The Book Club

We Need To Remember That Denialism Kills People


Thanks for the kind words and cogent questions. It’s nice of you to notice approvingly that I skipped over the climate and evolution “debates” in Denialism. A few people have seen that as a failing—but my intention here was to address issues where there is some common ground and see whether I could shift it a bit. As bitterly divided on the food issue as people in this country are, for example, I think the two poles—those who worship organic food almost as a religion and those who believe that we will never feed the developing world without the tools of biotechnology—do share a basic desire to feed people everywhere in a more sustainable, healthy, and equitable manner. Creationism and climate denial fall into a different category. If people want to believe that our ancestors were riding around on dinosaurs or that the protracted, increasing, and devastating warming of the Earth is just nature doing its thing—I guess I feel I have more useful battles to fight.

Like one with you. You make a great point when you argue that Americans—according to the data you cited and other data as well—are not all that anti-scientific. At least they say they are not all that anti-scientific. I think many people even mean it. But then what happens? Nearly half the adults in this country say they are opposed to vaccinating their children against the H1N1 influenza virus. No vaccine is perfect—and every choice we make entails risk of some kind. But so far there have been more than 10 million doses of the vaccine administered and, according to the CDC, no reports of serious adverse reactions. Americans clearly like the idea of scientists; increasingly, though, they reject their advice. That is what I was trying to suggest in the book by writing, “We expect miracles, but have little faith in those capable of producing them.”

So, yes, as you point out, we are totally inconsistent. That inconsistency makes us forget the benefits of many technologies, and it has deeply harmful consequences. You raise two important examples: the vaccination “controversy” and our obsession with alternative health. Clearly, some of the reason people embrace alternatives and reject vaccines is that they are angry and mistrustful of government and of pharmaceutical conglomerates. More than that, we pay too much for health care, it’s not good enough, and the system is too complex. We need alternatives.

But what does it say about Americans that we can reject the most effective public health measure ever devised (and ignore data from literally hundreds of studies in doing so)? Look at some parts of this country and you will see vaccine rates for school kids plummeting. You do not have to be a math wizard to know where this leads. Cases of measles have been climbing steadily, and it is only a matter of time until people die. In a similar vein, it makes a lot of sense to millions of Americans to embrace “natural” vitamins and supplements over the products of predatory drug companies. Many people have told me this is a victimless crime. If people want to swallow pomegranate extract or rely on energy fields to treat their cancer, isn’t that their prerogative?

I don’t think so. At places like the National Institutes of Health, we choose what we study, promote, and support with public funds. By spending scarce resources to examine the effect of, say, homeopathy—the absurd supposition that “like cures like”—we are stealing grant money from research that might actually help us understand disease. We need to remember that denialism kills people. For more than a decade, spurred on by American denialists, then-South African President Thabo Mbeki rejected effective AIDS treatments because he believed that Western pharmaceutical firms posed a grave danger to Africans. Instead, he offered his people useless home remedies like garlic and lemon oil. Hundreds of thousands of South Africans died as a result. Sure, we can blame pharmaceutical companies for their many failings. Yet when we start replacing proven treatments with methods that have never been shown to work, aren’t we taking a giant step in the direction of Mbeki’s murderous denialism?

We agree that the Internet rapidly spreads all kinds of information—facts, rumors, lies, and errors. How can we tell what is what? This is, I think, the biggest problem we face with denialism. I wish I had an easy answer; instead, all I have is the hope that we are in a transitional stage from one way of absorbing and transmitting information to another. It is a painful and epochal process, as all such changes are. But eventually we will tame the Wild West of the Web.  I will go out on a limb and say the lowest common denominator—while still pretty damn low—is inching upward. Newspapers and magazines have been valuable to us precisely because they apply filters to information, otherwise known as editing, and often the Internet seems valuable for exactly the opposite reason: You can get your news without a filter. Of course, just because you read a report in the New York Times, the Economist, or, yes, The New Yorker doesn’t make it true. But we do know that a few people have evaluated that story with what strikes me as fairly objective standards of reason. It’s not a perfect system, and neither is the peer review of scientific studies. What we need to encourage now is the accessibility of the Internet with the standards of what the cyberworld refers to as the “dead tree media.”

There will always be irresponsible blogs and Web sites. But there is also the New York Post. What we need to defeat denialism are independent and thoughtful publications (like this one, for example) that serve up information that is at least as reliable as newspapers have been. We will get there, but it is going to take a while, and the journey has and will be painful. In the mean time, the American public, and particularly those of us who write about science, need to start talking more vigorously about our scientific opportunities and their potential risks. If we don’t start soon, we are going to let some very promising solutions to our worst problems slip away. Do you agree with me that a national discussion on the future of synthetic life is necessary? More importantly, do you think it’s possible?