Thursday, April 1, 2010

Denialism by Michael Specter

Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our LivesApparently, there are people out there - large numbers of them - who now believe that childhood immunizations for such diseases as mumps, measles, tetanus and polio are more hazardous than they are useful.  That such ignorami are fronted by celebrity "experts" like former MTV bimbo Jenny McCarthy and her current paramour, "comic actor" Jim Carrey, should come as little surprise.

What does surprise is how many First World citizens are willing to believe the uninformed anecdotal speculation that supports movements like anti-vaccination campaigns, over massive and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.  Michael Specter's Denialism explores the phenomenon of widespread public hostility to the concept of scientific methodology and empirical fact.

In chapters covering such subjects as the pro-polio crusade, the "organic" food craze, the unreasoning fear of genetically modified crops, and the absurdity of "alternative" medicine, Specter clearly, concisely and persuasively presents the massive spread of scientific evidence that exists to debunk such claims.

The deeper issue, of course, is what is causing so many presumably normal (and non-mentally challenged) people around the world to believe in the modern equivalent of fairy tales.  It's largely a combination of faith - the evidence of things unseen (and unprovable) - and a fundamental inability or unwillingness to rationally measure and evaluate risk.

Faith, as we all should realize by now, has gotten a big boost during the Bush years of Fundamentalist ascendancy.  When more than fifty percent of Americans disbelieve evolution in the contradiction to all verifiable evidence, rational discourse regarding the health of our children hasn't got a chance against fear-based rumor.

And in the post-9/11 world, Americans have somehow been convinced that they can be protected against all risk, despite the obvious - that life is more dangerous than ever.  Nobody can live a life devoid of risk - the only rational way to live is to try to measure the risk of one course of action against another.  As thinking human beings, that's what our intelligence has been developed to do.
Is the vague and totally unsupported assertion that vaccinations cause autism reason to risk a global epidemic of smallpox or polio?  Is a desire for "pure" food good cause to create an agricultural system that will result in half the planet starving to death from underproduction of crops?  The answer to these questions will not be found in personal belief, but in objective science, and anyone who favors the former over the latter is on a slippery slope to the dark ages.

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