Refusing Flu Shots? Maybe You're A 'Denialist' 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 this upscale enclave are prime examples of what he calls "denialism."
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Refusing Flu Shots? Maybe You're A 'Denialist'

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

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

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Nearly 20 percent of the families in Vashon Island, Washington have chosen not to have their children vaccinated against childhood diseases. At the Ocean Charter School near Marina del Rey, California, 40 percent of the 2008 kindergarten class received vaccination exemptions. Now, neither Vashon Island or Marina del Rey are Amish or Jehovah's Witness communities - they're upscale areas in large urban centers. Their parents probably didn't neglect to get their children vaccinated, but made what they consider to be informed decisions based on what they've heard or read.

Michael Specter says this can be called denialism, which is also conveniently the title of his new book, "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives." Mr. Specter, who writes about science and technology for the New Yorker, joins us in our studios. Michael, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL SPECTER (Author): Well, thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: The premise of your book seems to be that a lot of smart people who read and reflect can believe irrational things.

Mr. SPECTER: Yeah. And we can all believe irrational things. 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 to them at all times.

SIMON: Now, the matter specifically of vaccinations, which is, of course, come up anew with the H1N1 vaccination, a lot of people can recall mistakes by doctors or outright frauds perpetrated by pharmaceutical companies, and they say they'd be idiots not to protect their children.

Mr. SPECTER: They would be idiots not to protect their children and they would be irresponsible. But when people decide to whether to vaccinate their children or not, they don't look at the data and say, well, there's a one in a 10 million chance that the vaccine will kill my child, but there's a one in 1,006 chance that the disease will come back and do so.

And all I'm trying to say is these people retreat into denialism. And by that I mean it's like denial only writ large. And we're all in denial from time to time. We all see things that are too painful to really deal with. But this has consequences, and the consequences of not vaccinating your children are not only just that those children are exposed to illnesses, it's that everyone else they go to school with and they hang around with are too.

And these diseases, like measles, which almost had been eradicated in Europe and America, is coming back now.

SIMON: I want to get to one of the more - at least to me - unexpectedly controversial sections of your book. You refer to the fetish of organic foods.

Mr. SPECTER: I do. There is a segment of people in this country who eat organic food and consider it something of a religion. And I should say I buy organic food; I eat organic food. I think it tastes better. It's not nutritionally more valuable. So then the question is, is it better for the environment? That's a very complicated issue.

But what worries me - and it is denialism - is when people say we want organic food and we oppose genetically engineered food. In other parts of the world, a billion people go to bed hungry every night, and those people need science to help them. It isn't about whether people want to go to Whole Foods or not.

SIMON: I must say, I was - Norman Borlaug, the Nobel laureate, often called the Father of the Green Revolution, died a few months ago. He's often credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation. I'd met him, saluted him on the air when he died. I was shocked at the number of angry emails I got from people who thought he was some kind of - monster might be too strong a word -but thought he was some kind of villain because he was also considered the father of genetic manipulation.

Mr. SPECTER: I don't think monster is too strong a word for those folks. Norman Borlaug probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of the world. He probably improved the way more people live than anyone in the history of the world.

The Green Revolution, which he was the father of, had consequences, and some of them were dramatically bad. But just because the technology has problems, the response to it now is let's walk away. I mean, when did we do that? When did we used to say, gee, genetically engineered food, there are some questions, let's just give up on it.

We build bridges in this country. Sometimes they fall down. We still seem to build them, and we build them and go across them and feel comfortable because mostly they don't fall down.

SIMON: Well, among the sentences that I circled in the book was when you write: Natural does not mean good or safe or healthy or wholesome, it never did.

Mr. SPECTER: What is natural? I mean, I don't know what it means. People have this idyllic view of the old days, the Garden of Eden. The thing that killed the most people in the history of the world, except maybe for insects, was pure water and natural untreated food. Natural is a word that has become unmoored by its meanings. If you go into a vitamin shop, things are natural and people look at that and they think it's good. It's no different than any other thing you swallow. Someone told me that they didn't want to take a flu shot because they didn't want to put a foreign substance in their body. What do they think they do at dinner every night?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPECTER: I mean really.

SIMON: You're also not a big man for natural cures, homeopathic, alternative therapies.

Mr. SPECTER: They're ridiculous. Homeopathy is taking a substance and distilling it so that there is the imprint of a molecule. It isn't even regulated by the FDA, and you want to know why? Because there's no way it can have any impact on any human system. It's ridiculousness.

SIMON: Lot of people will read your criticism - former President Bush - for denialism and insisting on schools explain, make a place for creationism, as if it were science. Then they'll hear you criticize something like natural treatments or organic food and say you're being close-minded. They'll cheer what you said about former President Bush and then...

Mr. SPECTER: I know. I'm hoping people will look at this book and if they agree with part of it and not other parts, and there are going to be a lot of those folks, I'd just like them to think - why do you agree with that part, and does it apply to the other part? Because these are applications that I consider universal. And if you're in denial about what the science of food can do but you're not in denial about vaccines or vice versa, why is that? It just doesn't make sense.

SIMON: Towards the end in your book, you talk about the new age in which science can be used to teach nature how to solve problems. I found this fascinating.

Mr. SPECTER: It's fascinating. And I think it's also - and one has to admit it - scary. I mean, we are at a point now where we are on the verge of being able to create artificial forms of life. But I think what we have to ask ourselves, and now we have an opportunity to do it, is - what are the potential benefits? What are the risks? And let's have a national conversation about this. So we all can say the benefits are better than the risk. Or maybe we'll think they aren't.

But we are facing the greatest crisis in the history of our planet, with global warming, and some, not all, maybe not even most, solutions can be found in creating synthetic organisms that can power our factories and our cars. We need to have that conversation before go to Defcon 5.

SIMON: Michael, thank you so much.

Mr. SPECTER: Well, thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Michael Specter writes about science and technology for The New Yorker. His new book, �Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.� And you can learn how denialism may lurk in food, flu and fears in an excerpt in his book on our site at, where you'll find hundreds more excerpts in our book section.

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