10 February 2010


We're all familiar with the psychological/emotional response known as denial -- "a defense mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence." The unpleasant fact being avoided might be death (one's own or that of a loved one), an addiction, responsibility for one's words or deeds, the impact one's behavior has on others, even denial itself.

When translated to a group of people or an entire population, this behavior is termed denialism -- "choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an unpleasant truth ... refusing to accept an empirically verifiable reality ... an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event."

Michael Specter has written an engaging and informative book called Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Specter writes about science, technology and global public health, and has received awards from the Global Health Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His prose is clear, descriptive and eye-opening.

The book addresses growing the public's growing mistrust toward science in six chapters:

1. Vioxx and the Fear of Science

2. Vaccines and the Great Denial

3. The Organic Fetish

4. The Era of Echinacea

5. Race and the Language of Life

6. Surfing the Exponential

Quoting from the book jacket: "Just as an individual who is uncomfortable with the truth will go into denial, so will a larger group go into denialism when confronted with complex or unnerving realities. The issues we face may be complex but our choices are not ... One source (of denialism) is our burgeoning difficulty in accepting what we used to take for granted: that progress always entails some risk. Our poor grasp of history can also spawn denialism. Like those parents who've never faced the deadly diseases they refuse to vaccinate their kids against, we forget too easily how good a life science has granted us and how vigilant we must be to maintain the advantages we have attained. Denialism also arises from our propensity to perceive things we don't understand in terms of conspiracies and other false explanations. By exposing all these traps -- and several others -- Denialism offers a defense against dangerous ignorance and a road map back to hard-earned, life-saving truths."

Whether or not the reader agrees with every position taken by the author, the book is a lucid, well-researched and thought-provoking read. And that can only be a good thing.

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