Commentary Magazine


Skeptics, Quacks, and Denialists

In the lexicon of modern intellectual life, there are few epithets more loaded than “denialist.” This refers to someone who does not merely deny an obvious truth but who, in so doing, also furthers an ugly lie. Think of Holocaust denialists, who brush aside the horrors of genocide, or AIDS denialists, who by withholding life-prolonging drugs would consign millions to suffering. These days, the term is used somewhat promiscuously to tar anyone who objects to the urgent priorities of a certain right-thinking (or more accurately, Left-thinking) elite. Thus, we are warned constantly of the perfidy of climate denialists, whose efforts to undermine action against man-made global warming supposedly endanger the planet.

Michael Specter, a science writer for the New Yorker, has now written a book about mass instances of denialism in our day that are inimical to scientific progress and the general well-being of mankind.1 Yet apart from a few perfunctory shots at critics of the climate-change consensus, he saves his fire for a different kind of skeptic. In Specter’s parlance, “denialists” are those who reject the substantive technological benefits of modern science—medicines and vaccines to treat and prevent illnesses, or techniques to enhance the quality and quantity of agricultural yields. At the same time, they cling to an unsubstantiated faith in the advantages of “natural” alternatives such as vitamins, supplements, and organic foods. The term e-ncompasses a diverse array of quacks and crackpots, ranging from New Age celebrities like Andrew Weil to reactionary patricians like Charles, Prince of Wales. What unites them is a hostility to reason that, when amplified in society, threatens the ability of scientists to pursue real solutions to such problems as disease, hunger, and malnutrition.

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Specter begins with a cautionary tale of sorts: the story of Vioxx, the anti-inflammatory drug that was withdrawn from the market in 2004 when it was alleged that its manufacturer, Merck & Co., had suppressed information about an increased risk of fatal heart attack in Vioxx users. Specter points out that this risk, while statistically real, is not obviously greater than the risk associated with, say, driving a car—and might be a risk well worth taking when the alternative is to live with chronic pain. Indeed, some of the scientists who exposed the potential dangers of Vioxx now say they would be happy for the drug to return to the market properly labeled. Why, then, does Vioxx remain unavailable to those who might benefit from it? Specter does not exactly say, but he seems to point the finger at denialists, who are so suspicious of science that they have irrationally skewed expectations about acceptable levels of risk.

Denialism then proceeds with a number of case studies. Perhaps nothing epitomizes the phenomenon better than the anti-vaccine movement, which alleges that childhood immunizations cause autism. There is, of course, no evidence that this is the case. This is not for lack of trying: after more than a decade of study, no scientific investigator has yet turned up a link between vaccination and rates of autism. In particular, the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which was initially fingered as the causative agent, has been studied extensively for any trace of toxicity—but not extensively enough for vaccine denialists, who accuse the federal government and pharmaceutical companies of engaging in a massive conspiracy to cover up thimerosal’s dangers. Nor are the anti-vaccine crusaders about to give up now that thimerosal has been removed from all but a few influenza vaccines. They know that vaccines cause autism, because their children were diagnosed with autism after receiving their vaccines. Scientifically, this is like saying that enrolling in middle school causes acne.

But vaccine denialists will not be bullied by purveyors of science. Former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, now a vocal critic of childhood immunization, put it this way: “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home.” In other words, the anecdotal experience of her son (along with the knowledge she acquired at the “University of Google”) was enough to convince her that dozens of careful epidemiological studies, conducted over a period of years, must be wrong. This would be tragically laughable if McCarthy were alone. Unfortunately, hundreds of parents have followed her lead in refusing to vaccinate their children, threatening one of the great triumphs of public health: the elimination of infectious diseases such as measles. The World Health Organization estimates that deaths from measles decreased worldwide from about 873,000 in 1999 to 164,000 in 2008—an achievement entirely attributable to increased immunization. The best information available to us suggests that if we went with our bodies’ “natural” defenses, hundreds of thousands of children would die each year from one virus alone. By contrast, approximately zero children would be spared the trial of autism.

A perverse calculus also underlies what Specter calls the “organic fetish”—that is, the insistence that food produced organically is healthier and more beneficial to the environment than food produced with the aid of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic manipulation. Organic foods may taste better, and perhaps some shoppers feel virtuous about their patronage of organic producers; these are unquantifiable value judgments. But as Specter details, there is no reason to believe that organic foods are more nutritive than nonorganic foods. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the genetic modification of crops is in any way harmful to human health.

Of course, if affluent Western urbanites prefer to spend more money on foods that carry the organic imprimatur, that is nobody’s business but their own. It becomes everyone’s business, however, when opposition to genetically modified foods demonstrably increases human suffering. Because of pressure from “agricultural denialists,” African nations have elected to do without genetically modified crops that might boost yields in some of the most impoverished parts of their continent. In 2002 the government of Zambia refused to accept aid from the World Food Program in the form of tons of genetically engineered grain, preferring to risk letting 2.4 million starve in order to avoid the imaginary “poison” of bioengineered foodstuffs.

Specter has some fun with devotees of vitamins and homeopathic remedies—not so much because they are dangerous as because they are useless, and because the money spent buying and researching this kind of quackery is money diverted from more useful endeavors. What is more, Specter also discerns a familiar kind of anti-scientific denialism in those who promote vitamin use: an implicit belief that supplements and homeopathic medicines are beneficial merely because they are “natural,” and willful disbelief in the evidence that shows they have little benefit or none whatsoever.

The last chapters of Denialism are an excursion into still developing fields like genome research and synthetic biology. The former promises to shed light on the construction of the body and its susceptibility to disease; the latter explores the process of creating natural products—and perhaps, one day, novel life-forms—from their chemical building blocks. In the near term, synthetic biologists hope to retrofit the genomes of common bacteria so that they can produce pharmaceuticals, biofuels, and other complex organic molecules that can now be refined or synthesized only at considerable cost. In the longer term, Specter suggests, synthetic biology invites the possibility of “building our own children, not to mention alternate versions of ourselves.”

Synthetic biology is a fascinating topic, but how it relates to controversies over vaccines, homeopathic medicine, and even genetically modified foods is not immediately clear. Specter seems to be worried that the future fruits of biological science might be nipped in the bud by what he perceives as the growing influence of denialists. To combat this he proposes that we, as a society, take steps to renew reasoned dialogue and respect for science, beginning with an education system that encourages skepticism and scientific literacy. Only then, he suggests, will synthetic biology be able to accomplish its goals and “overcome the ignorance and the denialism it breeds.” But who are the denialists here? The anti-corporatist conspiracy theorists? The hypocritical elites? The New Age know-nothings? All of the above? And of what, exactly, are they in denial?

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This is where the basic problem with Specter’s thesis becomes apparent. To begin with, the people he calls denialists do not actually deny the positive claims of science. Nobody who is not totally divorced from reality challenges the claim that vaccines prevent disease or that genetically modified crops are hardier and more fruitful than their “organic” counterparts. Likewise, few discount the possibility that scientists might one day, at least in theory, have the ability to create novel organisms. So-called denialists simply believe that the unknown risks of these products outweigh their known benefits. This is not denial in the sense of disbelieving the obvious. It is merely suspicion or, at worst, paranoia.

On closer inspection, there seem to be at least three distinct types of what Specter calls denialists. First, there are those who fear that science is being misused by third parties, chiefly profit-driven corporations and faceless government agencies. In this camp are the anti-vaccine hysterics, like McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the latter of whom has called the National Immunization Program “the worst crime since the cover-up of the Iraq war” (whatever that means).

Here, too, are those who decry genetic engineering as corporate technology foisted upon the unwitting consumer, and those who rail against the greed and sleaze of Big Agro and Big Pharma. Specter quotes one activist whose greatest concern about synthetic artemisinin, a potent anti-malarial drug generally derived from wormwood, seems to be the fate of Third World wormwood farmers, whose livelihood would be eclipsed by production of the laboratory version—never mind the lives that could be savedby access to inexpensive and effective treatments for malaria. It is as if trying to solve the problems of hunger and disease is noble only if it is difficult and unprofitable, not if it actually works.

Unquestionably such denialists have a loose grip on concepts like “facts” and “statistics.” Still, it is a mistake to view them as unremittingly hostile to science. One suspects that many of the people who recoil in horror from vaccines and frankenfoods are also deeply concerned about the scientific “consensus” on climate change. Kennedy, for example, accused the Bush administration of expressing “contempt for science” with its environmental policies. Science, in this worldview, is secondary to ideology. Scientists who run afoul of Kennedy’s politics are corrupt tools of industry; those who confirm his biases are dispassionate seekers of knowledge.

Specter himself has a hard time avoiding this logical trap: “Experts chosen to represent a specific point of view are cheerleaders, not scientists,” he writes. The truth, of course, is that everyone has an agenda—politicians, corporations, lawyers, activists, and, yes, even scientists, who will invariably represent their own point of view. The beauty of science, however, is that the facts are there for everyone to see. And in this respect, Specter is correct in his insistence that everyone should be able—and ready—to look at them and form his own conclusions.

The second kind of denialism is pessimism about the unknown. These denialists worry not about risks that are hidden but rather about those that are unforeseen: What if a new treatment has some terrible side effect? What if genes from genetically modified crops are somehow transmitted to wild-type organisms, thereby altering them in unknowable ways? What if a virus constructed by synthetic biologists mutates into a deadly pandemic? On the extreme end of the spectrum, there are dystopian futurists like the computer scientist and entrepreneur Bill Joy, who posits that the unrestricted development of fields like genetic engineering and robotics will lead to a catastrophic arms race between destructive and defensive users of technology. The ultimate fear is that this would culminate in something like the infamous science-fiction “gray goo” scenario, in which all matter on Earth is consumed by self-replicating nanobots. Rather than risk this kind of cataclysm, Joy suggests we simply abandon research that might lead us down this path. A similar position is taken by the environmental catastrophist Bill McKibben, among others.

Finally, there are those whose “denial” is based on a profound sense of moral or philosophical unease about certain uses of technology. Sometimes this is couched in religious objections: Prince Charles, for example, reckons that “genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.” More sophisticated thinkers have argued that the applications of genomic research and synthetic biology that so intrigue Specter—the possibility of altering our minds and bodies, for example—raise questions about what it means to be human and pose difficult ethical dilemmas for society as a whole. Such questions are not, strictly speaking, scientific, but this does not make them irrelevant to the debate about the applications of science.

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The last two varieties of denialism are hard to reckon with, as they do not obviously stem from unfamiliarity with science. Nevertheless, Specter assumes the same dismissive posture. We can’t stop progress, he claims, and trying to do so would only empower those least likely to use technology to beneficial ends. He seems to have no patience at all for philosophical questions. He does not seem to see qualitative differences between hysteria about Vioxx and caution about, say, gene therapy or drugs intended to enhance human performance. If we are only forward-thinking, Specter writes—if President Obama only restores science to its rightful place at the heart of public life—we will be well on the way to solving problems of illness, famine, and ecological destruction.

In the end, it is hard to tell exactly what point Specter is trying to make, and one suspects he is grouping several unlike phenomena under the same unfortunate buzzword. He is right to identify opposition to vaccines and genetically modified crops as unscientific, illogical, and dangerous; and yet for some reason he never gets to the root of what this opposition is all about. When it comes to more complex issues like genomics and synthetic biology, Specter’s pointed defense of empirical fact begins to morph into a somewhat more nebulous argument for optimistic futurism based on faith in the promise of science. One would like to be sympathetic, but at times it can be hard to tell who is really in denial.


Footnotes

1 Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Penguin, 304 pages.

About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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