Michael Specter – The Menace of Denialism

May 21, 2010

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.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 21st, 2010. 

Welcomed the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Lately on this show, we’ve been zooming in on particular stress points in the relationship between science and our society. But sometimes maddening, although it may be, you also have to zoom out and take a big picture, look at our national and our global state of unreason. My guest today, Michael Specter of The New Yorker, is definitely a big picture kind of guy. And with his recent book Denialism, he charts how resistance to innovations like vaccination, genetically modified foods and our new genetic future are the latest hallmarks of an all too trendy kind of fuzzy thinking. In the process, Specter has made many of us who care about science and reason quite literally want to punch a wall. I’m also glad to have Michael on the show because I have a friendly running dispute with him about how on earth we’re ever going to fix this problem of societal irrationality and achieve anything like a true state of public enlightenment. It seems to me that we have both human nature and also the modern media system working against us in this regard. But Michael takes a more optimistic view and on the air, I’m going to ask him to justify it. Michael Specter has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1998. Before that, he was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a national science reporter for The Washington Post. Since joining The New Yorker, Specter has written about 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 last but not least, Sean P. Diddy Combs. In 2002, Spector 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. 

Michael Specter, welcome the point of inquiry. 

Well, thank you for having me, Chris. 

It’s it’s great to have you. And we’ve talked in other venues in the past about your book denialism, which describes just how freaky people and especially Americans can get with science. But that was back when it right when it came out. Before we knew it would get so much attention. So I understand since then, you’ve gotten some pretty memorable reactions. Could you tell us about some of them? 

Well, I haven’t gotten a lot of memorable reactions, but I’ve been amazed about, as I’ve written about a variety of issues in that book, food, vaccines, genetics, vitamins, and the thing that people seem to be most crazed about is food. And they just don’t want to talk about genetically engineered food. They think it’s evil. They don’t want to listen. When I say that what they think is genetically engineered food and what the problems are probably aren’t the problems they foresee. You know, I’ve just been deluged by email. Some of it actually supportive, not all of it. But it’s been interesting. I noticed, by the way, you said something about America. The cover of a New Scientist magazine this week is called something like State of Denial. And it’s about denialism in England, which seems to exist. 

It’s somewhat everywhere. But we were uniquely fret about the American version because we’re Americans, I’m sure. Well, what is your central definition of denialism? Is it just irrationality with a new name? Is it more than that? 

Yeah, I think it’s when people see what clearly are proper choices and factual based information and refuse to acknowledge it. And they see it over a long period of time and they see lots of data and lots of reports and lots of easily understandable evidence that something points in a certain direction and they just don’t accept it. So, you know, everybody is skeptical of things and we have more and more reason to be skeptical every day. 

But when you sort of presented by an endless amount of information saying, gee, we’ve planted, you know, 15 million hectares of genetically engineered food and no one’s ever gotten sick, it might not be proper to say this stuff is too new to eat. 

And that’s one of the the core issues that you focus on in the book is the GMO versus organics issue. And I want to get into to more of the specifics, but I also want to get at a bit of a core contradiction here. And I think I’ve bounced this off you before when we were dialoging on Slate. How is it possible that we’re both beset by denialism and yet we also say we love science because the National Science Foundation reports that Americans, they don’t any confidence in journalists or members of Congress. They think they’re the lowest of the low down in the slime, but they have lots of trust in scientific leaders. And in fact, the only group that scientists are second to in these trust or confidence surveys is the military, which maybe should trouble us. 

I didn’t even know how. And that’s fascinating. And I understand why our profession is so low. But it’s an interesting contradiction. 

But I don’t think it’s entirely difficult to understand because when people talk about scientists and trusting them, I think they’re talking about a general idea, an idea of progress, an idea of, you know, fixing things that are broken and making sick people well, when they’re in denial, it’s almost always about specific things. They’re not saying, gee, I don’t trust modern medicine or gee, I don’t think physics words. They’re saying, gee, I think of this particular vaccine could give my kid autism or, gee, I had a cold and I took this pill and it made me better. And I see Vados, as you know, it’s a little contradictory, but it’s one thing to embrace the idea of science and all that it has done. And it’s another thing to look at very specific issues and say and or know. 

So maybe denialism is partly just intellectual inconsistency or selectivity. 

Yeah, well, surely it’s selectivity. It’s just that I think I’ve said this to you. Look, we’re all in denial from time to time. We see things that we don’t accept. We don’t want to accept. We don’t want to believe are true. And we sort of shake them off for a little while. And it’s, I think, kind of a normal psychological reaction to bad news. When a society does it, it becomes very, very dangerous. And I think we’re seeing that in a whole spectrum of. Areas and obviously the vaccine one is the most obvious. But this food one is one that has become, I think, very troubling as well. 

And I agree with you, there’s always been some pretty pernicious denial of reality. And you mention, of course, Holocaust denial, HIV AIDS denial. You say the new form is less sinister than these really egregious forms, but also more pervasive. 

Right. I mean, listen. I mean, in my view, you know, a Holocaust denier is an evil person. And he is not only ignoring facts, but he is refusing to acknowledge reality in a very pernicious and painful way. And we’ve seen that again and again and again with Holocaust, with AIDS deniers. 

I mean, there’ve been literally tens of thousands of studies that show that HIV causes AIDS. So when someone says it doesn’t there, they’re really causing great damage. When somebody says, gee, I’m worried about genetically engineered food, that’s not evil. That’s not evil at all. It’s it’s a normal concern. People put food in their mouths every day. They put food in the mouths of their kids. 

They’re concerned about what is healthy, what is sustainable, what’s going on in the earth. It’s just that when they get their facts wrong and when they have a belief system, that’s kind of the opposite of what they want. And I think that’s often the case. I think it’s more pernicious in a way, or at least more pervasive because so many people are affected. I mean, so many people are affected by their decisions about foods or vaccines. We spent 30 billion dollars last year taking vitamins in this country, most of which were completely useless. I mean, these things are pervasive. 

Let me shift a little bit. Let’s talk about the politics of this as well. I mean, you were actually accused sometimes of being conservative because of the issues you take on, is that right? 

Well, I. I think the left to tax me a lot, but I find it really amusing because, you know, I’m conservative them. But I didn’t take on the issue of climate change denial or evolution because those things to me seem so open and shut that it wasn’t really worth writing about. Maybe that was a mistake. But I, I mean, I make it clear in the book and I’m trying to make it clear every time I talk to anyone that those issues are real and they seem to be real issues that the right wing embraces. You know, there’s denialism on all sides. It’s one of the only completely by issues I’ve ever seen. And the management issue is one where, you know, the extreme left and the extreme right will join together in the insistence that we have, you know, the ability to eat unregulated vitamins of any type. No matter what. 

Do you think, though, that right wing and left wing forms of the nihilism and I hear you’re talking to somebody who’s written more about the right wing kinds in the climate, the evolution deniers, the people who made up all sorts of misinformation to oppose stem cell research and so forth. They certainly have different characters. One has been more politically powerful. One might have been more culturally powerful. I mean, they’re they’re definitely different, different blends depending upon the political alignment. 

No, I agree with that. I mean, the denial of climate change often has something to do with people’s stake in the status quo in the way that business is conducted in the way that oil and gas power will. And that, sadly, tends to be a kind of denial from the right or that from the left. The denial of foodstuffs, of thinking that organic food is somehow, you know, a panacea when it’s nothing of the kind seems to be a denial from the left. And you’re right when it seems when you could argue one is more political and one is more cultural. But I think they come from the same inner ability to look at real facts and walk away from them. 

And I’d like to alert our listeners that Michael Specter’s latest book, Denialism, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry, dawg. Well, let’s let’s get into this one. You say that organic food is not any safer. Could you explain the science behind that? Because I think a lot of people are just so used to shopping at Whole Foods at this point. You know, I don’t I’m not sure they even reflect on it. 

Yeah, well, I actually shop at Whole Foods because I think lots of times the food is local and local food is often tastier and organic food, to my mind, is often tastier. 

But there’s never been one study that’s ever shown that it has a better nutritional content than other types of food, conventionally raised food. And people kind of conflate these things. I think when people object to genetically engineered food, when I talk to them, they’re often objecting to too much pesticide to monoculture. The idea that we’re gonna take giant tracts of land and grow only one crop. And they’re objecting to the idea that corporations will own patented seeds. And I think all those things are completely legitimate objections and real problems. And none of them are about science. None of them are about the safety or health of the viability of genetically engineered products. So we need to step back and ask ourselves, what are we objecting to? If we’re objecting to the fact that, you know, Monsanto can own patents on a certain type. Fine. Let’s change that. Let’s deal with that. That’s a political issue. It’s not a scientific issue. Organic food is something that can work well in certain communities, particularly in rich places. But I’m more concerned about the billion people who go to bed hungry every night and their ability to eat. All they do in Africa and parts of Asia is, is eat organic food. They have no choice but to eat it and it rots and it doesn’t last. And it doesn’t have the vitamins they need and it doesn’t have the nutrients. And we have the ability to engineer a lot of that into food right now. And I don’t want to see that not happen. 

Let me ask you this point, though. I mean, I agree that the activists who attacked GMO shows they definitely have international consequences, even though they might be coming from the rich world. And they also do clearly engage in scare tactics to make people think that the foods are unhealthy. But among scientific arguments they make, there’s definitely the scientific argument that there there’s ecological consequence because you just don’t know when you mess with a very complex web of life and introduce something new and unprecedented into it. What’s going to happen? And I think that there is a scientific basis for that idea. 

That’s true. To me, those are environmental issues and those environmental issues are real. 

But this brings us into the area of risk. And what I would say about that is there are risks to introducing new ways of moving molecules around in plants. But there are risks to everything we do. And we tend to focus on the risks and never the benefits except when we want to focus on the benefit. So we look at the risk of a vaccine. And, you know, two kids out of 50 million may have terrible reactions and that makes them no less real, especially to the parents of those children. But we do have to think about the other forty nine point nine million when it comes to food. We need to think about a billion people who might be able to get vitamins and rice or in cassava that they don’t get now. And we need to figure out a way to do that so that it’s environmentally sustainable. And I believe we can do that. 

So part of denialism then is is inaccurate risk perception? 

Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of it is a complete and utter lack of understanding or acceptance of what statistical reality is. So, you know, for instance, about 45000 people die in car accidents every year in this country. We don’t say we shouldn’t drive cars. 

We don’t say we should drive cars 50 miles an hour slower, which would save quite a few thousands of lives. We take that risk because we deem it worthwhile. There are risks we take that we think are worthwhile. 

But if if a few people die of a drug that may actually prolong or save the lives of many, many, many others, that’s unacceptable to us. 

And that just doesn’t make sense to me. 

Well, here’s my question. I think we’re gonna start coming back to this, because this is sort of the core theme that I’ve been thinking about whenever I want to refute misinformation or I want to set risk perception. Right. Or whatnot. And I do this just like you do this. I also think, well, gee, you know, how are people going to get it in this complicated world where they don’t really have a lot of time to do a lot of research and deeply inform themselves. And they’re just hearing nonsense from friends, the media. And it’s going in one ear and it’s maybe lodging somewhere important or maybe it’s not. But it’s not like they’re able to do a comprehensive body of research on the topic. 

Yeah, this kind of goes back into a bigger issue, which we’ve discussed, which is there are actual reasons for denialism. And one of them is that people don’t trust authority. So when someone tells you something’s true and it’s someone from the government or someone from Harvard or someone from The New Yorker or whatever, you don’t necessarily believe them. And, you know, 25 years ago, you probably did. And I’m not saying that those were the good days and these are the bad. The truth is there are lots of reasons to question corporate decisions and governmental decisions and the information that journalists give you. But we don’t have any sort of sensible approach to facts these days. So it’s all sort of the same. So if the government says something in the National Vaccine Information Center, which is a frankly, an anti vaccine organization says something, people take it as the same and they take it as the same, in part because we’ve been trained to approach this stuff on the one hand, on the other hand, and partly because we are not equipped to assess statistical evidence. And I think that really has to change. And unfortunately, that’s not an overnight process. It’s an educational process and it’s one we desperately need. I noticed that in Britain, they’ve just started a 10 year scientific statistics project where they’re trying to figure out a way to deal with this issue. You know, we should do it, too. We should do it urgently. I can’t think of anything more important right now than equipping people to make judgments about their and quick recently complex world. 

Is this it educational initiative for kids growing up? Or is this a sort of public information initiative in which one do we need more? 

Well, that’s a good question. We probably need it sort of like a shotgun. We need every pellet firing. We definitely need it for kids. We definitely need the people who are going to enter the world, the scientific world, the business world, the world, that of the future. They need to have some grasp on what is real and what isn’t and what is likely and what isn’t. We also need that, too, because we’re making these decisions often blindly. I can’t understand how people could so many, many people and I’ve really been struck by this since the book came out, a very highly educated people, too, will tell me that vaccines are dangerous or if he because too many vaccines at once, it overloads the immune system, which is completely and utterly and quite provably untrue. 

But but you hear it again and again and again and again. 

It’s crazy. I mean, we’ve had 10 years of research on this topic. We’ve failed to find the link between the two Mirasol and autism. And then we took the Marazul out and autism rates continued to climb, which, if any, if anything, is more unequivocal refutation of the contention that this all started with. And yet, no, you can’t. I was just reading, you know, Age of Autism, the anti vaccine site today. 

I try not to read that. Well, I’m sure they’ve attacked you, right? 

Oh, yeah. They’ve attacked me on any number of issues, including accusing me of stealing information from Paul. Offit is one of the most admirable vaccine researchers and spokesmen. And I quoted extensively in my book. 

Well, he’s a guest of the show and they’ve attacked me, too. And they say that I’m the pharmaceutical industries new guy in the media. And I’m. My response is, well, where’s my money? 

I mean, every time I ever you know, I gave a talk at Ted this year and, you know, there’ve been many comments on the Internet and it’s all. How much does he get paid by Monsanto? Come see my apartment if you think I’m paid by Monsanto because something doesn’t add up. 

The funny thing about it is also is that I was thinking about the accusation and I was thinking, who would I go to if I wanted to defend the pharmaceutical industry on the vaccine issue and get money? Because I don’t actually know which which big pharma company that makes most of its profit on vaccines. I never actually have bothered to know. 

That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. I would have said Merck, but that would be just. 

Yeah. But the point is, we’re not even thinking in that paradigm where I even think this is the thing, though. 

If you defend and I’ve been doing this for a long time, over many years, I’ve said genetically engineered food has risks and we need to watch the risks. But the idea that we’re worried more about it than we’re worried about a different type of food is insane. And whenever you say that you were accused of being a shill for agribusiness, Big Pharma, all sorts of stuff that I’m accused of being a shill for if I speak to Conservation International. No one ever accuses me of being a show for them. It’s interesting. 

Not every corporation is wrong every single time. And yet a lot of times they are. So people just go and experience. 

Yeah. I also think they’re very, very stupe. I think the pharmaceutical companies are idiotic in the way that they deal with the public. I think they’re very much in a defensive crouch and they’ve been attacked a lot and they should have been attacked a lot. But they also have some things to offer and they never get out there and show that those things are they never walk people through them. They never show how they’re doing their jobs. And as a result, when a reporter calls two sides, the pharmaceutical company gives you sort of a standard press release and the other side gives you actual people. And, you know, that makes you wonder what the hell they’re hiding. 

I really have this theory, Anneka my bounces off you before that with with alternative medicine, with the with the retreat from evidence based medicine, that it’s really about not only distrust of the pharmaceutical industry, but just unhappiness with the health care system and how it’s not personal and how it you know, all of the horror stories about HMO and stuff that drives people to things that are warmer and more fuzzy and friendly and make them feel good in some way. 

And I completely agree with you. And I also completely understand that sentiment because our health care system is terrible. 

It does not do what it ought to do. It doesn’t serve millions of people in the people. It does serve it often serves poorly and at enormous expense. So that is understandable. And linking it with a big government and big pharma is comprehensible to. But what people then do is race into, you know, what others have called. And I have also called big placebo. This idea that, you know, let’s just take a bunch of antioxidant formulas, let’s take a bunch of unproven, untried pills, and that will somehow be better because, gee, how can vitamin C be bad? How can vitamin E be bad? Well, the truth is those things don’t usually work. 

How much risk is there from taking those things? 

Well, I mean, there’s a couple things. It’s often a low risk. 

It’s sort of like an individual doesn’t necessarily have a lot of risk. But if you’re taking medicine, sometimes it will interfere with that medicine. But the bigger problem, and this is where I think there is a great deal of risk, is if you start believing that. Your sort of magical wishes on a par with scientific data, with scientific evidence based results of many, many studies. 

You end up in a situation where you know the truth just doesn’t matter. And we saw that in South Africa under Tabo Mbeki. We saw what happened when a president and a health minister decided that garlic, oil and beet juice was somehow more valuable than antiretroviral drugs, which we know can slow the course of AIDS. So what happened? There is hundreds of thousands of people died because they were being given magic instead of reality. And so, you know, on an individual basis, if you go buy a human pill, does it matter? Maybe not. But if you actually start believing that what someone tells you in a health food store is as valuable as five years worth of tons of data, you have a real problem. 

Again, I’d like to alert our listeners that Michael Specter’s book Denialism is available through our Web site Point of Inquiry. Dorgan. One thing I like about this book is that you don’t just talk about the issues where we’ve already had big fights over essentially science and reason and how we apply them. But you also look forward to some of the coming issues and how we might end up being in denial of them or how we already see the symptoms of nihilism. One is a personalized medicine, which I’d like to talk about a bit. This is the idea that as we have more and more access to genetic information, cheaper and faster, which is sort of the inexorable trend, then we’re going to start tailoring medical treatments to our individual genotypes. I guess my first question is, has this idea been a little bit oversold? 

Absolutely, 100 percent. I mean, the problem with all medicine and I think this is also true for for genetically engineered foods, is all this stuff has been sold and almost since the beginning of the DNA era, as we now understand, the secrets of life are going to unlock them all and we’re going to cure cancer and cure all your diseases. And we’re going to make it possible for you to have magic bullets in all areas of life. We’re going to create fancy foods that will make you healthy. And mostly that is proven not to be true. And it’s been proven not to be true because life is science. Life, physical reality is far more complicated than there are no simple keys. The more we know, the more complex issues like Alzheimer’s. You know, Alzheimer’s is a disease. It’s probably going to be six diseases, going to be a combination of strands. We’re going to have to approach it in a variety of ways, the way we do with diabetes. And I think we’re seeing that with lots and lots of things. So, yeah, we know lots about genetics now and we’re learning an amazing amount more every day. But we’re still not at the point where, you know, this sort of predictive power is great. I just think that we have to step back and say, where are we going and how are we going to get there? I think we’re going to go this route and we are going to get places and we have already used genetics to great value. It’s just that, sure, we tend to try to cure every disease, every time we mention a disease, and that builds hopes that are absolutely false and unsustainable. 

And the truth is, yes, some genetic diseases are diseases that have genetic underpinnings that might be hundreds of genes that are contributing to them. So you can’t just go and find a drug that dresses one or two of them and somehow change the condition. But, yeah, the more information we get, clearly there will be ways of intervening. 

I mean, look, if, you know, I have had all these tests done and I know for one thing, my family has an increased risk of heart disease genetically. Now, that’s worth knowing because cardiovascular illness is something we know something about. And there are things you can do in the world, like not be obese, not have diabetes, eat certain things, get types of exercise that will have an effect. Keep your cholesterol low. These are things that matter. It doesn’t mean that they will solve everything. And lots of times you read about, you know, healthy young people who have heart attacks and die. But it’s well worth knowing that information and acting on it. 

Where do you expect denialism to come in with regard to this new world of sort of the Gattaca world where we know everybody’s personal genetic information and maybe other people know it about YouTube? 

Well, I mean, in lots of ways. I think, first of all, it makes people feel understandably and maybe even correctly uncomfortable. You know, I look online, I look at the way younger kids sort of share information and I’m sort of half appalled and half impressed because of their sense of privacy isn’t what my sense of privacy is. And I think that’s going to happen with genetics. 

I mean, the person we’re marrying. Are we going to want to know what his or her genetic likelihood of developing a variety of diseases or even having a kid who’s got a certain type of IQ or being a certain height or a certain eye color because that can be known. And, you know, some people would argue, if you know stuff, if you can know stuff, you should. Lots of people feel uncomfortable that it’s like I’ve got lots of friends who, when you know, they have the amnio, they can find out what the sex of their child is. But they often choose not to. And I’ve never understood that because it’s a surprise whenever you find out whether it’s the David. It comes out of you or when they take the test. But for some people, they just don’t want to know. And so that’s a personal issue that I think we’re going to have to deal with on a really wide level. And I’m not sure I’m quite sure we’re not equipped to deal with it. 

I’m just picturing people posting their personal Jannik information once they get the test back on Facebook. It. 

I mean, the galaxy is really cheap. I mean, it’s scary. It’s scary. And it makes us wonder. And I think this even goes back to genetically engineered food. 

People are uncomfortable with sort of how life is going to be defined, how they’re going to approach life, where the boundaries are. And and those feelings of being uncomfortable are kind of understandable to me. 

And speaking of the boundaries of life, the other really forward looking issue that you tackle is synthetic biology, which is certainly challenging the boundaries of life, because now we’re literally creating it in the laboratory, perhaps engineered for particular goals or purposes might be useful in the Gulf of Mexico if you could create micro organism that excels at gobbling up oil and converting it to something else. Why don’t you tell us more about what’s going on in this field right now? 

Well, see, I think we have an opportunity. I mean, this is a field where you actually can take constituent elements of DNA and chemicals, mix them together and create what are essentially life forms. I mean, we’re at the beginning of this, and it’s very scary because the idea that independent life forms will be created in a lab is the stuff of, you know, every sort of Frankensteinian dream. However, there are some remarkable opportunities. And you mentioned one. Another one is to make fuel that won’t destroy our environment, won’t use greenhouse gases, will be cheap and local. And something that we could essentially grow. And these things are real. These are these are real possibilities. If we’re not very yet in. One of the things we need to not do this time is oversell it. And I think another thing we need to do, which we have no time for. Let’s have a conversation about it so people know what the benefits are and the risks because are real theoretical benefits and there are real theoretical risks. And I think we need to constantly be adding them up. But we have to add both up, because if we just say, gee, there was a guy in a lab who’s going to make fake fuel and it’s going to power the world, well, everyone’s going to say, gee, that’s great. What’s going to happen is it’s going to take longer than you think. And there are gonna be some shortcomings. But then again, if you say there’s a guy in a lab who’s making an organism that can sort of function on its own like an organism and you say nothing else. Well, who isn’t backing a scare? 

I think with an issue like this, I don’t know if there’s any polling data on opinions put in a survey. What is the phrase synthetic biology mean to you? Have you heard it before? I’m sure that nobody knows. 

But I think this is the time. I think you’re right. I just feel like this is the time before people know, before we’ve got big products. I mean, one of the problems with genetically engineered food is we have these giant products. You know, G.E., soybean, G.E., Cotton, we had him out there before anyone really knew what was going on. And those products are fine, but they’re fine for farmers and they’re fine for the rich world. You know, if the first products of genetic engineering had been rice, that would take away vitamin deficiencies. I think a lot of people would have seen the value right away. When it’s just cotton, it avoids pests and lowers the toxicity of pesticide. 

Well, that’s a good thing, but it’s a complicated thing and it’s not going to change people’s idea about science in the same way. 

And what you’re calling for is something that at least some academics have in mind, and that is sort of anticipatory governance of new technologies, not necessarily governance, but anticipatory dialog creation, so that when the new technology is out there, everybody isn’t shocked. Everybody has been prepared. Oh, I think it’s very difficult to do. There’ve been attempts to do this with nanotechnology. It’s a lot to ask. 

I mean, there was a conference in solar in 1970. Four or five year molecular biologists got together and said, gee, we’re going to be able to move bits of DNA around in ways that might be scary. Let’s figure it out. And that was a successful conference. But I think it was successful in an era that no longer exists in an era of the Internet, in the era of fast communication. I think everyone has to get involved. And so I do think we need to kind of have a I’ve said this and people laugh, but we need to have a national conversation about this because we can’t. We need to get out front of it because it’s coming. I don’t think we can hold the future back. I just think we can use it the right way. And we need to understand how to do that, or else we’re going to have the same situation where there will be products out there and people will be outraged. And it’s it’s you know, let’s not let the toothpaste get out of the tube before we start figuring out how to deal with it. 

I think maybe it should be a situation where government grants for research in this area are tied very heavily to actual funding of research and public engagements and. You know, sort of the one is not done without the other. 

Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, that’s a whole other issue, which is like how government grants are given, who gets the money and how it’s gotten. 

But I, I do think that in big research where government is involved. Government can take a more active and useful role. 

Well, I want to ask you, you’d mentioned the Web. It seems to me that denialism is is fanned by the Internet. The quick propagation of misinformation and the ability to self select yourself into a little little herds where everybody thinks like you do. And you talk about this with respect to the anti VAX folks in particular. I mean, how do we possibly deal with that or are we just stuck with it? 

Well, you know, I was taught that this is something the other day. I, I agree with you and I disagree. It’s definitely true that denialism is fanned by the Web. It is also true that greater knowledge given to greater people is fanned by the Web. I think the problem is that what you find on the Internet is not knowledge. It’s data. It’s information. And you have no way of sort of sifting through it. Is it the right information? Is it well arrived at? Is the research good? And I think what we need and, you know, some people at Google are trying to do this. And I think elsewhere, you know, when you when you do a Google search, you just come up with what is essentially the most popular ranking. You know, the thing that is mentioned the most when you search for, you know, Chris Mooney, you’ll probably get your Web site or. But we also have some sort of ranking of the sort of intrinsic value of those sources. You know, I think we all agree maybe that The New York Times is a slightly more reputable source than the National Enquirer, not the right wing. 

They don’t have to say the opposite. But anyway, if there was some sort of objective or at least an attempt to make an objective ranking, people could say, gee, I trust this or I don’t trust this or, well, the left wing trust us and I therefore don’t. But as it is now, it’s just like a giant sea. You put your hand in it and maybe you get a fish, maybe, you know. 

Well, Google is not afraid of politics. We learned recently. Maybe they should. You know, not just stand up to China, but stand up for science and reason and start ranking things that way. 

I think it’s not a secret that they’ve been looking into that and others have to. It’s just it’s a complicated scientific issue, too. It’s a complicated fact issue because you want to know when you start ranking things by value, you have to then determine who decides the value. Then you get into this eternal question of the modern world and it’s like, who decides what matters? All we have is information floating around, but who decides what information is worth digesting? And when you figure that out, let me know. 

Well, in closing here, I kind of want to extend a minor argument I’ve been having with you. We were at the Cambridge Science Festival on a panel together last month, and we found out, I think, an area of difference because I’m pretty pessimistic. In the end, I don’t think we can really achieve this ideal of public life enlightenment and beat back misinformation. I think it’s sort of a losing race against, you know, we talked about the Internet and also against the human mind, which is just always going to have incredible intellectual blinders because that’s part of human nature. And I pointed out, I didn’t agree with the quotation you used on Slate when we debated this from John Milton, where he said, let truth and falsehood grapple whoever new truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter. And I said, I see it all the time. Why are you more optimistic than me? 

First all, I never thought I’d get Milton thrown back in my feathered faith instantly. It’s pretty cool. 

I’m a little more optimistic than you because I don’t know. I take a long view and, you know, we can say all sorts of things about how humans have blinders on and people don’t want to know the truth. And there’s some strain of that for sure. But if you look over the last few hundred years, what do you find? You find remarkable progress everywhere you find it and help you find it in medicine and engineering and technology. And I think that will continue because people will see the value of it. It’s just that it’s not going to be in a linear straight up way. It’s going to kind of I think we’re in a situation where we’re gonna go take three steps forward and maybe one or two or even two point nine steps back. And so I kind of think the ball will keep moving forward. I just think it ought to move forward a little more rapidly and a little more clearly, says Pessah. That’s as optimistic as I can be. 

OK, well, that’s that’s pretty good. And it’s been really great to have you on the show. It’s been a wonderful conversation. Let’s do it again sometime. Michael Specter. 

Pleasure. Love talking to you. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. For updates throughout the week on the subject of this show, please check out my blog at blogs, Dot Discover magazine, dot com slash intersection. Also to get involved in a discussion about Michael Specter’s new book, Denialism. Make sure to visit our online discussion forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

One of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. In our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalid. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney