Michael Specter’s new book ‘Denialism’ misses its targets
“The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
— Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
In the late 18th century, Edward Gibbon fretted about getting into trouble for his blunt take on the early Christians. Short summary: their intolerance and stupidity unwittingly helped bring down Rome. In the above-quoted passage of his Decline and Fall, Gibbon tried to prepare the gentle reader for his coming exposé of early-church idiocy.
Like the great institutions of European Christianity, modern science has amassed tremendous power–and not always lived up to its founding creeds. Science needs a Gibbon–someone who appreciates its intellectual grandeur and potential, but who also can train a cold eye on the “inevitable mixture of error and corruption” that has accompanied its tenure since the Enlightenment.
That Gibbon is not Michael Specter, a New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. His book purports to defend science from its philistine critics–people who, in Specter’s view, reflexively deny the validity of the scientific process.
In his intro, Specter sets up the defining focus of the book. He contrasts the “rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science” with “the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment” (i.e., “denialism”). Already, we’re on thin intellectual ice; Specter evidently believes in a pure science, one that exists completely apart from ideology. In Gibbon’s phrasing, he’s defending a science as “she descended from Heaven [read: the Enlightenment], arrayed in her native purity.”
According to Denialism, organic farming threatens millions in Africa. According to the UN, not so much. But science doesn’t exist in an ideal state. Like the arts, it lives on its patrons–and their interests shape its contours. Here in the United States, public funding for universities and research has plummeted since the Reagan era. Into that void have stepped monied interests–corporations more inclined to finance the generation of proprietary knowledge than the sort of pure science Specter so values.
Does this factor automatically invalidate the scientific enterprise? Of course not. But anyone who takes on the topic of modern science has to account for it–or risk playing the fool. Specter blithely ignores the political economy of science as it is practiced. That oversight severely limits the value of his book.
But there’s another, even more glaring oversight at work here. In a book devoted to “denialism,” and “how irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives,” there is almost no discussion of the most powerful and successful of all the denier cliques: those who insist human-induced climate change is a hoax.
So what do we find in these pages? We get a chapter defending the pharmaceutical industry against critics who question its wares–an industry with nearly $300 billion in sales in the U.S. alone, and fast-growing markets overseas. Specter’s defense aside, Big Pharma typically vies with “oil and mining” and “commercial banks” for the title of most profitable industry in the United States.
There’s a chapter decrying those who question the necessity of vaccinations–even as global child vaccine rates continue to rise. (Indeed, according to a recent report, the main factor holding vaccines back isn’t denialism, but rather their heightened cost.)
We get a chapter lambasting what Specter calls the “organic fetish”–even though organic food sales remain less than 5 percent of the U.S. market (as Specter acknowledges). But really, this chapter (more on which below) amounts to a ringing defense of genetically modified organisms–which can now be found in 75 percent+ of the offerings on supermarket shelves.
Another chapter blasts the herbal remedy and supplement market–substantial at $23 billion in sales per year (according to this report), but still a fraction of the pharma market’s size.
In other words, Specter mainly trains his sights on unsuccessful or marginally empowered “deniers,” such as those challenging the pharma behemoth or vaccines for children.
But what about the successful deniers–the ones who have managed to block any meaningful response to climate change from the federal government, and are even now fouling up the effort to pass an effective climate bill? These folks, part of a loosely concerted movement funded largely by the oil and coal industries, get barely a mention in Denialism; they certainly don’t rate a chapter.
The book’s index has no entry for “climate change.” The entry for “Global warming” cites just one page–a reference to genetically modified foods as a “solution” to global warming.
Does this mean that Specter thinks Monsanto’s critics–of whom I am one–pose more of threat to humanity than the likes of Sen. James Inhofe, who airs his views not in a blog but on the floor of the U.S. Senate? Monsanto has certainly shaken off its deniers; it now dominates the U.S. corn, soy, and cotton seed markets. The movement to mitigate climate change hasn’t been so lucky.
Specter’s failure to consider this most successful foray into denialism just astounds me. Did an author really just publish a book about “denialism”–and forget to address climate-change deniers? It’s like writing a book about the British invasion of the 1960s, and neglecting to mention the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
OK, so what’s in Specter’s chapter on organics and GMOs? Astonishingly, not very much science. Two major assumptions underlie it: organic agriculture delivers frightfully low yields, and GMO agriculture delivers reassuringly high yields. He doesn’t deliver data to back up either of those claims. Here are two studies, both of which came out in time for consideration in Denialism, that Specter really should have grappled with: 1) a 2009 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showing that after decades of research, transgenic seeds have yet to deliver yield increases; and 2) a 2005 study in Bioscience (summary here) showing that yields of organically grown corn and soy match those of their conventional counterparts–with dramatically lower energy inputs.
Straddling his two wobbly, undefended givens about GMO and organic yields, Specter leaps to the conclusion that proponents of organic agriculture are dooming millions to starvation. Or as he puts it:
An organic universe sounds delightful, but it would consign millions in Africa and in much of Asia to malnutrition and death.
To hear Specter tell it, the only thing standing between the African continent and a future marked by widespread famine is a complete surrender to GMO technology. But in declaring that vision, he’s brazenly denying the conclusions of the largest and most comprehensive study on the future of agriculture in the global south, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).
Under the auspices of the United Nations, World Bank, WHO, and other institutions, the IAASTD gathered 400 scientists and development experts from dozens of nations to assess the very problems that concern Specter. A three-year project, it has been called the IPCC of agriculture. Its conclusion: agroecological practices–including the very organic-farming techniques Specter finds so frightful–are at least as important as biotechnology in terms of “feeding the world” in the decades to come.
The study [PDF] is at best lukewarm on GMOs. It openly doubts whether GMOs actually increase yields; and deplores the patent regime that now governs them. The IAASTD states:
In developing countries especially, instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmers or public researchers while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability. In this regard, there is particular concern about present IPR instruments eventually inhibiting seed-saving, exchange, sale and access to proprietary materials necessary for the independent research community to conduct analyses and long term experimentation on impacts. Farmers face new liabilities: GM farmers may become liable for adventitious presence if it causes loss of market certification and income to neighboring organic farmers, and conventional farmers may become liable to GM seed producers if transgenes are detected in their crops.
The IAASTD turned out to be so unenthusiastic about GMOs, in fact, that Croplife International, the trade group for the globe’s dominant GMO/agrichemical purveyors, angrily pulled out of participation shortly before its release.
I’m not blasting Specter for refusing to agree with the IAASTD’s conclusions; but I do find it inexcusable that he failed to grapple with this vast scientific undertaking. In doing so, he lurches toward a kind of denialism of his own.
Generally, he might have more fully engaged the major literature on ag development in the global south. He glancingly refers to the FAO’s 2003-’04 “State of Food and Agriculture” paper that gave tepid support for GMOs among poor farmers (while stressing that they’re “not a panacea”). Yet Specter ignores a more recent paper (this one from 2008, by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development) that’s directly relevant to the topic of his chapter: its on the potential of organic ag in Africa. The paper concludes:
Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously … Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.
Again, no need to agree with every science-based report that praises organic ag. But to pretend such papers don’t exist is poor journalism. Judging from his organic chapter, Specter spent a lot of time trolling the aisles at Whole Foods, marvelling at the simplistic comments of the shoppers. Fine. I have no doubt that he heard silly, science-denying things there. But where is the push to find the intersections between organic and science–such at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, which has for years been running a test organic farm, complete with control farm? The results of its work, often in conjunction with USDA researchers, show that innovative organic techniques have at least as much promise for mitigating and surviving climate change as some patent-protected transgenic seed cooked up in a Monsanto lab.
Scientific output is messy and full of contradictions. And that brings me back to my broader critique of this book: that Specter defends an ideal, objective science that doesn’t exist in this world. There is no greater case study of the grubbiness of real-world science than the rise of Specter’s beloved GMOs.
(I’m still marveling at this statement, from the introduction: “I wonder, as the ice sheet in Greenland disappears, the seas rise, and our sense of planetary foreboding grows, will denialists consider the genetically engineered organisms that propel our cars and sustain our factories as a continuation of what [organic champion] Lord Melchett described as a war against nature?”)
GMOs are hardly a product of the kind of pure and objective science that Specter celebrates. Indeed, the few companies involved in GMO seed production have been accorded such extraordinary intellectual property power by the U.S. government that research scientists have risen up in rebellion.
In an article published in February of this year–maybe too late for consideration by Specter–The New York Times reported that 26 corn-insect specialists signed a letter to the EPA complaining that “no truly independent research [on GMOS] can be legally conducted on many critical questions” because the patent-holding companies have so much power over research. From the Times:
The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.
Shockingly, “The researchers … withheld their names [from the EPA letter] because they feared being cut off from research by the companies.” Now there’s an example of scientists who are free to pursue the path of truth!
I’d also urge Specter to read a paper by Don Lotter, published early this year in the International Journal of the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Lotter’s paper, provocatively titled “The Genetic Engineering of Food and The Failure of Science,” shows how the collapse of biology’s “central dogma”–the one-gene, one-trait thesis that fell apart with the mapping of the human genome–exposed GM plant breeding as a rather crude tool. He traces the rise of GMOs, convincingly arguing that political and economic power, not scientific rigor, have driven the technology’s ascent.
But political and economic power are precisely what elude Specter’s gaze. This great defender of science appears to be cursed with something that a love of science should have cured: naiveté. To be sure, the kind of know-nothing, reflexive anti-scienticism that Specter deplores certainly exists; and its adherents need a kick in the pants. Specter’s boot misses the target. Moreover, he sees deniers everywhere, except where they are actually powerful and effective: denying climate change.