Jessica Rettig

Michael Specter discusses Denialism

Science is advancing at a rate so fast that it is difficult to forecast where it will take us. According to Michael Specter, a science, technology, and public-health reporter for the New Yorker magazine and winner of the Global Health Council's Excellence in Media Award, this uncertainty has developed into a widespread fear or denial of scientific progress across the nation.

In his new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, Specter identifies why Americans in particular have grown to mistrust science. He recently chatted with Jessica Rettig about the dangers of resisting vaccines, and the value of preventative healthcare. Excerpts:

What is "denialism"?

Everyone's been in denial when something is too painful to face. We ignore it, and we bury ourselves in superstition, beliefs, something that feels better. When a society does it, it's denialism.

How are we seeing it in relation to the pandemic?

About 40 percent of Americans say they don't want to vaccinate themselves or their children against this flu. There is no reason not to vaccinate against this flu for almost any American except those with weakened immune systems or serious infections. They have given 10 million doses of this vaccine out so far, and no one has reported in as seriously sick. The odds of getting the flu, getting sick, and dying from it are . . . thousands of times higher than any complications that could be caused by actually having the shot.

In your book, you say that caution has a risky side. What are some examples of this?

Vaccine would be one case. If you're so cautious about a vaccine that you're afraid of giving your child the measles vaccine because you were told that it would cause autism, even though studies in millions of children have shown otherwise, you're bringing a risk onto yourself and onto the society that you live in, because those diseases are contagious. You look at the risk of something happening, but you don't look at the risk of it not happening. We get into a car every day, and people die in cars. But people generally don't think, "Gee, I'd better not get into this car because you know 10,000 people are going to die on the road in the next six months, and I could be one of them." But they will say that about things like the food they eat, the vitamins they swallow, the vaccines they're willing or not willing to take.

You say that pharmaceutical companies are now seen in the same way as Big Oil or Big Tobacco.

If not worse. There are many reasons to be angry at or suspicious of pharmaceutical companies. There are also reasons to be happy they're there, because they've provided a lot of good medicine. And none of these things are ever black and white.

How does denialism play a role in individuals' healthcare decisions?

People don't want to face the facts of their medical problems, and one of the reasons that they don't want to face the facts is it's so painful to deal with the medical system. It's so expensive. It's so unnecessarily unpleasant. [So people] deny health issues. They eat the wrong things, and they know they're eating the wrong things. But the best way to prevent disease is to prevent disease, not to treat it. And we know that, but we don't do it very much.

So is preventative medicine different from the alternative medicine that you criticize?

Yeah, preventative healthcare is fabulous. My problem with alternative healthcare is that, if it's alternative, it is by definition not something that has been tried scientifically and been shown to work. Obviously, we're coming up with new alternatives, new drugs, new ways of treating diseases all the time. And when data show us that they work, we choose them. Then they're not alternatives.

How does the denial of race affect medical progress?

I think of this as a sort of issue of political correctness that's painful. Ever since the Human Genome Project was completed and we were shown to be genetically all very similar to each other, there's been a sort of mantra, which is "We're all the same." And the truth is, it's kind of 98.6 or 99 percent the same. And that's a lot. But . . . we're talking about 6 billion base pairs of DNA, so 1 percent is tens of millions of little differences, and those are the things that help us figure out why one person has a heart problem and his brother doesn't. And there are racial differences that mean that sometimes African-Americans do not respond to medicines in the same way that white people do, or women don't respond in the same way as men. All I'm saying is that we should use the information. Just as no doctor would look at you and do a medical history and not think about how old you are, we should think about race. It gives you a jumping-off point.

Your book provides countless examples of missteps in science. How do we accept technology and progress, yet still prevent these mistakes?

We need to be skeptical when people tell us things. We need to ask why. We need to look at the data, and if it seems reasonable, that's one thing--if it doesn't, that's another. Not every single pill that is swallowed is going to benefit everyone, and sometimes they will do harm. We have to add up the pluses and minuses, and I think sometimes we just look at the minuses.

What surprised you most in your research?

I guess the resistance to overwhelming statistical pounds and mountains of data. This becomes like a religious cult issue. For instance, I talk about food a lot in there, and my basic belief is that we're going to have 3 billion extra people in the next 40 years and we can't feed them all with organic food. And that doesn't mean we can't eat organic food in this country. But we need to understand that for 35 years, we've been planting genetically engineered organisms, and, yes, things can go wrong. It's theoretically possible. But they really haven't, and we need to look at the benefits. So what I guess I was so surprised about is the virulence of the opposition, just incredibly rigid.

Available at

Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives


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Why Americans Should Not Fear Scientific Progress

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