'Denying' Science Could Be Dangerous

Genetically modified food, vaccines and synthetic biology are all hot-button issues. But they shouldn't be, according to guest Michael Specter, author of the new book Denialism. He argues that the scariest threat is not science itself, but the reluctance to discuss it. More information.

Refusing Flu Shots? Maybe You're A 'Denialist'

Michael Specter i i

Michael Specter writes about science and technology for The New Yorker. hide caption

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Michael Specter

Michael Specter writes about science and technology for The New Yorker.

Denialism
By Michael Specter
Hardcover, 304 pages
Penguin Press
List Price: $27.95

Read An Excerpt.

Nearly 20 percent of the families in Vashon Island, Wash., aren't getting their children vaccinated against childhood diseases. At the Ocean Charter School near Marina del Rey, Calif., 40 percent of the 2008 kindergarten class received vaccination exemptions. Author Michael Specter says the parents in these upscale enclaves are prime examples of what he calls "denialism."

That's also the title of his new book, . "We can all believe irrational things," the author of Denialism tells NPR's Scott Simon. "The problem is that I think an increasing number of Americans are acting on those beliefs instead of acting on facts that are readily present."

The Motives And Consequences of 'Denialism'

But the Vashon Island and Marina del Rey communities aren't places where religious or cultural traditions argue against vaccinations —- like the Amish or Jehovah's Witnesses.

Instead, they believe vaccinations are harmful to their children, citing stories they've heard about mistakes by doctors or pharmaceutical fraud.

But, Specter says, when parents make that decision, they focus on the one-in-10-million chance that a vaccine could kill a child and ignore the one-in-1,000 chance that a disease will do so. "These people retreat into denialism," he says. "It's like denial, but writ large, [because] this has consequences."

Those consequences don't just affect the children who go unvaccinated, but everyone they interact with as well, Specter adds. He points out that diseases like measles, which had almost been eradicated in North America, are now coming back.

The Fetish Of Organic Food

"Denialism," the author says, is evident in far more than vaccination rates. Take organic food. Specter considers himself a fan, but he draws the line at demonizing genetically engineered food.

"In other parts of the world," he says, "a billion people go to bed hungry every night. Those people need science to help them. It isn't about whether people want to go to Whole Foods or not ... The thing that killed the most people in the history of the world — except maybe for insects —- was pure water and natural, untreated food."

He argues that some people look at "natural" products, such as vitamins, and think that they're automatically good. But, he argues, "it's no different than anything else you swallow."

"Someone told me they didn't want to take a flu shot because they didn't want to put a foreign substance into their body," says Specter. "What do they think they do at dinner every night?"

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