Saturday, January 21, 2012

Denialism by Michael Specter

These days, I seem to have fallen into attempting to review every single book I read. I don't do an equally good job of them all of course -- I'm sure there are some folks out there grumbling that I usually do an equally bad job, but let's leave that aside -- for all sorts of reasons: pressures of time, my own interests and aptitudes, and plain random chance.

I say this because I suspect that this particular review -- of Michael Specter's book Denialism, a book mostly about how lots of ordinary people misunderstand, distrust, and fear various things in the biological sciences -- is probably going to be one of the stinkers. I read Denialism several months ago, and thought it was decently argued and very close to my own thoughts -- always a strong positive in my book -- but it's slipped from my mind since then, and was more a book of parts than a unified whole, which means serious criticism of it needs to engage with each of the parts strongly and separately, and I simply can't do that at this point.

So, Denialism begins with a journalistic look at Specter's topic: that lots of people are specifically denying tenets of science (as I said, he focuses on the biological, so there's no flat-Eartherism or the  free-energy kooks), mostly for reasons of personal dislike (of the implications of real science, of the market forces, such as giant multinational drug companies, that drive the current breakthroughs, or just for the complicated modern world), and these people are not just wrong, but actively dangerous to society, since they tend to drag debate in useless directions and agitate for government actions that would be detrimental to the health and welfare of millions of people.

And then Specter's first chapter -- all of his chapters, by the way, nearly standalone, and I suspect most of them were originally published as magazine articles -- illustrates a situation where "science" was wrong: the pain medicine Vioxx, which turned out to greatly increase the risk of heart attacks and almost certainly contributed to the deaths of millions. Vioxx was approved by the FDA, and any dangers carefully hidden under the rug by its manufacturer, Merck. But Specter's point is that the dangers of Vioxx were discovered by other scientists and doctors -- not by TV talk-show pontificators or lay "activists" -- that the system worked, even in this extreme case, and even if it worked more slowly than we would want it to. But that slowness feeds the wells of denialism, as people who already distrust science ask what other dangers have been covered up and not yet brought to light.

Specter then runs through a litany of stupid ideas: that vaccines cause autism; that "organic" and "natural" mean almost nothing when it comes to food, and that the drive for them could seriously harm our ability to feed the world; that herbal and vitamin supplements are mostly pointless, usually under-researched, and occasionally harmful; that mapping the human genome was an entirely positive thing (this chapter felt shoehorned in more than the rest, I'll admit); and that biological engineering is not just inevitable, but tremendously exciting and promising. As you might notice, the line of his book is not so much to examine various forms of denialism but to start with positions held by denialists in robust areas of the biological sciences, and then head off into cutting-edge work, sketching out where he expects the denialists will set up their attacks any day now.

There's nothing wrong with that; all of the pieces of Denialism are smart and interesting, and a book called Things Stupid People Opposed or Will Oppose in Biology would certainly not have sold as well. But it's not as unified as you might expect, or hope, and if you were entirely committed to the idea of a single narrative thread explicating the face of modern denialism, you will be disappointed. (Other than a few sideswipes, he doesn't even mention evolution denial -- there are plenty of things that are disputed by the ignorant and confused that he doesn't grapple with.) But, as a big crowd-pleasing book strongly defending real science and reason, Denialism is very welcome.

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