Firing Bullets of Data at Cozy Anti-Science

Janet Maslin reviews Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives in the New York Times:

“I always say that electricity is a fantastic invention,” the British economist Michael Lipton once told Michael Specter, whose bristling new book, “Denialism,” explores the dangerous ways in which scientific progress can be misunderstood. “But if the first two products had been the electric chair and the cattle prod,” Mr. Lipton continued, “I doubt that most consumers would have seen the point.”

Here is what they would have done instead, if Mr. Specter, a staff writer for The New Yorker and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, correctly captures the motifs that shape the stubbornly anti-scientific thinking for which his book is named: they would have denounced electricity as a force for evil, blamed its prevalence on venal utility companies, universalized the relatively rare horrific experiences of people who have been injured by electrical currents and called for a ban on electricity use.

The term “denialism,” used by Mr. Specter as an all-purpose, pop-sci buzzword, is defined by him as what happens “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”

In this hotly argued yet data-filled diatribe, Mr. Specter skips past some of the easiest realms of science baiting (i.e., evolution) to address more current issues, from the ethical questions raised by genome research to the furiously fought debate over the safety of childhood vaccinations.

Among the toes on which he stomps: those of Prince Charles (cited for presumption and ignorance in his advocacy of organic farming), Dr. Andrew Weil (whose promotion of vitamin supplements is equated with snake-oil salesmanship), Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (accused of writing an antivaccine article “knit together by an almost unimaginable series of misconceptions”) and The Huffington Post, “which has emerged as the most prominent home for cranks of all kinds, particularly people who find scientific research too heavily burdened by facts.” …

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