Reviewed 9/16/2011

Denialism, by Michael Specter

How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives
Michael Specter
New York: The Penguin Press, October 2009




ISBN-13 978-1-59420-230-8
ISBN 1-59420-230-3 294pp. HC $27.95

Author Michael Specter has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1998. Here, in his first book, he takes on a very important subject. "Denialism" can be defined as the refusal to accept a widely held view of something, even when there is abundant evidence to support that view. As such, it has occurred throughout human history; but today the number of people in its grip, the obduracy of their refusal, and the importance of what they refuse to believe (in several areas) are all unprecedented. As the book's subtitle says, their irrational thinking is harming the planet as well as individual human lives.

"Unless data fits neatly into an already formed theory, a denialist doesn't really see it as data at all. That enables him to dismiss even the most compelling evidence as just another point of view. Instead, denialists invoke logical fallacies to buttress unshakeable beliefs, which is why, for example, crops created through the use of biotechnology are 'frankenfoods' and therefore unlike anything in nature."

– Page 3

So I was prepared to like this book. Even after reading its Introduction, which is too long, poorly organized, has overly dramatic passages, and makes at least one questionable statement, I thought the chapters would be better. But I found the first chapter to have the same faults: its organization is scattershot and its message incoherent. In Chapter 1, "Vioxx and the Fear of Science," Specter intersperses his discussion of that Merck-manufactured drug with other subjects: the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, the deadly leak at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India; the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown and the explosion at Chernobyl; the eugenics movement. Also mentioned are several other drugs with harmful side effects which their makers tried to conceal.1 After reading this chapter, I certainly did not come away with the message that, despite some lapses, the pharmaceutical companies make effective products and are far more of a boon than a bane.2 Rather, I got the opposite impression. I also wondered how Specter was going to show denialism is misguided, if he kept on this way.

"Thirty years ago nobody discussed the principal motive behind scientific research: nobody needed to. It was a quest for knowledge. Today, the default assumption is that money matters most of all, and people tend to see science through the prism of commerce."

– Page 37

Fortunately, he does not. Chapter 2 is excellent: tightly organized and on message, it reads like a war story (which in fact it is.) It even contrasts today's situation with an epidemic of smallpox in Boston in 1721. Cotton Mather, the famous preacher, inveighed from the pulpit for vaccination. His reward was to have a bomb thrown in his window. (Specter does not say what damage it did.) But the vaccinations happened, and they were effective. Specter makes the case airtight: Vaccination is vital. Nevertheless, it is going to be a long battle with the antivaxxers.

"Climate change, environmental degradation, water scarcity, and agricultural productivity are all intertwined. It will not be possible to solve any of these problems unless we solve them all. Climate change is likely not only to bring warmer temperatures but also to alter patterns of rainfall, placing even more stress on agriculture. Livestock already consume 80 percent of the world's soybeans and more than half the corn. Cattle require staggering amounts of fresh, potable water. It takes thirteen hundred gallons of water to produce a single hamburger; a steak requires double that amount."

– Page 115

The remaining chapters cover organic foods and dietary supplements, alternative medicine, race-based medicine, and synthetic biology. They are all chock full of information, and well organized despite a few instances of bad arguments. I think these are merely poor wording on Specter's part, and not any indication that he misunderstands the situation. But the chief defect in this book is that, after spending twenty-one pages in his Introduction condemning denialism, he says very little more about it. His chapters take the approach of laying out the benefits of drugs, vaccinations, evidence-based medicine, and the biotech revolution. Unfortunately, a good deal of what he writes exposes the defects of these; it does not bolster his case that denialism is groundless. And finally, while he mentions climate change in several places, he spends too little time discussing it and its denialists.

"The hydrocarbons we burn for fuel are really nothing more than concentrated sunlight that has been collected by leaves and trees. Organic matter rots, bacteria break it down, and it moves underground, where, after millions of years of pressure, it turns into oil and coal. At that point, we go dig it up—at huge expense and with disastrous environmental consequences. Across the globe, on land and sea, we sink wells and lay pipe to ferry our energy to giant refineries. That has been the industrial model of development, and it worked for nearly two centuries.

"It won't work any longer, though, and we need to stop it."

– Pages 262-63

Just as a teaser, and an indicator of the enormous progress being made in genomics, here are the plummeting costs of sequencing an entire human genome over the past twenty years — as discussed on page 209. Note too that the time required has shrunk from a year to mere minutes.

Human Genome Project George Church Genome of James Watson ? Complete Genomics, Inc.
1990 1995 1996 2009 2010
$3,000,000,000 $2,000,000 $1,000,000 $100,000 $5,000

The book lists a few selected sources for each chapter — Web sites, papers and books — along with some notes on each. This list is followed by a bibliography with 80 entries. (Some of these don't seem to be relevant to the text: Love and Sex with Robots ???5) Finally there is an index which appears to be pretty good. I recommend this book, despite its defects; but those defect make me rule it out as a keeper (although you should keep it in sight long enough to check out some of the web sites he cites — or make a list.) That's unfortunate, because Specter put a lot of work into the book. He clearly understands the importance of the advances he describes, and knows how necessary it is to prevent denialism from blocking their acceptance. Perhaps he could be persuaded to do a second edition, adding a chapter on energy and climate change. Now that would be a keeper for sure.

1 The last line of the chapter is: "When we compare the risk of taking Vioxx to the risk of getting behind the wheel of a car, it's not at all clear which is more dangerous." (page 55) Then perhaps the author should make that clear.
2 It's true that Specter points out the great loss of life that would occur if we did not have these drugs available. But he barely mentions this fact.
3 AGW stands for Anthropogenic (man-made) Global Warming..
4 I discuss them in detail at Disbelieving in Global Warming.
5 I suppose the classic reference is "Helen O'Loy".
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