Book review

Denying Science – Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions and the War Against Reality by John Grant. Prometheus Books 2011, 374 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-1-61614-399-2

Denying Science is a tough slog. Not because it is a difficult read or hard to understand, but because it is dark and disturbing. It takes time to fully comprehend the magnitude of Grant’s ideas. Each page is loaded with factual evidence, historical anecdotes or verbatim comments and while, on occasion, Grant unleashes his subtle and perhaps sometime sarcastic humour, the general drift of the book leaves one with a profoundly sad outlook.

Denying Science is divided into 21 chapters, each supported by copious end notes — covering 37 pages — along with five pages of bibliography. By his own admission, Grant had to leave out many areas of importance and interest simply because “he did not want to produce a book the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.” Still he has chosen numerous cases where denying science has been used to seriously hamper progress.

Within his narrowed scope Grant has attacked the issue from two flanks. While attempting to bring out the issues around science denial, he defined and illustrated the different forms of science denial. Grant brings to the forefront such issues as alternative medicine, tobacco, the anti-vaccinators, AIDS, self- help gurus, Darwinism and evolution, eugenics, ozone depletion and global warming. Grant is up-to-date and covers recent events such as the Giffords shooting, Obama’s health care and the 2010 BP oil spill. Each chapter discusses the “denialist” and the underlying motivation. They include religious zealots, politicians, journalists, business leaders and even scientists. Often the common thread tying these denialists together is a financial agenda.

The science teacher likely deals little with these denials. Granted the biology teacher may discuss the opposition to Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” but will likely teach evolution as simple scientific fact. Likewise the physics teacher will discuss the Big Bang with the same certainty as the heliocentric solar system of Galileo and may, only in passing, recall the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to Galileo. The chemistry teacher will not doubt that CFCs are a cause of ozone depletion, and that man-made CO2 is the leading cause of our present greenhouse effect. Science teachers, while certainly aware of the origin of the theories, believe very strongly and emphatically that what they are teaching is correct science.

I suggest Denying Science be mandatory reading for science teachers. We need to know the enemy. We need to ensure our students are up to the task of dissecting the rhetoric and recognizing the lie for what it is. Denialists are very resourceful and can be extremely well-funded. One only has to look at the attempt by DuPont to derail the ban on CFCs; the denials of the tobacco cartel of the smoking links to disease, allowing smoking to continue unabated for decades; or Exxon-Mobil’s denial that there is any problem with our climate.

While one can “understand” why a vested interest would prefer the status quo, one cannot understand the politicians who wilfully dissent or the media that wilfully distorts. However, Grant shows how many of these politicians and journalists are well-funded by bogus “think tanks” and “astroturf organizations”*. These are often funded by big business interests. While the media are quick to report on severe weather events, there is rarely the link to global warming. The likely reason is the risk vested interests will pull advertising if they do. Canada is not immune. For one example, in the chapter “Marketing Climate Denialism”, Grant explains that a political science professor at the University of Calgary was laundering funds from a bogus think tank through the university. When discovered, it was reported in most major newspapers except the Calgary Herald where this professor was a frequent contributor. Grant noted that the professor was not dismissed as he is a fishing buddy of Stephen Harper (Canada’s current prime minister).

So here is a challenge to science teachers. Make Denying Science a Communication and STSE (science, technology, society, environment) assignment. Have groups take on one of the issues and analyse the denialists’ propaganda as well as the science. Grant provides an enormous number of examples with references. Students can present findings to the other groups so the class can begin to see the pervasiveness of the problem.

Teachers must prepare their students not only with a syllabus, but also with tools recognizing what is chaff and what is wheat. Only then will our students be ready to move forward and swim against the current of negativity and falsehood.

*Astroturfing refers to political, advertising or public relations campaigns that are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Definition taken from Wikipedia, October 9, 2012.