Michael Specter: What Happens When We Ignore Scientific Consensus? Michael Specter explores why some deny scientific evidence — such as the safety of vaccines and GMOs, or climate change. He says denying can provide a sense of control in an unsure world.
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Michael Specter: What Happens When We Ignore Scientific Consensus?

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Michael Specter: What Happens When We Ignore Scientific Consensus?

Michael Specter: What Happens When We Ignore Scientific Consensus?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about truth, lies and denial. I want to start by asking about this word denialism. What is it - what's your definition of it?

MICHAEL SPECTER: Denialism is something that is kind of rejecting an obvious truth for a much more comfortable lie.

RAZ: This is Michael Specter. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of a book called "Denialism."

SPECTER: I tend to write about science in society, often genetics, sometimes the environment, public health.

RAZ: Actually, to be more specific, he writes a lot about climate change, vaccines and GMOs. So you can imagine what his email inbox looks like. And when Michael gave his TED talk back in 2010, he was really mad. He was mad about all the denialism out there.


SPECTER: People wrap themselves in their beliefs. And they do it so tightly that you can't set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And listen, everyone's entitled to their opinion. They're even entitled to their opinion about progress. But you know what you're not entitled to? You're not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you're not. And this took me a while...

RAZ: This talk actually ends on kind of a hopeful note that things are going to get better, that people are going to agree on facts again. But if you ask Michael today, seven years later...

SPECTER: Oh, I think it's much worse today. I don't see how we couldn't say it's worse than it was when I gave that talk. And that, to me, is very distressing.

RAZ: Here's more of Michael Specter from the TED stage.


SPECTER: Vaccines, modern medicine, our ability to feed billions of people, those are triumphs of the scientific method. And to my mind, the scientific method is one of the great accomplishments of humanity. A kid born in New Delhi today can expect to live as long as the richest man in the world did 100 years ago. I mean, think about that. It's an incredible thought.

And why is it true? Smallpox. Smallpox killed billions of people on this planet. It's gone. It's vanished. We vanquished it. In the rich world, diseases that threatened millions of us just a generation ago, no longer exist hardly. Diphtheria, rubella, polio, does anyone even know what those things are? But here's the thing that keeps me up at night.

We're on the verge of amazing, amazing events in many fields. And yet, I actually think we'd have to go back hundreds, 300 years, before the Enlightenment to find a time when we battled progress, when we fought about these things more vigorously and on more fronts than we do now. This guy was a hero, Jonas Salk. He took one of the worst scourges of mankind away from us - polio, poof, gone. That guy in the middle, not so much.

His name is Paul Offit. He just developed a rotavirus vaccine with a bunch of other people. It'll save the lives of 400, 500,000 kids in the developing world every year. Pretty good, right? Well, it's good, except that Paul goes around talking about vaccines and says how valuable they are. When Paul speaks in a public hearing, he can't testify without armed guards.

He gets called at home because people like to tell them that they remember where his kids go to school. And why? Because Paul made a vaccine.

RAZ: Let's talk about facts for a moment. What are the facts about vaccines, about the measles vaccine, the MMR vaccine, the polio vaccine? What are the facts about them?

SPECTER: The facts are that in general, they are incredibly, incredibly safe. And that if you gave 100 million children the basic set of vaccines and then you took 100 million children and didn't get them, enormous numbers of the unvaccinated would be sick and die. And the ones who were vaccinated would be fine. Now, if you vaccinate 100 million people, a couple people's immune system are going to go haywire as a result.

For those people and for their parents, that's a tragedy. And it is ridiculous to pretend it isn't. But it's also ridiculous not to do the math, which includes a numerator and a denominator because when you talk about vaccines, you have to say, is there a risk? And the answer is always yes. But you also have to ask what the risk of not doing things is. And the risk of not doing something like vaccinating your children is enormous.

RAZ: So there are millions of people who take issue with this idea that vaccines are safe, who have the same access to all the data and facts that you have and I have but who have come to a completely different conclusion. So what explains it? Why?

SPECTER: Well, I think we have to step away just from vaccines. I think this is true in many areas of life now. And people can see radically different things and take radically different things out of the same data. And part of it is fear. I think we're afraid of losing control of our world. People are anxious that they can't control their lives. And so they want to say no.

RAZ: Do you think that - I mean, often times people who deny things that you might view as just painfully obvious truths, they claim to be skeptics. And skepticism is a widely accepted, you know, scientific perspective.

SPECTER: It's a requirement.

RAZ: Yeah.

SPECTER: The problem with skepticism is it's getting a bad name. Skepticism is questioning - the scientific method is one in which you try things out and then you try to poke holes in it. And you assume you will be able to poke holes in it. And if you do, then, great, this doesn't work. And if it does work, you use that until you find something better. And for the last 400 years, that system, it has brought us the modern world. It has - the changes are very dramatic and we sometimes act as if things are getting worse. And they're not.

RAZ: Like, for example, when it comes to genetically engineered foods or GMOs, it's another topic where Michael says the scientific consensus is pretty clear.


SPECTER: Every single thing we eat, every grain of rice, every sprig of parsley, every Brussels sprout has been modified by man. You know, there weren't tangerines in the Garden of Eden. There wasn't any cantaloupe. There weren't Christmas trees. We made it all. We made it over the last 11,000 years. And some of it worked and some of it didn't. We got rid of the stuff that didn't. Now we can do it in a more precise way.

And there are risks, absolutely. But why are we fighting it? Well, the things I constantly hear are too many chemicals, pesticides, hormones. We don't want companies patenting life. We don't want companies owning seeds. And you know what my response to all of that is? Yes, you're right. Let's fix it. It's true. We've got a huge food problem. But this isn't science.

This has nothing to do with science. It's law, it's morality, it's patent stuff. The idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we're afraid is really very deadening. And it's preventing millions of people from prospering.

I have students at Bard College where I sometimes teach. And the first question I ever ask any of them is how many of you try to avoid eating GMOs? And they pretty much all raise their hands. And I say, fine. And then I say, how many of you have heard of vitamin A rice? It's a rice that's been infused with a vitamin it doesn't have. And if it is fed to hundreds of thousands and millions of kids in Southeast Asia and Africa, they wouldn't go blind.

And that is not owned by any company. The patent is free. There is no profit-making motive attached to it in any way whatsoever. And when I ask students what they think about that, they all say, wow, that's great. So I say, fine, well, now we're all pro-GMO in this class. And we have to work out the details.

RAZ: I mean, it seems like a lot of mistrust and denialism and projection of science isn't really about the science at all. But it's more about rejecting authority and institutions and power.

SPECTER: Yeah, I think that's true. And I think that's understandable. People have been lied to. They know that corporations don't always tell the truth. They know that governments don't always tell the truth. But I also think there's a solution. And it's a very difficult solution, but it's the only solution, which is education. And I hate to pick on scientists because I spend a lot of time around them.

They don't reach out very much. I mean, I've been writing about this for now decades. And if there's one thing I can promise you, facts are not enough. They don't - I won't say they don't matter. But they're not enough. You need to connect with people on a basic level about things. And when you do that, they respond. But we don't sit down and talk to them. We just preach.

RAZ: Michael Specter. He writes for The New Yorker. His book is called "Denialism." You can see his entire talk at ted.com.


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