Is our fear of biotechnology impeding the scientific progress we once revered? Michael Specter thinks so. In his new book Denialism, Specter says irrational thinking has led the opposition of vaccines and genetically modified food. The internet and the news media aren’t helping either.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Scientific breakthroughs always engender some suspicion and fear. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin chose not to inoculate his four-year-old son against smallpox. After the boy died from the virus, Franklin urged parents not to make the same mistake, writing in his autobiography that even though the immunization had its risks, quote, “the regret may be the same either way, and that therefore the safer should be chosen.” Science often forces us to weigh risk against benefit, but fear can throw everything off balance and cloud our judgment. New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter writes about this problem in his new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives. With a title like that, and chapters including Vaccines and the Great Denial, and The Organic Fetish, Specter makes it clear where he stands. Here’s what he writes about the fear of genetically modified food:
MICHAEL SPECTER: “We expect miracles, but have little faith in those capable of producing them. Famine remains a serious blight on humanity, yet the leaders of more than one African nation, urged on by rich Europeans who have never missed a meal, have decided it would be better to let their citizens starve than to import genetically modified grains that could feed them.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given the stakes, Specter says that the fear of new food technology is unreasonable.
MICHAEL SPECTER: The number of people who have been shown to have been made sick by eating genetically modified food is exactly zero, no people ever. This is a technology that isn't just to make farmers rich with special pesticides, but it’s a technology that, if used correctly – those are very important words, and never said – can help more crops grow, use less insecticide on the land and use less water to grow the crops and give us more diversity. In Africa, cassava is a very common foodstuff for hundreds of millions of people. It’s just a bunch of carbohydrates. It doesn't have any real nutrients. It has no protein. So a bunch of people funded by the Gates Foundation are now trying to genetically engineer it to have those things, to have fewer carbohydrates, to have Vitamin A so you don't go blind. To be able to eat the thing that’s in front of you and have it help you is a scientific achievement. It’s not something to be afraid of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Isn't this the same as it ever was? I mean, haven't we always been afraid of science and haven't we always been in search of easy answers?
MICHAEL SPECTER: What concerns me is that many, many more people feel this way than ever before. The organic food movement has become something of a religion. I eat organic food but only ‘cause it tastes better. We have a billion people in this world who go to bed starving every night. We can't solve their problems with organic food. So these are big issues, and they're bigger than the sort of small group of Luddites who used to, you know, beat up on printing presses in the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many people think that it’s just wrong for a journalist ever to take sides with the likes of big agribusiness or big pharma. I wonder, have you ever been accused of being a shill?
MICHAEL SPECTER: Not more than daily.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] It’s amusing. I did a chat for The New Yorker on the flu a week ago and some guy came on the line and said, is it true you take money from pharmaceutical companies? And I was happy to get the question, because the answer is, I never have and I never will, not a penny. They have, like all corporations, aspects that are really repulsive. They also do some great things, and we ought to take the good and not just throw it away. But anyone who ever writes anything that suggests that agricultural biotechnological firms or pharmaceutical companies aren't wholly evil and that their entire goal isn't to destroy humanity are shills.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another big chapter in your book: Vaccines and the Great Denial. This probably is one of the things that upsets you most.
MICHAEL SPECTER: Yeah, [LAUGHS] I am a parent, and it upsets me most because it’s almost like beating yourself on the head to talk to people who believe that vaccines cause, in particular, autism, which is the biggest concern for many people. People tend to get shots about the same time that the symptoms of autism develop, between the first and second year of life. If you have a kid who seems to be developing normally, he gets a bunch of vaccines and suddenly he doesn't develop normally anymore, it’s completely normal and reasonable to wonder if those two things are related. And many, many studies have been devoted to that question, and never has there been one that’s shown a correlation. There have been studies involving millions of children that show that those who are vaccinated and those who are not vaccinated develop autism at the same rate, and sometimes those who are not vaccinated develop it at a slightly, though statistically unimportant, higher rate. It doesn't matter. You can't convince people. And we have a situation where autism is a very serious problem in our country, and we're not spending the money we should be spending on that because we're spending so much time debating whether or not to use the most effective public health measure that there has ever been in this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about [LAUGHS] the media here, because that’s what this is about. It’s about public perception. And you say part of the problem has to do with the Internet.
MICHAEL SPECTER: Well, the Internet is a wonderful thing, but anyone can whip up a website and look pretty official and say whatever the hell they want. So, if a study says this year’s flu shot will take away from the effect of the swine flu shot that was a small study done in Canada. It hasn't been peer reviewed yet. We don't know how many people were in it. Several other studies in America have tried to reproduce it and failed. But, nonetheless, it’s whipped around the world instantly in headlines everywhere because the Internet is its friend.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, so what are we, who have no science background, supposed to do?
MICHAEL SPECTER: Well, I don't think you have to be intensely scientifically literate to look at a newspaper article or a study and ask a few questions. Who’s being quoted? How many people were in the study? Was it peer reviewed? And peer review isn't magic, and it’s criticized a lot, but if a bunch of outside scientists study something independently, it does give some credence to a study. If no one studies it independently, it’s a bit of a problem. These are things that are usually apparent just in the newspaper articles that are screaming about these issues. Then they can go to their beloved Internet and look at the other studies and say, gee well, this one has 11,000 people, this one has 112; this one lasted four years, this one lasted a week and a half. Those are things everyone can notice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are a number of people who monitor science journalism who say that science on TV news is pretty much a lost cause.
MICHAEL SPECTER: Well, I hate to say anything is a lost cause, but it is true that if it bleeds, it leads. They love the H1N1 flu stories. They love them. First they loved the story about how people are trying to get herded in to being vaccinated. Now, they're flipping out because there’s a, quote, “shortage” of the vaccine. This is a two-week span, and you’re seeing extreme examples of both kinds of reporting by the same people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the last chapter of your book, you discuss the possibilities of future bioengineering, and you quote the scientist Drew Endy as saying, “Science has often proceeded by skipping the dialogue.” What kind of dialogue should we be having right now?
MICHAEL SPECTER: These issues are very severe. We have global warming problems, we have health problems. And many – not all, by any means – solutions can be found in agricultural biotechnology, in the use of synthetic biology which is creating types of organisms to treat diseases, to digest carbon. This isn't science fiction. But it is also scary. I mean, you start making creatures that don't exist and people flip out, and they have every right to flip out. And I think if we had a conversation, a very high-level, serious conversation now about the risks and the benefits, it would help. We never had that conversation with genetically modified food, so people scream about it, and they scream from a lack of sophistication and knowledge. And I think if there had ever been a dialogue that would have helped. I hate to see that happen now. I hate to see the future development of synthetic solutions to our problems be impeded by people who are afraid of them, without understanding that there are also amazing theoretical benefits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL SPECTER: Oh, thank you for having me, Brooke.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Specter is the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives.