Vashon Island, with its stunning views of the mountains and the Puget Sound, is an upscale rural community located just a short ferry ride from Seattle. Although many of the island's inhabitants are affluent commuters, it is known for a certain "off the grid" mentality that is characterized by an abundance of locally farmed organic produce and a prevalence of alternative medical practices, such as acupuncture and homeopathy. These aspects of life on Vashon, when combined with the fact, reported by the New York Times in 2002, that 20 percent of the island's parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children against childhood diseases -- such as measles, mumps and polio -- make the community a microcosm of what author Michael Specter describes as a particular form of scientific "denialism" in his recently published book, "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives."
In his book, he describes denialism as "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." According to Specter, the banning of genetically engineered foods, the anti-vaccination movement and the reluctance of the medical community to consider race as a determining factor in the genetic predisposition to certain diseases are all symptoms of denialism.
Specter is a staff writer for the New Yorker who covers the fields of science, technology and public health. He recently took some time to discuss his book with Real Change before his November 17 address to the World Affairs Council at University of Washington's Kane Hall.
One of the key terms in your book is that of progress, and the ways that certain beliefs or ideas that are often thought of as "progressive" may actually work to hinder progress. What is the relationship in our society between progress and denialism?
Well, progress has always been this thing that we strive for and I think we should strive for it. However, it's been sort of blindly seen as good and I think that we have come to realize that, pretty much since the 1950s, the idea of shimmering progress, of success in technology, success from medicine -- though we've had a lot of success, we've also had some pretty famous failures. It makes people think: Why are you promising us that you're curing cancer, you're fixing the environment, you're giving us healthy food, when in fact that's kind of untrue? That is one reason why denialism is allowed to breed: because people look at authority figures, at scientists, at government and they say, "You lied."
You write about the organic food movement and particularly the aversion to genetically modified foods. What are the implications of this movement with regard to global poverty and food shortage?
First of all, I say this in the book and it's true: I eat organic food, I live in the West, we're rich--
And it tastes better.
It does taste better I think, though some people have even challenged that. But the thing is, it's not a scientific distinction, it's an ideological distinction, and it ignores how we've raised food for 10,000 years. Now there are some real problems with genetically engineered foods involving monoculture and pesticides in the environment and that's also true with conventional agriculture, and what I say is: Let's fix the problems, let's not throw out the science. By the organic movement I don't mean everyone who buys organic food: I mean there's this almost religious sect and I think those people often, when they're upset about genetically modified foods, what they're really upset about are the multinational corporations that control those foods. That's not wrong. but it's not the same as being upset about the science. I mean, if we don't like Delta because it's a crappy airline, we don't decide that planes are bad and we shouldn't fly. But I didn't even answer your question.
The big issue for me is global poverty and we've got a billion people going to bed hungry every night and in 40 years that might be four billion. We're going to need 70 percent more food on this planet, and there's only two ways to grow more food: You can use more land or you can get more food out the land you've got. And I don't think that we can use more land unless we want to mow down the rain forests, so that means: Let's figure out how to get more food out of the land we've got. We can do that, and we can do it in a healthier way than we did it in the past, and it drives me crazy for people to sit on the West Coast and talk about vine-ripened tomatoes when Africans are eating cassava that has no nutrients or protein.
I think that one of the concerns that people have about the use of genetically engineered crops in developing countries is with regard to who owns the technology and if there is a way to promote self sustainability through agriculture. Do you believe these are legitimate concerns?
Yeah, they're absolutely legitimate, though I don't think they're as significant as most people say they are because I think that in the developing world, these giant companies, like Monsanto, don't want to have a monopoly there because there's no money to be made. With vaccines, for instance, we have this same situation. Pharmaceutical companies don't want to spend lots of money developing vaccines that people in Africa are going to use because they're not going to make any money. But the world's governments, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation and a bunch of other people are able to do that, so the idea that things could be patented -- and I could even argue that sometimes they should be, but I can see the problem there --these are issues that we should talk about and address rather than walk away from.
You write about the association of childhood vaccinations with the development of autism as an example of total misinformation becoming widely accepted as fact. What does this example teach us about the connection between access to accurate information and the spread of denialism?
Well, that's an interesting question because there is access to accurate information [that] overwhelmingly tells us that there's no correlation between vaccination and the development of autism. There's lots of reasons why you can understand that people would think that originally, because it often happens when you get your shots and it's heart breaking. But we've done so many studies in so many countries that show no difference in the rates of development, that I think it's sort of a willful desire to ignore the facts. And as much as I understand it, it ends up being very damaging to the very kids these parents are trying to protect -- plus everybody else's kids -- because vaccination isn't a private matter, it's a public health issue, and if enough kids don't get vaccinated then your kids are going to get sick.
Many people believe that the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. has been corrupted by the profit motive. What are your feelings about direct-to-consumer advertising, and the role of regulation and oversight with regard to pharmaceutical corporations?
I don't think there should be direct-to-consumer advertising. There's only direct-to-consumer advertising in this country and in New Zealand, and I think they're about to get rid of it in New Zealand. It encourages people to go in and demand costly and unnecessary medicine because you see things on TV that make the world sound wonderful if you just take this pill. It's not how medicine should be improved and discussed and it's caused a lot of damage and [cost]a lot of money.
The pharmaceutical industry is a complicated place. Yeah, they charge a lot of money because they are also businesses and as long as we allow them to be stockholder businesses, it's very hard to say, "Don't charge what you can get." We don't say that to Apple about their computers. I think the answer, again, is for your government and the public to get involved. In India you can make cheap drugs and they're good drugs, they're regulated drugs and they're intelligently fabricated, and there's no reason we can't do that. We don't have to spend 25 times as much per pill here as they do in Mumbai.
As science progresses in its understanding of the human genome, the role of race as a factor in determining genetic predisposition has become a highly controversial subject. What are the implications of this debate for effective medical diagnosis and treatment?
First of all, you're one of two people to ask this question. Nobody asks, mostly because they're just consumed with food, but also because they don't want to deal with it. Race is an interesting, helpful category. It's not a be all and end all. When doctors look at patients they don't refuse to say what their age is. Now whether someone is 60 or 40, that isn't the final, most important fact in diagnosis or patient history, but it does matter and ought to be noted. With race right now, it's shorthand for a lot of genetic predispositions and there are people with some predispositions who can't take drugs that others can take. If you give an African American certain types of hepatitis drugs, he's going to die; if you give it to white people, they won't. If you give some Hispanics [the asthma medication] Albuterol, they're going to be fine; if you give it to others, they're going to be sick.
These things are genetic to some degree and it's crazy not to acknowledge that. We don't acknowledge it because race has always been a horrible term used for the worst reasons to oppress people. And again, as we deal with other things like genetically engineered foods, because that's [been] true in the past, we can't use these terms intelligently now?
In the final section of your book, you refer to synthetic biology as "our last chance to embrace science and reject denialism." What is the unique promise of synthetic biology?
Synthetic biology means that we're going to be able to create organisms that can do a variety of things and one of those things is to address some of the problems of global warming and another is to address disease. We now have a synthetic drug that mimics artemisinin, which is the main malaria medication, and we can make it all in a vat in California and we can make enough of it to treat the entire world. We can make a stable supply for very little money out of the constituent parts of chemicals and cells. We're going to be able to do that with diesel fuel and a lot of other things, but it is a scary prospect because we're creating organisms from scratch, from a recipe. That is something that we need to think very carefully about, and I would just like us to have a discussion about it.
One of the problems with the food debate is, you know, we just rushed into it: People didn't know what was happening, we didn't have that conversation and now we have these hardened sides, and I think we should have a national conversation and say, "Here are the benefits, here are the risks. Is it worth it? What should we do? How do we proceed?" I just don't understand why we can't have that conversation.