TED: The Dangers of Science Denialism - Michael Specter

Among the books I am currently busy trying to read, is Michael Specter's book Denialism. If you don't have time to read his book, watch his TED talk. I appreciate how he points out our problems, but love the call to fix them. Denialism gets us no where.


  1. Interesting talk! He certainly makes a strong case for genetically modified food (and not burying one's head in the sand on the big issues). I appreciate that he points out that the a lot of the problems of genetically modified foods aren't in fact the idea that they have been modified but are related to how we grow them and use them. I think the one example of really heinous genetically modifications is the idea of making seeds that are unable to produce more seeds, so that the growers are forever dependent on the manufacturers of the seed. That seems really wrong to me.

    He did touch on some of the reasons that people have lost faith in the institutions which I think is really the big problem in people's perceptions. "I can't believe you because: a) you were wrong before and didn't come clean in a timely and faith maintaining way b) you make money if I believe you so you are probably motivated to make me believe this by the profit motive and not for my own best interest"

    == Getting on Soapbox ==

    One of the fundamental problems that he completely misses is that of who to believe. He simply says that we should examine the facts. Great. let me put my life on hold while I examine the facts on each and every vaccine, vitamin supplement, genetically modified food, etc. do some statistical analysis on the studies (if there are any) and make a careful consideration as to whether their results are valid, conforming to proper scientific methods and... oh wait that means I'll need to be familiar with the proper scientific research methods for biology, chemistry, organic chemistry... and then there's the trouble of whether people are telling the truth about their results... in teh cases where there is only a few studies and I can't infer truth by similar results in unconnected studies I pretty much need to review the records of test to make sure they aren't fudging the results a little. I'm afraid I don't have the time. So this suggestion is not going to be workable.

    Which I think brings in a part that he didn't address in his video, but is equally important (maybe it's in the book) which is understanding who to believe. Honestly, I think that most of us are working a lot more strongly off the web of trust model, because the institutionally based trust model has seen such heavy damage Too many doctors giving advice when they only have a PhD in creative writing :). And everyone calls themselves engineer (except me, although I wouldn't mind being in a position, where the term engineer would properly apply :).

    Anyways, I would have like to hear who he chooses to believe, how he judges which studies are good which are invalid. Who he chooses to trust etc. Cause in the world of more information than a person can possibly parse that is one of the big problems related to trying to act wisely. That's one of the reasons I think we're seeing a shift towards more organic thinking on the genetically modified food front. People feel like they can trust it, it's not new. (The vaccine thing I agree is completely crazy)

    == Getting off soapbox ==

    uh oh I wrote a novel.

  2. I agree that the whole seeds that won't produce more seeds seems evil. I think it's one of those things where people get mad, but don't realize the subtle difference between getting mad at the "hammer" or getting mad at the person swinging the "hammer".
    As to who to trust, I would say things with a small amount of evidence, I trust little. IE "cold fx', no real evidence, no real trust. Vaccines, vast amount of evidence, much more trust. The more conclusive peer review, the more studies across a range of areas/publications, the more I would trust. Basically b/c that has been shown to work well so far. We've built bridges, wiped out diseases, it's not perfect, but it's the best we've got. The more results the better.
    I just finished a book called 'Predictably Irrational', which I think matches well with his book.
    You have a good point, it's not easy knowing who to trust, which is why I would say healthy skepticism is the way to go.