Book review

Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives

by Michael Specter, 2010, 304 pages, paperback,  Penguin Publishing  ISBN 978-0-14-311831-2

 How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.Denialism is a thoroughly engaging book — both frightening and encouraging. Specter is a writer and a former journalist, and the ease of his writing style is evident throughout. In Denialism, Specter annotates a number of instances where truth and scientific fact become fiction and, as he notes, the hallmark of denialism is that the truth will never get in the way of faith, greed or fear.

Denialism is divided into six chapters. Each one deals with a different aspect of denialist thinking. The chapters are long and Specter links the main thought with side stories and interviews with numerous scientists and experts. As one reads, one cannot help but feel profoundly sad and angry, not only at the state of thinking but the reasons behind it. As teachers, we must shudder at the total disregard for scientific fact we strive so hard to nurture in our students.

The chapter on Vioxx lays out some of the reasons why people are so susceptible to denialist thinking. Merck, manufacturer of Vioxx, knew for years that the drug could be harmful to some but hid the data, denied the results, destroyed scientists who spoke out and made billions off the drug. Specter reminds us that the Ford Pinto problem could have been fixed for $11 but that cost was greater than the potential lawsuits from burn victims. More recently, GM knowing there was an ignition key problem with some of its models could have repaired the problem inexpensively. Then we are all aware of big tobacco’s litany of denials. Is there any wonder that the general public treats company executives and the “scientists” that give conflicting views as suspect?

The vaccine chapter recounts the “link” between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. This is the bandwagon that has made Jenny McCarthy so famous. It does not matter that the doctor who originally linked MMR with autism was totally discredited, lost his British medical license and that almost all of the contributing authors withdrew their support claiming to have been misquoted; the snowball had been set in motion. To those who believe, the fact that science has established no credible link whatsoever between vaccinations and autism is of no consequence. The fear they express is reason enough for their denial. This has resulted in an increase in children not being vaccinated and a decrease in herd immunity. The incidence of measles is now on the rise.

There is a lot to consume in the chapters on organic food and dietary supplements. The organic farming industry is booming as all the major food suppliers happily provide organic options since proponents are willing to pay dearly for them. The organic mantra is a “shared fate” and sustainability. Both of these are admirable concepts, however, as Specter notes, whose fate are we harming? Those who can afford the luxury of small scale farming cannot make it sustainable for the people of Africa or India thereby dooming them to poverty and starvation.

Meanwhile, study after study shows that there is no long term benefit from taking dietary supplements. Indeed some of these studies show an increased risk of disease in some instances. Yet the supplement business is growing, with sales in the billions, from pushing omega-3 and antioxidants among other supplements. At least with Vioxx, there was pharmaceutical oversight. There is no such oversight for supplements. And, while ephedra has been shown to be harmful and echinacea useless in children; both show no sign of losing sales.

Specter ends with two chapters that suggest hope is on the horizon. While most scientists will not mention “race” in drug use or diagnosis, some studies show that tiny genetic differences make some of us less likely to respond to a drug than others. Studies have shown that Hispanics, but only those of Puerto Rican descent, are more likely to develop asthma. Specter explains how SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) show subtle differences between races. This may explain why some drugs work better on some than others and suggest alternative treatments.

The final chapter zeroes in on advances in molecular biology and specifically designer biology. Our ability to modify genomic DNA by introducing new (non-native) sequences or removing sequences is getting better each year. Specter describes a number of these new technologies. The prospect is both exciting and scary depending on who is doing the designing. Fears of a terrorist attack loom and critics are beating the denialist drums.

Each reader will have something he or she can take away from Denialism. For the teacher there are numerous facts and anecdotes to recount to students to warn them of the battle facing them with respect to denialism. The language and writing style make it ideal as a student gift. For me, the take-away is potentially positive. Having been on a statin drug for over 30 years due to a family history, I now find that statins may, by lowering cholesterol, help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Maybe I’ll escape both heart disease and stroke that have plagued my family — dementia too. There’s no denying it is a possibility.