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Leonard Lopate’s Unfortunate Denialism

November 23rd, 2009 Posted in Blog | 8 Comments
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This morning I appeared on  The Leonard Lopate Show, which I have always enjoyed – both as a listener and as a guest.  I was there to talk about my book, Denialism, and Mr. Lopate turned out to be vigorously opposed to my thesis – that Americans who reject the scientific method are causing harm to themselves and to the planet. He said on the air that he has a child who became seriously ill soon after having been vaccinated – and he remains unconvinced by the many studies (involving more than two million children) which have found no connection between vaccination and autism. As a father I can imagine nothing more distressing than watching a healthy child fall suddenly ill –  without an explanation or a cure. But the argument that vaccines cause autism is not only dangerous, it is deadly.  When we cling to personal beliefs – no matter how understandable they may be – in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we are in denial. And that denialism has profound consequences for society. Unfortunately, vaccination was not the only issue about which Mr. Lopate rejected scientific fact in favor of personal assumptions: his condemnation of genetically engineered food was another prominent example. He even tried to suggest that improvements in health and longevity were the cause of the population explosion in the developing world (which is literally the opposite of the truth: as a society becomes healther and better educated family size shrinks dramatically. It is one of the basic truths of demography.)  Leonard Lopate is a terrific radio host and it was a fascinating conversation. It was also, I am sad to say, a textbook example of denialism in action (as are scores of the comments left on the show's web site by listeners.)

8 Comments to “Leonard Lopate’s Unfortunate Denialism”

  • Nelly says:

    Hi, not unfortunate at all!

    The Lopate show was great at showing how this stuff happens, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or even intellectual curiousity, its cultural. Lopate is the best interviewer in America, yet he has these ideas as well, such as the “organic” food thing. I love NPR, but I suspect that if you waltzed around a typical NPR station trumpeting how “organic” is the biggest con in the history of food (not to mention bad for the environment) you would be looking for work in short time.

    All communities, including the scienctific community itself, are rife with denialism.

    I am a Yank living in Europe, and unfortunately, Europeans, are even far less likely to embrace science than Americans, ideas are not challenged here at all, it was not what I expected. Its really amazing. The latest craze here is labelling everything, as if a label on a banana can actually help you to understand how it’s basic goodness, how it was farmed, and what the impact of eating it is…

    Heading to book store now, Specter,


  • I am listening to the interview now and commend you for not folding in the face of the otherwise delightful Lopate’s irrational views on vaccines. I have seen other interviewees buckle in his presence. You are principled and courageous and I hope that you do some extended interviews with the burgeoning skeptical community via podcasts. Thank you!

  • I am the author of three books, a journalist and the mother of a 22 year old with severe autism. And my body of work includes a piece in the New Yorker on an unrelated topic.

    At three years old, as the child of foreign correspondents, our son spoke English appropriately and had words and phrases in Spanish, Cantonese and Tagalog. Six months later he was nonverbal (and that is only part of the story). He still does not speak and entered a group home in August. When he was five, Yale University diagnosed Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, one of the hardest hitting forms of autism and took an enormous amount of data from us without offering much support, otherwise.The cause then was unknown and officially it remains so. As you might imagine I am not thrilled with what is all too often portrayed as “responsible” science.” I do not know if my son was vaccine injured or not. But it is a possibility I continue to research along with the possibility of his genetic suspectibility to other environmental toxins. The research of Dr. Maddy Hornig at Columbia University is included in what I study.

    Leonard Lopate’s debate with you this week was courageous.

    Please note that autism can be deadly as well – and with about one in 91 children and teenagers now affected, as reported by federal researchers – more will die as a result of autism. Individuals with autism can be unreasonably attracted to water. They drown. They suffer deep, deep frustration often due to childhood regression which can heartbreakingly make them aggressive. As the result of bio-medical interventions, based on exacting science, my son is now generally calm. But there was a time many years ago when I wondered if we would make it home alive from a trip to the supermarket.

    I am not in a denial mode but rather a searching one. Searching for answers scientists might have found years ago if they were not, for example, convinced that Bruno Bettelheim was correct.

  • Nick Levinson says:

    I agree with most off what you say on scienticity and medicine.

    The issue I still confront is when someone has an experience, a doctor hasn’t had it, no scientific research confirms the experience, and therefore the doctor concludes the person is wrong to rely on the experience.

    The doctor should be undecided, not convinced that until science proves otherwise all else is wrong. While the “unwashed masses” are often wrong, it’s not uncommon for research to confirm popular experience after scientists pooh-poohed it.

    Minor case in point: I found a very-short-term effect from sugar ingestion on my own energy level under limited circumstances.

    I’d also heard of a double-blind experiment on children disproving this. So I looked up peer-reviewed research a some years ago and found four studies. The oldest said yes, there’s an effect. The later three said no, no, and no. And my experience is not double-blinded.

    But none of the experiments resembled the circumstances leading to my experience, including major exhaustion before eating the 25-cent cake or whatever. At the time, I was volunteering on an hour of sleep a night and crashing once a week and doing this for months at a stretch and repeating over years. That’s unusual. I’m also more self-aware than many other people. That concept is only lately recognized, as a form of intelligence, with anything like scientific backing. The sugar’s effect on my body was two-step: my energy went up (I did more work) and then I seemed to fall asleep a little sooner after that. None of the scientific tests considered subjects’ self-awareness of work and sleep needs.

    (By the way, I don’t recommend sugar for staying awake. Insofar as food is relevant, eat something nutritious. And I identified 78 other factors to consider for staying awake. But that’s another matter.)

    Too many parents (and, it used to be and perhaps still is the case, sports coaches) think there’s a very-short-term sugar-energy correlation for us to reject it absolutely. (And maybe my experience can show parents that it isn’t important enough to matter anyway, if a child falls asleep sooner.) Most myths, as far as I’ve noticed, have some factual grounding. Science helps by narrowing down where that truth stands, but those experiments are often costly to run. Clinicians can help by not exaggerating the scientific findings.

    And doctors deserve sympathy for having to communicate a body of science to a patient in 2 minutes tops. But that’s why it’s important for us to find and rely on more sources, such as books and websites. I understand NIH scientists are being encouraged to contribute to Wikipedia. That’s a good step.

    We want the science. Much of it is brilliant. It’s the clinically overbroad application that undercuts the credibility of science itself among consumers who see white coats and don’t know which wearers are really good at pure science.

    Heard you interviewed on WNYC.



  • faye says:

    I just wanted to add that I did not think the treatment on WNYC was unfair.
    In fact, if you blinked you missed it. Leonard Lopate kept an even keel.
    His questions ie: what about girls and the vaccine that has now been improved on – (fair question)
    OR Is death the only measure of a vaccine that has untoward consequences (fair question)
    Both fair questions that Mr. Specter should be prepared to incorporate into the discussion.

    I was intrigued by Mr. Specter’s proposition that public health measures be extricated from the profit driven pharmaceutical companies that now do the R&D, testing & then relentless advertising of.

    That does have merit. And I was wondering if Mr. Specter has a model for that change.

    Science & technology have rendered both help & harm. Taking $$ out of the equation
    betters the chances for the former.

  • Lisa says:

    I did hear the interview and believe that Mr. Lopate became increasingly angry with you during the interview. He reacted to your assertion that you thought he was incorrect about specific items. Once it came to the issue of autism, and it became personal, he started it out by saying “this is something I DO know about” mostly in reaction to you having told him a few times he was incorrect about previous facts. It did become pretty personal and, I believe, rude. I think the content became secondary to the fact that he felt you were correcting him at times. He has gone off on previous guests on that same personal topic, but this was not just about autism.

  • Ellen says:

    I too heard the interview—uncomfortable but not surprising. Mr. Lopate really bones up on the topics his guests bring but too often he seems to be in competition with them for who knows more. His tone when he uses the word “well” before adding something to what a guest has said always sounds like “well, but…”. I too was glad you didn’t back down. Now and then, even the best interviewers should be reminded that while a provocative question now & then is a good thing, most of the time just encouraging the guest to elaborate about her/his passion is sufficient for a fine show.

  • Stefanie says:

    Thank you for this. He's STILL doing it five years later – giving air time to John Kennedy Junior and then saying things on his coverage of the recent NOVA special on Vaccines that make no sense.  At what point can people let go of something they decided to be true? The science was disproven years ago.  And the rise in the numbers of diagnosed cases of autism has much more to do with the new criteria for diagnosis.  I have a sister born in 1962 who was diagnosed as mentally retarded. As we were taking family histories while getting my son's  autism diagnosis it became clear that she has autism, not some general developmental disability.  With a wider spectrum, comes larger numbers.
    I am so angry that otherwise intelligent and educated people cannot look at science and reason and make sense of what is their fear (a vaccine is going to trigger a regression) and something they decided was true because of correlative circumstances.  

    I had a vague awareness of the vaccine thing from the media and am so angry now that it gave me even one second of worry about my son – who is AMAZING and wonderful and autistic.  And I am angry that parents continue to fake the religious exemption and skip out on vaccines because I have another son with liver autoimmune disease and he can't get vaccinated any more, and he has to take medication that suppresses his immune system. 
    Leoard Lopate's denialism isn't just unfortunate, again and again he is abusing his media position, on a network that is known for fair and well vetted journalism. It's a disgrace. 
    Thank you for this article.   

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