Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives Paperback – 6 Dec 2010
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'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.
Top Customer Reviews
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
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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
Even though I am not a defender of those in denial, his arguments about citizen's reticence towards drugs offered by profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies is nothing new, arguably barely passes the smell test, and is, I would argue, more an argument about distrust of companies that use low and loose standards of science, than a rejection of science, per se. Personally, as a Scientist, I would have attacked rather than defended these obvious "bottom-feeders of science." And certainly would not then have used citizen's rejection of them and their often questionable research as a baseline for determining the state of American denialism?
Users of alternative medicines, and organic food nuts, are not so much in denial as they are in desperate search of a last resort to the very industries that this author seems to have no problem defending in the name of science. Those he characterizes as being "in denial about the healthcare industry" are in fact trying desperately to cope and deal with the devastating reality that the same industries peddling drugs and fast foods are not only in cahoots, but that together they (and the FDA which is more their lackey than their master) are wholly responsible for the sorry state of health of the American public. Pretending that it is otherwise - that American food is healthy for them, and that the drug companies and the FDA have their best interests at heart --now that in my humble opinion is real denial.
The larger point however is that the real history of American denialism, which has both anti-scientific and anti-intellectual roots sadly goes all but untouched in this book about denialism. And although the author is not a psychologist, it is impossible for him to have expected to shed new light on an old and deeply rooted problem without delving at least a bit into the psychology that has shaped our national tendency towards collective denial.
Denialism in American society, which the author only alluded to in passing (when he mentioned both race and religion), has a deep almost metaphysical basis that has two parallel tracks; one running above and the other running below the water mark of consciousness. And while it is true that science rarely touches either side, by completely ignoring the role deeper historical patterns of thought have played in shaping the American "culture of denialism," the author missed the forest for the trees, and leaves himself open to being guilty of dilettantism. Seeking alternatives to a broken healthcare system, food distribution and regulation system, and a profit-seeking drug industry, hardy seems like it ought to be put in the same class as "holocaust deniers" and those who believe in angels?
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.