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On science literacy and denialism: A Q&A with journalist Michael Specter

As a journalist for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and most recently, The New Yorker, Michael Specter has written about seemingly everything. He's covered the debate over genetically modified food labels, the 1996 Russian presidential elections, the fashion of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, the global AIDS epidemic and how 3-D imaging may explain why Michelangelo took a sledgehammer to his masterpiece known as the Florentine Pietà.

Any one of these topics could be a book, yet Specter chose to focus on the phenomenon he calls denialism. His book, "Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives," was called a "hotly argued yet data-filled diatribe" by the New York Times.

Specter will be speaking at the Dean's Lecture Series on Monday, March 20, so I reached out to him to learn more about denialism and how it colors the world we live in. Here's what he had to say:

What is denialism and what prompted you to write a book about it? 

Denialism is the refusal, on the part of a group or a society, to accept facts for which there is overwhelming evidence. I wrote about it because I saw too much of it; people in particular, who were not vaccinating their children and arguing that it was unsafe, people who thought GMO’s were somehow dangerous despite all evidence to the contrary, people who refused to accept the fact that most vitamin supplements are useless (at best).

Has denialism changed since you wrote your book?

Well, sadly, it’s gotten worse. Most of the people recently appointed to run our Environmental Protection Agency, to say nothing of the president, do not believe that climate change is caused by humans or of any particular concern. Half of Americans think that GMO’s are dangerous, which they are not. And the general sense, exemplified by the man who leads our country, that facts are meaningless, has only intensified in the past several years. It is a very dangerous trend.

What’s your advice for people (e.g., researchers, doctors, journalists) working to advance or communicate science in the face of science denial? 

First, take a minute to consider your audience. Pregnant mothers may be genuinely anxious about vaccines. Ignoring their anxiety or condescending and acting as if they have no right to be afraid, is NOT going to make them less anxious or afraid. We need to reach out to the people who oppose science, or think that they do, and have rational conversations. Be patient (I have not always followed this advice, I should admit.) It often works.

Is there an antidote to denialism? What can be done to reverse it or lessen its impact? 

This problem is not going away overnight. We need literacy more than we need anything else. Kids in fourth grade ought to be playing with genes in class much the way I dissected frogs many years ago. They need to be comfortable and most of American cower when the word genetics comes up.

Scientists need to engage the public in their work. Gone are the days when you can simply justify your existence by saying, 'I work hard, I don’t have time to do PR.' If the public thinks that synthetic biology, or the tools of gene editing, or any other modern advance are impossible to comprehend they won’t even try. They also never support your work. It doesn’t matter how good your research is if you have nobody willing to fund it or buy products that it may eventually produce.

I'll be live-tweeting his talk from @StanfordMed; It begins at 12 p.m. Pacific.

Previously: A timely reminder: Vaccines don’t cause autismWanted: Nancy Snyderman reflects on Ebola and calls for commitment to science literacyBetter science communication is critical, The New Yorker’s Michael Specter argues and Are young adults in denial about how lifestyle choices affect their health?
Photo by New America

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