysis of this, like the level of analysis and scholarship throughout the book, is shallow. There are notes on each of the chapters, and a bibliography, but these are not keyed to the text and it is at times impossible to check specific claims.

Most of the material discussed has been treated far better elsewhere, for example in Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, in Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things, or more recently (for those willing to see religious beliefs gently but firmly treated the same way as any others) in Hank Davis's excellent Caveman Logic
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29 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Lila Fox on 14 Jan. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Initially very excited by the title of this book, I was hoping to find an explanation or at least thoughtful discussion about the seeming loss of trust or acceptance of modern science, especially with regards to climate change. Unfortunately what I found was a collection of anecdotes written by a journalist pretending to be scientist, lacking in any real theories or scientific insight and full of weasel words and other journalistic speak.

The book seemed more like an excuse for Specter to air his dirty laundry and have a rant about everything he had taken a dislike to in his professional life, loosely brought together under the title of `Denialism'. By far the biggest disappointment was the noticeable lack of discussion about surely the biggest denialism of our time, that of climate change. He makes his view on this issue clearly known but fails to address the issue in any depth, instead focusing on attacking the largely benign alternative health and organic food movements, while worshipping big pharma and rejecting the precautionary principle entirely with regards to genetic technology.

Entire chapters seem inconsistent, irrational and poorly edited. In the chapter on organic food he clearly states that rising meat consumption, and its disproportionate consumption of resources, is the greatest threat to our ability to feed the world, yet he focuses his attack instead on consumers who choose to purchase organically grown foods. In a chapter dedicated to discrediting alternative medicine he not only lumps together the vastly different modalities of herbal medicine and homeopathy, but makes outlandish claims, with almost no references, about the failings of various herbal products.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Rolf Dobelli TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 24 Sept. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Debunking those who believe in bunk - medical, dietary, scientific bunk - and showcasing the research that refutes their denial of the truth, Michael Specter writes with the easy grace expected of a New Yorker magazine staff writer. Specter looks at the willful denial of the facts regarding Vioxx, vaccines and their relationship to autism, organic and genetically engineered food, and the future of genomics - the science of genes. Informative, readable, amusing and sure to make you wonder whether you practice a bit of "denialism" in your own beliefs (well, of course not).
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 116 reviews
1,144 of 1,212 people found the following review helpful
A Well Intentioned Failure to Communicate 28 Sept. 2009
By Smith's Rock - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Denialism" states author Michael Specter, "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". The author proceeds to examine recent current events and issues to bolster his contention that some people, unreassured by the healthy and rigorous skepticism of scientific method, have rejected scientific evidence itself, thus lapsing into denialism. By examining the events around the removal of the anti-inflammatory medication Vioxx from the market, the current controversy about vaccines, what the author describes as the "organic fetish", the rise in popularity of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), and the flawed concept of race, Specter attempts to show that American gullibility and hostility to science are endangering our lives, our nation, and our planet.

I'm a family physician, and I face what Specter terms "denialism" on an everyday basis, both in the office and in general conversation. Whether speaking with Young Earth proponents that feel the planet is no more than a few thousand years old, parents that refuse immunizations for their children, people that won't take medication for their blood pressure or heart disease because they fear the side effects more than the disease, or doubters of global warming, I'm regularly faced with people across the spectrum of intelligence, and across the spectrum of religious or political belief, that are unable to interpret the facts that are beginning to impact them where they live. What I had hoped for, when I picked up this book, was an investigation into WHY otherwise well-meaning, often educated, responsible people take rigid stances on issues that are starkly at odds with the facts. Further, I hoped that solutions would be offered to help break through these barriers between well documented information and subsequent ability to act accordingly. Denialism left both hopes unfilled. The book thus becomes more of a wringing of the hands rather than a rolling up of the sleeves.

The book fails on several levels. First, the people most likely to read a book called "Denialism" are the scientific faithful. Being amongst that crowd, I'm as happy as the next guy or gal to be told that I'm right and they (the denialists) are wrong. But I already thought that, and I'm wondering how this book moves even a tiny step closer to those that we would like most to reach. Specter appears to have so much disdain for deluded souls that he might as well have titled his book "Stupidism". The marked tone of condescension virtually guarantees that the target audience that the author would like to reach will tune out within 20 pages. Secondly, I deal with many otherwise quite intelligent folk that run businesses, or hold other positions of high responsibility, but also ascribe to astrology, homeopathy,or cult religions. If such people were amenable to facts, they would have gotten the point long ago. Specter's solution to this is to attempt to bludgeon the "denialist" with page after page of facts. Whatever it is that is blocking the understanding of the "denialist", it is not access to facts or information. The blockage is most likely emotional, possibly based on fear, and one does not most effectively deal with emotional barriers by using facts as instruments of assault and battery.

In order to make my third and final criticism, I need to relate a short story. As I write this, there is a high level of anxiety about a duel epidemic of flu, traditional and H1N1, in my community. My wife is a teacher at a local middle school. In the teacher's lounge yesterday the topic was flu vaccines, both the traditional and the H1N1. All the old reasons for not getting the flu vaccinations surfaced: "I've never had the flu, why should I worry about it?" or "Last time I got the flu shot, I got the worst case of flu that I've ever had" or "This is a new vaccine, what if they got it wrong and it kills more people than it helps?". One teacher, struggling to make up her mind, turned to my wife and said "Are you going to get the flu shot?". My wife replied "I've never gotten a flu shot before, but this year, Dan (that would be me) is really worried about it, and he thinks I should get it. So yes. I'm going to." The teacher then announced "I know Dan, he's a good doc, he would NEVER recommend a flu shot for Cindy unless it was his very best guess that she should do it. That's enough for me. I'm going for it.". The point here is that trust is an essential companion to facts. And the truth is that the frequent divorces between science and wisdom, between science and ethics, between science and the environment have done tremendous harm to the trust science feels that it deserves. No knowledge comes without subsequent responsibility, and Denialism addresses this fact only weakly. PhD's in geology (oil and mineral technology), chemistry (pesticides, household products containing carcinogens, napalm, neurotoxins), pharmacy (don't get me started), physics (nuclear weapons) are granted with little, or more commonly, NO training in ethics. I have a deep respect for science, but science has to up its game if it wishes to regain lost trust. Denialism doesn't even begin to discuss how this might be done.

Ironic, is it not, that a book entitled Denialism appears to be in denial about the substantial damage that scientists themselves, through arrogance or unethical behavior, have done to the field of knowledge that appears to be our only route towards solving the enormous challenges mankind currently faces. The solution to denial will be a multi-factorial one, and involve movement of both sides toward each other, rather than a merciless beating down of the recalcitrant "denialist".

Lastly, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society is a very readable and interesting exploration of why the way a person thinks is not always congruent with the best information available. I found it illuminating.
120 of 145 people found the following review helpful
Such an important topic deserves better 5 Oct. 2009
By Geoff Arnold - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Denialism is all around us in many forms, from the anti-vaxxers to the Holocaust deniers and "Moon landing hoax" proponents. Scientists get it from both sides, from the populist know-nothings on the right to the conspiracy paranoiacs on the left. It's been addressed in various books over the years, from Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things to Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. But the new varieties of denial keep coming, as do the examples of corporate and scientific malfeasance that fuel them, and the fear-mongering media and crackpot celebrities keep cranking up the general level of anxiety. So we should welcome authors who can help to calm the panic and redress the balance.

Sadly, Specter fails in this. His concerns are real, the targets well-chosen, and the depth of his research is impressive. Unfortunately the presentation fails in several respects. The introduction is disorganized, as he keeps oscillating between the irrationality of the denialists and the range of provocations that have led to a quite understandable level of popular anxiety. And once he plunges into his first example - the drug Vioxx - it's unclear why he feels that it advances his argument. Merck put profit ahead of rigor, and patients paid with their lives. True. Where's the denialism? It looks like good old-fashioned greed. And so forth.

That pretty much sets the tone for the book. It's scattershot. There are probably half a dozen plausible essays for the New Republic or Mother Jones lurking in here, but as a sustained argument it's a flop. And that's a shame.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A well intentioned book that is unfortunately not very balanced 22 April 2010
By Dr. Bojan Tunguz - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The tempo of technological development and scientific discovery seems only to be accelerating every day, and the time that it takes for a discovery to make its way in everyday life shortens all the time. Unfortunately, many of these changes are not very well understood and there are vocal opponents of many of them. A healthy dose of skepticism about everything that is novel and makes promises that seem too good to be true should be welcome, especially for tools and technologies that have not been proven themselves. However, when a technological advancement has already been proven to be effective and promises to facilitate human life in a very dramatic way, then the opposition to that advance can be hurtful to the society in general. "Denialism" is a book about several of those technological developments. Some of them, like the vaccination, are actually centuries old, but the opposition to them has never completely gone away. To the contrary, it looks like it has only increased in the recent years. The author does a very good job of describing and arguing in favor of several of those technological advances, and takes their critics to a task. A long-time New Yorker contributor, Michael Specter writes a very exciting and passionate book. The topics that he covers are all very interesting, and for the most part well documented. Unfortunately, the book has many significant flaws that make it less-than-ideal argument in favor of those technologies.

The books biggest fault is the portrayal of a very natural and sometimes very legitimate human tendency to be suspicious and fearful of novel and unusual substances into something that is misguided at best and more often than not pathological. This attitude serves neither the author nor his cause well. If his aim is to change minds and win over hearts, it would have been much more prudent to assume a much more conciliatory and far less condescending attitude towards those who don't share his opinions. As it is, I am afraid that this book will just end up preaching to the choir and solidify the opposition to many of the scientific developments that are promoted herein.

Another big flaw is a completely one-sided presentation. I am very inclined to believe most of the stuff that Specter argues in favor of, but the fact that he presents an incredibly unbalanced presentation leaves me very suspicious. On a few occasions that he mentions some of the arguments from the opposing viewpoint they invariably come from people that are so out of the mainstream way of thinking that it is hard to believe they are very representative. In other words, there is a lot of straw-man in this book.

Overall, this is an interesting book that will most likely not change many hearts or minds.
54 of 68 people found the following review helpful
Excellent Book about Another Dimension of Conspiracy Theories 9 Nov. 2009
By maskirovka - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If it weren't for the fact that "Denialism" has gotten unfairly reviewed by some people here who seem to have an axe to grind, I'd have given it four stars. But I figure that adding an extra star on my part offsets people who are themselves of the mindset the author writes about or people who think that the author is condescending in his tone (he didn't strike me as such).

I'm death on people who promote conspiracy theories, and "Denialism" definitely shows that the problem is much more widespread than just people who go on about the Kennedy Assassination or September 11...that there are many people who have paranoid conceptions of the pharmaceutical industry and vaccinations or who think that just because something was grown "naturally" it's automatically better for the world than a plant that is genetically modified to be pest-resistant or have more yield.

"Denialism" pours a lot of cold water on people who espouse such viewpoints, and yes, it is occasionally done in a strident fashion. But I can understand the author's frustration with people who link autism with vaccinations despite the flood tide of evidence to the contrary or who think it better that people in Africa starve to death rather than grow and eat genetically modified crops (I can hardly wait to read the negative comments that this paragraph alone is likely to trigger on my review).

To me, the best chapters are about vaccinations and the organic food cult. It blew me away to read that there are people out there who think "raw milk" (i.e. unpasteurized milk is somehow better for you than the regular stuff despite clear evidence showing that people can and do die from drinking the former instead of the latter). Similarly, I was shocked to read that vitamins and supplements that are routinely and aggressively marketed as cure-alls and preventatives for a variety of ailments come with a neat little disclaimer that states that none of these claims have been held up for scrutiny by the FDA.

My only criticisms of the book is that the author is a little too much in the tank for Obama (although he does lambaste a member of the Kennedy clan for incredible assertions about vaccinations). I really wonder what Obama's viewpoint is about medical evidence that shows that certain races are more susceptible to certain diseases and disorders (which is not politically correct to assert even in medical journals).

I'm also chary of his implied assertion that anyone who doesn't believe that climate change threatens the survival of mankind is in the denialist camp. I for one don't doubt that man can have an extremely negative impact on climate and the environment. I'm just not sold on the idea that all climate change is down to mankind instead of nature and that humanity should embark on monumental economic outlays to deal with the problem and change its ways and behavior on a scope that has never been attempted before. I'm also alienated by people who do believe that this is all necessary and their tendency to demonize people who don't agree with them as stupid or corrupt.

But overall, "Denialism" is a cold breath of fresh air and anyone who is truly open-minded will benefit from reading it.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Great ideas, but kind of lost me towards the end... 17 Oct. 2009
By Kiki - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a great gem of an idea for a book, "denialism" being the name this journalist gives to the fear and mistrust that people ( both in the US and globally) have towards government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, etc.

As a nation, we don't like being told what to do. But no one can deny that wearing your seatbelt may save your life, and certainly will not hurt you. Countless studies prove this. Specter starts his study of denialism by examining the irrational fear of vaccinations in this country, a movement that seems to be headed up by self appointed anti-vaccination mom, Jenny McCarthy, an actress/comedienne. Specter explains at length why any actual risks that vaccinations may cause are clearly outweighed by the benefits(small pox being almost completely eradicated being on major benefit!). parents in this country are refusing vaccinations, and though measles sounds like a benign and survivable illness, many children have died from complications of the disease, much less than have died from the vaccination. Measles was eliminated in 2002, but recent refusals to vaccinate have caused several outbreaks in the US this year, and 540 children die every day from measles infections and complications. Much more than are effected by the MMR vaccinations.

McCarthy claims vaccinations caused her child's autism, as well as many others, but studies show, the level of autism diagnoses has not increased at all since the supposedly offending vaccinations have been added. Plus, autism is diagnosed strictly by behavior, and can often be misdiagnosed.

The whole book carries on in this vain. Specter looks at our fear of "big pharm" out for our cash, and not actually interested in our health (not to mention, our subsequent belief that alternative medicine and supplements will cure/heal/prevent illness, with absolutely no proof that any of the items actually does those things). He examines the current trend for local foods, organic foods, and the "all natural" trend that we are currently so enchanted with, both in the US and in Europe. He looks at our fear of bio-tech and the possible advances it could bring into health care in this country, but that fear and rhetoric of certain groups and people halts and inhibits.

Specter has done an exhaustive job of researching all the topics he tackles in this book, and generally speaking is an readable writer. The last chapter started to lose me...I just couldn't think about any more of the bio-tech scenarios, and there was a little too much scientist talk for me, personally.

However, this is a smart book with some excellent ideas that we need to start talking about soon, if we are to protect the health and welfare of this nation. Irrational fear of things new is normal, as is the fear of being told you must do something, even if it is for the good of both yourself and your family, and others around you. But a voice of reason needs to intervene when our fear turns us into a nation of fools.
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