The danger of science denialism

Although this blog is not the Denialism Blog, there is no doubt that one of the overarching themes of Respectful Insolence has been, since its very beginning, combatting science denial. Go back to the very beginning and read a couple of my earliest posts, dating way back to 2004. In one of them I discussed cancer cure testimonials and why they are almost never evidence of efficacy of a given alt-med therapy, a post that, in my ever-insolent opinion, holds up with anything I write today. In another one, I wondered how intelligent people could use alt-med, and in another one I discussed “intelligent design” creationism. In yet another post, I laid out the major topics of this blog for the year 2005, a list that is not too far from what I still write about today. In fact, that list reads like a menu of the various flavors of science denial. Oddly enough, vaccine denialism wasn’t even mentioned in that list, an omission I found quite odd going back to reread my old stuff. In fact, although I had discussed vaccines before on Usenet, it did not become a major topic on this blog for a few months. Indeed, my takedown of anti-vaccine environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in June 2005 was arguably my first big splash in th blogosphere, a turning point for this blog, after which my traffic strated to climb.

Way back in 2004 and 2005, the term “denialism,” although it might have been coined, was a term I had never heard of. Certainly, it was not a widely used term at the time. However, as more and more scientists and commenters appreciated the commonalities that unite various strains of anti-science movements, such as the anti-vaccine movement, creationism, alternative medicine, and animal rights extremists, it became clear that a blanket term was appropriate. Certainly, in my time blogging, the more I observed it didn’t take long for me to appreciate these commonalities as well Some of them include a hostility towards experts, the arrogance of ignorance, and a tendency to conspiracy theories as a means of explaining why science won’t accept pseudoscientific views, but that is not all. Certainly ideology and religion are major influences, particularly when it comes to creationism and the widespread disbelief in the scientific consensus in anthropogenic global climate change. Recently, Michael Specter wrote a book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. (As much as I like the subject matter, God, how I hate long, tedious subtitles.) In February, he gave a TED talk and wrote an accompanying editorial. Naturally, at the five year plus mark that I’ve been applying not-so-respectful insolence to anti-science, not surprisingly I can’t resist commenting–but only after a long-winded introduction. After all, I’ve got to be me.

In the editorial, Specter summarizes the problem very well:

American denialism threatens many areas of scientific progress, including the widespread fear of vaccines and the useless trust placed in the vast majority of dietary supplements quickly come to mind.

It doesn’t seem to matter how often vaccines are proved safe or supplements are shown to offer nothing of value. When people don’t like facts, they ignore them.

That this is true is undeniable. Anyone who peruses, even just occasionaly, the echo chamber that is the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism or peruse the comments after any particularly contentious issue to see antivaccinationists like J. B. Handley or the morphing troll Sue or promoters of quackery like homeopath Dana Ullman can’t help but come to the conclusion that, no matter how much evidence, reason, and science show that a favored idea isn’t true, people will cling to it. Indeed, they’ll cling to it even tighter the more it is shown to be false.

One thing I share in common with Specter is the shock he relates at some of these pseudoscientific movements. He relates early in his talk how several years ago he did a story on vaccines and found himself to be shocked that there was opposition to what he describes as the “most effective public health measure in human history.” Well do I remember, way back around 2001 or so, the first time I encounterd the anti-vaccine movement on the Internet, and I felt exactly the same shock that anyone would refuse vaccines or claim all the harm from them that the anti-vaccine movement did. So shocked was I that I started investigating. As I examined the science, it didn’t take at all long for me to figure out that the claims of the anti-vaccine movement that vaccines cause autism, that shaken baby syndrome is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury, or that vaccines cause various forms of autoimmune conditions like asthma and other chronic health problems are completely unsupported by scientific evidence. Don’t get me wrong. I did learn that there is such a thing as vaccine injury. However, I also learned that such injury is rare and that, whatever the anti-vaccine movement claims, there is no credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism.

I also learned, as did Specter, that most of the people who are anti-science regarding specific issues, such as vaccines, genetically modified food (GMO), or alt-med are actually not stupid. Many of them are highly educated. He points out that, for a variety of reasons, people have lost confidence in institutions and in science itself, mentioning disasters such as Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Vioxx. It was at this point that one key aspect of people with anti-science beliefs was made plain. Specter quite correctly exhorted his audience to be skeptical, to question things. However, he also said that when the evidence is presented and compelling, you also have to do one thing more: Accept it.

As Yoda might say to ant-science pseudoskeptics, “That is where you fail.”

If there’s one thing that distinguishes healthy skepticism from denialism, it’s a refusal to actually accept scientifically valid evidence against your position and consider changing your mind. Again, because I’m the most familiar with it and because its adherents show up to demonstrate this principle on this blog on a regular basis, I’ll use the anti-vaccine movement as an example. No matter how much evidence is shown to them, no matter how many scientific studies fail to find a link between vaccines and autism, no matter how often I and others pick apart the conclusion-negating flaws of the “studies” presented by the anti-vaccine movement to support their position, they never, ever budge. Indeed, their usual response is to attack the messenger, as I have been attacked on many occasions, rather than to try to refute the evidence. The same thing, although usually with a lesser degree of vitriol, can be said of other anti-science movements. For those of you who know my real name, if you Google it you will turn up all sorts of anti-vaccine loons, supporters of quackery, and, if you dig deeper, Holocaust deniers attacking me.

The other thing that Specter gets right is how human beings believe anecdotes far more quickly than we believe science or, as he put it, “We don’t believe a bunch of documents from a government official.” I would have put it, “We don’t believe a bunch of pointy-headed scientists telling us that our personal experience is misleading.” After all, we know what we saw, right? Of course, as I’ve discussed time and time again, correlation does not equal causation. More importantly, coincidence is not uncommon but inevitable when we are examining large numbers of people. People do not understand that, which is why when parents notice the first symptoms of autism not long after a vaccine it does not necessarily mean the vaccine caused it. It might, but the only way to find out is to study large numbers of children, which, as Specter points out, has been done. The results have been about as resoundingly negative as it is possible to have in epidemiological studies.

Specter also has an amusing take on supplements, few of which have any real benefits. As he points out, what many supplements do is nothing more than to give you dark urine. Like Specter, I tend to agree. If you want to spend tons of money for supplements that are unnecessary and for which there is no evidence that they do anything other than give you dark urine, go for it. But don’t pretend that you’re getting a good deal for your money. Perhaps the most cogent observation is how we run from big pharma into the arms of big placebo. Specter didn’t originate that lovely term. I’ve definitely heard it before. However, he did remind me of it again, and I will likely use it.

One thing that’s clealry true about Specter is that he is an evangelist for genetically modified food. Indeed, even though I did in general like his book, the intensity of his chearleading for GMO was so strong that it disturbed me a bit (and, quite frankly, the chapter on Vioxx was a confusing mess). In other words, he didn’t convince me that GMO is a panacea for global hunger. He did, however, make an excellent point that can be applied to another of anti-science movements, which often conflate political and policy issues designed to address the science with the science itself. Anthropogenic global warming is an excellent example of this, but GMO may be the best example, as Specter points out:

When people say they prefer organic food, what they often seem to mean is they don’t want their food tainted with pesticides and their meat shot full of hormones or antibiotics. Many object to the way a few companies — Monsanto is the most famous of them — control so many of the seeds we grow.

Those are all legitimate complaints, but none of them have anything to do with science or the way we move genes around in plants to make them grow taller or withstand drought or too much sun. They are issues of politics and law. When we confuse them with issues of science, we threaten the lives of the world’s poorest people.

We threaten more than that. Perhaps the best quote in Specter’s entire talk was this: “When you start down the road where belief in magic replaces evidence and science, you end up in a place where you don’t want to be.”

Unfortunately, for more and more of the population, it seems, that’s exactly where they’re going. They don’t want to be there, but unfortunately they won’t realize it until there there. They might not even realize it even then.

Unfortunately, society will.