'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.

'Denying' Science Could Be Dangerous

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. If you believe in science, you may have been challenged by people. I'm sure you have. You certainly heard us talk about it on this program, being challenged by people who are either afraid of it or don't believe in it. Who hasn't been frustrated having a conversation with someone who denies evolution?

But other issues, too, can make it sound even more confusing. Some people, for example, are worried about things like genetically modified food or the possibility of scientists creating life from scratch. You can see TV ads filled with scientifically unproven remedies: weight-loss pills, sexual aids, exercise devices that require no exercise.

Are many people freely ignoring the majority of scientific opinion? Our next guest would say yes, I'll bet. He's here to explain an anti-science phenomenon that he calls denialism and why it's just not it's not just wrong, he says, but it's dangerous.

Michael Specter is a staff writer for the New Yorker, author of the book "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives." He joins us today from Hudson, New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr.�MICHAEL SPECTER (Author, "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives"): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Boy, that's a lot to say: it harms the planet, threatens our lives, hinders scientific progress. Tell us what you mean by that. What is denialism? How do you define it?

Mr.�SPECTER: Well, denialism is something that I think we kind of know in an individual sense as denial. Sometimes we face a fact or a series of facts that are so depressing, overwhelming, burdensome, unpleasant, that we ignore them. And we ignore them for a little while, hopefully just a little while, and sometimes it's a normal response to a terrible thing, and sometimes it might even be healthy.

But when we do it as a society, that's what I call denialism. It's denial writ large, and it has significant, harmful consequences. And I think we're seeing that in a number of areas, particularly in scientific life.

FLATOW: Give me an idea when you say when we do it as a society. what thing would be in a state of denial about, for example?

Mr.�SPECTER: Well, when I see that we have a virus called H1N1 that 41 percent of the American adult population says they dont want to either have a vaccine against or vaccinate their children against, that is a form of denialism that is really kind of astonishing to me.

This is a vaccine that is a flu vaccine like all other flu vaccines. The virus is not as virulent as some people thought it would be, and that's great news. It still killed thousands and thousands of people and will kill more people. And the idea that we're not vaccinating our children is just remarkable, given the safety profile of this vaccine. Obviously, there are other vaccines that are even more important that we're also ignoring.

FLATOW: So where do you see the roots of denialism coming from?

Mr.�SPECTER: They're coming from a lot of places. And one of the places is, I think fair to say, that, you know, science has a way of promising and by science, I also mean journalists who write about science, including me we promise things. There are miracles every other day. There are breakthroughs. We're going to solve hunger. We're going to solve cancer. We're going to take salt out of water, and there won't be a problem with that anymore.

If we pollute the planet, we'll move to another planet, and the truth is we have done some parts of some of these things, but you know, by and large, science moves a little bit more slowly than we pretend that it does in terms of cures and treatments, and people are frustrated. And people are also lied to, and they are suspicious of big corporations, and they're suspicious of the government, and they have every reason to be. I mean, skepticism is something we should all have in our souls, but when it drips over to denialism is when we have a problem.

FLATOW: Is there politics involved in this?

Mr.�SPECTER: There's all sorts of politics, but it's hard to know where the politics are because there's denialism from people who I believe are progressives and denialism from right-wing lunatics, and I'm not sure it's rarely politically motivated except insofar as maybe people reject the health care system because it's so terrible. And they use this as a way to defeat health care bills, but that's kind of tangential.

FLATOW: Where do you you know, science likes healthy skepticism.

Mr.�SPECTER: Yeah.

FLATOW: I mean, where do you draw the line between healthy skepticism and denialism?

Mr.�SPECTER: Well, any obviously, there are lines drawn in different places, but let's take a look at genetically engineered food. That is not genetically modified food because all the food we eat, everything we put in our mouth, has been modified either by man or nature over thousands of years.

This is a different way of doing that. It's a more precise way, and it has greater possible benefits, and greater possible risks because there are risks to everything. But we have planted two billion acres of that type of food, and zero people in the world have become ill from it, zero demonstrably ill. So the idea that somehow this is a dangerous food that we don't know enough about seems to me denialism.

So does our obsession with vitamins that again and again and again, studies show dietary supplements, most of them, to be useless. Now some, very few are worthwhile, but if you go into a vitamin store, you can take 99 percent of the products and throw them into the ocean. They're useless.

FLATOW: But you're not you're saying that there are some vitamins, and there are some other recommendations like drinking wine, you know, a couple of glasses of wine a day, that's not anything that the government can recommend, but science shows that it does help.

Mr.�SPECTER: I'm not saying you should do or not do anything, but when you get reports saying echinacea is useless, and you get dozens of them, hundreds of them. And you get studies that show not only is echinacea not going to help your cold if you're a child, it's going to greatly increase the risk of a respiratory infection. You have to wonder: When is enough, enough? When is it going to stop? Because we spend millions of dollars, it's the second most-popular dietary supplement in this nation and one of the most thoroughly disproved. Homeopathy is just one of the most ridiculous and idiotic systems of belief that exist, and yet people are devoted to it.

FLATOW: A lot of this stuff I think comes from an emotional reaction. People have emotional reactions to things, or they are just I think like you said before, they're just frustrated without having a black or white situation to choose from.

Mr.�SPECTER: I understand that, and the frustrations are not only real but justified. The problem is I think when we think about things, we think about them in a very narrow way. So if we look at a drug, we say gee, a drug could kill these people, and it could. We never think: What is the price of not having a drug on the market?

You know, the truth is if we all swallowed two aspirin right now, this minute, 500 Americans would die by tonight, 500. Now, does that mean we shouldn't have aspirin? Nineteen billion aspirin tablets were swallowed last year, and it's a great drug. No, what it means is there is demonstrable risk to everything we do, and we have to start thinking that way about everything.

FLATOW: You point speaking of drugs, you picked out Vioxx to focus in on your book.

Mr.�SPECTER: I did.

FLATOW: Why Vioxx?

Mr.�SPECTER: Well, I did it for two reasons. One is because I want people to understand that I believe there are genuine roots to denialism that make sense. And Vioxx was a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory to treat arthritis, and it was sold by Merck as a miracle drug. And it seemed to be a miracle drug.

It took pain away in a way that aspirin didn't and without the gastrointestinal complications of aspirin, which can be quite severe. For many people, it was heaven-sent.

It had a cardiovascular risk, and it killed many people. The FDA estimates 55,000 people died. Now, I included and they took it off the market, and Merck was terrible in the way they marketed the drug and took advantage of it because they understood these risks.

However, if you look at who died and who had problems with that drug and eliminated those people because we know who's at risk for heart disease. You know, if you have cholesterolemia, blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, a history of heart disease in your family, these are things that would disqualify you from taking that drug.

But for other people, that drug isn't any more dangerous than any other drug, and it has the potential to really help. So we live in a world where medical doctors can prescribe any drug for anything. So the thing to do was take it off the market, but if you looked at the numbers, you'd have to say: How many how much good would that drug have done if we'd used it properly?

FLATOW: I've heard this from other doctors, saying, you know, I wish I had that drug around to prescribe. It's terrible that they had a shotgun approach with it instead of focusing on patients who could use it.

Mr.�SPECTER: They had a shotgun approach with it because they could, because our system lets them get away with that, and they ignored things they shouldn't have ignored. And our system let them put it on the market, and it let them market it to millions of people.

It's most heavily advertised drug ever sold in America before Viagra came along, and that's wrong. But to me, these are political issues that we can address. It's like people are opposed when people talk about genetically modified food, organic food, genetically engineered food, what I often hear in the end is they're opposed to large corporations owning seeds, and they're worried about chemicals.

Both of those things are well worth worrying about, but science isn't a company. It's not a country. It's a way of thinking. It's a way of working. And if we don't like the way seed companies work and own property, we can deal with that politically. It's actually not even that hard to deal with that politically.

FLATOW: Elizabeth in Arkansas, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my phone call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

ELIZABETH: I wanted to thank your guest for the issue. I think denialism is an issue that's pretty important in a lot of social issues, too. And I think in some social discussions where there's a lot of disparity of opinion, denialism kind of derails the discussion on things a lot of the time.

One of the specific examples I was thinking of was related to the discussion over abortion. And one of the examples, I guess, I was thinking of is for years and years, it was thought that the unborn fetus was not aware of the abortion procedure when it was happening. And ultrasounds are already debunking that and illustrating that these unborn children are aware of the abortion as it happens. And I think science is actually going to be pretty useful in the discussion as we learn much, much more about unborn life.

FLATOW: Michael?

Mr. SPECTER: I believe this is an issue for moral debate, and I'm truly really trying to focus on clear-cut scientific lines in the sand about studies and why we use things and why we don't and why we trust things and why we don't. And abortion is something I didn't write about because I don't think it's that kind of issue. I wouldnt actually call it denialism.

FLATOW: Elizabeth, if there was a research to show you that the unborn fetus at those age - at that time that you're speaking about it - was not in the state that you think it is, would you accept that?

ELIZABETH: I think that that - I was just bringing that up as one example of a discussion in which science could be helpful. (unintelligible)

FLATOW: Well, that's why I'm asking. If the science showed you that it was not like you thought it was, would you deny that?

ELIZABETH: I think that he is correct that it's a moral issue, also. But I think that if you bring science to the table, it at least helps to open the discussion and hopefully help people on both sides of the issue find some common discussion areas that could then move it beyond, you know...

Mr. SPECTER: Can I just ask one question?

ELIZABETH: ...whether or not, you know, the baby can feel it, too...


ELIZABETH: ...to the moral issue. But I think science could be very helpful in the discussion.

FLATOW: Good point. Go ahead. You wanted to jump in there, Mike?

Mr. SPECTER: I just wanted to ask a question. If science showed conclusively that an unborn fetus at a particular time couldn't feel anything, would you then change your mind? Because if you wouldn't, you are exactly what I'm talking about.

ELIZABETH: Well, I - what my point - that is an interesting point of view, and I do understand that. I think you're probably right that in moral discussions, people on both sides believe that either the viability of the baby or the rights of a woman would make the decision beyond science. But my point was just that you could bring science to the table to help find some common ground and discuss this as best as possible and lead to some progress.

FLATOW: All right, Elizabeth. Thank you.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about denialism with Michael Specter this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

I think that she was a good example, Michael, of bringing science - she made a point about bringing science to the table, and even bringing science to table didn't sway her one way or the other.

Mr. SPECTER: I mean, you know, I don't want to be rude because I do believe that that is a moral issue and it's very complex. But that really makes that's the example of what I'm talking about.

People want to believe something. They want to believe that vitamins are natural or they want to believe that organic food is going to be more nutritional than another type of food. And it doesn't - or they want to believe that a fetus at a certain age can feel something that it can or cannot feel. And they don't really, in the end, care what the facts say, because belief is more important to them than data. And that is what a denialist is.

FLATOW: Let me go to Joseph in San Antonio. Hi, Joe.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hey. Thanks for taking the call.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

JOSEPH: Yeah. I was wondering, is there any way to calculate a half life, or how do you say that - how long it's going to last? Like, say, for instance, I think of a global warming 10 years ago, and to me, that's like where high fructose corn syrup and refined carbs are today, as where, you know, America says, yeah, we use high fructose corn syrup, and none of the other countries really use that that much as we do. But, you know, let's keep on using it because there's no way that could be bad for us, you know?

FLATOW: All right. Let's get a question on that. Is there a timeline where people catch up to issue?

Mr. SPECTER: Yeah. I think there is, but I think it might be one of those classic cases of you know it when you see it. I think with high fructose corn syrup, we've been moving pretty rapidly in the direction of realizing that this causes a lot of harm in a lot of ways. And I think we're seeing some changes, even in the big - industrial agriculture farms are paying attention now.

FLATOW: Why didn't you take on an issue like climate change or global warming deniers?

Mr. SPECTER: I did - well, first of all, I took it on in a couple of ways. I made it very clear in the book that I think it's the worst crisis mankind has ever created. In the last chapter on synthetic biology is a bit about addressing the problems.

But I didn't write about it, and I didn't write about creationism for very simple reasons. I wanted to deal with gray issues that we could have some discussions about, like food. And I don't see creationism and evolution as a gray issue. I don't see global warming, really, as a gray issue. The data is so clear to me, and it's been shown to be so clear by so many people and so eloquently. I just didn't understand what I was going to contribute to that discussion.

FLATOW: Do you think that you can present evidence that denialists, as you would call them, have enough an open mind that if you present the evidence to them they might change their mind?

Mr. SPECTER: Yes, I do, because A, I'm not a pessimist, and B, I believe a lot of people who live a certain way - you know, people who care about organic food by and large care about the earth and sustaining the earth, and they want things to be healthy. And sometimes they don't understand that if you engineered some vitamin A into rice and got it to the right people, you'd save lives in Africa.

And we have a billion people going to bed hungry every night in this country, in this world. And it's going to get significantly more demanding on the next 30 years, as our population grows. And we're not going to be able to make that food in the way these people want. We're going to have to use the fruits of science as one approach, and we can do that beautifully now.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SPECTER: So I think when that's explained to some people and demonstrated to some people, they say, fine. I mean, I eat organic food. It's not like organic food is bad. it's just that we live in a very rich place and we can afford very expensive food, but most people can't.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Michael, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. SPECTER: I'm very happy to have been here.

FLATOW: Michael Specter is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the book, "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives."

We're going to take a break. Come back and talk about the chemical BPA. It's in lots of kinds of plastics, and it's a controversial topic about - you know, how - where is it? How much is it? Should - how should it be regulated? So stay with us. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and you can stay with us on Second Life, where the folks are gathering at the SCIENCE FRIDAY Island. We'll be right back after this break.

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