Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Janet Maslin offers a review of an interesting new book by Michael Specter: DENIALISM -How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives. He explores the ways in which scientific information is misunderstood by a sizeable portion of the populace, struggling with change, that deflects reality to bask in more comfortable illusion. Here are a few clips:
In “The Organic Fetish,” a chapter that ably illustrates this book’s tactics and purpose, he uses Whole Foods as the apotheosis of a strain of magical thinking. First of all, he asks, what exactly is organic food? Is it more healthful than genetically engineered food or than food that has been harvested by robot-guided machinery rather than human hands? And are organic fertilizers more earth-friendly than synthetic ones? “There are no short answers to those questions (at least none that are true),” he says...And whatever the merits of organic farming for societies that can afford it, what happens in places where food, land or water are scarce? There is a case to be made for agricultural methods that make the most efficient use of new technologies, and thus for genetically engineered crops that produce increased yields. But these are widely derided as Frankenfoods. Their ability to scare people and trigger blanket resistance is one of this book’s foremost illustrations of denialism in action.

Of all the grenades lobbed by “Denialism,” the most explosive is aimed at Dr. Weil, the otherwise-sacrosanct avatar of New Age medicine. In the chapter called “The Era of Echinacea” Mr. Specter describes signing up for one of Dr. Weil’s customized mail-order regimens. “Dr. Weil, who argues that we need to reject the prevailing impersonal approach, reached out from cyberspace to recommend each of these pills wholeheartedly and specifically, just for me,” But Mr. Specter decided that the pills advocated by Dr. Weil fell into three categories: those that did no particular good, those that did some good but could interfere with the effects of prescribed medicines, and those that “seemed just plain dangerous.”..What bothered him more than Dr. Weil’s advice was Dr. Weil’s philosophy. “The idea that accruing data is simply one way to think about science has become a governing tenet of the alternative belief system,” Mr. Specter writes. And the additional idea that the evidence of experience is as important as the results of meticulous scientific testing is, in Mr. Specter’s view, one of the most dangerous forms of denialism, especially when it comes from a figure of Dr. Weil’s stature. As “Denialism” puts it: “It is much easier to dismiss a complete kook — there are thousands to choose from — than a respected physician who, interspersed with disquisitions about life forces and energy fields, occasionally has something useful to say.”

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