How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives

by Michael Specter

Year published: 2009
Category: nonfiction


In an age when science is more important than ever, unscientific thinking and anti-science bias are alarmingly persistent. Specter, a science journalist, coins a term to describe this phenomenon: denialism.


In this work of nonfiction, Michael Specter addresses a subject dear to my heart but sure to upset the qi balance of less rational readers.

“Denialism” is a good word choice to describe modern resistance to science, as Specter attributes the problem not to lack of intelligence or even education, but rather willful blindness. So many Americans put more faith in anecdote (“my sister had a flu shot and then…”) than in randomized, controlled studies with statistical significance. They attribute magical properties to substances which are “chemical-free,” as if matter of any kind ought to lack molecules. “Natural” is interpreted as benign, despite the reality that the “natural” world of the pre-industrial age conferred an average human life expectancy of something like 35 years.

The book is organized into six chapters that address six areas of rampant denialism in American life. I like it that he targets both the traditional right and left. Topics include fear of pharmaceutical companies, vaccine phobia, organic food, herbal supplements and “alternative” medicine, personalized medicine/genomics and race, and synthetic life. Specter is best on vaccines and organic food and alternative medicine.

Unfortunately the book lacks the intellectual vigor of, say, a Malcolm Gladwell book, and Specter’s arguments tend to be dilute and not necessarily supported by the evidence provided. In fact the interviews and tidbits he provides seem to have been chosen more because they’re interesting than because they fit the thesis. Because of this, the book probably will not convince many denialists to change their stripes. An interesting read nevertheless.

A better book than this with some similar themes:
Bad Science
by Ben Goldacre

Comments are closed.