Michael Specter

DENIALISM by Michael Specter

VTR Date: June 20, 2010

GUEST: Michael Specter


GUEST: Michael Specter
AIR DATE: 04/17/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today, New Yorker Magazine journalist Michael Specter, has recently written a Penguin Press book whose full title signals every bit how provocative it is: Denialism – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives”.

Of course, to me Denialism has
about it much of that wonderfully learned, literate attack on paranoid thinking and anti-intellectualism that my late friend and teacher, historian Richard Hofstadter decades ago brought to his writings about American history.

For it seems to me that our national scene has long been debased by an egregiously backwards-looking denial of data-driven, evidence-based public policy in economics, ethics, education and other crucial areas … as well as science, which so intrigues my guest.

But perhaps I ought first today ask Michael Specter just how native to Americans he believes Denialism is.

SPECTER: It’s a good question. I think it is somewhat native to Americans because it’s … goes hand-in-hand with our individualistic streak.

We don’t want to be told what to do. We don’t want to hear from authority that there’s a certain way of understanding of something. And we’ve seen it for years. I in no way intend for people to think that this is a completely new phenomenon.

What I do think is that’s it’s become more dangerous and more powerful. And often we don’t think about it or know it.

HEFFNER: When you say “more dangerous”, “more powerful” … to what do you attribute that?

SPECTER: A lot of things. One of them is the Internet or the ability for lots of people to communicate easily in many ways.

So first of all, I should just say, for those who don’t know … denialism is denial writ large … it’s when a group, a society, a part of society, just refuses to accept the truth, when reality just isn’t acceptable to them.

In … first … individuals … we’re all in denial once in a while. It’s fine. It’s normal.

But when society does it, it isn’t and there are really harmful consequences.

And we’re starting to see those in a number of areas … particularly in the scientific areas, I believe.

HEFFNER: But why, why do you attribute it to communications? Because that’s essentially what you’re doing.

SPECTER: That’s one reason. Another is that in some ways we are a victim of our own scientific success. People are anxious about the future. This isn’t the first time that’s ever happened. And we are constantly worried about things for which there isn’t really any basis to be worried. Vaccine being the most obvious case.

The H1N1 flue virus that has been going around has already killed thousands of people. It’s not as virulent as people had thought it would be, but it’s killing thousands and it will kill thousands more. And we have a vaccine that 40% of Americans refuse to take.

Now that just seems very disheartening to me. Because that is a vaccine like all flu vaccines we’ve ever had … completely … it’s a safe as any vaccine is. And no medical intervention is 100% safe for everyone, forever. That’s … that’s just … you don’t get 100% in biology. But you get close. And this vaccine is close enough to be a remarkable, remarkable medical intervention that people are refusing to take.

HEFFNER: do you think that science and I’m not now talking about the vaccines …


HEFFNER: … this one or others …

SPECTER: Well, yes …

HEFFNER: … to which, as your book points out … there’s a giant movement …


HEFFNER: … against vaccinations. To the detriment of great many young and older people.

SPECTER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: But do you think that … in a sense science is at frontiers now that might make …


HEFFNER: … any sane person …


HEFFNER: … a little bit afraid.

SPECTER: Yes. I do. I think we are at a point, with our abilities to manipulate human life and to manipulate the constituents of life … that are both unbelievably exciting and genuinely scary. I mean we can make organisms now. We can do things that will power vehicles and turn into drugs that we can create cheaply to treat a lot of people. But we’re also making organisms that can independently survive. And that’s science fiction and it’s real now. And we’re on the verge of doing these things at a time when it’s a very, it’s very difficult for us to feel comfortable with that. And I understand that.

And there’s a lot of reasons. One is that we don’t understand science very well in this country.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that.

SPECTER: So … well, our … you know if you look at the science education statistics from, say, 15 years ago, we were okay … we were up near the top.

Since then we’ve been flailing about in this country … when I say “we”, I mean high school students … China, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan … there all like this (makes gesture) … they’re all rocketing up. You know you don’t’ have to be a genius to see where, where we’re moving.

You don’t stay technologically supreme by not preparing your society for the future. And that’s what is happening now. And it’s scary.

HEFFNER: Do you think that because we’re not learning enough about science we’re increasingly afraid of it?

SPECTER: Yes, I do. Because we’re unable to judge risk. I mean a lot of what I write about here is, is really risk assessment. And people say, “Gee, a vaccine could harm me, they could harm my child.” They don’t say, “What is the statistical chance? Or what is the chance that the kid will be harmed if you don’t have a vaccine?”

We get in cars every day. Cars kill 50,000 Americans. We still get in them. Everything we do has a risk. Every single thing. And if we all took two aspirin right now in this country, every American … 500 people would die this afternoon.

It doesn’t mean we should get rid of aspirin. 12 billion aspirin pills were swallowed in America last year. It’s a great drug. It does mean there are risks to everything we do. And we tend to expect some sort of perfection now. And perfection, unfortunately, we still haven’t nailed.

HEFFNER: Now, again, responsibility. Tell me again …


HEFFNER: … what you think has happened to us. You say one thing is that we know less, comparatively speaking about science …


HEFFNER: I suppose than we did before? Certainly that others do now.

SPECTER: Well, there’s a couple things. One is, I think we oversold our ability to do things wonderfully.

I grew up at a time when we were going to cure hunger and cure cancer and if there was a water shortage, we would take salt out of the sea and make that potable. Land masses wouldn’t be a problem, you could move wherever you wanted. These things have not happened by and large. We have been promised all sorts of stuff by leaders, by journalists like myself … that have been hyped.

And so because we have promised so much I think we are now in a sort of reactionary phase where we don’t accept anything even when it is real. That’s one problem.

Another is that we’re not the same society we used to be with regard to authority. We don’t just accept authority and that’s a terrific thing. We should be skeptical this … you know … this has started … you could say at Watergate or before … the Ford Pinto … there are many examples of us … of this country being told one thing and blatantly then finding out that we were lied to.

So, over the years, I think that has made us suspicious of our leaders, our corporate leaders, our medical leaders and our political leaders. And when someone comes out and says, “take this drug, it’s good for you”. Or do this or do that, it’s good for you. Or eat this kind of food, it’s healthy and it’s cheap.

The default position for many people is to say, you know, “No way. You’re a liar. I don’t trust you.” And that’s completely unlike the way it used to be. And again, all in all for the better, but possibly this pendulum has now swung so far that we can’t accept good advice when we see it, so millions of people refuse to take a vaccine that couldn’t be safer.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you press this point. Because I have to say that in the last year or so I’ve been terribly much aware and I’ve been around a long, long time so I can take a couple year periods and multiply them …

SPECTER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I felt as discouraged about the nature of human nature as in these last couple of years, in terms of every time I pick up The New York Times. Every time I pick up The Wall Street Journal. Any time I pick up any story about some one doing something … one of those authorities that you refer to. So is it so strange?

SPECTER: I don’t think it’s so strange. I’m not saying that it’s … I don’t think Denialism comes from no roots. I write in the book abut the Vioxx case. Vioxx was a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, sold by Merck that was going to be a miracle drug. And it seemed as if it was. It would be something that people with arthritis could take so that they wouldn’t have pain, so that they wouldn’t have the terrible distress of taking aspirin and other drugs that you can only take so long in great quantities.

And it did seem like a miracle. Until it started killing people. And it killed 55,000 Americans according to the FDA. That’s as many soldiers as died in Vietnam. That’s horrible.

And so …and they knew it. They knew that there were cardiovascular risks to this drug. And they sold it. And they sold the hell out of it. It was the most heavily advertised drug in American history until Viagra came along.

Now, when you know a story like that you should be a little skeptical when a pharmaceutical company says, “Hey, we got a great new drug for you.” That’s completely understandable. But we need to have institutions we trust. If we had an FDA we fully trusted and I think we’re moving back in that direction, at least in terms of the quality of their work, then we could take a drug that was approved by the FDA. Because we don’t believe in our institutions, it’s very difficult to draw the line these days. I don’t fully blame people; I just think it’s troublesome.

HEFFNER: Well, but your book does more than say, “it’s troublesome”. Come on, you know that. I mean this is a rip-roaring, snorting book. And the sub-title, “How irrational thinking hinder scientific progress, harms the planet and threatens our lives” … now you’re going to tell me you didn’t write the sub-title?

SPECTER: I wrote every word. I am not saying that this isn’t true. All I’m saying is I think there are reasons for it that are understandable. It doesn’t make it okay.

It doesn’t make it okay for legions of people to misunderstand the way we grow food so that they protest genetically engineered food as if it were any molecularly different than any other type of food. And prevent starving people, literally, in Africa … a billion people go to bed hungry every night in this world, from having the type of food that would add nutrients, would add protein, would add vitamins to what they have in the ground.

And they don’t have a situation that we have at the Union Square Market in New York or in Berkeley or in Islington.

They don’t have fancy food. They have drought. They have terrible conditions and they need science to help and they’re not getting it.

So, yeah, I totally stand by what I wrote. I think it’s true. I just need, I think we need to focus on the reasons and deal with those reasons.

HEFFNER: Okay, let’s go back to the reasons. Authority that’s …

SPECTER: That’s one.

HEFFNER: …that’s reliable.

SPECTER: Yeah. Another one is our own success. And again, when it comes to … we can look at vaccines, we can look at cheap food.

I mean calories are so cheap right now, that it’s cheaper to get junk food than it is to get good food. Way cheaper. No one really needs to go hungry in this country. And though there are people who do, very few do. So we don’t think about a calorie, what it means, how to get it, what’s the best way to get it. I mean we’re seeing the effects of that everywhere we turn in epidemics of obesity. Epidemics of diabetes. That are killing our people

I mean we’re a country that’s dying of our success. We’re not … those, those aren’t disease of, of deprivation. They’re diseases of too much. And we shouldn’t have those diseases. And we shouldn’t be just complete slaves to a medical system that thrives on the fact that we have those diseases. And that’s happened.

HEFFNER: Much here is about fear.


HEFFNER: Much in this book is about fear. How do you diminish that fear?

SPECTER: Well, education is one thing. Talking … this is going to sound trite and old. We should have conversations about these things. You know, the food fight that exists in the United States over organic food and genetically engineered food … I don’t call it “genetically modified food” because all the food we eat is genetically modified. There’s no food that hasn’t, over thousands of years, been bred in different ways.

Cantaloupes weren’t in the Garden of Eden, tangerines weren’t there. Rice wasn’t there. Corn wasn’t there. We made those foods. Now we’re making food in a more precise way and there are great benefits to that. There are also greater risks.

And we need to talk about both things. And we need to talk about it for the future, too, because we need science. We have done some harm to this society and to this planet and we need to try to fix it.

Science is not and never has been and I’m pretty sure it never will be a panacea, but I don’t think we can get where we need to go without science. And people are so afraid that they think turning back, turning inward, looking at something that’s “the good old days” is better.

The “good old days” were horrible. I, I’m hoping to live in … to my mid-eighties, I think that’s fair. My grandparents lived to when they were in their sixties. Their grandparents lived ‘til they were in their forties.

That’s remarkable. That’s not that long ago and it’s, it’s not luck. It’s science.

HEFFNER: Threatens our lives.

SPECTER: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: That’s what the irrational thinking …

SPECTER: Surely.

HEFFNER: Is doing. Okay, what steps would you take?

SPECTER: Well, one of the things that I, I argue for is a national conversation on the future of genetically engineered plants, but also synthetic biology, making new organisms from constituent chemicals of life.

We need for people to understand how this works, what the dangers are, and what the benefits are. And by the way, those questions aren’t fully answered. And they need to be asked and to some degree answered before we should move ahead.

But what is moving ahead mean? If we could make cheap sources of energy that did not spew carbon into the, into the atmosphere. If we could make it easy to make in different places so we didn’t have to transport it all around, we didn’t have take our food stocks out of the ground to do it, as we do with biofuels … I believe that would be seen by many people as a valuable contribution.

And we can do that. It’s not impossible, but we have a lot of work to do. And people don’t understand that.

HEFFNER: Are you saying that you believe we can do that within the context of our present science-for-profit system?

SPECTER: Yeah. We already are doing it. If you’re asking can we do it at the scale that is necessary to power this country or the world? It’s a good question. I’m not sure.

I don’t think we’re going to change our fundamental system of profit and that is, sometimes, a problem.

But when I look at energy issues I, I wonder why we’re not rushing into the future. Because we have a jobs problem. We take our money and we throw it at mostly countries we don’t do well with, so that we can buy their oil, so that we can pollute our world and cost ourselves endless amounts of money.

Why wouldn’t we want to shift to a cleaner environment, in our own country, where, yeah, profit would be a factor. There’s nothing wrong with it. I, I’ve never understood … even if, even if we weren’t destroying the earth … and we are … wouldn’t that make sense?

HEFFNER: As a writer? As a reporter? You, you’re always answering the “why”. And so when you raise those questions, I have to ask you why? What are your, what are your hypotheses?

SPECTER: About why we’re having the problem?


SPECTER: First of all, I never … I’ve never answered the why. If I did I’d be thrilled. But I can try.

One of the things that I think is happening now is that we don’t understand the world around us, in all sorts of subtle ways. And what do I mean by that?

You know, a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago if you were sitting at your table working, the things in your room would be things you understood, maybe things you made yourself.

Now we are surrounded, wholly surrounded by things we don’t really know how they work … I don’t know how a carburetor works. I don’t know how the Internet works. I … I know how the Internet works, but I … how does my information get to Pune, India in less than a tenth of a second? I can’t explain that technically to you. I’m fine with that, I am. But I think the accumulation of deficit of information, of us kind of not really having our finger on the pulse of the world around us, has made us very anxious and skittish and worried.

HEFFNER: And that … that’s going to go on.

SPECTER: It’s going to go on, but education would do a lot to make it less painful; education, dealing with authorities in a way that’s sensible.

I mean, you know, this, this vaccine thing … I hate to keep harping on it, but we can talk about we hate pharmaceutical companies … or where big “agra” is taking over the world.

The truth is, if you look at the data, if you look at information and you do not have to be a molecular biologist to do this, you can see when a vaccine is doing tremendous good.

Vaccines are the most effective public health intervention in the history of the world … except for clean water, there’s no debate about that. Hundreds of millions of lives have been saved. Even in the last century … tens of millions or more.

We eradicated small pox less than a hundred years ago. It’s an amazing feat. And because we have done so well, people just forget it.

HEFFNER: But I asked you the question about doing this within the context of our for-profit system …


HEFFNER: … because all of the progress that you talk about … who would deny it, who would gainsay it? So important, but then that one incident, that other incident and the third … that make me afraid of the people who are doing the things you’re talking about.

SPECTER: Well, again, I’m not afraid … when I look at sort of the cutting edge research that’s going on in synthetic biology, it’s going on at Berkeley … the Secretary of Energy was running Lawrence Livermore Labs … he was one of the biggest proponents of these things. These are public entities … public entities around this country are working on these issues, so are private companies. I don’t have a problem with that. If you’re talking about … do I feel comfortable that a Merck or a Monsanto has so much power and that they can sway the market …

HEFFNER: Yes. You seem to be of two minds here.

SPECTER: I am of two minds. But I will say this, we can deal with that. People don’t understand that science isn’t a company. It’s not a country. It’s not a political ideology. It’s a way of observing life, experimenting on things, seeing if they work, repeating it if they do or don’t and moving forward. And adapting our behavior based on the results. That’s not a company.

Now if we don’t like the way someone uses a technology, we have politics, we have the ability to change that. It’s not that hard. It absolutely isn’t. And in fact, the Obama Administration is now looking into the seed ownership patterns of large “agra” businesses. What they’ll find I don’t know. But those things … you know, when I talk about genetically engineered food, people almost always say, “big companies own it all and there are so many chemicals.”

Big companies owning it all seems to me, in this country, a legitimate issue. Chemicals … genetically engineered food, especially if you look in India, you look in China, since the introduction of those crops, we have seen pesticide poisonings plummet, suicides in India plummet. Income raising in the firms. Hundreds of millions of gallons of less insecticide use.

If you asked an organic activist to draw a list of the things that he or she most would want for sustainable future, if they didn’t know that genetically engineered food existed, they’d write that down. But because it exists, it’s evil.

And by way, even that is changing. Even that … even Greenpeace which is the biggest enemy of genetically engineered food that has ever existed have made some comments recently that may be golden rice, which is rice that has been engineered to contain vitamin A and could save the sight of millions of people, just by eating it in the Third World … maybe that’s acceptable. Took ten years to get there, but they’re kind of suggesting that it’s possible.

HEFFNER: How well are people in other countries doing with this matter of “denialism”?

SPECTER: Well, I’m not an expert everywhere. I, I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe.


SPECTER: And I think that’s a big problem. It’s a big problem with the food issue. Vaccine issue is problem in England, I can’t speak to very many other countries about the vaccine issue. But I will tell you this … when it comes to vaccine rates … for measles … in the world, even though 160,000 kids died … people died of measles last year, the vaccine rates are rising all across the world.

There are two principle places where that isn’t true. The United States and Europe. And that to me is one of the great disgraces of modern medicine. That we are actually having a worse vaccine rate now, for things like measles than, than in countries like Ghana. And you see the evidence in Southern California … there are places where 40% of the kids don’t get vaccinated for measles. They’re going to get measles. And eventually kids are going to die of measles because it’s just a numbers game.

HEFFNER: So what are we going to do? Here we are …

SPECTER: We’re going to talk about this …

HEFFNER: … we’ve got “Denialism” a book that should scare the bejesus out of us …

SPECTER: Well, I think if you talk about these issues … you know … one of the things people have said about my book is “you’re preaching to the choir”. And there’s some truth to that, but I want the choir to go out and talk. I think what we need to do is talk. People are often afraid. When you look at people who are sort of relying on organic food … there’s a hard core kind of religion, but, but I’m not talking about them.

I’m talking about the millions of other people who eat it regularly … they want the world to be clean. They want a sustainable future. They want their family and themselves to eat healthy food. They need to have a conversation and understand that this does not interfere with that. This is a part of that and furthermore, what we can do in a country as rich as ours is not what can happen in Africa.

In 30 years from now we’re going to need 70% more food on this planet than we do now. As far as I know, maybe my math is bad, there’s two ways to get more food.

You grow more food on the land that you’re growing food on or you use more land. We’ve already pretty much raped the world, the land. We can cut down more rain forests. I don’t think that’s a solution anybody embraces.

There are ways to grow more food on land that are healthy and safe. And we need to do that. And we need to really pay attention to doing it now.

HEFFNER: The Malthusians and their specter that we’ll kill ourselves off before we improve that situation … hasn’t proved …

SPECTER: They’ve always been wrong.

HEFFNER: And the people who are afraid of Frankensteins? What’s, what’s your fix?

SPECTER: Well … education … talking …understanding why they’re afraid. Because there are reasons to be afraid. But the Malthusians … you know for hundreds of years there have been people saying “We’re not going to have enough food to feed the planet. We’re not going to do it … people are going to die … millions are going to die.”

HEFFNER: It’s what you just said.

SPECTER: No. What I said is we need to understand that we need to do this. We’re going to do it. We’re going to understand it. We’re going to make the food that we need and people are going to be able to grow it and eat it.

We already have about 30 new genetically engineered products that are going to come on line in the next five years. Things like casaba … casaba is eaten by hundreds of millions of people. It’s just a bunch of calories. It has no protein, it has no micronutrients, it has no vitamins. Scientists are engineering all of that into casaba.

So if you’re here, here in Africa and you can’t get a fancy meal or any meal and you have to subsist on that, you won’t die. And you wont’ go blind. And there’s all sorts of work being done on edible vaccines. We’re on the verge of great things.

HEFFNER: So Michael Specter, as we end the program you’re telling me … I don’t have to be quite so afraid of Denialism as your book makes me afraid of it.

SPECTER: No. I think you need to be incredibly vigilant. I think we have a real problem. But I, I believe we can solve it and we will solve it … by having conversations.

HEFFNER: I like that. And I’m glad we’ve had this conversation, Michael Specter.


HEFFNER: Thanks.

SPECTER: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.