Why We Ignore Science In Favor Of Irrational Thinking
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Michael Specter believes we are living in a time where we fear science at least as much as we embrace it. In a fundamental shift in the way we approach the world in the 21st century, we view progress and discovery with antipathy, which harms the planet and threatens our lives.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. America used to believe in scientific progress but now many of us are not so sure. Whether the issue is getting the newest flu shot or eating genetically engineered food or embracing the science behind global warming, lots of us have lost trust in what we’re told by scientific authorities. My guest, Michael Specter, calls this phenomenon denialism, where segments of society turn away from reality in favor of the comfortable lie. And he says it’s not just a problem for the people who’d rather get the flu than take the vaccine but for all of us. Michael Specter writes about science, technology and global public health for the New Yorker magazine. His new book is called, “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” Welcome to the show, Michael.
MICHAEL SPECTER (Author): Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you have doubts about scientific advances like new vaccines? If so, tell us why. Do you think differently about the benefits of science than you used to? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Michael Specter, your book was called a hotly argued diatribe by New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin. And I’m wondering, because there does seem to be a little bit of fire in the prose, if a particular incident pushed you to write it.
SPECTER: Not really but what happened, it was an increasing of incidents over the years. I wrote about vaccines and genetically engineered food for the New Yorker. And I kept seeing responses to it that I could not understand, people who refused to vaccinate their children even though vaccinations are the most effective public health measure in the history of the world. People who don’t understand the difference between accompanying the fusing of technology and the technology itself, which was often the case with genetically engineered food. And then with vitamins, and people swallowing endless amounts of vitamins no matter what the data said. And so it just built over the years and I decided I need to put this out there because there are real harmful consequences. This is – These are not victimless crimes, these are things that damage society.
CAVANAUGH: In looking at all the things that you’re talking about, do you think that there’s been a fundamental shift in the way Americans view science in recent decades?
SPECTER: Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far. I think there’s a fundamental shift in the way Americans view authority, and I think that’s completely understandable. And they see government officials, scientific officials, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, telling them to do stuff and their response is you told me that before and it killed people, or it didn’t work, or you said you were going to cure things. And we know that science isn’t perfect and technology often fails and that people misuse it but my fear is that people now have a sort of default presumption that their own intuition is better than a well carried out scientific study and it almost never is.
CAVANAUGH: Now you have a very interesting vignette you present in the beginning of your book. You talk about running into a student in the Harvard Yard who was wearing an interesting button. Tell us about that story.
SPECTER: Oh, I was just up there to see some people and I ran into this kid who I’d never seen before and he had a button that said ‘Progressives Against Scientism’ and I thought, well, what the heck does that mean? And I asked him. And he said, you know, we don’t believe science can solve problems, it creates problems, and look at dams and look at pharmaceutical companies and look at nuclear reactors and, you know, he went on, genetically engineered food. And we talked for a couple of minutes, and I just thought, you know, he’s a college kid and they like to be sort of intellectually infatuated with various ideas and that’s fine but when you look at these things, there are downsides to almost everything we do, including all those he mentioned, but there are also upsides. And the upsides sometimes are remarkable and ignored.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Michael Specter. He’s written a new book called “Denialism” and it’s about how segments of our society are turning away from scientific reality in favor of their own prejudices and what Specter calls the comfortable lie. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And I wonder, if you would, Michael, I gave a little brief description of what you mean by denialism. Why don’t you tell us where that title comes from and what you mean by it.
SPECTER: Well, you weren’t bad in your description.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
SPECTER: Denialism is just kind of – I think we all know what denial is, something seems so painful or unacceptable to us that we kind of pretend it doesn’t happen. And this is something we all do and we do it for a variety of reasons. And I think it’s normal and I think at times it may be a healthy defense mechanism as long as it doesn’t last too long. Denialism to me is denial writ large, it’s when society or a large group of society sort of turns away from what is reality, what is best for society, in favor of something that intuitively makes them feel more comfortable but really would only harm them.
CAVANAUGH: And in a sense, your argument is that people who are in denial or turn away from some scientifically proven advances in medicine or in nutrition speak about the very tiny outer edges of what could possibly happen with these things instead of looking at the middle and how it actually does work and how it actually does improve things.
SPECTER: It’s not even just the middle. I mean, let’s look at vaccines because that’s on everyone’s mind.
SPECTER: About 40 to 45% of the American public polled recently say they would not take the H1N1 flu vaccine or give it to their children. They’re worried about its safety profile. The H1N1 flu vaccine has been given to 62 million people so far. There’s not one demonstrable death as a result. It is not perfect but it’s a remarkably safe vaccine. You have to look at that and then you have to look at what is the alternative. Well, the alternative is the flu. The flu has killed thousands of people in this country already; it will kill thousands more. It seems milder than we feared and that’s great if it stays that way but, nonetheless, thousands will die, many more will be sick. People will lose time with their families, at work, hospitals will be crowded. And people seem like they would rather embrace that that to get a vaccine that has absolutely – you can’t say nothing has any threat. Everything has a risk, everything we do, swallow water, take aspirin. If everyone took two aspirin in America right now, 500 people would be dead by dinner time. You know, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use aspirin. It means that we have to look at the costs and the benefits, and we never look at both, we only look at one.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Michael Specter about his new book “Denialism,” and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Right now, Robert is calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, Robert, and welcome to These Days.
ROBERT (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning. Thank you very much. I guess I just wanted to say – Well, actually I have a lot to say about this and the first thing I want to say is that a lot of people don’t have the means to properly evaluate scientific achievements and so they don’t know what’s true and what’s not, and they’re being told a lot of conflicting things. In addition, we’ve been receiving so much hype about things like, for instance, when I was a boy, electricity was going to be too cheap to meter and we were going to have cars that fly when we grow up, and we were going to cure cancer. And these things haven’t happened, and it makes it very hard for the average person who may not be a scientist to evaluate…
ROBERT: …what’s true and what’s hype.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Robert.
SPECTER: I – Actually, it’s almost like you read part of my book there because I couldn’t possibly agree more. Part of our problem is that if we’re older than 15 or 20, we’ve been promised the moon, literally the moon, everything. Water was going to be desaltified so that – desalinated so that we could drink it and we were going to cure disease and cancer and poverty and hunger and, yeah, none of that has really happened and not only has that not happened, we all know about technological disasters. We all know about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and Vioxx and all sorts of things like that and it makes us wonder. But even having said that and even knowing that most people don’t have a sophisticated science education, you can look at even newspaper reports and evaluate them and just ask yourself, is this a study that has thousands of people in it or is it hundreds? Was it done in many medical centers or one? Was it done over three weeks or five years? I think if you look at the things, you can get a sense just using common sense of whether we ought to listen to people or not. But I agree, one of the biggest problems here is we don’t have the respect and trust that we used to have for authority and that’s a very fundamental problem in our country, and I think one way we can address that is to elect and appoint officials who we do trust.
CAVANAUGH: One of the most fascinating issues that you take up in the book, I think, is the history of the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx because on the one hand it seems to prove that people should be very leery of what pharmaceutical companies distribute but on the other hand it’s almost a case in which science corrected itself. Tell us that story, Michael.
SPECTER: Well, Vioxx was an anti-inflammatory drug that people took for arthritis and it was seen as a miracle at the time because people were always taking aspirin, Advil, things like that and you can only take so much of it. It causes a great deal of gastrointestinal distress. It can even kill people if you take too much. So this drug came along and it alleviated pain in great measure and it didn’t seem to have any of the down side. So people loved it. Merck produced it. It was advertised more vigorously than any other drug in the history of our country until Viagra. And everything was fine until people started to die, and people started to die fairly quickly of heart attacks and strokes. And it turned out Merck knew this, and there’s actually a guy down in San Diego named Eric Topol, who’s a cardiologist, who was then working at the Cleveland Clinic who, from the beginning, along with colleagues, said, hey, we ought to be careful about this because we don’t know all the information, and people didn’t listen to him. Merck went ahead and marketed this thing very vigorously and it killed people. It killed 55,000 Americans, according to the FDA, which is exactly the number of American soldiers who died in Vietnam. Now, that is tragic and wrong and the drug was pulled and the company was humiliated, as it should have been. Having said that, I think it’s also important to note that millions of people lost a drug that was very valuable to them and it was a drug that, had it been prescribed correctly—those are very important words—could have functioned beautifully because if you have heart – You know if you have heart risk conditions, if you have cholesterol problems, if you’re obese, have diabetes, have a history of heart attacks in your family. These are things a physician can know in consultation with his or her patient and we should live in a country where we can release a drug that works for many, many people and not for others and be assured that those others wouldn’t be forced to take it, but we don’t. And I think it’s really sad and really crazy. I mean, if we – if we regulated the automobile industry the way we regulate pharmaceuticals, no one would be allowed to get into a car, literally. So…
CAVANAUGH: And – I’m sorry.
SPECTER: …all I’m really saying is the risk-reward ratio, we don’t think of the – we just think about the downsides. If a drug kills people, it’s gone. And in this case, I’m not saying it should be back but I’m only saying we ought to think about ways to make drugs work for the people that they’re intended to and not for others.
CAVANAUGH: We have a lot of people who want to join the conversation. Let me take a couple of phone calls, if I may. Brent is calling from Bay Park. Good morning, Brent, and welcome to These Days.
BRENT (Caller, Bay Park): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just have a couple of things that I wanted to talk to the guest about. One, you pointed out earlier in the show the distinction between science and the commercial implementation of that science and you kind of glossed over that like it’s a really easy distinction to recognize and a point to make. But I don’t think that it’s quite that easy and sometimes you have the commercial motivation driving the science and changing the science behind it, which I think also generates people’s mistrust. Second, I think that there’s also an ethical component, that science sometimes leaves out about whether we should be doing these things, whether we should be implementing these things, and that’s another reason why people should check against maybe what’s going on or what’s being said. And, finally, you acknowledge that, you know, science often doesn’t have a lot of information – or there’s a lack of information sometimes, the findings are less than conclusive, but yet sometimes that’s not quite stated with that much doubt or at least it doesn’t come across in people’s mind. So there is a – There’s value to a precautionary principle being recognized as well.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. And, Michael, a lot to comment on.
SPECTER: I agree with all of it. I think part of the prob – I mean, I agree with all of it up to a point. I think part of the question of ethics, ethics is something that society needs to deal with. If you leave it to scientists or if you leave it to lawyers or to any individual organization, it’s not going to work properly. It’s not that those groups are inherently unethical but we need a broader – We’re looking at very major things. And when it comes to sort of how science is implemented, I didn’t mean to gloss over. It’s a very sophisticated and difficult issue separating science from companies. But, nonetheless, we can do it, and what we have, particularly with genetically engineered food, is a situation where people scream about it and when I talk to them and they calm down, they’re almost always screaming about the corporate control of the technology, and that’s a legitimate concern. Patenting seeds, things like that, those are concerns, but I know the Obama administration is dealing with it, so I know it can be dealt with. It’s not a concern about the quality of the science or whether that food is dangerous for us because it is not. And as for the precautionary principle, that is a very difficult issue. Basically for those who don’t know, it states we shouldn’t do something until we know it’s safe. Well, when do we make that decision because people talk about the precautionary principle with regard to genetically engineered food. Right now, we have 25 years of eating experience, over 2 billion acres planted, and there has never been one human individual who has been demonstrated to have been made sick or die as a result of eating genetically engineered food. So when is safe safe enough?
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Let me take another call. John is calling from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days. Hi, John, are you there? We’ll just move on then. You know, I – Michael, I’m very interested because it seems that so much of this book revolves around our changed notion of the efficacy of taking a risk.
CAVANAUGH: There used to be the idea, well, you know, let’s leap into the future, let’s give this a try. But there seem – now, we seem to pull back and say, no, we don’t want to do this until we’re absolutely sure it’s not going to hurt anybody. And does that put – that notion itself put a damper on scientific progress?
SPECTER: Yes, I mean, this is one of the problems. You can look at vaccines. You know, people say, oh, there’s a risk in taking vaccines. There absolutely is a risk. There is a risk to everything, including inhaling. But, you know what’s a greater risk? Not taking vaccines because if you look, even in Southern California, you find enormous pockets of schools where kids have not been vaccinated. They’re exempt because their parents don’t believe in it, and those kids are 35 times more likely to get measles, 22 times more likely to get whooping cough. And, guess what, it’s not just about them. They go to school and they infect others. The United States and Western Europe are the only places in the world right now where measles is on the rise. Everywhere else, it’s in decline. That’s a disgrace, and it’s a disgrace because we are infected by fear.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. David is calling from Oceanside. Good morning, David. Welcome to These Days.
DAVID (Caller, Oceanside): Hi, thank you. I just wanted to support your guest because we live in such an anti-scientific time. You know, we have – You go to major drugstore chains and they’re selling sugar pills with water on them which is homeopathic remedies, you know, and they have to put them into regular drugstores. And I think the thing about vaccines—I say this, people think it’s facetious but it’s not—I believe the anti-vaccine movement, as led by Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, I think they’re going to be responsible for more child deaths than Dr. Josef Mengele.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s a pretty strong statement.
DAVID: It isn’t that strong, though. You do the math. It’s mathematically where it is.
CAVANAUGH: And Michael?
SPECTER: I would – I don’t want to get into comparisons with Mengele…
DAVID: No, I…
SPECTER: …I don’t think it’s fair. I mean, I think Jenny McCarthy is profoundly misguided and she’s doing a great disservice and a lot of damage but I don’t think she’s doing it on purpose, which makes her a little different than him.
DAVID: Well, no, I’m not talking about on purpose. No, she definitely is not doing…
SPECTER: Yeah, I agree. If we drive ourselves away from the things that are most effective, we’re going to end up killing people. There’s no question about that. You know, I got an e-mail recently from a college classmate of mine who had read my book and said she’d agreed with a lot of it but not all, and she certainly wasn’t going to vaccinate her child against polio because we don’t have it. And I just thought, yeah, we don’t have it today and I hope we never do have it but they do have it in the world and there are these new things called airplanes. And you can get on one in Nigeria, you can be infected with polio, you can fly to Southern California and infect someone else if he or she isn’t vaccinated. And the idea that that couldn’t happen to us is so dangerous and so wrong because it can. And if we keep thinking this way, it will.
CAVANAUGH: Besides the idea of not wanting to take a risk anymore, there also seems to be, in the people who are so emotionally tied against vaccines, the idea that there’s some sort of secret going on, that there’s some collaboration between scientists and the government and pharmaceutical companies and they are not telling us the truth. Do you hear that a lot?
SPECTER: I hear it – I’ve never had a conversation where I don’t hear it. I hear it all the time. And mostly it’s this conspiracy theory stuff that is just very damaging to hear but, again, the government has been responsible for sending mixed messages. One of the big complaints about vaccines was this preservative thimerosal, which is something that kills bacteria and has actually saved lots of lives. It’s a type of mercury. It’s not the most dangerous type, which is methyl mercury, it’s ethyl mercury. And it’s a teeny amount and there’s never been a study that has ever shown that it has done any harm. But a decade ago, people complained so much about the mercury in vaccines that the CDC took it out of all vaccines except for one or two. So now if you’re a parent and you go to your doctor and you say I’m worried about this vaccine and everyone says, oh, mercury’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, don’t worry about it, and then suddenly the United States government announces they’re taking it out of all vaccines, what are you supposed to think? I mean, that’s a mixed message that’s very difficult to comprehend for anyone.
CAVANAUGH: You know, just in our final moments, I just want to make the point, our caller talked about sugar covered pills that – in homeopathics now. I don’t know for sure that’s – that’s indeed what they are, but you are quite tough on friendly looking Dr. Andrew Weil in your book. And, you know, I think many Americans feel very strongly that all he wants to do is to make sure we’re all healthy. But you don’t see it that way, Michael.
SPECTER: I don’t think that he doesn’t want us to be healthy, I just think that he’s living a lie when he says – You know, he goes around the country saying the medical system is broken, it’s industrial, it’s cold, it’s distant, all of which, I think, is quite true. And he offers comfort and human interaction. So what did I do? I said, fine, let’s check that out. I went on the internet and I went to his vitamin page. I filled out a form and within 65 seconds he was selling me $1400 worth of useless vitamins…
SPECTER: …from cyberspace. This is a guy who never met me, never spoken to me, doesn’t know a thing about my medical history, my family, my mental situation, my economic situation. That is a snake oil salesman. Someone who would put his name on that is doing a great disservice, particularly because he’s a well educated and sophisticated man. I think it’s amazingly damaging that he does that.
CAVANAUGH: And vitamins in general, you think, are pretty useless.
SPECTER: Most of them are good for darkening your urine and little else.
SPECTER: And when I say that, I want to be clear, there are vitamins, vitamin D, for instance, folic acid for pregnant women, some B vitamins that are totally worthwhile. But if you go into a vitamin store and you look at all those anti-oxidant pills and the gels, the elixirs, the mixes, they’re useless. And sometimes they’re much worse than useless. And the more we find out, the more we find out that echinacea does nothing for a cold, the more we run out and buy it.
CAVANAUGH: And – But just recently, just to put a fly in the ointment, just recently the study came out that niacin is better than a number of different pharmaceutical drugs in actually lowering someone’s cholesterol. So, I mean, you know, it leaves everybody sort of scratching their heads.
SPECTER: Well, listen, we have a way of finding this information out, it’s called the scientific method. You test niacin against other drugs. If it works better and it works better several times and in controlled studies that are accepted by the medical community, then you accept it, then it’s not an alternative, it’s medicine and you should use it. There’s – I’m not saying that no plant or nothing could ever become useful as an herb, it’s just that if we don’t test them in the way we test drugs, how would we ever know?
CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, Michael, is, you know, a lot of what – one of our callers that we couldn’t get on the air basically said this goes in cycles. Is that true? Is this kind of fear or irrational fear of science something you see as a cyclical thing?
SPECTER: Well, I think we’ve – I don’t know if it goes in cycles but we’ve certainly always had it. I just think it’s a broader based thing now. The idea that so many people are afraid of things like vaccines or think that the genetically engineered food is fundamentally different than any other type of genetically modified food—because all the food we eat is modified one way or the other—I think it has great consequences and can do a lot of harm. So cyclical or not, we’re entering an era where we are threatened by profound manmade climate change. We need to find solutions. And we’re not going to do it and we’re not going to solve the problems of hunger in the third world without using the tools of science. They’re not the only tools, they’re not going to solve everything, but I don’t think we’re going to get there without them.
CAVANAUGH: Michael, thank you for joining us.
SPECTER: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Michael Specter writes about science, technology and global public health in the New Yorker magazine. His new book is called “Denialism.” And we’re sorry we couldn’t get to everyone on the phones. If you’d like to post your comment, do it at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And coming up, we’ll talk about the dangers of the All American Canal. That’s next as These Days continues here on KPBS.