Michael Specter: Irrational rejection of science threatening our lives

Michael Specter, staff writer at The New Yorker, tells the McGill Reporter that there is an increasing trend among people to reject scientific truths - and this rejection could have disastrous results.
On Oct. 28, Michael Specter, staff writer at The New Yorker, will deliver the lecture Denialism: Running from Reality, as part of the 2013 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium. / Photo courtesy of Michael Specter.
On Oct. 28, Michael Specter, staff writer at The New Yorker, will deliver the lecture Denialism: Running from Reality, as part of the 2013 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium. / Photo courtesy of Michael Specter.

Information is the key to life. We want to know what to eat, how to protect our environment, what risks to avoid and what to do if illness strikes. But when it comes to acquiring information, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

It is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness. Newspapers, television, radio and of course the Internet bombard us with information at an unprecedented rate, but when it comes to scientific issues the quality of the information is variable. Television doctors entice us with claims of breathtaking breakthroughs, global warming is hotly debated, evolution is questioned and the peer-reviewed literature, our supposed gold standard, brims with flawed studies.

The challenge is to separate fact from folly, foolishness from wisdom. The 2013 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium aims to do just that. Our four invited speakers have all forged stellar careers based on separating the wheat from the chaff and will explore diverse areas of science as they answer the common question, “Is that a fact?”

As part of the Symposium, on Oct. 28, Michael Specter, staff writer at The New Yorker, will deliver the lecture “Denialism: Running from Reality,” in which he will discuss why people reject certain important scientific findings and the serious repercussions of this rejection. 

Specter will be sharing the podium with Dr. Eugenie Scott, who will deliver the lecture “Ban, Balance and Belittle: Teaching Evolution and Anthropogenic Climate Change.” 

Oct. 28, 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.; Centre Mont-Royal (1000 Sherbrooke West). Free admission, no reservations are required. For more information on the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium, click here. You can also call 514-398-2852 or send an email.

Today, in a world backed by data and objective scientific studies, why do you feel that more and more people are rejecting (and denying) scientific truths?

To some degree we are victims of our own success. People are only able to challenge the safety of vaccines because they have rarely seen the diseases vaccines prevent. Measles killed 160,000 people in the world last year, but we don’t know that in American or Canada. Our food is now so safe that it seems to many people that genetically engineered crops are some radical new and scary development; in fact, they are simply an extension and broadening of what farmers have done for ten thousand years.

It is also true that we live in a world that has more serious doubt about authority than perhaps ever before, and with some reason. So the announcement of a new g.e. food product or a study that says drugs work and vitamin pills don’t is often dismissed as public relations for big corporations.

Finally, we do not study statistics, and children have no sense, growing up, of the risks and benefits of problems. They talk about risks but never whether the risk is one in seven, or one in seventy million.

To what do you attribute the power of (Dr.) Oz?

First, he is a very articulate, compelling and empathetic man. No question. More than that though, people want to believe there are simple solutions to complex problems and that by simply taking a pill they can prevent Alzheimer’s or cure diabetes. Oz plays into that desire.

There is a lot of controversy about animal rights and the treatment of animals. What is your opinion of PETA’s activities?

PETA is extreme and when they say that no animal should be used in any way by humans – as seeing eye dogs, or food or to test dangerous drugs – I have to disagree. That doesn’t mean we can abuse animals though, and PETA has helped raise awareness about that fact that millions of animals raised on factory farms are mistreated horrifically every day. And that is a great service.

In your book, Denialism, you suggest that irrational thinking threatens our lives. How so?

Well, if you take vitamin pills instead of drug, depending on your ailment, it can kill you (as it killed hundreds of thousands of South Africans when Thabo Mbeki, insisting that Western medicine was a plot, refused to support the use of antiretroviral in the treatment of HIV). And if we keep rejecting the tools of science, we will never grow enough crops to feed the 9.5 billion people who will inhabit the earth within the next forty years. Climate change is another area where pretending that nothing is wrong will have devastating impacts.

It is obvious that those who are in the market of producing and selling organic foods see their benefits. What benefits, if any, are there for the public?

It depends where you are. I am not in any way opposed to organic food; it can taste better, and it is often local (and thus helps support local farmers). But it is far more expensive and uses, in general, more land and water. And when when people talk about how organic food is better for the earth or our health I have to say, really? Show me some convincing data. Because I do not believe it exists.



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Steve Michaels
10 years ago

I am afraid the denialist here is the author himself. Why does he choose to only mention the supposed plethora of science which supports his cause and yet ignore the debate. No REAL scientifically minded individual would ever argue that the science on anything is “settled” because real science is a road not a destination. It is a search for answers and those answers change as new knowledge is discovered. Let’s just take one issue… climate change. It has been confirmed and reconfirmed that there has been ZERO warming since 1998, yet we were told in the early 2000’s that… Read more »

Ray Tomalty
10 years ago

I quite agree that science is a road, not a destination and that it’s very important to take a critical look at information we absorb to assess whether it’s credible or not. The International Panel on Climate Change groups the worlds top climate scientists from dozens of countries and works on a consensus basis. Its recent report says that climate change is happening and that many changes are already visible in the world, including some of things you claim are not happening (like rising sea levels, dramatically reduced polar sea ice, receding glaciers, etc.). In terms of the temperature changes,… Read more »