Michael Specter - The Menace of Denialism

May 21, 2010

Host: Chris Mooney

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.

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