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