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"Denialism" states author Michael Specter, "is denial writ large---when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie". The author proceeds to examine recent current events and issues to bolster his contention that some people, unreassured by the healthy and rigorous skepticism of scientific method, have rejected scientific evidence itself, thus lapsing into denialism. By examining the events around the removal of the anti-inflammatory medication Vioxx from the market, the current controversy about vaccines, what the author describes as the "organic fetish", the rise in popularity of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), and the flawed concept of race, Specter attempts to show that American gullibility and hostility to science are endangering our lives, our nation, and our planet.
I'm a family physician, and I face what Specter terms "denialism" on an everyday basis, both in the office and in general conversation. Whether speaking with Young Earth proponents that feel the planet is no more than a few thousand years old, parents that refuse immunizations for their children, people that won't take medication for their blood pressure or heart disease because they fear the side effects more than the disease, or doubters of global warming, I'm regularly faced with people across the spectrum of intelligence, and across the spectrum of religious or political belief, that are unable to interpret the facts that are beginning to impact them where they live. What I had hoped for, when I picked up this book, was an investigation into WHY otherwise well-meaning, often educated, responsible people take rigid stances on issues that are starkly at odds with the facts. Further, I hoped that solutions would be offered to help break through these barriers between well documented information and subsequent ability to act accordingly. Denialism left both hopes unfilled. The book thus becomes more of a wringing of the hands rather than a rolling up of the sleeves.
The book fails on several levels. First, the people most likely to read a book called "Denialism" are the scientific faithful. Being amongst that crowd, I'm as happy as the next guy or gal to be told that I'm right and they (the denialists) are wrong. But I already thought that, and I'm wondering how this book moves even a tiny step closer to those that we would like most to reach. Specter appears to have so much disdain for deluded souls that he might as well have titled his book "Stupidism". The marked tone of condescension virtually guarantees that the target audience that the author would like to reach will tune out within 20 pages. Secondly, I deal with many otherwise quite intelligent folk that run businesses, or hold other positions of high responsibility, but also ascribe to astrology, homeopathy,or cult religions. If such people were amenable to facts, they would have gotten the point long ago. Specter's solution to this is to attempt to bludgeon the "denialist" with page after page of facts. Whatever it is that is blocking the understanding of the "denialist", it is not access to facts or information. The blockage is most likely emotional, possibly based on fear, and one does not most effectively deal with emotional barriers by using facts as instruments of assault and battery.
In order to make my third and final criticism, I need to relate a short story. As I write this, there is a high level of anxiety about a duel epidemic of flu, traditional and H1N1, in my community. My wife is a teacher at a local middle school. In the teacher's lounge yesterday the topic was flu vaccines, both the traditional and the H1N1. All the old reasons for not getting the flu vaccinations surfaced: "I've never had the flu, why should I worry about it?" or "Last time I got the flu shot, I got the worst case of flu that I've ever had" or "This is a new vaccine, what if they got it wrong and it kills more people than it helps?". One teacher, struggling to make up her mind, turned to my wife and said "Are you going to get the flu shot?". My wife replied "I've never gotten a flu shot before, but this year, Dan (that would be me) is really worried about it, and he thinks I should get it. So yes. I'm going to." The teacher then announced "I know Dan, he's a good doc, he would NEVER recommend a flu shot for Cindy unless it was his very best guess that she should do it. That's enough for me. I'm going for it.". The point here is that trust is an essential companion to facts. And the truth is that the frequent divorces between science and wisdom, between science and ethics, between science and the environment have done tremendous harm to the trust science feels that it deserves. No knowledge comes without subsequent responsibility, and Denialism addresses this fact only weakly. PhD's in geology (oil and mineral technology), chemistry (pesticides, household products containing carcinogens, napalm, neurotoxins), pharmacy (don't get me started), physics (nuclear weapons) are granted with little, or more commonly, NO training in ethics. I have a deep respect for science, but science has to up its game if it wishes to regain lost trust. Denialism doesn't even begin to discuss how this might be done.
Ironic, is it not, that a book entitled Denialism appears to be in denial about the substantial damage that scientists themselves, through arrogance or unethical behavior, have done to the field of knowledge that appears to be our only route towards solving the enormous challenges mankind currently faces. The solution to denial will be a multi-factorial one, and involve movement of both sides toward each other, rather than a merciless beating down of the recalcitrant "denialist".
Lastly, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society is a very readable and interesting exploration of why the way a person thinks is not always congruent with the best information available. I found it illuminating.