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January 11, 2010
Volume 88, Number 2
pp. 35-36

Saying 'No' To Science

Book excoriates the antiscience crowd by examining recent controversies

Reviewed by Sam Kean

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Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, by by Michael Specter, Penguin Press, 2009, 304 pages, $27.95 hardcover (ISBN: 1594202303)
Conspiracy? One of the cases in the book discusses Vioxx.

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Several ways exist to defend science against assaults on its integrity. There's the elegant-universe defense: that the laws of nature are inherently beautiful, and science alone can illuminate these deep truths. There's the luxury defense: that cars, computers, cheap food, the Internet all sprang from scientific advances, and we'd be immeasurably poorer without them.

Then there's the more ambiguous and pugilistic defense that Michael Specter employs in "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives." Specter is upfront, even harsh about some of the failures of science in the past few decades; among other cases, he cites the Vioxx debacle, shoddy tobacco science, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. And he acknowledges that breakthroughs like genetic engineering are often Janus-faced, with the potential for abuse fused into their very nature. Nevertheless, Specter argues that science propels humankind forward and that not doing risky science carries risks, too—an opportunity cost, even if we don't know what the opportunity will be. What's more, he's not about to let science get pummeled by people who almost willfully misunderstand it. Specter defends science by swinging back—at Oprah Winfrey, at British Lords, at African dictators, whomever.

A crucial question for Specter is why science has suffered assaults on so many fronts recently—think of vaccines accused of causing autism or genetically modified (GM) food supposedly poised to destroy civilization as we know it. He suggests that when scientific data conflict with what people want or want to believe, some strong emotion—pain, fear, suspicion, even a misguided desire to do good—overwhelms rational thought, and people deny scientific truth to assuage themselves. This need is all the more acute, he notes, because science has become omnipresent, a fingernail's scratch below every facet of modern life, and continues to expand its reach.

The spread of science wasn't always seen as a threat. A suspicious attitude has emerged only in the past few generations, Specter says, and to him, it's a revolutionary shift in the zeitgeist, perhaps as profound as the cultural shifts that led to science in the first place. But calling this switch abrupt plows over some historical exceptions: Mary (Frankenstein) Shelley, Ned (Luddite) Ludd, Jean-Jacques (Noble Savage) Rousseau, William (Dark Satanic Mills) Blake, and others, none of whom were wild about science and technology exactly. Even Robert Oppenheimer—"I am become Death, destroyer of worlds"—regretted what science had wrought.

But in its broad outlines, Specter's diagnosis rings true. Something has gone awry. Science is no longer just a grand intellectual adventure; people demand a return from the public investment in science, and their desires often don't match those of scientists. As evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller once rued, "Americans support science largely so they can, with impunity, exploit foreigners, eat cows, and avoid physical exertion." When the public also feels its value threatened by science, expect hostility.

Specter focuses on topics that whip so-called denialists into an especially rabid froth, either in protest or defense—genetic engineering, megadoses of vitamins, organic food, vaccines, geopolitical food distribution. And in some ways, his analyses of the different assaults mesh nicely: The perpetrators all deny scientifically established facts, after all, and treat science as a political faction. In other ways, though, these assaults are different phenomena, with different motivations. And it's not clear they can be yoked together so casually.

One thing Specter enjoys doing is defining denialism, by explaining its "hallmark" or "driving force" or sine qua non. But instead of his definition getting repetitious, it gets puzzling. At various times, he calls denialism a tendency to "shun nuance and fear complexity," or maintain a "willful ignorance," or "tell only one side of the story," or "run from the past and shun the future," or "confus[e] popularity with authority," or link "scientists ... often with the government, in an intricate web of lies." None of these traits are contradictory exactly, but they make denialism seem amorphous and protean.

As a result, the book comes out a little uneven, but not in the sense that some passages are poorly written or confusing. Specter writes for the New Yorker for a reason: Each chapter is clear, well paced, and thoughtful. But Specter treats the chapters differently. The only real narrative is the first, about the painkiller Vioxx. Here Specter pieces together, mostly through interviews, the story of the cardiologist who blew the whistle on Merck, the maker of Vioxx, for reportedly covering up the high incidence of heart attacks in people who took it. It's great detective work, but it doesn't illuminate denialism much. In fact, seemingly unconcerned about undermining his thesis, Specter writes that "a market disaster like Vioxx ... provided denialists with a rare opportunity: their claims of conspiracy actually came true."

The middle four chapters—on vaccine debates, the organic food "fetish," new age medicine and supplements, and race-based medicine—are more essayistic, and they admirably skewer and debunk denialists. But even here Specter swings widely. At different times he castigates Europeans, Americans, and Africans for opposing "progress," especially when the opposition hinges on fallacious notions of purity—for example, not getting vaccinated or not adopting GM crops. And while Specter is definitely political, he's not partisan: Both the left and the right get black eyes. Interestingly, he skips over other ripe examples of denialism—religious fundamentalism, radical animal-rights protestors, and people who deny climate change. Whether he does so because they don't fit his thesis or because they're tired topics or because of another reason isn't clear.

New & Noteworthy

How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells, by Lewis Wolpert, W. W. Norton & Co., 2009, 240 pages, $24.95 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-393-07221-1)

Leads readers on a tour of the human cell and explores the crucial role cells play in every aspect of our lives, from birth to death. The book illuminates the scientific facts and ethical dilemmas behind such controversies as stem cell research, abortion, cloning, and the genetic basis for criminality and homosexuality. The author argues that a clear scientific understanding of cell theory is the only path to finding logical and morally defensible answers to each of these issues.

More Than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risks to Our Children, by Dan Agin, Oxford University Press, 2009, 416 pages, $27.95 hardcover (ISBN 9780195381504)

Makes the case that toxic chemicals in the environment are assaulting developing fetuses, as are substances (such as alcohol and nicotine) ingested by pregnant women. According to the author, this constitutes a silent pandemic that is causing untold damage to babies while they are in the womb.

In the book's final chapter, on the perils and promise of synthetic biology, Specter more or less abandons denialism and writes a long, straight news story instead. If genetic engineering means laboriously tweaking an organism's genome one or two genes at a time, synthetic biology means ripping the genomic engine out of the chassis and installing a custom genome, built from scratch. Specter's treatment of the peril and promise of synthetic biology is well done, but again, it doesn't help us understand denialism. The field is so new and speculative that, however spooky it might sound to them, denialists really haven't had a chance to work themselves into a lather on the subject.

Perhaps the book meanders because, unlike most polemics—for example, "The Republican War on Science" by Chris Mooney—Specter does not identify a coherent enemy. Sure, there are probably a few ignorant protestors out there who subscribe to every fallacy he points out—Unabomber survivalists or hippies with so many buttons pinned to their hemp jacket that you fear for the integrity of the fabric. Such people are no doubt happy, even ecstatic, to link Merck and Monsanto and the Food & Drug Administration and mercury-laced vaccines and GM tomatoes and the supposed suppression of the healing power of Echinacea into one "Protocols-of-the-Elders of Zion"-like conspiracy of greed and cover-ups, and they even have pamphlets to "prove" it all.

But Specter isn't writing to convince those people, clearly. He's writing to convince thoughtful people interested in science and science policy, and such people might very well find themselves shaking their heads for different reasons—first a vigorous "yes," then an exasperated "no"—in consecutive chapters. I, for one, found Specter's chapter on the follies of pretending that doctors should never take race into account when diagnosing people with diseases both stimulating and, given what a touchy subject race is, brave. I found his damn-the-torpedoes attitude about inventing new technologies to push already taxed farmlands around the world even further a little reckless. Other readers may have the opposite reaction, or may single out other chapters.

Disagreement can be good for science, of course, but the reader may be frustrated that Specter has already seized the rhetorical high ground here, by painting any opposition to individual technologies as opposition to human progress generally. For example, he attacks Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, who penned an essay in 2000 for Wired magazine entitled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" on his qualms about genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics. Joy ultimately floats the idea that humankind should consider not pursuing certain avenues of inquiry, lest they prove too dangerous for us to handle. Specter seems right, first, that a voluntary moratorium will never work and, second, that it's probably not a good idea—again, there are risks in avoiding risk. But Joy's essay is not the work of a hysterical Luddite who, Specter says, wants "to force a preventative lobotomy on the world." That's a false, all-or-nothing dichotomy.

"Denialism" is what the New Yorker would produce if, instead of an annual food or fashion issue, it produced a "mistrust of science" issue. Do read this book for a deeper understanding of contemporary science and public policy. At the same time, a themed issue doesn't strive for strict coherence, and Specter doesn't quite achieve it either. Tellingly, he spends virtually no time discussing remedies for denialism. That's probably because convincing the antivaccination crowd that MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccines won't give their children autism would require different tactics than convincing an African strongman to accept GM seed corn from Western companies. Specter does a great service in breaking down such follies individually, but when he links them together one might be tempted to indict Specter himself for doing what he identifies as yet another cardinal sin of denialism: the tendency to "conflate similar but distinct issues and treat them as one."

Sam Kean is the author of "The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements" forthcoming from Little, Brown in July.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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