Interesting talk by Michael Specter, staff writer for the New Yorker, speaking to a recent Authors@Google symposium about his provocative new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

Why have so many Americans, who more than any other people have been defined by progress and scientific achievement, begun to mistrust the scientific process itself? How did vaccines, the world’s most effective health measure, become a subject of bitter debate and denial? Why do Americans spend billions of dollars each year on dietary supplements, despite growing stacks of evidence that they are either useless or dangerous? Why, despite thousands of years of agricultural success, do we insist that genetically modified food is somehow different and more dangerous than “conventional” crops? And why, in the era of genomic medicine, do we so often on ignore genetic realities — preferring to cling to the myth that we are all alike?

In Denialism, 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.

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 his book Specter argues 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.

Full disclosure: The foregoing comments were cribbed shamelessly from the YouTube post for this video and the Amazon product description, just so you know… However, given they raise a number of the pertinent questions needed to be made, and not wanting to re-invent the wheel, I didn’t see any point in attempting to re-fashion them simply to sound clever.

It’s a fortunate coincidence for Specter that his book is rolling out in the present environment of renewed controversy over climate-change as the global confab in Copenhagen kicks off, even though it should be noted that his book quite intentionally doesn’t deal at all specifically with the subject of global warming to which the term “denialism” is most frequently (and quite often unfairly) attributed these days. I think it was a wise choice on Specter’s part to make a clear distinction in this regard, even though some of the same operative patterns of thought may be shared by people who likewise share a deep distrust of institutional authority.



Filed under Science, Technology

45 responses to “Denialism

  1. rabbit

    I doubt that there has ever been a “golden age” of rationality where your average citizen worshiped science and rationality, free from superstition and belief in patent nonsense. We’ve always been – on average – pretty poor thinkers.

    What has differed over the ages is how the very best of us think. And I believe today that there are more fine, rational, scientific thinkers as there ever have been. The enlightenment still burns.

  2. Ti-Guy

    Here’s a review of Specter’s book, which I haven’t read. The one weakness that is highlighted which which I would agree whole-heatedly is the author not examining the political economy of science. Of particular interest as well are the conflicting claims about crop yields with GMO’s, something I’ve come across before.

    What has differed over the ages is how the very best of us think. And I believe today that there are more fine, rational, scientific thinkers as there ever have been.

    I wonder if Sir Francis can be persuaded to deal with this?

    I don’t believe it in the least. Our civilisation is run by hyper-rationalists who have so confused thinking and technique to the point where the situation is almost irretrievable.

  3. Seethe interview between Prof Watson and Marc Morano? Morano was one of the persons behind the swift boating of Kerry.

    Nevermind arguing who did better. Notice the completely different styles? See the problem of approaching a political issue with an attempt at scholarly detachment?

    As most people can’t tell good science from bad — be it ‘hard’ science or social science — an appeal to emotion is what wins in the end.

    And, yes, Red, most anti-global warming people out there I tangle with a hard-core denialists. Not a true skeptical bone in their body. Skeptics are willing to change their mind given enough time and evidence. Denialists ignore whatever hard-won evidence you have and just regurgitate talking points. Way to common. I rarely assume anyone to be a skeptic for long these days regarding global warming.

  4. billg

    Are we skeptics or realists? I guess it depends on where you stand on many issues. I’ve lived through scientific warning’s my entire life, some real and some nonsensical. Am I a denialist? Sheesh! The lead man on Global Warming is Al Gore. He came out of the White House with a net worth of 2 million dollars…he will be the worlds first carbon billionairre if he’s not already…and you ask why some of us are “skeptics”? 2 million gallons of raw sewage gets dumped into the Ottawa River every year because we have no money to fix the problem, but we have 10’s of millions of dollars in the City to help older business’s reduce their CO2. I see scientists getting millions is funding to prove a theory. I see Enron, Gore etc making billions of dollars telling me that the world is warming, er, the world is cooling, er, the world’s climate is changing and somehow I’m the skeptic! How many children will die this year from starvation and diseases that are treatable? Problem is…Al Gore and Enron dont get rich trumpeting that cause. And I’m the skeptic.

  5. Ti-Guy

    You’re supposed to use “The Goracle” or “Al-Gore” when gassing on about him, Billg.

    Site that’s collecting the fatuous nonsense about the CRU Hack here.

  6. billg

    Well…has or has not Al Gore become rich beyond his wildest dreams warning us about the dangers of the planet warming? Did Al Gore fight as hard as he could when he was VP to fight global warming? I’m not doubting the science, there are too many scientists to discredit, its the time lines, its the outcome that I’m skeptical about, because, when your front man has a chance to make a difference and doesnt, and, when your front man finally does speak up on the issue and somehow makes 100’s of millions of US dollars doing so, I would think it would be abnormal NOT to be skeptical.

  7. Jessica6

    People are suspicious of ‘science’ – rightly – because people are suspicious of the way ‘The Science’ has been corrupted by corporate interests and ideologues. This goes for the ‘science’ conducted by the CRU, Mann et al, along with plenty of shoddy nutrition science (Taubman’s Good Calories Bad Calories) or some of the dodgy crap that goes on in the world of pharmaceutical research (ie Dendreon –

    If it was more about the process of science rather than careerism, corruption, cronyism and an arrogant authoritarian stance towards anyone who threatened to reveal this there’d undoubtedly be fewer of these supposed “denialists”.

  8. Mark — No, I hadn’t seen it, but thanks very much for providing the link. That was a priceless encounter, if nothing else.

    I loved Waton’s remark at the end of the interview. “What an asshole.” LOL

  9. Ti-Guy

    Well…has or has not Al Gore become rich beyond his wildest dreams warning us about the dangers of the planet warming?

    He’s an part of the American political elite. They’re all rich. Do you know the proportion of millionaires in Congress? 44%.

    You’re not making a serious argument. You’re just charging him with hypocrisy and opportunism, which have nothing to do with Global Warming, a topic you are free to be scientifically skeptical about. But I guess that requires too much work, whereas accusing everyone else of moral corruption is easier.

    I don’t know where you all get this, but I’m sick of it. The CRU hack was the last straw.

  10. I would have thought that “conservatives” would be mightly impressed by someone seeking to turn a crisis into a highly profitable business opportunity and greatly enrich themselves from it, no? Don’t they believe in “free enterprise” anymore? 😉

  11. billg

    First Ti-Guy…its not Global Warming anymore, its Climate Change, they stopped calling it Global Warming because the earth is now actually in a cooling period, but, I’m ok with that. Second, we were discussing the skeptic’s of science…the front man for Global–er Climate Change is an opportunist, how could that not bring in to question anything to do with the subject? Third, I can search out and find as many scientists who disagree with C02 climate change as there are scientist’s who believe in C02 climate change, one here in Ottawa at Carleton University…that makes me want to read, debate, then make a rational decision and not just jump to one irrational one.
    Fourth, I’m sure there are irrational people who claim that pollution and C02 do no harm to the planet, but, I dispell them as quick as I do Gore as opportunistic irrational nut cases. Fifth, there is a big yellow ball of fire in the sky that causes climate change where I live, and, twice a year the climate changes drastically…how people can dispell the sun’s effect on our climate so easily is beyond my comprehension…but why would you when there are billions out there to be made. Sooner or later pollution has to be stopped or drastically controlled, as does water consumption, as does recycling all material. Sooner or later the Sun and the Wind must be harnassed and cleaner sources of energy must be produced….I get all that, but, to call someone a skeptic or a denier because he or she has the nerve to read and research and then come up with their own conclusion’s is bizarre and arrogant.

  12. Navvy

    … did billg just suggest that the changing of the seasons supports the claim that man made climate change is BS?

  13. billg

    I do have a soft spot for Gore RT… 🙂

  14. billg

    No I did not Navvy. RT’s topic was scientific denial and skeptic’s. There are 100’s of scientist’s claiming that C02 and climate change are not linked, but, the lack of sun spots and the sun’s activity are in direct link…are you disputing them?

  15. “they stopped calling it Global Warming because the earth is now actually in a cooling period”

    No, they (the Bush administration) started calling it Climate Change in order to reframe the debate (see: Luntz, Frank).

  16. Ti-Guy

    Pretty much most of what you’re saying is wrong, Billg, but I really couldn’t care less anymore.

  17. Navvy

    twice a year the climate changes drastically…how people can dispell the sun’s effect on our climate so easily is beyond my comprehension

    I think the last three words here pretty much says it all.

  18. billg

    David…wow…its all Bush’s fault that people like Gore and Elly May call it Climate Change? Ok.
    Ti-Guy….” i cant prove your wrong but you are anyways so lets just all ignore the thousands of scientists screaming its not C02″
    Navvy…if your unwilling to think for yourself please dont insult those of us who do. The only constant in climate change over the past 10,000 years is the Sun. I’m not saying its a direct link to climate change right now, but, how foolish is it to dispell its effects on our climate when there has been drastic changes in the climate without a human being in existance?
    The biggest issue with this subject is, that everyone seems to want to take a side, and, is willing to put aside common sense and logic to disprove the other. Human comsumption and pollution are destroying this planet, overpopulation and water consumption are our biggest threats IMO, followed by Greed and Selfishness, climate change is a distant 7th. I will now step off of my soap box.

  19. billg, you claim to want a reasoned debate. Perhaps you could do your part. Pointing the the reality that the term “climate change” started with the Bush administration at the behest of Frank Luntz is not laying blame, it is laying a foundation for rational discussion based on truth.

    So, “wow” to you to for rejecting it.

  20. billg

    Sorry David, I did not know that, but I’m unclear as to what that means. Are you saying that the Bush administration wanted Global Warming changed to Climate Change?

  21. Yes. It was a way to reframe the debate and make it sound less scary. The same way you change estate tax to death tax to make it more scary. It’s all about framing.

    I am not saying that the Republicans invented the phrase, but that they took Frank Luntz’s advice to go with that term in their counter-proposals to AGW proponents.

  22. billg

    I’m not disputing what your saying, but, if that is the case then the Bush Administration helped the Environmentalist’s cause by encompassing cooling and warming instead of just warming.

  23. To be honest, I just get incredibly confused by the whole issue. There’s just so much seemingly contradictory information out there… And I don’t simply mean “believers vs. deniers” but things such as the phenomenon of “global dimming” (check that out some time — it really throws a spanner in things).

  24. billg

    And that RT is why there are skeptics. Check out NASA’s research on the Suns Conveyor Belt to put a real wrench in climate change theory. And…did I miss it or is there a Tiger comment yet?

  25. Ti-Guy

    i cant prove your wrong but you are anyways so lets just all ignore the thousands of scientists screaming its not C02.

    I said I just don’t care anymore. Your spouting claims I’ve seen debunked hundreds of times before.

  26. lenny

    Billg shows up to make the case that climate change deniers should have been included in the book:

    “First Ti-Guy…its not Global Warming anymore, its Climate Change, they stopped calling it Global Warming because the earth is now actually in a cooling period, but, I’m ok with that.”

    The International Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988. Never mind the fact that we are not in a “cooling period”.
    And the rest of your comments are just as fallacious.

  27. lenny

    Billg shows up to make the case that climate change deniers should have been included in the book:

    “First Ti-Guy…its not Global Warming anymore, its Climate Change, they stopped calling it Global Warming because the earth is now actually in a cooling period, but, I’m ok with that.”

    The International Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988. Never mind the fact that we are not in a “cooling period”.
    And the rest of your claims are just as fallacious.

  28. Ti-Guy

    And the rest of your claims are just as fallacious.

    Shriek! You’re not allowed to say that. You have to prove AGW to a 100% degree of certainty, including the predictions before you can. Meanwhile, Billg can assert whatever he wants because…well, just because.

  29. Grammin

    I’ve really stopped paying attention to the entire Global Warning fiasco. I take the TTC, recycle, etc. and that is more than my part to combat it. As a nation, I see no reason to hold ourselves to any higher standard than emerging economies. Our footprint, even as a northern nation that MUST rely on oil for heating and for massive transportation, is small when compared to that of China or India. We should continue our baby steps forward until such time as they match us or can persuaded (and not through bribes or wealth transfers) to aspire to greater goals. My suggestion would be to increase tariffs based on pollution rates as a means of persuasion. We could do with more European and American goods anyway, as opposed to poisonous pet foods and lead-laced dollar store toys.

  30. jkg

    billg, do you realize how you are framing your arguments? You make an appeal to incredulity based on the character of an individual, and then, point the profit making based on initiatives meant to curb CO2 as a suspicious evidence that something is amiss. Billg, the fact of the matter is that many environmental technologies are profit driven because we live in a capitalist society. When people started to warn about the contamination of water systems in the eighties and nineties, do you think that since Veolia, a multinational environment services company, was making millions that we should ergo be skeptical of the science? Or how about CFC’s? Many companies profited from that as well.

    As for your willingness to discuss opposing views, could you articulate how the methodologies of Tim Patterson and Jan Veizer are superior in meeting the IPCC prediction than others? Have you done a complete comparative analysis to arrive to that conclusion? Did you know that Jan Veizer, who studies the effect of cosmic ray flux (CRF), postulated that CRF not CO2 was the main driver only to have his hypothesis come under great question since it was at odds with observations like the fact that the stratosphere is cooling? Also, nobody is denying the sun has a role here billg, it is strawman to suggest people are discounting that altogether. The key thing in this debate is which of these factors are the primary cause or catalyst for climatic and temperature changes. You also point to the fact in the past, scientists have given dire warnings such as global cooling, and such warnings should be taken with a grain of salt. Great, so when Tim Patterson predicted a major cooling by 2018 to the agricultural industry, are you going to immediately assign significant doubt to his work, which up until now has served to dispute global warming?

    The problem, billg, is that skepticism does not mean contrarianism, and this is exactly what is happening. Further, it is particularly arrogant of you to suggest that Navvy is not thinking for himself while you are simply because you took a contrary position. How can you guarantee that you would change your mind when you have already set a contrarian framework that would inevitably assign biased weights to information that you would collect? And how, since climate science is so utterly confusing to the layperson, will you guarantee that you will not fall back on your reactionary incredulity when faced with a complex set of information? You will, like many others, appeal to authority, but who? Ones that confirm your bias?

    From what I see in your written passages, you are nobly trying to take a middle road to this, but judging things objectively means you have to shed your pre-conceived notions. You can accuse some warmists of that if you like, but it will take a lot more than insinuations. If you are arriving at a different conclusion, ask yourself if you are operating with the same set of objective rules as others. If not, you have to recheck your premises and the analytical framework you chose so that you can accept new information, reject others you have already used, and follow where that leads. THAT is what it means to be a skeptic.

  31. …”Why, despite thousands of years of agricultural success, do we insist that genetically modified food is somehow different and more dangerous than “conventional” crops?”…

    Why ?…is this guy serious. O I don’t know because are injecting genes into plants or modifying them to interact with certain chemicals etc i.e herbicides,cross breeding plants for specific characteristics etc, is not the same as fucking with the genes .
    And besides if it all so safe why are these bio-tech companies so opposed to labels ? And he wonders why some people doubt or mistrust science/scientist ?

  32. CWTF

    And that RT is why there are skeptics.

    There are no skeptics, just a bunch of deniers…

  33. billg

    Wow…miss a little miss a lot. First off..I’m not sure how I became the aiming point on this. As far as Global Warming or Climate Change goes, I cant imagine how human activity could not effect the worlds climate, we spew and dump crap in the air and water at an alarming rate that it would be foolish to argue that point, which I’m not. The entire blog post was about skeptics, and, considering a new poll out today about how 55% of Candians do not believe the doomsday scenerio in regards to C02 maybe the majority should be given a little more regard. Am I a skeptic…a bit. There are too many scientist’s giving too many warnings for Climate Change for it not to be taken seriously, but, the skeptic in me thinks the timelines are more about social engineering then about saving the world. I also dont believe a word that comes out of Stehphen Harpers mouth because, he’s the Prime Minister, and, like the other 6 PM’s before him he tells lies, bold faced lies. Maybe to answer RT’s original question, after watching Liberal and Conservative governements spin and lie for the past 30 years how could one not be a skeptic?

  34. Ti-Guy

    I’m not sure how I became the aiming point on this.

    I suppose you mean “target?” Let’s see if I can pinpoint the exact event…ah yes, right here:

    The lead man on Global Warming is Al Gore.

    Ie. the Satan in the in fundamentalist faith of Climate Change Denialism.

    Please learn the difference between genuine and focused skepticism and what you’re claiming, which is, at best, that you (like a lot of us) don’t have enough evidence right before our eyes to say anything with any degree of certainty. A genuine skeptic on this matter would be up on the latest published research (even if it’s only through credible reports from principle science reporters through the mass media), would be able to decode it with some degree of competence and would be more than aware of his or her own personal/political biases to know whether any of this clouding their motivation for being interested in this.

    Lastly, skepticism has nothing to do with cynicism. You should understand the difference there as well.

  35. billg

    The lead man is Al Gore, I dont know him that well to dislike him, seems like a pretty good guy, but, he’s a politician..which means he’s learned how to lie, and, probably does it very well. Is that cynicism or just a realistic approach to who and what he is. Skepticism has everything to do with cynicism, I’m skeptic about everything a government does because I’ve learned through their actions and I am cynical towards them. Everyone’s growing tired of me…Al Gore hurts the Climate Change cause, people are skeptical because they see an ex VP jetting around the globe, buying mansions and limo’s and raking in 100’s of millions of dollars claiming we’re either going to drown or burn to death. It wasnt that long ago you could give a few gold coins to a Bishop and get a certificate saying you paid your way to heaven. Thank God for skeptics and cynic’s.

  36. Ti-Guy

    You have cause to be cynical, but you should understand that it’s a different attitude than skepticism. I don’t get the sense from you that you’re following up your skepticism with any attempt to educate yourself and that you’re falling back on cynicism as a capitulation; a cop out.

    That’s too bad. And that’s your failing, not anyone else’s.

  37. Red,

    Global dimming which is caused by particulates in the air from pollution cools surface temperatures, and was a significant driver in reducing temperatures into the 1960s, *as measured from the surface*.


    It only happens near the surface, and our efforts combating pollution have aided surface warming as the particulate level has reduced.

    But none of this affects global warming, because the particulates do not prevent energy being trapped by the greenhouse effect. It may shield us from heat on the ground, but the energy altering climate is still there doing the naughty stuff.

    Temperature is how we measure it, but ground-based measurements have limitations. The real story is from the satellite data from NASA, which shows the lower atmosphere (troposphere) to be warming within parameters expected.

    I can debunk everything stated above, but why bother? Here’s a better site to go learn from.

    I have more, including a lot on the denialist industry.

  38. Wayward son

    Well, there hasn’t been much mention of the book or what the book covers among the comments, so my leaving my thoughts on it may be a waste of time. I read the book about a month ago and I think that it is actually pretty good despite the beating it has taken from reviewers…many of whom basically say “I agree with many/most of the topics in this book and Spector going after those loons, but then Spector talks about _____, and therefore he is an asshole and in denial himself, because I could not be the one in denial.” My favorite reviewer on amazon is the HIV/AIDS denier who has not read the book but appears to follow Spector around because he has rightly criticized those dipshits in print.

    Ti-Guy at the top linked to the “Grist” review of the book which was unsurprisingly critical of the book. I personally think the review is lousy. But again, if Spector had criticized only the “right” types of denialism, and not in anyway challenged their cherished beliefs, they would have loved the book. That review complains that Spector targets vaccine denial despit global vaccine rates rising….so what? Spector is discussing the American based anti-vaccine movement which IS growing and is among the most ignorant collection of dangerous idiots ever. And the complaint from the grist author that the problem with vaccines in the third world is due to increasing costs and therefore the fault of evil pharmaceutical companies, is again typical of grist, but off base. A good portion of the increasing costs is the result of hysterical anti-vaccine nuts in the west who fight to have any ingredient they don’t trust removed from the vaccines no matter how safe they are proven…the old “precautionary principle” of I don’t, or refuse to, understand the science so therefore you should do everything you can to alleviate my made-up fears. It is, for the most part, the same vaccines made by the same companies used in the US as in large areas of the third world. Any increase in manufacturing costs for the US population translates into an increased cost in the Third World. If that increase is based on irrational fears of a subset of Americans it won’t hurt them as the difference in cost will be minimal (by our standards), however the cost to third world governments, aid organizations, and pharmaceutical companies themselves who also donate large amounts of vaccines is increased. If you ever wondered why the US switched to the oral polio vaccine in the early ’60s it was in large part because that was what the Soviets were using and the US had to be able to compete with them in providing a cheap, effective and easy to distribute vaccine to those populations, not because they thought the oral vaccine was significantly better for their own population.

    But of course, the real crime of Spector, to Grist is that he has the nerve to not play into their organics are great, GMOs are evil fantasy. I don’t want to use too much more space so I will just comment on these two things from the review:

    1) Calling the IAASTD and its report the equivalent of the IPCC.

    There are a couple differences, such as the IPCC and its reports and conclusions are supported strongly by (probably) every major scientific body. It’s reports are considered to be the scientific consensus. The IAASTD and its report has no such support, in fact it was widely and severely criticized by scientific organizations and journals from its inception for not being scientific and for catering to various ideological ngos who were part of its panels. Indeed many of few scientists who were a part of it resigned in frustration because they say that from the part there were far too many non-scientists partaking who came in not caring about any evidence, but only about their unwavering position to demonize GMOs. It was not a vast scientific undertaking as Grist claims. In fact it was thoroughly trashed by the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world (Nature and Science).

    2) Organics yields can be just as high as conventional yields, so eating organics can save the world!

    Yeah, I actually read the couple studies which came out a couple years ago making this claim, including the Pimentel study that is referred to here. And it is true that they did achieve yields in the same range with only one insignificant issue….”Pimentel noted that although cash crops cannot be grown as frequently over time on organic farms because of the dependence on cultural practices to supply nutrients”

    What is he referring to? The one season out of every three where food crops are not grown, but instead legumes to be ploughed under to increase soil nitrogen levels….so even in the best research situations they are achieving 2/3rds the food production. Sounds like a recipe for billions to starve, so yes I would say that supporting a food system that could only feed 2/3rds of world while claiming that it could feed the world is a definite form of denialism.

  39. Ti-Guy

    Wayward Son, don’t you think the point about the political economics of science is something worth addressing? We have been led to believe, for decades, that scientific research is conducted for reasons completely separate from the self-interested and shabby dictates of consumerism, corporate inertia, geopolitical machinations etc. etc. and that applied science emerges solely to respond to very real needs, wants, desires, etc.

    This isn’t the case obviously. I think a more critical/skeptical attitude as opposed to hysterical over-exuberance is probably more important at this point. Specter’s charges of denialism lobbed at highly scientifically-literate skeptics seem very suspicious (not to mention insulting) and is probably what sent a lot of his critics off.

    I have no doubt in my mind that most of these innovations are potentially wonderful but it’s how particular ones end up prevailing that should concern us.

    You shouldn’t be so hostile to that line of inquiry.

  40. Wayward son

    “Wayward Son, don’t you think the point about the political economics of science is something worth addressing?”

    Absolutely, and I think that Spector does address such issues in his book. His first chapter is about Vioxx and further discusses the problems of industries warping science towards their own narrow objectives. Several have criticized this chapter saying that is the pocket of big pharma because he believes Vioxx should still be on the market. Well Vioxx should still be on the market, and the Canadian panel voted overwhelmingly to keep it. Similarly the whistle blowing doctor believes it should still be the market. Merck should be severely punished for their deceit, something that Spector advocates, but that doesn’t mean that a subset of people for whom this drug is extremely useful should be denied what is for them probably the most effective and safest treatment. And to me that seems to be where some of the issue arrises. For many this is a black and white issue with Vioxx being very bad and anyone who would advocate any use of such a drug must be a shill for big pharma. Similarly when Spector addresses GMOs he discusses the problems of private industry dominance of food supply and the problems with patent system as it stands now. These are serious issues, but adopting a fairytale outlook to life is not a solution to those problems.

    Nor do I think that the author at Grist is actually serious about addressing these problems with the current state of science. If the science agrees with his position then that science is great, but if it disagrees with his position then the science is flawed.

    I actually used spend a lot of money on organic food because I thought it was better for me and better for the planet. I think that the evidence is pretty clear that it is neither. In fact the turning point for me was when I actually read the couple studies from around 2005 which were, and still are being, touted as evidence that organic agriculture can produce as much food as conventional agriculture. Reading these studies shows that the reality is not even close and these are from the studies which are being touted by proponents of organic agriculture. If people want to eat organic food for whatever reason they are perfectly free to do so, but to make the claim that organic agriculture can feed the world is clearly false unless a couple billion die first, or we turn every inch of natural habitat into crop land for organic agriculture. At the same time to make claims that genetically modified foods are evil which is basically the stance of grist, is simplistic and wrong and I think that 20 years from now many people will look back and view the rigid and ideological opposition to agricultural progress from much of the environmental movement and the lies they spread to promote their position as the biggest mistake the environmental movement has made (This is already the position of some prominent environmentalists like Stewart Brand whose recent book “Whole Earth Discipline” is scathing about the organic food movement and the ideological opposition to GE). They could have taken the position that this technology can be useful in the right hands and that it should be controlled by the people and not large corporations. But instead they turned this into a battle of good vs evil. Natural vs frankenstein. And the products which were developed that could have, and likely will, do the most good were the ones they most vocally opposed. Golden rice can save the lives, and the vision of hundreds of thousands of children. It is in the public domain and the seeds are absolutely free for any small farmer who wants to use them. It must be ok right? Absolutely not – it was treated like the antichrist. There are consequences to such attitudes. In 1976 Mayor Alfred Vellucci put a stop to DNA research in his community (the targets being Harvard and MIT) and the result was simply that overnight this research was taken out of public hands and the researchers joined venture capitalists in new corporations built in neighboring towns and sparking todays biotech industry. Vellucci was supported by the left and the environmentalists. They were completely, embarrassingly, demonstrably, 100% wrong in their doomsday predictions and claims and to top it off, not only did they not achieve their goal of stopping progress, but they were also responsible for ensuring that the biotechnology progress which did occur was almost entirely in private hands, whereas from the beginning the scientists wanted this technology to be in public hands.

    The same goes for opponents of animal testing which I run into all the time as a long time vegetarian. If they want to advocate the end of animal testing as a strictly moral position then fine, but they don’t. They also argue that animal testing is completely unnecessary for drug development, that it leads to unreliable results, and that we already have more accurate, reliable and cheaper methods for testing these drugs. None of that is true. If animal testing ended today, medical research and development would basically end at the same time. They might be fine with that (as most of them seem to believe in unscientific fraud “medicines” anyways) but I don’t think that a large chunk of the public who are sympathetic to their views would be.

    My reading of the book gave me an entirely different outlook of Spector’s position then the grist review gives him. Reading the book and listening to the google lecture you can see that while Spector is supportive of science he does have some issues with it and those issues are the exact ones that he is charged with being oblivious too. And we already had a book published just last year about the political economics of science called “Doubt is their Product.” Similarly, I think that “Whole Earth Discipline” and “Just Food” do a better job of discussing the organics/GMO issue than Spector does. And, other recent books like True Enough and American Idiot would appeal more to a general audience than Denialism does, especially those on the left.

    Still when I see the growing popularity of the a ridiculous HIV/AIDS denial documentary like “House of Numbers.” The even greater popularity among my friends of reality denying documentaries like “What the bleep do we know” and “the secret.” The increasing reliance of many friends on medical charlatans and mumbo jumbo. I am happy to see a writer willing to take sales hit by writing about denialism where he avoids the easy targets like climate change and creationism and instead goes after organic agriculture, vaccine hysteria and alternative medicine.

  41. Ti-Guy

    They could have taken the position that this technology can be useful in the right hands and that it should be controlled by the people and not large corporations.

    Everyone says this, all the time and have been saying it for decades. Saying it however doesn’t change the fact that it never happens. Why that is the question I’m most interested in.

    I agree with most of what you’ve said, by the way, with the exception of GMO’s; not because I’m allied with the organic food flakes or that I believe that GMO’s constitute a radically alien biology, but because of the unintended consequences of rapid changes from agrarianism to other types of socio-economic orders, one of which being the lost knowledge of how to grow food, which, in the event of even localised failures, is potentially disastrous for human communities. Imagine for example, who quickly we’d all starve if fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow.

  42. TofKW

    Not to take away from the debate, but I had the pleasure of attending one of Stewart Brand’s lectures just this past October. True to form, he savaged the environmentalists opposed to genetically modified foods for condemning the citizens of the third world to death by starvation. If anyone is fortunate enough to hear him speak, I highly recommend you do so.

  43. Wayward son

    “Imagine for example, who quickly we’d all starve if fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow.”

    I don’t think that anyone can argue against that, although I think that most of us would starve no matter whether we were using GMOs, organic foods or non-gmo conventional food. A lot of our foods are hybrid and produce sterile offspring as it is. This is good and bad. Most people prefer grapes without seeds for instance and farmers prefer hybrid corn varieties for many reasons. As for the rest, well truth is I have no idea. I have been in discussions before about lost knowledge and how detrimental it is. I guess it depends on if we run out of fossil fuels before we have some kind of largescale alternative. I won’t possess that lost knowledge and I am ok with that, because if I am alive when/if the wheels come off I wouldn’t want to survive anyways.

  44. Ti-Guy

    True to form, he savaged the environmentalists opposed to genetically modified foods for condemning the citizens of the third world to death by starvation.

    Are they really doing that? Is it really necessary for the techno-exuberants to accuse their critics of such over-the-top moral corruption when (apart from the arguable scientific claims) the opposition to GMO’s has been the well-supported accusations of the dangers of monolculture, the use of pesticides, the consolidation of corporate power, the patenting of life-forms and the privatization of common intellectual property?

  45. Ti-Guy

    I have been in discussions before about lost knowledge and how detrimental it is.

    When I lived in the 3rd World, I was constantly impressed by how the local population (supposedly uneducated and unsophisticated according to our standards) had extensive, sophisticated knowledge about local flora and fauna (in places far more bio-diverse than Canada) and about how to grow things (including complicated plant nurseries, grafting, animal husbandry and knowledge about soil, hydrology, elevation, seasons and weather conditions) and had a hard time remaining convinced that a transition to more “modern” economic activities would constitute anything I’d think of as progress. I could imagine what that traditional, meaningful knowledge would be replaced with.

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