The Book Club

Are We Anti-Science, or Are We Inconsistent?

Hi Michael,

First, let me say it has been a pleasure to read Denialism, a book I’ve wanted to dig into ever since you came to speak about it to our Knight Science Journalism Fellows seminar at MIT. It’s heartening to see another author beating the drum about America’s dysfunctional relationship with science, and making the point so vividly and memorably. Your narrative about vaccine skeptics’ attacks on an unassuming and rigorous scientist like Harvard’s Marie McCormick—whom I have also interviewed—made me so angry I wanted to hurl the book across the room (and that’s a good thing!).

What’s more, your book looks past some of the more obvious cases of “denialism”—of climate change, HIV/AIDS, evolution, and so forth—to lesser known realms like personalized medicine and synthetic biology, where our qualms about where science is taking us are likely to manifest next. You don’t deny the older and more famous instances of anti-science sentiment, but you smartly move along to the ones we’re going to be dealing with for years to come.

That’s not to say I agree with everything in Denialism; I think there are some aspects of the big picture that you haven’t painted quite right. Take, for instance, the baffling fact that despite all of our irrationality on topics like vaccination, Americans aren’t actually “anti-science” in any meaningful sense of the term.

According to the latest compilation of data (PDF) on the relationship between the public and science issued by the National Science Foundation, Americans have more confidence in the leaders of the scientific and medical communities than in the leaders of any other major societal institution other than the military. (We journalists, in contrast, are considered even slimier than members of Congress.) These data also show that most Americans agree that science makes our lives better and has far more benefits than costs. So when you write that Americans “fear science at least as fully as we embrace it,” I don’t really agree with you. To me, the real question is how to understand the paradox that even as we say all these wonderful things about science in surveys, we betray that sentiment on a regular basis. We’re not an anti-science country, just an inconsistent one.

This leads into the main question I had as I read the book—for while I agree with almost every substantive point you make about cases in which science is abused or ignored, I found myself wondering about the root causes of these phenomena. Take, for example, the turn toward unproven “alternative” medical remedies or the closely related retreat from vaccination, both of which you discuss at chapter-length. Yes, the folks who follow these fads aren’t listening to accurate science; often, they are in utter denial about it. And yes, they are wasting their money, possibly placing themselves at risk, and, in the case of vaccination skeptics, posing a threat to all of us. Yet I can’t help wondering if deep down, the real source of this irrational behavior lies not in public ignorance but rather in an understandable reaction against the problems with our health care system and the documented abuses and profiteering of some pharmaceutical companies.

Your thoughtful and nuanced exposition does not neglect these underlying factors. But I wonder whether their existence might point to something more radical. Perhaps the cure for denialism is not a greater infusion of scientific thinking or rationality but rather a solution to the underlying issues that drive people toward homeopathic placebos or worse. Would people flee so readily into the arms of Andrew Weil if they had more time with caring doctors whose services they could actually afford and if they didn’t hear so many horror stories about medical errors committed at hospitals?

Here’s another question: I agree with you that in some sense, things are getting worsewhen it comes to our broad public irrationality—but what do you think is driving this trend?

You drop some hints about the role the Internet is playing here; you note how it has been a boon to vaccine skeptics in particular. Let me take that one step further: For all these problems to exist, there has to be something structurally deficient about the way scientific information gets transferred from our hallowed research institutions and peer-reviewed journals into the public sphere. I believe the key factor is that this now occurs in a context of more professed “experts” than ever before at think tanks, at advocacy groups, and on the Web—even as there are fewer and fewer filters and gatekeepers in the world of media and publishing to ensure quality control and analytical rigor.

In other words, we have a game set up where misinformation is likely to thrive and good information has a harder and harder time competing. Mainstream science journalists across the country are losing their jobs. For every accurate science blogger, there is an extremely popular anti-science blogger or Web site. And all the interest groups in Washington and beyond know they need to use “science” to make their case.

As a consequence, real science is constantly abused, and the most credible experts can barely keep up with all the nonsense, much less refute it. Your book is a great contribution to the latter task—but at the same time, it implies that what we really need to do is re-engineer the way our media and political systems handle scientific information. That’s a Herculean task, no doubt. Do you think there’s any hope of success?