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.