Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Over the past year I've read several books on this theme. All too often people will ignore data and evidence that does not support their preset conclusions and opinions. Whether it's political, ideological, religious or just hard to swallow people resist accepting evidence that will require them to actually change their behaviour or way of thinking.
In Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives author and science journalist Michael Specter covers several specific areas where people do exactly that and become denialists. Whether it's the benefits of vaccines, the safety of genetically modified foods or the nonsense behind the whole vitamin and alternative medicine craze, Specter shows that time and again we ignore the data and the real evidence and in its place accept unverified personal stories from friends and co-workers. Compelling as they may be these personal allegories are just that. And they are poor substitutes for evidence.
Specter points out that denialism is an infection that knows no political restrictions. Conservatives and liberals alike are just as prone to denying overwhelming data when it doesn't support their political ideology.
One of the side effects of reading several books on the same topic is that I have a hard time distinguishing what I learned from what book. Several of the specific cases and evidences cited in this book were also cited in other books I've read. Parts of the book dragged a little for me but only because it was a re-reading of things I've already covered extensively.
One of the topics that I was surprised that Specter didn't cover in this book was global warming. He responded when interviewed on The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast and asked why he didn't devote a chapter to it. He wanted to restrict the topics he covered to areas where more people might be sitting on the fence. He wanted to only address the issues where he hopped that he could actually change peoples' minds. He went on to state that the science behind anthropogenic climate change was so conclusive that he didn't expect his book to change the opinion of anyone who still believed that it was not a reality. Even some of the most hardened skeptics have changed there mind on this topic when they just weighed the massive amount of evidence supporting it.
Denialism is a serious problem. I fear that the marginalizing of science and evidence and the demonizing of intellectualism is seriously hindering technological and social progress. If we really want to solve the major issues of the 21st Century we have to start behaving more rationally.

"If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence."
Bertrand Russell

I disagree with Russell on one slight point here. I've seen far too many times when people have clung to their beliefs even when the evidence was overwhelming.


  1. I think "cherry picking" data is extremely common and something that I seek to recognize in myself. Thanks for the review.

  2. I totally understand. For years I cherry-picked data on one particular subject in spite of the evidence against it. It took quite a lot of effort to admit my mistake.

  3. Michael, thanks for stopping by my blog and I have enjoyed reading yours.

  4. Looks like a great book and I'm glad it's getting some good press. I heard him on the SGU and other places. I'm like you, though, and am familiar enough with the topic that I doubt I'll rush out for this one. I'm only halfway through a big fat Dawkins book and just got his new one for Christmas...

  5. Which Dawkin's book are you reading? I've got "Greatest Show on Earth" in the que to read next.