“We’re at an inflection point in terms of what we can do with science — and how close we are to letting it all slip through our fingers,” journalist Michael Specter, the latest speaker in the Dean’s Lecture Series, recently told a Stanford Medicine audience.
Focusing on science, technology, and global health, Specter has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. In his 2009 book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, he took a deep dive into a rising trend: the rejection of proven scientific data.
Speaking to a standing-room only crowd here, Specter cited opposition to the HPV vaccine and resistance to GMOs among the many recent examples of when extensive data has been refuted, with scarce evidence to the contrary. The reason? “Denialism is based in fear,” he said.
Science isn’t a thing to be feared in and of itself, Specter argued. Within the past 50 years, science has become a political entity, imbued with meaning. Yet, he maintained, science doesn’t have meaning — it’s a means to a meaningful end. “Science is a process,” said Specter. “We use it to achieve certain goals.”
In the face of catastrophic health epidemics, he said, we have an imperative to change the perception of science — mitigating the fear around it and, in turn, opening the door to acceptance of the extraordinary disease-fighting tools at our disposal. He noted the example of biotech company Oxitec, which is genetically engineering insects that have begun to reduce the incidence of deadly diseases, like dengue fever in Brazil.
“I don’t blame people for being afraid, but our problems won’t be solved until they’re not,” Specter said. “We need to discuss these things; we need to have these debates.”
Scientists should help lead the conversations, according to Specter. He called for researchers to leave their labs more often and engage non-scientists in their work. “Sit down and have coffee with people, talk with them,” he said. “If there’s a project, one person associated with the project should be able to tell its story.
In his introduction of Specter, Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, advocated for the same. “I recently attended a gathering of Stanford leaders with John Holdren, President Obama’s senior advisor on science and technology,” said the dean, “and he asked whether any of us had ever spoken about the value of scientific discovery at somewhere like a Rotary Club.
“Are we doing everything we can to share what science has done for us — and what it can do in the future?” Minor asked.
“I think you can change things,” Specter concluded. “It’s not the case that this is out of our grasp. But we have to care.”