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Michael Specter on the dangers of science denialism

Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, on the danger of science denial:

He also wrote an editorial to go along with it. Given that combatting science denialism, be it the anti-vaccine movement, the “alt-med” movement, or “intelligent design” creationism, maybe I’ll comment further tomorrow. In the meantime, watch the video…

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24 replies on “Michael Specter on the dangers of science denialism”

His attacks on organic food focus on the health argument, but not on what is the bigger reason for going organic: Our crop fertilizers are made out of petroleum, and we’re using that up much faster than Mother Nature can replace it.

Until and unless you can find a sustainable replacement (preferably one that doesn’t mess up our lakes, streams and drinking water), the organicists have a point.

Did we see the same talk here? Spector emphasized quite strongly that pesticides and hormones were legitimate concerns. He said it in his talk, and he wrote it in his editorial.


Yes and no. Organics is a lot like the alt med of naturopathy but for plants, it mirrors it so well; sure, there is a lot of good advice in there, but that isn’t the point of the whole, and the whole is a naturalistic argument, not an evidence based one. Organics espouses, for instance, crop rotation to improve soil fertility, and polyculture to reduce disease, and those are both great ideas, wonderful ideas, can’t strees how important polyculture should be, just like how naturopathy advocates eating fruits & veges and getting enough exercise. The problem is, just like naturopathy, that they take it too far. Claims that a pesticide is better because it’s natural, or that the nutritional content of a plant really cares where if the plant’s nutrients came from bone meal or a mineral salt, and their absolutely asinine abhorrence of GMOs, that’s where the line is crossed from the good to the woo, just like how naturopathy makes claims of chewing on some twig will cure cancer because it’s natural and rejects vaccines. And hey, that twig might cure cancer, and that organic chemical might be vastly superior to a synthetic one, but it won’t be that way on the basis that it’s argued, and I for one haven’t seen the evidence supporting either.

Speaking of GMOs, it makes me really happy to see them get some of the credit they deserve, and it really is just so much like the anti-vax thing. There’s this fear there that we really must get over. The people who oppose them, they’re really not so much like the anti-vax. They’re not necessary stupid, some are, but they have this belief that will not evaluate critically. They fear some sort of harm, just like anti-vaxxers feared, and in both cases, the evidence has turned up nothing, but that doesn’t matter. They claim they’re not anti-GMO, but pro-safe GMO, but they keep moving that goal post as to what is safe, and it doesn’t help any that in the anti-GMO subculture, any evidence that indicates the safety or effectiveness of genetic engineering is viewed as as having been bought and paid for by Monsanto, and any evidence that indicates damage, no matter how flawed, is touted around as the smoking gun. A while back there was a study claiming organ damage in rats from GMO corn, and it was absolute crap, but it was paraded all over as the proof. Now, bad methodology aside, there was no reason for the ‘damage’ no causative agent, genetic pathways to produce said agent, no nothing. But, no amount of debunking will stop people from taking it as gospel.

And speaking of Monsanto, there are people out there who really believe genetic engineering is a corporate science, owned by Monsanto (BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta, ect. get ignored I guess). Never mind that a lot of things, like BioCassave, Golden Rice, and the Rainbow papaya are three big names in non-corporate GMOs. And there’s a block, you try to explain this to people, but it keeps coming back to evil Monsanto. Really, I’m not saying they’re your friend any more than Merck or Pfizer, but just like vaccine manufacturers, if their products work, I don’t care if the CEO eats a bowl of kittens for breakfast, that says nothing of the science.

And he’s dead on there: we need to separate the scientific form the social. Patents, cross pollination suing, regulation….those are important issues, and those are debates worth having, but so often that is drowned out by the frankenfood factor. But again, so many people have this Saturday morning cartoon villain impression of genetic engineering support, that you’re either against genetic engineering, or you’re for bad agricultural practices, just like how people like, say, Mike Adams and Joe Mercola seem to think that supporting vaccines means you’re against a good diet and think people should down a six pack of soda every day. It’s nonsense, it’s like some mental barrier to protect a world view from the facts.

And back to the issues about crops themselves (because once you scratch the surface of reasonableness you see the chewy woo core), the science is there and the results are in, but Google GMOs and most of what you find is anti/pseudo-scientific fearmongering. I wish I knew how we got to this point, I just don’t get it. They’re doing some amazing things with this technology, but that’s doing nothing to stem the tide of fear. The claims include damage to soil, damage to people, decreased yield, and a corporate conspiracy, and it just doesn’t add up. Damage to soil? Never explained how, and sure, one could make the argument that herbicide resistant GMOs are a negative for the soil, if they do indeed herbicide use, but again, even assuming that claim is correct (and I’m honestly not quite sure about that one, but I do remain skeptical, though open-minded to the possibility), that’s another social issue, not a flaw with the GE crops themselves. Decreased yield is a funny one, because the most prominent study about that one, Failure to Yield, was based off numbers that showed an increase in yield. As for damage to people, well, no one has ever found a shred of evidence for that, however, there have been those smoking guns ‘proving’ it, just like there are studies ‘proving’ vaccines cause autism or that homeopathy works. The corporate conspiracy, yeah, I’m sure that Monsanto remain profitable while making independently wealthy countless botanists, agronomists, horticulturists, zoologists, biochemists, geneticists, and microbiologists in every university in the country, and around the world, none of whom, naturally, have any moral issues about feeding people trillions of ‘dangerous’ GMO meals (a lot like how big pharma is ‘hiding’ all those cancer cures). Also, fun fact about international GMOs: Iran, a country that I would say is one of the most likely to tell the West to shove it, was either the first or second to implement GMO rice (can’t recall if it was them or China), and they did it themselves. They developed their own strain of pest resistant rice.

And hey, I’m not saying nothing can go wrong. There was a pea in Australia that was modified with a weevil resistant gene from a bean, and while it worked, the pea’s chemical pathways were different enough to form the anti-pest protein in a way that it may have been harmful to humans. That actually happened, a honest to goodness potentially dangerous GMO. But guess what? They found it, found the causative agent, found why it way there. No one has EVER done that with any other GMO. If they’re so dangerous, why is this? By now, I think you’ve figured out the answer to that. More people have been by starfruit than from genetically modified crops.

I could go on, but you get the picture. You had another post about debating against anti-vaxxers was like trying to nail Jell-O to a door. Same darn thing. It’s just so saddening that this ever became an issue, I wish I knew how and why this happened. I talked to a pomology professor the other day, asked if there was any future in using working with GMO fruit (since that’s kinda my branch of horticulture), and he said that the ability is there, but growers don’t want it because of the culture of fear around them. I hope we get better, I hope in the future we will embrace this as fully as we embrace agriculture itself, but look at vaccines, they stopped smallpox and there are still people opposed to them. Speaking of standard agriculture, I am reminded of a story of people who went to Africa and taught people how to graft superior varieties and other modern techniques, and while they were initially wary of what they viewed as the ‘white man’s magic,’ they saw the benefits and embraced it. I hope that we, in our post industrialized, disconnected from the realities of agriculture and free from an immediate need for this science, will be so wise.

GMOs, like vaccines, are unarguably good, but not undeniably good, and we must not mistake denialism for debate.

This talk was awesome. And that’s coming from an undergrad student who just discovered the xkcd webcomic this morning and spent the day reading every single cartoon.

That talk was a thing of beauty. And Party Cactus’s comment was pretty awesome in its own right.


This is something that keeps annoying me…

The idea that we are running out of oil for food production is based on a false equivocation; by a fair distance the biggest source of fossil fuel in crop production is natural gas, used to make nitrogen fertilizers. So although there could be oil shortages in the near future, natural gas shortages are unlikely and so at least this constraint on food production is not likely to materialise.

An amazing talk. And in how many minutes? 10? Not having been fully aware of the GM foods thing, all I can say is that I am now – so let’s hope that this is the start of a fightback. My guess is that once the crops are out there, improving health and going where no crops went before, that they will be widely accepted, at least in the 3rd world. Like vaccines, I guess. Excellent. Let’s spread this meme!

Organics espouses, for instance, crop rotation to improve soil fertility, and polyculture to reduce disease, and those are both great ideas, wonderful ideas, can’t strees how important polyculture should be, just like how naturopathy advocates eating fruits & veges and getting enough exercise.

Moreover, just like how “eating fruits and veggies and getting enough exercise” is absolutely a foundation of modern medicine, the concept of crop rotation and polyculture is not unique to organic farming, and, in fact, has been part and parcel of standard farming for probably decades (crop rotation has been pretty heavily advocated since at least the 70s – at least)

There is nothing about organic farming that requires crop rotation, and there is nothing in modern farming that prevents it. In fact, most farmers do it because they know it is an important approach for maximizing yields, and hence, profits.

I think the issue you’re outlining, Pablo, is exactly why people like me (environmentalist, but also critical thinking and a cheap bastard) are trying to evaluate food sources beyond organic or not. I would rather buy something grown in my state using conventional methods than have my organic food shipped in from South American, particularly since many small farmers use a mix of conventional and organic methods.

Natalie – I agree. First and foremost, “organic” is a marketing term, and needs to be recognized as such. And it almost certainly the case that something locally grown, organic or not, is going to be better than what you get in the “organic” section of the megalo mart.

Lastly, at the risk of raising a big stink, I have to ask the question: is organic farming really “green”? Given the lack of efficiency, I often wonder, what would happen if everyone on the planet decided to switch to organic products only? I don’t think we could do it. It would take approximately twice the farmland to produce the same amount of grain. Where is that going to come from? Destroy more of the rain forest? Moreover, if want to pasture graze all the livestock, where are they going to go? Organic dairies lead to multiplicative effects, where it will take 4 times as much farmland to produce the same amount of milk. There is no way we could sustain organic farming for the current world’s population.

Heck, the main driving force behind the techniques of modern farming is to squeeze as much productivity out of a continually shrinking farmland to accommodate population growth.

The questions above about whether we have enough fossil fuel feedstocks to sustain fertilizer production are fair and reasonable, but it’s not like “all organic” is a viable solution, either, unless you consider killing off half the world’s population to be an acceptable means of resource conservation.

If everyone joined in with “reduce, reuse and recycle,” it would absolutely be a good thing for the environment. However, I don’t think that can be said about organic production. It is not possible on a worldwide scale unless drastic things happen.

Pablo, crop rotation has been around since antiquity; only with the advent of cheap industrial fertilizers and pesticides people thought they could get around it. Which is true to a degree as that we don’t need the fallow periods anymore for nutrient regeneration, but the monoculture problems persist.

@ Pablo
You are, of course, right. Such practices are not exclusive to organic. We know the beneficial things they advocate are beneficial, they’re not surprising anyone, least of all agricultural researchers they seem to be against. However, I’m not quite sure if those practices are always used in large scale agriculture. I could very easily be wrong, but typically is not one crop predominately grown in most large fields repeatedly? Also, when was the last time, say, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa made up a respectable part of our food supply, or when was the last time any of the tons of rarely cultivated but worthwhile fruits showed up in grocery stores (although it seems some like pepino and lychee are making headway)? Those things really don’t happen as much as they should (of course, it must be mentioned that economies of scale must factor into this as well). That’s one of the things about organic that gets my goat. They’re not advocating the application of knowledge to modern ag, seeing how we can integrate with the large economies of scale that big farms have, and measuring the effects. They’re advocating the whole philosophy, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We should be taking an evidence based approach to it and advocating change that way, but organic proponents muddy the waters with a magical thinking based approach and mask real problems with imaginary ones, and in the end that hinders progress. And it seems like organic proponents so commonly fight straw men when seeing opposition, as if issues in agriculture are inherently polarized, and someone couldn’t possibly be for developing new crops/diversification of the food supply as well as support widespread genetic engineering (which happen to be my two favorite areas of plant science). Gets on my nerves it does.

My favorite argument that I’ve heard organic proponents make is that Big Agra will do anything to increase their profits while at the same time they claim that organic is vastly superior in output to conventional methods while also claiming that use of GMOs decreases output and makes the soil unusable (thus cutting profits and destroying long term profitability)…but Big Agra will do anything to increase profits. *facepalm* I guess that’s one of those cognitive dissonance things.

I agree with you about the ‘greenness’ of organic. According to Norman Borlaug, we could only feed about 2/3 of the world population with entirely organic methods. The alternative to that would be to take more resources, including land, to feed ourselves, and that’s not green at all. Which is why I like biotech crops so much. They’re not a magic bullet, I hope no one is claiming they are, but they’re a next step in reducing our ratio of input to output, and organic, for all it’s claims, is something of a step backwards from that, increasing that ratio. Again, back to alt med parallels, it’s just like how homeopaths believe so strongly that increased prevalence of homeopathy decreases disease rates, but when one strips away the wishful thinking and looks empirically, the reality is much different.

Party Cactus: I actually know of organic and locavore advocates who see the extra amount of labor and the lower yields involved as a good thing, because they see it as a way to put the nation’s unemployed to work reclaiming arable land lost to urbanization. (Preferably by ripping up the asphalt in abandoned subdivisions and doing some bioremediation before getting to work raising crops.) I like the idea of reclaiming suburbs that should never have been built, but some of this to me brings up an imagery that comes uncomfortably close to chain gangs — or the plantations of the antebellum South.

I myself am interested in the “hoop houses” concept, especially as it concerns people who both garden and keep chickens; typically the hoop house where the hens bed down is resting atop soil that has been recently had crops harvested and is in need of fertilizer, which the chickens provide. After some time, the house is moved to another spot in need of chicken soil amendments, and so on.

Here’s a small-scale example:

A somewhat bigger operation is run by Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Vermont, where thanks to four giant greenhouses on skids he’s able to keep growing salad greens well into the dead of winter:

Is there a disconnect somewhere?
Terminator seeds. With the creation of that GMO crop, while never put to use, was enough for many people to question the science of GMO. Now the scientific community has to deal with that fall out. Being smug and pugnacious in the face of the end users concerns will not win back or convert people away from the woo.

Human emotions and motivation is gooey, something a good scientist has a hard time wrapping their head around. 2+2=4. So when your CEO starts doing goofy things with your research, some problems may arise in the PR side of things.

Oh and science is losing credibility over such trivial things like, bhopal, love canal, agent orange. Yeah, all old things right…not in the public mind. How about ignoring patients concerns about side effects from drugs, like bextra and celebrex.
Currently the face of science is that of an arrogant prick who never admits mistakes, and refuses to clean up after them self. Now is it fair or accurate? And if not, what are you going to do about it?


How about ignoring patients concerns about side effects from drugs, like bextra and celebrex.
Currently the face of science is that of an arrogant prick who never admits mistakes, and refuses to clean up after them self. Now is it fair or accurate? And if not, what are you going to do about it?

Ironic that you use an example of science admitting a mistake and self-correcting to claim that science does not admit its mistakes or correct its mistakes.

The scientific method (the way of science) has resulted in retraction of a bunch of badly done studies. These studies should never have been published, but the scientific community has admitted its mistakes and retracted the papers.

Retraction at Wikipedia. This article does not include such recent retractions as the papers by Dr. Scott S. Reuben on the use of pregabalin for pain, the paper by Dr. Peter Duesberg in Medical Hypotheses, and the papers by Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

There are regular recalls of products that are found to not meet the standards that the manufacturer, or a regulator, would like them to meet.

Has there ever been a case of a homeopath using the wrong chemical in making the diluted water, realizing the mistake later, and having to call the customer to stop the customer from taking the wrong product?

If this is such a powerful cure, it would be expected to cause some harm.

If it is not the right product, wouldn’t the homeopath want to get the right product to the patient?

Where are the homeopathic recalls?

Is it that, since homeopathy has nothing to do with science, there are no mistakes to be corrected. Water is water is water is water is water . . . and so on for maybe 200 times.

If there really is no difference in the homeopathic products, there is never a need for any recall.

The same is true for the rest of alternative medicine. As long as all that is being sold is supposed to be a placebo, what does it matter if the wrong placebo is used?

There was recently criticism of some homeopathic products, because they were including active ingredients in the product. That isn’t supposed to happen when you dilute your treatment down to nothing, then keep going past the point of ad nauseam.

that is the only case of a recall of a contaminated alternative medicine treatment placebo, but contamination must happen. where are the recalls?

The reality is that this is just a claim made by anti-science people. A red herring. Besides, Michael Specter did include Vioxx in the problems he listed (at 5:37 of the video).

You ask if it is fair or accurate.

No. This is not fair. this is not accurate.

These criticisms ignore reality. That is exactly the point of the speech. People ignore reality. People make false claims about science in their attempt to avoid having to deal with reality.

The real question is, Why do so many people work so hard to ignore reality?

I have to say that I don’t think organic agriculture is, in and of itself, woo. The science behind it is mostly sound, but Norman Borlaug was also correct in pointing out that organic agriculture as we currently know it is not going to feed the whole world.

The real problem, when you get right down ti it, is that people still equate natural with good, and therefore are reflexively afraid of GMOs no matter what you tell them. I am not a farmer or agronomist, but it seems to me the future is a mix of organic and GM agriculture.

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