New Point of Inquiry: Michael Specter on the Menace of Denialism

By Chris Mooney | May 22, 2010 6:31 am

My seventh hosted Point of Inquiry episode is now up–it’s with Michael Specter of The New Yorker, and yes, it is about denialism. You can stream it here, and download/subscribe here. Here’s the write up:

This week, we learned that J. Craig Venter has at long last created a synthetic organism—a simple life form constructed, for the first time, by man. Let the controversy begin—and if New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter is correct, the denial of science will be riding hard alongside it.

In his recent book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, Specter charts how our resistance to vaccination and genetically modified foods, and our wild embrace of questionable health remedies, are the latest hallmarks of an all-too-trendy form of fuzzy thinking—one that exists just as much on the political left as on the right.

And it’s not just on current science-based issues that denialism occurs. The phenomenon also threatens our ability to handle emerging science policy problems—over the development of personalized medicine, for instance, or of synthetic biology. How can we make good decisions when again and again, much of the public resists inconvenient facts, statistical thinking, and the sensible balancing of risks?

Michael Specter has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1998. Before that, he was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and the national science reporter for the Washington Post.

At the New Yorker, Specter has covered the global AIDS epidemic, avian flu, malaria, the world’s diminishing freshwater resources, synthetic biology and the debate over our carbon footprint. He has also published many profiles of subjects including Lance Armstrong, ethicist Peter Singer, and Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. In 2002, Specter received the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Journalism Award for his article “Rethinking the Brain,” about the scientific basis of how we learn.

Once again, you can stream the show here, and download/subscribe here. I’ll have more to say about it throughout the week.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

Comments (14)

  1. Jean

    I think Specter is right that fear of GMOs is overblown, but he makes some really bad arguments on the subject. For example, he says GMOs have been shown to have no negative health consequences. But since they’re in a large percentage of food, and they’re unlabeled, that would be a very hard thing to establish. He certainly had no studies to cite as a basis for his confidence.

    Also, he has an odd take on organic food, making it seem as if people who favor it aren’t paying attention to science, just because science doesn’t show it’s nutritionally better. It could be they’re paying attention to science that shows organic farming has environmental advantages over regular farming. Why (on earth) must science mean the science of nutrition?

  2. Nullius in Verba

    “For example, he says GMOs have been shown to have no negative health consequences. But since they’re in a large percentage of food, and they’re unlabeled, that would be a very hard thing to establish.”

    All new foods get safety testing before release onto the market. But strictly speaking, he ought to have said that GMOs don’t generally have any more negative health consequences than non-GMO food. Most people don’t seem to be aware that any food can be potentially dangerous.

    All plants naturally contain chemicals produced by the plant in its attempt to stop critters munching on it. As plants are generally unable to get up and run away, they have had to evolve other ways to fend off predators. Chemical warfare is the most common, and plants generate a random cocktail of substances to interfere with any form of non-plant biochemistry. They’re known as “natural pesticides” and are the reason why one plant strain can be more disease-resistant than another.

    When plant breeders try to create disease-resistant crops, they are selecting for plants loaded with uncontrolled levels of randomly generated pesticides invented by the plants themselves. There is no guarantee when doing that that the result will be safe to eat. The resistance may be the result of high levels of substances as toxic to humans as the pests. There have been incidents, which is why they’re all tested nowadays.

    People have been engaged in selective breeding for 7,000 years now, and to the extent that selective breeding alters the genetics of the crop plant, all crop plants have technically been GMOs for thousands of years. I prefer the term GEO – genetically engineered organism – for what we’re talking about today.

    As a rule, engineering is a safer activity than random exploration. You have some idea how and why it works. You know roughly what to expect, and what to look out for. You can aim for options you have already tested and found to be safe. You can even build in delberate safeguards. And with everything more under control, that testing is likely to be safer and more effective.

    Compared to that, natural pesticides are still very much an unknown. We don’t always know what chemicals are being produced by the vegetables we eat. In many cases, we don’t know how they work, or whether they are also toxic to humans, or what their long-term effects are. We do know that of the few that have been tested, roughly half have turned out to be carcinogenic at high doses, according to the tests we normally do on artificial chemicals. Which is not to say that they’re dangerous – only that the artificial chemicals that have passed all the tests are probably even safer.

    There are a number of problems with organic food. One is that they do use chemical pesticides and fertilisers, but believe that because they come from natural sources they must by definition be safe. Nature makes no such distinction.

    A second problem is that organic crops are more likely to be attacked by pests, and when a plant is under attack, part of its stress response is to vastly increase the production of those natural pesticides. So a vegetable that under normal circumstances (and routine testing) is perfectly safe to eat can be turned seriously toxic by a bug attack.

    A third more general problem, widely known to those critical of the argument for organics on Environmental grounds, is that organic agriculture requires more land to be devoted to farming. With smaller yields, greater losses through vulnerability to pests, and the need to rotate crops and let land recover, a larger area of natural wilderness has to be ploughed under to generate a given amount of food. That would seem to be bad news for the environment. Advances in agriculture in richer countries have allowed more land to be returned to wilderness. It is the lack of such technology and techniques that necessitates practices like slash-and-burn in the poorer ones.

    To be fair, it isn’t that simple. But it’s an entire side to the argument that one hardly ever sees.

    Fundamentally, the organic-vs-GMO debate is all about the naturalistic fallacy. Artificial, industrial, technological – processed, packaged, unnatural – words hated by people with every reason to celebrate the improvements to life that the centuries of progress have brought about, did they but know it.

  3. I am just complaining about one argument Specter makes–that there are so many GMO foods out there that we’d see health problems if they existed. He also says this in his book. That’s bad reasoning, because GMOs are unlabeled and ubiquitous. It’s not clear how anybody could keep track of their health effects, if any.

  4. Thomas

    Nullius, the main advantage of GMO today seems to be that it can be easily patented which means that companies can be certain to get a good return for the large investments required to produce new crops. In contrast, adaptations to local conditions, combining or rotating crops, relying on predatory insects to treat pests etc may have just as good potential, but it just isn’t profitable to develop since you usually can’t patent and sell the resulting discoveries.

    Far from all suspicion about GMO:s comes from the naturalistic fallacy, instead it derives from mistrust of monopolistic companies like Monsanto and whether the crops they find most profitable really are good for anyone else in the long run.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    Granted. But then, the same applies to non-GMO foods too, doesn’t it?

    What he means is that it’s the same argument one would use to demonstrate that lettuce, say, was not harmful to health. Millions of people eat it, and nobody immediately falls over and dies as a result. No mysterious food-poisoning deaths or epidemics of illness are ever traced to having eaten lettuce leaves.

    There is of course a possibility of long-term statistical risk, but we have a large sample size, and that is part of our normal risk budget calculation anyway. I doubt anybody gives the risks of eating lettuce a moment’s thought. And yet, from a scientific point of view, there’s far more reason to suspect harm from lettuce (with its tremendously high levels of the carcinogenic natural insecticide Caffeic Acid) than there is from a typical GMO.

    The point is that people are making an artificial distinction based on whether it is ‘artificial’ or ‘natural'; and setting different standards of evidence. ‘Artificial’ has to prove itself in detail, while ‘Natural’ is given a pass. That’s the issue at the core of the irrationality.

    All Specter is doing is using the standard argument anybody would use and accept if asked by a child whether lettuce was dangerous, and applying it to GMOs. (It was after all a relatively short interview.) That evidence is, as you suggest, insufficient for proof – but the very fact that people only notice when it is applied to artificial foods only further reinforces the point.

    (Actually, we do know roughly where it is, when it was first introduced, and we can test for it in the laboratory. Sudden changes in health can be tracked by epidemiologists to possible causes, and the fact that the experiment is effectively “double-blind” helps a lot from a scientific point of view. We know when people die from eating aflatoxin-contaminated peanuts or ergot-contaminated wheat or rye. There’s no reason to think we wouldn’t be equally good at detecting the effects of any other ingredient. But I’m happy to accept the valid point that epidemiology is weak evidence, far short of proof and commonly subject to major error, for the sake of discussing the more important Naturalistic argument.)

  6. Nullius in Verba

    Thomas,
    #4

    The disadvantage of that being that it costs more, so farmers will look for and profit by finding better and cheaper methods. Remembering that you have to include the cost of R&D in the total cost of whatever it is you are doing.

    It’s a good reason for continuing non-GMO research. It’s not a good reason for banning or boycotting GMO foods, or erecting trade barriers and tariffs.

    If GMO isn’t better than the alternatives, then in a free and open competition it will lose.

  7. TB

    @6 Nullius
    I find this to be a pretty tepid response. The problem is this isn’t a free and open market – you don’t have robust competition out there for some seed stocks and it’s been documented how hard Monsanto goes after independant farmers who have GMO plants show up on their land. They put those people out of business, which drives more people to toe their line.
    Plus, this focus only on the GMO issue ignores the wider concerns about the safety of our food sources. The organic movement isn’t just about concentrating too much power into too few hands. It’s the same concerns about the consolidation of big media, it’s the same kind of concern about what’s going on in the gulf and the too cozy relationship between big oil and regulators.
    Science has shown what happens to non-diverse populations – the Irish potatoe famine for instance.
    This isn’t all this isn’t just a concern of the anti-science crowd.

  8. Ian

    I am glad someone is standing up against the Casandra-ism in the press regarding genuine discoveries that are help for everyone. When we announced our technology (www.dynemobiosystems.com) we were accused of potentially using it to deny treatment to cancer patients. This was hurtful in the least and completely wrong to boot. Personalized medicine doesn’t aim to deny treatment it aims at directing treatment better.

  9. Nullius in Verba

    TB,

    If you want my support for making it a free and open market, you’ve got it. And I definitely don’t agree with legal chasing of farmers who have GMOs turn up on their land. But those are different questions – they’re not a valid excuse for opposition to GM per se.

    It would be like opposing the introduction and use of computers in schools and workplaces because you didn’t like Microsoft. Or opposing pop music because you didn’t like RIAA’s anti-piracy politics.

    And the GMO question has nothing to do with the monoculture question. If you’re concerned about monoculture, then expand the range of crops. In fact, GM would be an ideal way to do that. If you’re concerned about Monsanto’s business practices, then set up rival businesses that behave better, and take the monopoly away from them. Or if their terms are no better on balance than the alternatives, then use the alternatives.

    But don’t confuse the technology with the sharp business practices.
    (And don’t ignore the possibility that some sharp business practices may be necessary for the technology to exist at all. New technologies are expensive to develop – especially when heavily regulated for safety. It takes huge capital, and huge profits to make it possible – which is why the initial players in any new field are often some of the hardest.)

    If you think it can be done better, then do it. Biotech should be seen as a golden opportunity for mankind that is to be seized enthusiastically – not rejected outright because it isn’t absolutely perfect.

  10. TB

    OK, a couple don’ts from my end

    Don’t assume I’m using wider concerns about corporate consolidation of our food system to argue against GMO foods

    Don’t use the bad arguments against the science of GMO food to discredit all concerns about the wider issues surrounding GMO food. As you yourself point out, it’s legitimate to raise concerns about Monsanto’s behavior against farmers.

    Don’t try to make it sound like the free market is the only answer. We’ve seen the failure of the free market with banks and now oil drilling. Less regulation and lax enforcement in those cases led to disaster. Now we find that 93 percent of soybean seeds (by one reported estimate) are Monsanto’s? Too big to fail? Lobbying power? There’s already anti-trust investigation going on, but is it going to be window dressing? There’s more than one way to skin this cat, and your answer puts you squarely in agricultural industrial complex’s camp.

    Finally, don’t try and feed me company propaganda and expect me to swallow it unquestionably. There are legitimate issues surrounding the agricultural industry in this country. Putting all those in the same basket with the kooks is a political spin tactic. One that reveals more about you than you think.

  11. Thomas

    Nullius #6, you missed my point, it seems. It’s not a matter of what costs more but of how our legal system is set up so that some solutions are easier charge for to recover R&D costs than others. Should you after much trial and error come up with something like lettuce growing better if partly shaded by some kind of tree all your neighbors are gladly going to do the same, but they won’t have to pay you a nickel. Had you on the other hand come up with a GMO-lettuce you could charge them for it. Thus your “free and open competition” actually isn’t all that free.

    “But don’t confuse the technology with the sharp business practices”

    This is where you differ from most people. To them the technology is what they see, not what it theoretically could be. If you aren’t an expert on genetics, that is a very reasonable approach, and even if you do understand the science you still have to consider how it is going to be used in the real world. Most of us don’t have a few billion dollars laying around so we can start competing against Monsanto, you know.

  12. Nullius in Verba

    “Don’t assume I’m using wider concerns about corporate consolidation of our food system to argue against GMO foods”

    But it’s only the people arguing against GMO foods that I’m talking about. If you’re not fighting to stop GMOs being used, I am making no criticism.

    “Don’t use the bad arguments against the science of GMO food to discredit all concerns about the wider issues surrounding GMO food.”

    Hang on, so you are arguing against GMO foods, based on wider concerns? Huh?

    “As you yourself point out,[…]”

    You say that as if you think it’s inconsistent with what I’ve been saying, or at all relevant to opposition to GMOs. This is, as I said above, equivalent to fighting to keep personal computers out of the home because you don’t like Microsoft. Whether your dislike of a particular company is valid or not – and I intend no comment on that in this case – it shouldn’t have anything to do with opposition to GMOs generally.

    “Don’t try to make it sound like the free market is the only answer. We’ve seen the failure of the free market with banks and now oil drilling.”

    Ah! That’s another argument entirely! The banks failed because they were regulated for interfering politicians for purposes of social engineering, who then promptly made sure to blame the bankers when it all went wrong. Oil drilling hasn’t failed – calculated risk is part of the process, and disasters happen. It’s like pointing to a multi-lane car crash and declaring the entire automobile/transport industry to have “failed”. It’s a disaster, a tragedy, something nobody wants to happen, that they’ll spend considerable time and money trying to prevent, and trying to fix when it does. But we’re a long way from having the capability to make sure nothing ever goes wrong. The alternative to it is even worse.

    The “agricultural camp” as you put it has saved more lives than you can count – billions now, maybe tens of billions eventually, and immeasurably raised the standard of living of even more. The energy industry likewise. We know that the anti-Capitalist “camp” has already killed tens of millions through famine and economic destruction as their policies failed. And still they have not learnt, or understood. Which side do you really want to align yourself with?

    “There are legitimate issues surrounding the agricultural industry in this country.”

    Absolutely there are. My views are strongly opposed to the practices of certain self-interested producers, and the vested interests of industry. If you want to know, my general views are quite neatly summed up by Bastiat – e.g. in the Sophisms. I favour free trade, not the messed up system we have now. I don’t think free trade is quite what you think it is.

    “Putting all those in the same basket with the kooks is a political spin tactic.”

    But I’m wasn’t putting those concerns in the same basket. (It is, arguably, a different basket of kooks, but not one that I had intended to talk about, nor was I referring to at all.) You put yourself there, when you assumed that by criticising GMO critics for their Naturalistic thinking, you assumed that I meant to criticise you as well. There is no logic in criticising Monsanto and not the Organic Food industry, which is just as profit-driven, deceptive, and corrupt. They have successfully portrayed themselves as the anti-Establishment underdogs, but they’re businesses, just like any other. “Organic” is just another market brand, aimed at a certain segment of gullible customers, who will pay considerably higher prices in the shops in exchange for the right (scientifically incorrect) platitudes. It’s a blatant con on the consumer. Quite often, it’s exactly the same group of people behind both, the same political connections. Why make a distinction?

    You say there are legitimate problems with GMOs, but then only provide general issues applicable to big businesses generally. If you’re opposition is to big business, of whatever stripe, then just say so. Please don’t drag GM into your politics.

  13. Nullius in Verba

    “Nullius #6, you missed my point, it seems. It’s not a matter of what costs more but of how our legal system is set up so that some solutions are easier charge for to recover R&D costs than others.”

    That’s true. But then that’s a criticism of the legal system, not of GMOs.

    And which would you prefer? A system in which nobody can afford to develop the new technology, so nobody does?

    Or one in which somebody can, so we get the technology but at a cost?

    “This is where you differ from most people. To them the technology is what they see, not what it theoretically could be.”

    Possibly I do. I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy when it comes to technology.

    Like I said, when I see computers, I see all the wonderful things they can do for us. Some people, I know, could only see Bill Gates getting richer.

    “Most of us don’t have a few billion dollars laying around so we can start competing against Monsanto, you know.”

    Collectively, we do. That’s what investment is for.

    What do you think the banks do with your savings after you deposit them? Where do you think the interest you earn on them comes from?

  14. TB

    @ Nullius in Verba

    In the face of some obfuscation, let me make clear what I’m reacting to here. You said:

    “If GMO isn’t better than the alternatives, then in a free and open competition it will lose.”

    There was a time when someone used the free market in a debate in this way and I could see their point.

    No more.

    The science behind GMO food – in theory – is sound. I really have no problem with it – we’ve been playing with the genetics of our food sources for centuries. But science isn’t taking theory and putting it into practice – industry is.

    I wouldn’t have brought that up in this discussion, but YOU were the one that injected the idea of the free market being some kind of measure of quality, of competency.

    But after the financial industry failure and the oil industry failure, saying that the free market is somehow a good measuring rod raises a red flag in my book.

    Now, you could challenge me and ask: What about the food industry – especially the portion concerned with GMO foods and food safety – needs to be changed? And to be honest, my answer would be “I don’t know.”

    But, if you asked me ten years ago what I would specifically change about our financial industry, I’d have to also answer “I don’t know.” But in saying that, I could certainly have pointed out the failure of regulations in the savings-and-loan scandal in the 80s, and the abandonment of regulations in the late 90s that were adopted in the wake of the great depression. But I wouldn’t have been able to bring up specifics about derivative trading, predatory loan practices and ratings agency abuses that were occurring. I can now, but I couldn’t then.

    And if you asked me one year ago what I would specifically change about our oil industry regulations, I’d probably answer “I don’t know.” But I could point out the possibility of spills and the environmental cost of one. But I couldn’t have brought up the too-cozy relationship between the regulators and the industry that resulted in inadequate safeguards, the practices of the industry in Africa and the alleged fraud regarding claims about being able to control a spill of this magnitude. I can now, but I couldn’t then.

    And in each of those cases, the common thread was government policy that was far too willing to let industry police itself – to let the free market work. Far too friendly to corporations and that resulted in catastrophes that we’ll be cleaning up after – literally and figuratively – for generations.

    So now, if you wanted to challenge me about the GMO industry – not the science, the industry – and ask what I would change, I’d have to answer “I don’t know.” But I can point out that diversity in nature has been held important by science, that a lack of diversity contributed to famine in Ireland. And I could point out that aggressive defense of industry patents has resulted in traditional seed practices being curtailed which – for me – raises a red flag about regulation of the ag industry.

    And considering that red flag, I can point to a regulatory infrastructure for other industries that has been proven damaged and needs to be fixed. And my challenge back to you would be: What mechanism kept the food industry safe from the kind of deregulation and industry abuse that has come to light in other industries? And looking at all this, I have to ask myself: What don’t I know now that might come to light only after a major catastrophe?

    What I would like is to point to a regulatory infrastructure that’s on the job and making sure our food supply is safe. But i just don’t have confidence that that’s the case right now considering all the other evidence.

    So with all that in mind, anytime someone says the free market is adequate to deciding things, well, send in the forensic accountants and subpoena the emails because something’s going on we probably should be aware of, but are not.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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