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The danger of science denial

I finally got around to watching a TED video of a talk by Michael Specter which had been hanging around in my browser for days. Someone, somewhere, recommended the video, and I’m glad I finally got around to watching it.

The slogan on TED’s website is this: “Gather the world’s leading thinkers and doers, offer them four days of rapid-fire stimulation, and the result? Unexpected connections. Extraordinary insights. Powerful inspiration.”

OK, a bit overblown, but this website does contain lots of gems that will excite you, anger you, and amuse you. Highly recommended. The videos are just of guys (and your occasional gal) giving short speeches. The format is loose and relaxed. The subject matter is whatever the speaker wants it to be.

Specter is a well-regarded journalist. One of those guys who actually goes out and gets the story, and he’s apparently not afraid of much. He definitely has a sense of humor about how popular his job makes him. At one point in the video he relates being called “strident” by a friend and then says as a casual aside, “No one’s ever said that before!”

So be forewarned, this is not a “sorta,” “probably,” “in some cases” kind of guy. He chose a hard topic, science denial, and he hits it head on with compassion, humor, understanding, dismissal, and pure annoyance.

I think this video is worth viewing for a variety of reasons. First of all, he’s got food for thought for lots of well-meaning parents who don’t think of themselves as science deniers. For those who think they’re doing a favor to their kids by not getting them vaccinated for killer diseases like polio and measles, he goes straight for why what they’re doing is, first, based on a theory that was studied, restudied, and roundly dismissed by pretty much every scientific study around the world. Second, he points out that in fact, what they’re really doing is endangering their kids. That guy who just stepped off a plane from Lagos, Nigeria and is now sitting in the audience? The polio virus may have chosen him as a carrier. That’s what viruses do. They exist to reproduce.

For those who have little patience with science denial, Specter’s speech is reassuring in its clarity and frightening in the implications he draws. Take the genetically engineered food debate. As he points out, it is a fact that all the food we eat, except perhaps wild mushrooms and that miner’s lettuce salad your kid fed you the other day, is genetically engineered. Natural foods proponents tend to revere Native Americans. Guess what? They did genetic engineering of corn. Natural foods stores are full of soybeans (genetically engineered), cultivated herbs (ditto), and fruits that didn’t exist five hundred years ago.

The food for thought that he offered me, however, is that our modern technology has allowed us to hasten this engineering and focus it. Where it used to be it took a generation to find out that the new variety of corn tastes better but doesn’t stand up to drought as well, now these things can be engineered and tested in a year. It’s scary, that’s for sure. But scary doesn’t mean inherently bad. As he points out: we have the ability to save the health and lives of countless people in Africa, yet we don’t do it. He calls this “technological colonialism,” and I’m sure he used that word to really make us think. It’s good enough for us that we have ample healthy food which has been engineered to suit our needs, but not good enough for Africans? Hm.

I think the most important point he makes is that you need to remember that you may have any opinion that you want, but you can’t have your own facts. The fact is that there is no correlation between the MMR vaccination and autism. Some people have the opinion that there is, but they don’t have the facts. The facts are that one doctor did one tiny, poorly administered study, then one medical journal didn’t really think clearly before they published it. A generation later, the doctor has had his license to practice medicine revoked, the journal has officially pulled the article and slunk off with its tail between its legs, and millions more kids worldwide are at risk for a disease that our parents thought had been eradicated from the developed world.

Specter also explores the reasons for the explosion of “big placebo” (his amusing take on the response to the menace of “big pharma”) — the supplement industry. In my view he goes a little far, given that I have seen in my own life some very positive effects of manipulating diet for my daughter and for myself. However, it is well worth considering how much we spend on, he says with amusement, “dark urine,” when we could be spending that money on something that has actually stood up to rigorous tests. What are supplement companies afraid of? Perhaps it’s simply their bottom line. If their products can’t stand up to FDA rules for testing and results, then why do we reward them with our money?

“When you start down the road where belief in magic replaces evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be.”

No kidding. But wait, I feel a cold coming on… Excuse me now while I go take my echinacea and guzzle some Airborne so I don’t get cancer!

More food for thought:

Posted in Parenting.

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