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My recent discussion on NPR’s Science Friday about Denialism

January 25th, 2010 Posted in Blog | 3 Comments

Last Friday I talked about "Denialism" on NPR's Science Friday show with Ira Flatow.  After a while Ira took calls and the first person on the air provided a dramatic, and completely unwitting demonstration of what denialism really means. She was a woman who believed that abortion is wrong and science could help her prove it. Fair enough. But when I asked what she would do if science helped prove her theories make no sense (as in my estimation it has)  the scientific method no longer seems so terribly essential to here.  You can find a link to the discussion here, and also on my appearances page. –

I spoke with The Book Bench at the New Yorker about Denialism

December 18th, 2009 Posted in Blog | No Comments

Leonard Lopate’s Unfortunate Denialism

November 23rd, 2009 Posted in Blog | 8 Comments

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.)

Boston Globe Review of “Denialism” By Anthony Doerr

November 15th, 2009 Posted in Blog | 1 Comment

“There has been no more volatile subject in American medicine for the past decade than the safety of vaccines, ’’ writes New Yorker contributor Michael Specter in his searing new book, “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.’’

The most compelling chapter elegantly traces how, despite numerous studies confirming a lack of association between vaccinations and autism, anguished parents of children with the disorder continue to insist the two are linked. There’s no doubt that the concerns of a parent with an autistic child are valid and wrenching, Specter says. But there’s also no doubt, statistically speaking, that parents who choose not to vaccinate their children put their children (and potentially their neighbors’ children) at greater risk of contracting diseases.

As diseases like measles and polio regain ground among the unvaccinated in the United Kingdom and northern Nigeria, respectively, and as many of us in the United States debate whether to inoculate our children against H1N1, the debate over vaccinations continues to be as relevant as ever.

Specter sees denialists everywhere, not only in the antivaccine movement. “Attacks on progress have become routine,’’ he writes. Denialism proposes an odd synthesis, arguing that parents who reject vaccinations, people who promote alternative medicine, politically correct doctors who refuse to investigate race as a diagnostic tool, and activists who oppose genetically modified crops are linked in a conspiracy against science.

“Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,’’ Specter writes, “or you don’t.’’ It’s hard to argue with that. I was surprised, though, that he includes only a paragraph on creationists, who have to be the prototypical denialists. Nor does he spend more than a few sentences on the confused souls who refuse to believe that humans have affected the global climate. Perhaps he feels that territory already is well covered.

My misgivings aside, “Denialism’’ is a firestorm of a book, a broadside against anyone who would wish to hold back science out of fear. “Denialism is a virus,’’ Specter writes, “and viruses are contagious.’’ Specter argues that in every case tangible benefits outweigh theoretical harms, even in fields like synthetic biology, which has the potential both to deliver breathtaking answers for the world’s fuel requirements and to reduce the planet, in Prince Charles’s words, to “grey goo.’’

“We are either going to embrace new technologies, along with their limitations and threats,’’ Specter says, “or slink into an era of magical thinking.’’ What if we could generate genome-based, truly personalized medicine? What if we could eradicate malaria altogether? What if we could engineer a “super bee’’ that would be more resistant to the honeybee’s most lethal assailants?

Specter’s most important point is his most irresistible one. The only thing scarier than new technologies is refusing to have a healthy, informed, and civil discussion about them.

Anthony Doerr is the author of “The Shell Collector,’’ “About Grace,’’ and “Four Seasons in Rome.’’

Blogginheads TV on ‘Denialism” with Chris Mooney

November 15th, 2009 Posted in Blog | No Comments

 Blogginheads TV Conversation with Chris Mooney about Denialism, Nov 12, 2009

Synthetic Biology: Why Not Pursuing Crazy Biotechnology is Dangerous (an interview with Gizmodo)

November 14th, 2009 Posted in Blog | No Comments

Slate Dialogue about “Denialism” with Chris Mooney

November 12th, 2009 Posted in Blog | No Comments

Read it here:

Organic food, genetically engineered food, world hunger, science and me – a mini mission statement.

November 11th, 2009 Posted in Blog | 3 Comments

Now that I have spoken about "Denialism"  on a few radio and television broadcasts, it has become clear that certain questions and comments arise with regularity. Nothing seems to enflame people more than my assertion – conviction really – that we need to use the tools of biotechnology to address the problem of world hunger; more than that, I believe those same tools can help us cope with the rapidly growing population of the earth –  within 40 years this planet will have to feed 9 billion people, half again as many as we have today. 

I address these issues at length in the book, but for those who see a snippet on television or catch a summary in a review let me just be categorical:  I am not opposed to organic food, nor do I see genetically engineered food as a panacea for the problems of the developing world. I buy organic food myself – because I think it tastes good and I live in the part in the rich West where cost is not an issue. I prefer local to organic and while they are often confused, they are not always the same thing. I do not think animals should be raised on hormones and antibiotics and certainly don't think we should eat them if they have been.  To be honest, though, I am not as preoccupied with the culinary obsessions of America as I am with the growing hunger that persists in the developing world.

That a billion people go to bed hungry every night – a number that is growing -is one of the abiding scandals of our time. Can genetically altered food make that problem disappear? Of course not. We need good government, less corruption, training, roads, and above all, ample clean water. But I do believe that biotechnology is one of the tools we must employ. Next Monday, the world leaders will come together in Rome for a World Summit on Food Security. As they have before, they will talk about the best way to eliminate hunger. There will be plenty of people screaming that genetically engineered food will kill us all. And plenty will scream back that without that food the developing world won't survive.

Isn't it time to stop shouting into the wind and work together to create a sustainable world that can feed its inhabitants? Let us rely on data and experience to help figure out the best way to do that. Any other approach is bound to fail.

My Mistake and an Apology to Paul Offit

November 8th, 2009 Posted in Blog | 1 Comment

There is nothing more important to me than accuracy, and there is no place in my book, "Denialism," where I tried harder to avoid careless mistakes than in the chapter called "Vaccines and the Great Denial."  I didn't succeed, though, and I want to make sure readers are aware of that. In a section describing the origin and workings of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program I quote extensively from an article in The New England Journal of Medicine written by Dr. Paul Offit, the well-known vaccine researcher.  At one point in my narrative (which begins on page 88 of the book) however, I stopped quoting Dr. Offit in order to explain, in my own words, the meaning of some of the medical terminology he had employed. I then returned to Dr. Offit's  description of why the court was created and how it works, and should have gone back to quoting from the NEJM article, but did not. It was an accidental oversight which I will correct as soon as new copies of the book are printed. I told Dr. Offit about the mistake as soon as I realized I had made it, and, as always, he was gracious. But I also wanted to make readers aware of the error, which I regret.

NPR Weekend Edition with Scott Simon

November 8th, 2009 Posted in Blog | 5 Comments

At last count more than hundred people have posted comments about my interview this weekend with Scott Simon on NPR.  Many of those responses have supported the assertions I make in "Denialism, " others have criticized me with great vigor and still others, it seems, would serve as examples of  the problems of denialism the book attempts to describe. Issues like vaccination, the proper role of organic food in feeding the world, and the use of vitamins and supplements certainly do seem to get under people's skin.