Denialism: Science and Public Debate

I’ve just come across the name of Michael Specter.  He has received some attention lately because of his book Denialism.  In the following video, Specter explains why he didn’t include the Global Warming issue in his book.  He said that it’s too complex of an issue and so requires more than just a chapter in a book.  I’d argue back that complex issues are precisely where his argument is weakest.  The allegation of “denialism” implies that it is always or usually clear who is doing the denying and that some people are intellectually above such cognitive weaknesses and failings.  Basically, what Sepcter leaves out is the psychological insight about how and why people think the way they do.

I noticed this review of Michael Specter’s book Denialism.

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Battling the Skeptics by Darshak Sanghavi

Science utopians can be touching in their naïveté, much like high school chemistry whizzes who try to figure out why the popular kids never pay them any attention. But they fail to appreciate a salient point: scientists may get how the atoms of the universe combine, but they’re often dweebs in the real world. In any event, there are two ways to deal with scientific illiteracy: take a long, hard look at the forces that repel so many from science, or throw up your hands and write people off as fools.

Michael Specter, a science and public health writer for The New Yorker, shows little interest in the first approach in his pugnacious new book, “Denialism,” which carries the ominous subtitle “How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” He devotes chapters to anti-­vaccine zealots, purveyors of organic foods, promoters of alternative medicines and opponents of race-based medicine, accusing each group of turning “away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

[…] But Specter isn’t much interested in the roots of denialism, much less in engaging productively with it. While his book brims with passion and many interesting facts, he repeatedly pulls rabble-rousing tricks — this in a book that accuses others of forgoing rational debate — and his annoyance is rarely focused.

[…] Specter used to be a denialist himself. […] Here, Specter could have explored how even a prestigious science writer like himself was seduced by the highly unlikely possibility that coffee enemas might cure pancreatic cancer. (After all, the flip side of denialism is faith, which isn’t always bad.) But rather than attempting to ­understand his former fellow denialists, he pushes them out of reasoned conversation, declaring, “Denialism is a virus, and viruses are contagious.”

[…] In his haste to sort people into two bins — either scientifically enlightened or in denial — Specter overlooks an important trend: for better or worse, people are more skeptical of authority than they used to be and want to think for themselves, which includes grappling with the minutiae of science. Not so long ago, for example, patients rarely questioned doctors before undergoing surgery or taking their pills (for example, estrogen replacement therapy to prevent heart attacks), a blind obedience to authority that arguably cost many more lives than, say, vaccine refusal does now. What we are seeing is the democratization of science, not the rise of denialism. […] The list goes on. Specter has written a frustrated book about “denialism” but could just as well have described the hopeful signs of a new era.

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Specter sounds like he might be in the same camp as the new atheists.  My problem with this type of writing isn’t that some intelligent points aren’t made but rather the author’s attitude.  Calling someone (or a group of people) a “denialist” seems more polemical than helpful.  If used carefully and sparingly, it could be a useful term.  However, using it to dismiss those who disagree with you just contributes to the conflict.  The fact of the matter is that science is never black and white.

For example, I’m fine with labelling as a denialist someone who entirely denies Darwinism because they believe the Bible has greater authority than peer-reviewed science.  But I’m not fine with labelling as a denialist someone who argues against Darwinism by pointing out a scientifically plausible alternative theory.  Questioning Darwinism doesn’t a denialist make.  Intelligent public debate demands that people point out the weaknesses and unanswered questions of the prevailing paradigm.

Also, I’m not in favor of science being used to dismiss the everyday experience of people.  Scientific consensus shouldn’t be used to bludgeon people for disagreeing and to keep the public in line.  There are many things science can’t answer and scientists and new atheists should be more humble in the limits of present knowledge.  Most people have weird experiences such as UFOs and ghosts.  Even though science isn’t able to research such phenomena, doesn’t mean science can deny such experiences because then scientists would themselves fall into the trap of denialism.  Many things exist in the world that can’t be controlled in a lab that don’t happen on a regular enough basis to be predictably studied.  However, respectable people including scientists have observed many things that they can’t explain.  Anecdotal experience doesn’t prove anything, but many scientific discoveries begin with anecdotal experience.

Unsatisfying as it may be, there are always more questions than answers.  Some questions may seem stupid.  But if it weren’t for seemingly stupid questions, there would be a lot slower pace to the gaining of new scientific knowledge.

Anyways, scientists are as easily swayed by ideological beliefs and paradigmatic assumptions as the rest of us.  The power of science is in the overall scientific view that evolves over generations.  The underlying complaint that I sense from the new atheist types is that scientific progress is too slow, but I’m doubtbul that it can be speeded up to any great degree.  Scientific progress is dependent on even larger trends of social development.  And for scientific knowledge to develop science itself along with scientists will have to develop as well.

Some other related pieces:

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