Michael Specter’s book Denialism spotlights a bizarre perversity: just when science and technology have vastly improved the quality of our lives, too many people respond not with hosannas but with fear and loathing. Human existence, from the start, has always been a battle with nature. And now, just as the tide of battle has turned, some people are actually on the wrong side.
They reject what they see as our hubristic, misguided and destructive “tampering,” in favor of anything that seems “natural.” Thus the turning away from modern science-based medicine and toward the bogus quackery of various “holistic” or “alternative” treatments.
Genetic Modification too incurs their hatred. Never mind that GM enables us to produce more and better food using less land, less pesticide and less fertilizer, thereby feeding millions of hungry children who would otherwise starve. And in fact we eat practically nothing that hasn’t been genetically modified. Only in the past, the techniques were primitive. For food unsullied by human manipulation, you’ll have to go back to the forest and eat roots and furry things.
GM foods have been a major part of the American diet for decades. The number of people sickened or killed: precisely zero. But tragically, fear of imaginary “risks,” especially in Europe, has blocked GM’s use elsewhere. Unable to sell any GM products to Europe, Africans also consequently shun GM. Result: more hunger and starvation. Not using GM has real risks, not imaginary ones.
There’s another perversity that’s (mostly) outside the scope of Specter’s book, but has many parallels. Just as people rebel against the science that has bettered their lives, there’s hostility toward the economic model that has done likewise: market capitalism. Indeed, the two – science and capitalism – have operated together synergistically to make a better world. Market capitalism promotes scientific advancement by creating the conditions for it to really pay off and spread its benefits.
And, just like scientific denialism, anti-capitalism is incoherent insofar as its advocates have no credible alternative. Their economic nostrums are analogous to the quackery that passes as alternatives to scientific medicine.
I am not claiming infallibility for either capitalism or science. Both have produced disasters. It couldn’t be otherwise: the world is big and complex, and no human enterprise can proceed with divine perfection. So we’ve had our Bhopals, Thalidomides, Chernobyls, and financial messes. That’s the unavoidable price for the benefits of science, technology, and the economic system that supplies the motivations to make the most of them. Renounce them and, yes, you won’t get Chernobyls or financial crashes. But nor will you get what makes life livable rather than nasty, poor, brutish, and short.
Some also crusade against vaccinations, based on supposed harm which is likewise imaginary. This issue is the centerpiece of Specter’s book. It also ties in with anti-capitalism; crusaders see vaccination as a corporate plot by evil pharmaceutical companies. As if their employees get up in the morning with the mission of harming children to fatten shareholder profits.
It began in 1998 with a study by Andrew Wakefield purporting to link vaccination and autism. This was catnip for people predisposed to mistrust modern medicine, so it was off to the races – even though Wakefield’s study has been discredited (Wikipedia calls it “fraudulent” right in the first line), and not a shred of other evidence connects vaccination to autism. Anti-vaccinators are misled by the coincidence that autism first becomes noticeable at about the same age when children get vaccinated.
Autism is a complex problem, and science has not solved it. However, based on intensive studies prompted by the vaccination controversy, we can now be certain one thing at least cannot cause autism: and that one thing is vaccination.
But to the denialists, such factual evidence doesn’t matter (or is just part of the conspiracy). Specter names names: Barbara Loe Fisher, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr,, and the actors Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy.* These fear merchants, he shows, simply lie to support their baseless claims.
One might say that if misguided people won’t vaccinate their kids, it’s their own business (though kids who consequently die might disagree). But it’s not that simple. If, in a population, a critical mass of people have immunity to a disease, it can’t get a toehold and spread. But it can if enough people refuse vaccination. And that is exactly what we’ve seen as a direct result of the anti-vaccination hysteria. Diseases that had virtually disappeared in America and Europe are coming back.
Similarly, the world was within an inch of making polio extinct until some Muslim preachers in Nigeria denounced vaccination as a Western plot; polio duly resurged in Nigeria; and traveling Nigerians spread it elsewhere. Polio’s final eradication has been tragically derailed.
*He also names Senator Tom Harkin for forcing a billion taxpayer dollars into studying and even promoting blatantly worthless “alternative” medicine schemes.