Unscientific America Meets Denialism

Mooney and Specter debate causes and cures

Michael Specter and Chris Mooney agree that the United States is full of people who just don’t get science, and that this is a dangerous situation. In fact, they agree about a lot of things.

They are the respective authors of the similarly titled Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, released last week, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, published in July.

But Specter and Mooney don’t agree about everything, and that’s what makes their ongoing conversation at Slate’s Book Club so interesting. The discussion, focusing on Denialism, began Thursday with a review from Mooney that was mostly laudatory, but raised a few good questions. Specter responded, and Mooney weighed in again on Friday morning; we’re now awaiting a fourth installment from Specter.

The main point of debate between the two men revolves around the “root causes” of denialism (defined as ignoring strong scientific evidence for one course of action in favor less stringent, or nonexistent, evidence for another—skipping childhood vaccinations, for example) and what can be done to alleviate it. In his first post, Mooney cited a recent survey (pdf) by the National Science Foundation, which found that Americans actually trust scientists more than most other authorities, including politicians and journalists.

“I can’t help wondering if deep down, the real source of this irrational behavior lies not in public ignorance but rather in an understandable reaction against the problems with our health care system and the documented abuses and profiteering of some pharmaceutical companies,” Mooney wrote at Slate. “Perhaps the cure for denialism is not a greater infusion of scientific thinking or rationality but rather a solution to the underlying issues that drive people toward homeopathic placebos or worse.”

Specter’s eminently reasonable response was that while people say they trust scientists, they sure as hell don’t act like it. “Americans clearly like the idea of scientists,” he replied; “increasingly, though, they reject their advice.”

“For all these problems to exist, there has to be something structurally deficient about the way scientific information gets transferred from our hallowed research institutions and peer-reviewed journals into the public sphere,” Mooney argued. And it’s not hard to guess what that deficiency is. Both he and Specter agree that the Internet has confounded the public’s understanding of science by offering users a largely unmediated selection of “facts, rumors, lies, and errors.” The two authors seem to disagree slightly about where we go from here, however.

Sorting good information from bad is “the biggest problem we face with denialism,” Specter wrote. “But eventually we will tame the Wild West of the Web. I will go out on a limb and say the lowest common denominator – while still pretty damn low – is inching upward.”

Traditional journalism appears to be key for Specter. “What we need to encourage now is the accessibility of the Internet with the standards of what the cyberworld refers to as the ‘dead tree media,’” he wrote. “What we need to defeat denialism are indpendent and thoughtful publications that serve up information that is at least as reliable as newspapers have been.”

Mooney is less sanguine. “Alas, I think your hopes for better media, once we get through this transitional phase and tame the Wild West of the Internet, are overly optimistic,” he replied. “Given this new economy of information and expertise, I think we may need something more than better media.”

What Mooney has in mind is “a national leader to broach” conversations about scientific topics that the public knows little about or misunderstands. President Obama is unlikely to bring up “dark-horse” subjects like synthetic biology, he wrote, but, “Without a presidential initiative, we lack an adequate national forum for discussing the complex and crucial problems that science lays before us.” Mooney also places a lot of the communications burden on scientists, whom he thinks should be trained to “fill the gap” that is being left by the media.

It will be interesting to see Specter’s response in the fourth installment of the Book Club debate (if there is one). Mooney certainly has a point about that many issues do not become topics of national conversations until our highest authorities make them so. But what pushes the authorities to do that? Specter was indeed out on a limb when he suggested that the “lowest common denominator [on the Web] is inching upward.” One hopes that even in this debilitated media landscape, however, the press retains some of its power to set the nation’s political agenda, and it must work hard to reassert that age-old prerogative.

Of course, scientific illiteracy and denialism will not be vanquished easily by any means (elementary/secondary education is another crucial factor), but it’s helpful to have rational voices like Specter and Mooney hashing out their causes and cures.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.