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Making good science decisions

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted June 21, 2010

I can't help but praise Michael Specter's new book: Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Specter warns that we live in a world where the leaders of African nations prefer to let their citizens starve to death rather than import genetically-modified food grains. Childhood vaccines have proven to be the most effective public health measure in history, yet people march on Washington to protest their use. Fifty years ago pharmaceutical companies were regarded as vital supports for our good health and lengthening life spans; now they are seen as callous corporate enemies of health and the environment.

Specter explains why these irrational things happen: "an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie."  

We demonize genetically modified foods, says Specter, because of food elitism—making decisions that work against feeding the hungry in developing nations under the guise of protecting their best interests.

 "In other parts of the world, a billion people go to bed hungry every night," Specter told National Public Radio. "Those people need science to help them."

"Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality or you don't," says Specter. "We are either going to embrace new technologies, along with their limitations and threats, or slink into the slime of magical thinking." 

Societies have used magical thinking for thousands of years, and it has provided emotional comfort to billions. Unfortunately, it has had little beneficial impact on the length of our lives, our earning power, or our quality of life. Magical thinking can't produce comforts like air conditioning, conveniences such as computers and microwaves; or breakthrough technologies like antibiotics, and joint replacements..

Add to the irrational list: 

  • People marching to demand the right to drink raw milk, which presents major health risks due to the bacteria it contains, instead of feeling grateful for pasteurization.
  • The European politician who proposes to ban rat poison because it is "too dangerous." Bubonic plague, spread by rat fleas, killed a third of the people in Europe—twice. Rats also spread such "filth risks" as salmonella and E. coli.

There's no question that the mainstream media have aided, abetted and encouraged the irrationality. In fairness, the media also trumpet the news of new scientific breakthroughs—but their news instincts home in more aggressively on bad news. Moreover, we in the First World don't really have much really serious stuff to complain about anymore except for the politicians we ourselves elect. That leaves the journalists short of the bad news they crave.

Ergo, they have turned to the activists for scare stories and there have been a zillion of those. Working together, the journalists and activists have helped create the backlash against science. The journalists are paying for this now, of course, as the public has gotten "scare fatigue." The Internet and talk radio have given a broader perspective, and called the mainstream media's judgment into serious question. People are simply not buying the newspapers or watching the network TV news as did an earlier generation.

It's too soon to tell whether all this will lead to good or ill, although I'm personally and professionally appalled at the Obama idea of subsidizing news organizations. Neither Britain's BBC nor our National Public Radio has been any more resistant to activist scare stories than NBC, 20/20 or Shepherd Smith.   

Specter gives us no solution, but having TV, talk radio, and the Internet certainly puts us ahead of any previous information consumers in history. ESR

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC,  is an environmental economist.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.






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