Friday, April 16, 2010

Book Review: Denialism

Another one bagged! This time the book that took my undivided attention for a few days was Michael Specter's "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives".
I have to admit I was picking it up (or downloading it, as it may be in case of an e-book) as a convert. It is definitely a book that "preaches to its own crowd" as far as I am concerned. I knew that this "denialism" attitude is very real and it affects us daily.
For one, I have seen the "vaccine" denialism first hand, and I've realised that it extremely difficult, if not impossible to reason with those who crossed over to the other side (that one that claims vaccines cause all kinds of harm). The confirmation bias, personal anecdotes, and simply the fear of loosing your own beliefs, is stronger than reason and clear thinking.
I'm also rather close to a crowd that strongly believes in all sorts of "natural" remedies, discarding any science that shows no effects. It is rather amusing (but sad at the same time) to see people spending hundreds of dollars on fake and unproven vitamins, remedies and modalities, claiming that the "big pharma" and the doctors are out there only to get our money.
However, the book goes farther than that. It talks about some valid reasons (Vioxx) why people distrust pharmaceutical companies and  the mainstream medical establishment in general. It is a fascinating story and it proves that there are enough controls in the system to keep us safe.
Besides vaccines and natural remedies, "Denialism" concentrates also on a few other topics, namely our "organic fetish" and the more and more pervasive genetics and genetic engineering.
In both cases, Michael Specter dissolves the myths and presents very convincing argument that only by listening to science and reason, we can keep both in check. But "keeping in check" does not mean, not embracing future discoveries. Genetics and genetic engineering are especially delicate areas, but we need to be mindful of what the give us, understand it, and use it wisely, following scientists, not politicians, to ensure our success.

You can also read Michael Specter's recent article on the CNN portal, where he discusses ideas coming from his book:
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.