x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Feared science

Books In his new book, the journalist Michael Specter pits heroically open-minded scientists against those who just say no to their conclusions. A compelling story, Bradford Plumer writes - but an incomplete one.

Medical interns protesting the assertion by Thabo Mbeki, then the president of South Africa, that HIV does not cause Aids are forcibly removed from the vicinity of the 90th anniversary party of the African National Congress.
Medical interns protesting the assertion by Thabo Mbeki, then the president of South Africa, that HIV does not cause Aids are forcibly removed from the vicinity of the 90th anniversary party of the African National Congress.

In his new book, the journalist Michael Specter pits heroically open-minded scientists against those who just say no to their conclusions. A compelling story, Bradford Plumer writes - but an incomplete one. Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives Michael Specter Penguin Press Dh104 Never in history has it been so easy to become an instant authority in whatever scientific field you'd like. Don't want to believe the expert consensus that humans are warming the planet? No problem. Just click on any of the thousands of climate-sceptic sites on the internet and you can find all sorts of amateur bloviating about flawed computer models and poorly sited temperature stations. Within hours, you too can regale family and friends with charts and plausible-sounding arguments on why global warming is a hoax. Same goes for medicine. Not satisfied with the clinical evidence that there's no link between vaccines and childhood autism? Don't despair! Instead, check out The Huffington Post, where celebrities like Robert F Kennedy Jr inform worried parents that shady "bureaucrats" are trying to "derail, defund, and suppress any scientific study" that proves a connection.

There are all sorts of cranks out in the world working hard to undermine well-established scientific findings. These various movements tend not to have the facts on their side - most of their claims about climate change or vaccines don't stand up to even basic scrutiny - but they can be effective all the same, often with horrifying results. In many countries, more and more parents are now refusing to get their kids vaccinated, leading to a resurgence of once-vanquished diseases like measles or pertussis. (In the United States, reported cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, have jumped from 1,000 in 1976 to 26,000 in 2004.) Global-warming deniers, for their part, have had success bogging down efforts to cut carbon emissions. And, during the 1990s, the charlatans who denied the link between HIV and Aids helped convince leaders in South Africa to shun retroviral drugs, leading to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. Such peddlers of pseudoscience deserve to be debunked at every turn.

Yet in arguing against the cranks, there's often a temptation to dash off in the other direction and start thinking of "science" as some monolithic, infallible authority that must be defended against any and all critics, no matter what. That, too, is a dogma of sorts, one that the New Yorker journalist Michael Specter falls prey to in his otherwise-engaging new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. As Specter sees it, there's currently a battle raging between two camps. On one side sit scientists, with their "rigorous and open-minded scepticism"; on the other, there are "denialists", with their "inflexible certainty of ideological commitment". This is an alluring frame, especially for anyone who's ever had to deal with, say, angry hordes of climate change deniers. But, unfortunately, it's also much too simple a dichotomy, and one that obscures a lot of complex questions about the role of scientific authority in the modern world.

There are, for Specter, two basic types of denialism. The first has to do with panicked and often overblown fears about new technology. In one chapter, Specter revisits the case of Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory drug that hit the market in 1999 and was pulled five years later after evidence surfaced that it increased the risk of heart attacks. (The drug's maker, Merck, had been less than forthright about Vioxx's downsides.) Specter rightly observes that, in all the uproar that followed, the risks of Vioxx were never calmly weighed against its benefits; prior to the drug's introduction, many arthritis sufferers had been gulping down aspirin, which can shred the stomach and cause all sorts of complications, including death."It's a quirk of our psychology that the harm caused by new drugs can loom very concretely, while the lives saved and misery avoided can seem very abstract. This sort of illogical thinking, he argues, can have dangerous consequences.

That's a fair point. But then again, it doesn't seem all that irrational to distrust new technology being pushed by large corporations. Merck, after all, really did try to dissemble about the dangers of Vioxx. Why shouldn't people be wary? Likewise, a great deal of medical research nowadays is funded by private pharmaceutical companies with strong vested interests, and all that money sloshing about can bias studies and distort findings. Critics have pointed out, for example, that many of the authors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the "bible" of psychiatric diagnoses used around the world, have extensive ties to drugmakers. Marcia Angell, the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, has argued that her field is now so riddled by conflicts of interest that "It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines." These observations aren't anti-science - especially since only diligent scientific research can expose and correct skewed studies. But it does suggest that alleviating popular fears about new medical advances will involve repairing the public's faith in doctors and medical science, rather than simply bludgeoning people with study results and calling them denialists. Scientific prestige is never automatic; it has to be earned.

The other strain of "denialism" Specter highlights includes people who simply refuse to accept scientific evidence because it goes against their political beliefs or gut feelings. Anti-vaccine activists keep insisting that immunisation can cause childhood autism, despite reams of evidence to the contrary. And millions of patients continue to swear by "alternative" medical treatments like homeopathy or multivitamins, despite numerous clinical trials showing that these therapies are at best ineffective, at worst harmful. (Oddly, Specter doesn't devote any space to global-warming sceptics, who are easily the most influential obfuscators of this sort; perhaps he felt the topic was too well-trodden.)

Yet this category, too, is less illuminating than it first appears. How do we distinguish between critics who are raising reasonable questions about the state of scientific research in a given field from those who should be dismissed as flat-earthers? What counts as a consensus and what counts as a meaningful attack on a consensus? These are questions even scientists sometimes struggle with. On one end of the spectrum, sure, we can say with a great deal of confidence that smoking increases your risk of lung cancer, that HIV causes Aids, and that man-made greenhouse gases are heating the planet. Virtually all scientists working in these fields agree that the evidence on these questions is too overwhelming to ignore. But that still leaves plenty of trickier cases. For many years, most medical professionals didn't consider chronic fatigue syndrome a real condition, a judgment that had all sorts of consequences for health care. Outsider patient groups did a lot of work to question this state of affairs, and views on the subject have slowly changed (a recent study in Science has now even suggested a viral culprit for the syndrome, although that's not yet conclusive). At times, ordinary citizens can play a valuable role in second-guessing the experts. So how do we distinguish between the useful sceptics who may be onto something and the pointless, head-in-the-sand deniers?

It's not always an easy call. Even Specter can't always tell the difference: in his book, he flatly rejects certain ideas as unscientific even when they may not be. In one chapter, he includes advocates of organic farming among the ranks of "denialists". Why? Because, apparently, organic farming techniques produce relatively low yields per acre, while industrial farming and genetically modified (GM) crops produce higher yields. So, Specter concludes, opponents of GM crops are waging an ideological campaign that threatens to "consign millions in Africa and in much of Asia to malnutrition and death." QED.

But hang on a minute. This is hardly a slam-dunk scientific assertion on par with the theory of evolution or the connection between cigarettes and lung cancer. And it's not even clear that Specter is right on the merits. In 2007, the UN's International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) released a report on the future of agriculture that was based on three years of collaborative research between hundreds of scientists and development experts. The study found only mixed evidence that GM crops have superior yields, and it concluded that organic techniques would need to play a key role in feeding the world, especially since they required fewer energy inputs. Granted, Specter doesn't have to agree with this report; it might well be wrong. But this is hardly some fringe view, and it's much too glib to tar critics of GM crops as denialists (even if they may overstate their case from time to time). That just seems like a crude attempt to shut down a valid and worthy debate.

Moreover, the IAASTD study underscores the problem of leaning too heavily on simple appeals to scientific authority. The report explains that many GM crops are patented by companies like Monsanto, and that this patent system can potentially drive up seed costs for farmers in developing countries and "undermine local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability". Now, whether this claim is true or false (Specter seems to think it's wrong), note that this isn't a scientific issue at all - it's a political matter. Scientific research may be able to discover new types of high-yield crops or assess different farming techniques, but it certainly can't answer the question of what we should do with those findings. Science can only provide us with facts and the frameworks with which to interpret them. It can't tell us what we should value, or how we should act.

Unfortunately, Specter never fully grapples with this point. In his most riveting chapter, he profiles a number of biomechanical engineers who can now manipulate DNA to create synthetic organisms, which may one day help us produce carbon-free fuels or a cure for malaria. But, he worries, denialist fever could suffocate these advances before they ever mature. If the current hysteria over vaccines seems extreme, just wait until The Huffington Post trains its sights on genetic engineering. The only alternative, Specter says, is to surrender to the march of science, wherever it leads: "Accelerate the development of technology and open it to more people and educate them to its purpose. Anything less would be Luddism."

But would it? In a democratic society, science and technology aren't always going to be paramount concerns, nor should they be. As we journey into a world where biologists can alter DNA and micromanage the pace of evolution, we shouldn't be guided by blind panic or misinformation, but that doesn't mean we should just do whatever scientists think best, either. Societies have always placed firm limits on what science can and can't do. We have, for example, strict guidelines on human testing in clinical trials, even though these restrictions no doubt hinder the pace of research and technology. That's not denialism. It's just a recognition that science will always be subordinate to the broader needs of society, rather than the other way around.


Bradford Plumer, a regular contributor to The Review, is an assistant editor at The New Republic.