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In his book, “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives,” Michael Specter doesn’t pull any punches. In the following interview, we spoke with him about denialism’s role in the debates around the vaccine-autism link and genetically modified food.
SPH: What is denialism, and how does it differ from healthy skepticism?
SPECTER: Skepticism is about questioning. Denialism happens when you get answers supported by a lot of evidence and you don’t accept them. Denialism is a willful turning away from facts.
SPH: You have a chapter in your book about the vaccine-autism debate. How is denialism at work in this heated topic?
SPECTER: It’s understandable that people might be anxious about giving vaccines to their children when autism is talked about as a possible result. That’s just normal. But when evidence shows the same rate of autism, or even a lower rate, in the children who are vaccinated and you don’t believe the data, that’s denialism.
SPH: Some people maintain that the vaccine-autism link is there, but we just haven’t found it yet. In other words, no one has proved that vaccines are not causing autism.
SPECTER: If I say there are three sick cows in Bangladesh and they’re causing all the illness in India, you can’t prove that they’re not. But we have this process called the scientific method and it’s worked really well for the last several hundred years. It’s made it possible for us to evaluate medicines and technologies and see what works and what doesn’t. We cannot live in a society where the acceptable response to any [disclaimer of a cause and effect relationship] is, “Well, they just haven’t found the truth yet. “
One of the only sure things we do know about autism is that it’s not caused by vaccines. I wish we knew more. I wish people spent the energy and money on dealing with autism that they’re spending on this debate, because autism is a serious problem.
SPH: When it comes to any vaccines, shouldn’t parents be able to make choices for their own children?
SPECTER: In your personal life, if you look at true scientific data and choose to ignore it, that’s fine. But when the issue is whether or not to vaccinate your child, I don’t think you have the right to do that. Not only will vaccines improve and prolong your child’s health, they help safeguard all of society from communicable diseases. Vaccines are the most effective public health measure there ever was. What’s best for society isn’t always clear, but in this case, it is.
SPH: How is denialism connected to the anti-GMO movement?
SPECTER: There has never been one person who has been made sick by eating genetically modified food. Ever. Zero. So when people [in this movement] say, “We don’t know enough [to responsibly plant these crops],” well, that’s actually crap, because we never know enough. We don’t know enough about the Theory of Relativity to cross a bridge, but we do it.
When people object to GM food, mostly what they’re objecting to are things like Monsanto itself or to giant corporations owning seeds. A lot of those objections are valid, but they are political, philosophical, or cultural and can be resolved in the ways we resolve other conflicts in society. They are not scientific issues. And that’s a big difference.
[This movement] is preventing science from moving forward in places where it needs to go. I don’t care what Americans choose to eat—I buy organic food because I think it tastes better—I’m talking about hindering the efforts to produce enough nutritious food for the two billion people on this planet who go to bed hungry every night.
SPH: If you want us to look at scientifically proven facts and use them in our decision-making, how do we combat denialism?
SPECTER: Denialism is human and not terrible as a defense mechanism. People are always confronted with things that are very upsetting—death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, disappointments in work and life—and denialism is an instant response that buffers us a little. But we need to acknowledge that we’re built this way and to know we’re going to react this way in certain situations. Then we have to use common sense, pay attention, and ask questions [to form rational responses]. If you think a vaccine is harmful, why do you think that? What is the evidence? What is the likelihood that this is true? And go from there. You don’t have to be a molecular biologist to do this.