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Denialism: Media in the Age of Disinformation

04/27/2010 7:00 PM Museum
Michael Specter, Staff Writer, The New Yorker; Chris Mooney, Discover Blogger and Knight Fellow ; Shannon Brownlee, Instructor, The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice; Shankar Vedantam, National Science Writer, The Washington Post

Description: A few hundred years after the Enlightenment, western civilization is rushing back to the Dark Ages. The causes are debatable, but, argue these science journalists, the public increasingly rejects the findings of science, from climate change to evolution, and is turning away from rationality and reason in general.

"People are afraid of anything that will hammer away at their preconceived notions," says Michael Specter. He points to the fanatic opposition in some quarters to genetically engineered foods, and the worship of organic products. Almost everything we eat is the result of genetic modification, he notes, and "organics kill people, too." It doesn't make sense to think that returning to "the old ways" will keep us healthy and supply the world with food. "We're hurting ourselves in lots of ways," says Specter, when people insist on believing what they want.

Human nature plays a big part in feeding denialism, believes Chris Mooney. "We all ... argue against information that contradicts our existing worldview." The unfortunate evolution of media in the digital age is feeding our inherent "confirmation bias," and today "Americans with different political leanings construct different realities." We must "give up" on the idea that truth triumphs and society advances as more people become critical thinkers. Concludes Mooney, "We have to work with the media and brains we have, and seek realistic change."

Shannon Brownlee had an "epiphany" a decade ago when she realized that prostate cancer tests did not lead to a lower risk of dying, as researchers suggested, but instead to potentially harmful treatment. Her "awakening" led her to perceive "how much of medicine we take on faith." Brownlee's journalistic beat now involves the frequent occurrence of "bad science" in medicine. She believes we are not all that far removed from the days when medicine was based on "four humors of disease" and bleeding was the key remedy. Health care, on which Americans spend more than anything else, depends on "the perception of science as its underpinning"_ a terrible delusion, she implies.

To contend with denialism, says Shankar Vedentam, we need a more nuanced view, one that recognizes its different shapes: One type rejects events from the past for which we have evidence, and another kind "says I'm not willing to trust projections of what will happen in the future." Climate change falls in the latter category, as people "are being asked to trust data rather than their intuitions." Some summers feel cold, and some winters feel hot, for instance. Also, he says, partisanship now holds sway in all aspects of life, with people swearing loyalty to particular positions in unrelated areas, and to fellow members of their "team." Given indifference to facts, good information "paradoxically, horrifyingly can amplify the effects of bad information," believes Vedentam. Just look at the explosive growth of the Obama birther movement, in spite of ample evidence that the president was indeed born in Hawaii.

Panelists see no easy antidote to this large"scale retreat from reason. Specter recommends that schools teach statistics, and Brownlee concurs that kids "should know what a big denominator and small numerator means." Vendantam argues for a nonpartisan approach to such issues as climate change, and Mooney thinks hard scientists and social scientists should be "in better dialog" to craft an effective approach to the big scientific and policy questions of our time.

About the Speaker(s): Michael Specter has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. His most recent book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, was published on October 29, 2009. Specter writes often about science, technology, and public health. Specter came to The New Yorker from The New York Times, where he had been a roving foreign correspondent based in Rome. Earlier, Specter worked at The Washington Post, where, from 1985 to 1991, he covered local news, before becoming the paper's national science reporter and, later, the newspaper's New York bureau chief.

In 1996 he won the Overseas Press Club's Citation for Excellence for his reporting from Chechnya. He has twice received the Global Health Council's annual Excellence in Media Award, first for a 2001 article about AIDS, and second for his 2004 article "The Devastation," about the ethics of testing H.I.V. vaccines in Africa. He also received the 2002 AAAS Science Journalism Award, for his article, "Rethinking the Brain," about the scientific basis of how we learn. Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the The Republican War on Science, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co"authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.

Moponey has also been a visiting associate in the Center for Collaborative History at Princeton University. For the summer of 2010, he is a Templeton"Cambridge Fellow in Science and Religion. He is also a contributing editor to Science Progress and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect magazine.

Mooney's 2005 article for Seed magazine on the Dover evolution trial was included in the volume Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006. In 2006, Chris won the "Preserving Core Values in Science" award from the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. His 2009 article for The Nation, "Unpopular Science" (co"authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum) will be included in Best American Science Writing 2010. Shannon Brownlee is a writer and essayist whose book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, was named the best economics book of 2007 by New York Times economics correspondent, David Leonhardt, and is being used by legislators and policy makers to craft health care reform legislation. A former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including the Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Glamour, More, Mother Jones, New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Slate, and Time, among others. In 2008"2009, Brownlee served as a visiting scholar at the National Institutes of Health, and is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Scholar.

In 2010, Brownlee received two awards from the American Society of Journalists and Authors: the June Roth Award for Medical Journalism, and the ASJA's award for Reporting on a Significant Topic. Other honors include the Association of Health Care Journalists Award for Excellence, the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting, the National Association of Science Writers Science"in"Society Award, and the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. She holds an M.S. in Marine Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Shankar Vedantam writes about science and human behavior. He authored the weekly Department of Human Behavior column in The Washington Post from 2006 to 2009. He is the winner of several journalism awards and was a 2009"2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

He previously worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Knight"Ridder's Washington Bureau, and New York Newsday. Vedantam has a master's degree in journalism from Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in electronics engineering. He is interested in the history of conflict over the theory of evolution, the changes over time of religious theories concerning the creation of the universe, and the effects of religious faith on health. He has written about the interplay between neuroscience and spirituality, an area he would like to explore further.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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