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

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

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by Michael Specter
     
 

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In this provocative and headline-making book, Michael Specter confronts the widespread fear of science and its terrible toll on individuals and the planet.

In Denialism, New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter reveals that Americans have come to mistrust institutions and especially the institution of science more today than ever before. For

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Overview

In this provocative and headline-making book, Michael Specter confronts the widespread fear of science and its terrible toll on individuals and the planet.

In Denialism, New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter reveals that Americans have come to mistrust institutions and especially the institution of science more today than ever before. For centuries, the general view had been that science is neither good nor bad—that it merely supplies information and that new information is always beneficial. Now, science is viewed as a political constituency that isn’t always in our best interest. We live in a world where the leaders of African nations prefer to let their citizens starve to death rather than import genetically modified grains. Childhood vaccines have proven to be the most effective public health measure in history, yet people march on Washington to protest their use. In the United States a growing series of studies show that dietary supplements and “natural” cures have almost no value, and often cause harm. We still spend billions of dollars on them. In hundreds of the best universities in the world, laboratories are anonymous, unmarked, and surrounded by platoons of security guards—such is the opposition to any research that includes experiments with animals. And pharmaceutical companies that just forty years ago were perhaps the most visible symbol of our remarkable advance against disease have increasingly been seen as callous corporations propelled solely by avarice and greed.

As Michael Specter sees it, this amounts to a war against progress. The issues may be complex but the choices are not: Are we going to continue to embrace new technologies, along with acknowledging their limitations and threats, or are we ready to slink back into an era of magical thinking? In Denialism, Specter makes an argument for a new Enlightenment, the revival of an approach to the physical world that was stunningly effective for hundreds of years: What can be understood and reliably repeated by experiment is what nature regarded as true. Now, at the time of mankind’s greatest scientific advances—and our greatest need for them—that deal must be renewed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Specter is both provocative and thoughtful in his defense of science and rationality-though he certainly does not believe that scientists are infallible. His writing is engaging and his sources are credible, making this a significant addition to public discourse on the importance of discriminating between credible science and snake oil."-Publishers Weekly

"A lucid and insightful book about a very frightening and irrational phenomenon-the fear and superstition that threaten human science and progress. A superb and convincing work."-Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker staff writer and author of Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point

"Denialism tells stories I know well, at least in outline. But Michael Specter very valuably gathers them under one roof and gives them a name. Specter describes the increasing public willingness to deny the hard-won facts of science in favor of myths and shoddy investigation. In the process, the denialists are enabling disease and poverty, denying the advances of science to those in need."-David Baltimore, president emeritus, Biology California Institute of Technology

"We are bombarded with information and misinformation about the foods we eat, the medicines we take, the water we drink, the very air we breathe. Michael Specter shows us how to accurately assess the impact of science on these and other essential elements of our daily lives. Written in clear and accessible language, this uniquely valuable book explains an often confusing world."-Jerome Groopman, M.D., Recanati Professor, Harvard Medical School, author of How Doctors Think

As a longtime New Yorker staff writer specializing in science issues, Michael Specter has recognized a growing trend among Americans to distrust institutions and view science as belonging to this category -- or, even worse, as a political constituency or a self-seeking lobby. In Denialism, he describes how science's traditional functions as information provider and lifesaver have been undermined by heated controversies involving everything from childhood vaccines and research involving animals to stem-cell research and global warming. As relevant as this morning's news.
Janet Maslin
In this hotly argued yet data-filled diatribe, Mr. Specter skips past some of the easiest realms of science baiting (i.e., evolution) to address more current issues, from the ethical questions raised by genome research to the furiously fought debate over the safety of childhood vaccinations.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Although denialists, according to Specter, come from both ends of the political spectrum, they have one important trait in common: their willingness to “replace the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment.” Specter analyzes the consequences of this inflexibility and draws some startling and uncomfortable conclusions for the health of both individuals and society. For example, though every reputable scientific study demonstrates the safety of major childhood vaccines, opponents of childhood immunization are winning the publicity war; childhood immunizations are tumbling and preventable diseases are increasing, often leading to unnecessary deaths. Specter, a New Yorker science and public health writer, does an equally credible job of demolishing the health claims made by those promoting organic produce and all forms of “alternative” medicine. Specter is both provocative and thoughtful in his defense of science and rationality—though he certainly does not believe that scientists are infallible. His writing is engaging and his sources are credible, making this a significant addition to public discourse on the importance of discriminating between credible science and snake oil. (Nov. 2)
Library Journal
Written in a journalistic style similar to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, this is a self-proclaimed polemic against all who would deny the promise and progress of science, people whom the author calls "denialists." Using the word to refer to a range of people and views, Specter, a New Yorker staff writer who focuses on science, technology, and public health, argues they "replace the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment." Much of what Specter writes is good and true. People are not good judges of risk. Vaccinations are vital to people's health. And politics and ideology should not replace science. Yet Specter's extreme scientific exceptionalism, his oversimplification of complex issues and historical episodes, and his near-comical characterization of the denialist make this a hard pill to swallow. VERDICT Many, especially the skeptical and the scientifically inclined, will find arguments that trade on generalities, ignore subtleties, and caricature the opposition suspect. Thus, Specter's book is unlikely to ring true to the believer in science or to convert the unbeliever. Not recommended.—Jonathan Bodnar, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib. & Information Ctr., Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
From New Yorker staffer Specter, a sarcasm-drenched denunciation of all who will not kneel at the altar of science. "Denialists," as Specter calls such people, "shun nuance and fear complexity, so instead of asking how science might help resolve our problems, they reject novel strategies even when those strategies are supported by impressive data and scientific consensus." Never mind that consensus once supported the idea of an Earth-centric universe and of epilepsy as a sign of demonic possession, and never mind Specter's own lack of nuance in lumping climate-change deniers, GM-food opponents, anti-vaccination activists and other such types into a single category. Are those who worry about the prospect of eating genetically altered food really on a par with Holocaust deniers? Specter seems glad to equate them, and to accuse any such worriers of being glad to condemn African villagers to lives of famine and misery. Are organic foodies evil? Apparently so ("the Western cult of organic food is nothing more than a glorious fetish of the rich")-never mind the fact that nonorganic farming is an innovation scarcely a century old and that eating fossil fuel is not very good for anyone. Specter rolls a few fuzzy-math dice along the way-at one point he gives the appearance that the 2,000-odd Americans who died of aspirin poisoning in 2008 were merely victims of bad luck-and he advances a few straw-man lines of argument that would make a college-composition student blush. Readers will need to be comfortable with the idea that Big Pharma loves them, corporate culture cares, industrial agribusinesses are in it for the public good and bacteriologists stand next to the Godhead. Denialism, it wouldseem, includes denying that science has ever caused harm. Specter's spirited approach to his subject is admirable, but his brush is far too broad and his disdain far too deep.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594202308
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/29/2009
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Michael Specter writes about science, technology and global public health for the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1998. He has twice received the Global Health Council’s Excellence in Media Award, as well as the Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Booknut62 More than 1 year ago
When I purchased this book, what attracted me to it was its subtitle. As an educator I marvel at how many times policy makers and the powers that be make decisions about education that flies right in the face of scientific knowledge and fact. Irrationalism does rule many of the decisions that are made in our society, and Michael Specter does an excellent job of providing several examples of where we have allowed unclear thinking, myth, fable, whatever you want to call it, rule our decision-making. He does not advocate blindly following science, but he does call for a more rational approach to making sense of our world and to guiding our policy decisions. When he points out the fallacies of the "all natural movements" and the "all organic movements" it becomes very clear that for all our braggadocio about being more advanced than ever, we do cling to irrational ways that have no basis in fact or science. I would agree with Specter wholeheartedly, that if we are going to make it as a planet, irrational thinking and its products are going to have to make way for a more rational approach to our problems that relies on scientific thinking and fact. The denialists who keep saying all is well with our climate can't be silenced with facts. They do not want to let go of their irrational thinking. Instead, those who are forward thinking are going to have to move onward without them. Specter's book provides so much food for thought about science, our society, politics, education, and even religion, it is one of the most thought-provoking books of the year. I easily would place it on the shelf beside Friedman's "The World Is Flat." Its call for a change in how we view science is no less compelling than Friedman's call to a global view of our place in the world. This is a book that I will ponder for quite some time.
Kallanreed More than 1 year ago
I found the book to be an insight into the fear mongering that irrational thinking and uninformed action spurs in today's America. It explores the incomprehensible mindset which has cropped up in society that doesn't trust authority, the scientific method and embraces panicked, illogical beliefs. Further Specter explores the some of the reasons (scientific and moral failures) that have lead to this condition. The overall tone is leaning very left which I found a little distasteful at times - being fairly moderate myself - but there wasn't anything egregious that couldn't be overlooked unless you have bought into the "religion" of denialism in which case you're likely to be wholly offended. The book reads well and although it can be a little tangential at times, is easy to follow and is easily understood. Specter does a good job illustrating points and, I feel, makes a very persuasive argument against willful scientific ignorance.
S_A_Hamilton More than 1 year ago
This book is worth reading. Its easy to read and very interesting. It helps break down some of the preconceived notions many have about and toward science.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
Debunking those who believe in bunk - medical, dietary, scientific bunk - and showcasing the research that refutes their denial of the truth, Michael Specter writes with the easy grace expected of a New Yorker magazine staff writer. Specter looks at the willful denial of the facts regarding Vioxx, vaccines and their relationship to autism, organic and genetically engineered food, and the future of genomics - the science of genes. Informative, readable, amusing and sure to make you wonder whether you practice a bit of "denialism" in your own beliefs (well, of course not).
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TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
Sometimes one just wants to give up on people. Maybe give them what they want, doubled, in a place they will notice its presence. Who knows if the science is right or wrong. It's the best attempt of a blind man to determine the extent of an elephant. If we put aside our greed and made a good faith effort not to blow the planet to smithereens, I think we could claim the joy the Buddhists tell us is our birthright. In this book Specter voices his frustration at the illogic, misinformation, and downright politicking plaguing important discussions of the planet's future. Sometimes it is hard to want to save mankind from itself. But we need to keep trying to keep the discussion as honest as we can make it, to bolster the weary. I still want that g-d joy. This was a good attempt to make a compelling argument, but don't think that he unequivocally succeeded.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was not worth my time. The title was "catchy" but that is about all. Although the author has every right to his point of view I thought that the book was very biased. Based upon the title and subtitle, I thought that he would be very rational in presenting both sides and then point out why he thought his side was right. While he did present both sides, he presented the opposing side in a very limited, very biased way. He presented the best of his side, he would present the worst of the other. For instance on the discussion of vaccines, he would quote government and industry spokesmen who are pro-vaccine and then would quote Jenny McCarthy, using statements by her that have cuss words. He failed to note the many researchers and research studies that support those who chose not to vaccine or to do so on an alternative schedule. This is just one of the many examples. This is not a book on science, but a book that has a specific agenda and utilizes logical fallacies, group stereotypes and sweeping generalizations to accomplish that task.
EquinoxEquinox More than 1 year ago
Specter has regurgitated into one book a months worth of MSN pablum. The book has a good cover. Just don't drink the aqua Kool-Aid. "To cope, Africans will need better goverments." Way to dis a whole continent. Clear and Organized writing.
MARNASWORLD More than 1 year ago
I must say that Specter is a follower. The USA is not the brilliant country it is because of followers. The brilliant scientist are and never have been followers. Specter has never been a mother that saw a simple "MANDATORY" vaccine damage her child. DO YOU THINK THE MOTHER WANTS TO SAY HER CHILD IS ILL ? NO! A MOTHER WANTS A BOUNCING HAPPY BABY BOY OR GIRL ! BUT that all has changed for millions of moms thanks to "MANDATORY", mercury filled childhood vaccines. Until Mr. Specter can walk in one of these mother's and father's shoes,,,,,he need not be writing. Truthfully and sincerely, MARNA MORAN