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Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives

3.68  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,555 Ratings  ·  189 Reviews
In this provocative and headline-making book, Michael Specter confronts the widespread fear of science and its terrible toll on individuals and the planet.

In Denialism, New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter reveals that Americans have come to mistrust institutions and especially the institution of science more today than ever before. For centuries, the general view had
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published October 29th 2009 by Penguin Press (first published 2009)
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Community Reviews

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Jan 27, 2011 Lena rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, medical
Over the last few years, I've become increasingly interested in the gap between scientific and technological developments and the public perception of those developments. In Denialism, journalist Michael Specter dives straight into this gap and makes a compelling argument that this problem is among the most dangerous we currently face.

Specter does decent job of outlining where the gap between scientific data and popular myth comes from and why it seems to be growing. In the middle part of the ce
Nov 30, 2009 Emily rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I really wanted to like this book, especially since I agree with the author's premise that some segments of our society have developed a knee-jerk distrust of all things scientific which is endangering lives, wasting money and distracting us from making scientific progress. In Mr. Specter's words, "Denialism is denial writ large - when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie."

Mr. Specter opens Denialism
Mar 27, 2010 David rated it did not like it
I'm sure there's some good stuff in this book - possibly enough to raise the review to two stars. However, Specter's starting point is so horribly flawed that I can't continue reading this, and wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.

Denialists piss me off. Climate change deniailists, the anti-vaccine movement, etc. The thing we must be cautious about, however, is that because denialists have a completely warped view of reality, and ignore evidence and science, if you call someone a denialist you w
May 31, 2010 Susan rated it did not like it
I read about two thirds of this book. The point that it generally makes is good: that it's good to embrace scientific progress and be logical. However, I find in a number of his arguments he is rather simplistic, assuming that the situations are strictly black and white. Notably, in the section on organic food: he points out how companies noticed that transferring genes from a brazil nut to another plant, caused an allergic reactions to it that had not happened before (and the company stopped th ...more
Aug 09, 2011 David rated it really liked it
This book is a polemic, railing against counter-culture anxiety toward technological progress and scientific illiteracy, as expressed in the anti-vaccination movement, organic ideology, GMO hysteria, etc. I’ve read several valid criticisms of the book, although most readers see at least some value in the message. One thoughtful review noted that the author failed to distinguish between science and technology (e.g., nuclear physics is science, nuclear weaponry is technology). The author is freque ...more
John Anderson
Jan 14, 2014 John Anderson rated it it was amazing
This book is excellent for what it is: a general overview of several examples which illustrate "denialism".

No, it doesn't offer much in the way of solutions to the issues it addresses: I didn't expect it to. Of course it would have been nice, but I'm against the idea that people should not promote awareness without also providing a solution (except for when it's used as a political tactic to avoid actual discussion of solutions).

Yes, it bypasses issues such as global warming and creationism in f
Apr 04, 2011 Mark rated it liked it
An OK survey of 'deniers' of modern science such as the anti-vaccine or alternative healing crowds. On one level it's a well written and well researched polemic--I certainly learned quite a bit about various movements, something about the science of different areas, and got quite worked up in places.

On another level, though, it's sort of oddly unsatisfying. By the end I got the feeling that Specter was primarily an optimist who just likes scientists as people and gets annoyed with idiotic conspi
Jan 15, 2011 Paul rated it really liked it
Very, very interesting book to read. Changed my thinking about a lot of things.

The author's basic premise is that some people, for whatever reason, want to believe whatever lunacy they've chosen to believe over hard, scientific fact. Normally that's not a problem. It's when people like this band together and start making noise that others, possibly suffering from the same issues, jump on the bandwagon.

I'd originally heard the author speak on NPR, and was interested in getting the book, mainly
May 31, 2015 Sarah rated it really liked it
This book is an excellent source of information and proof that our self-inflicted ignorance is limiting progress on a massive scale. Specter cites vaccine misinformation, myths of the organic food movement, and the overarching misunderstanding of biotechnology and its potential as a few examples of this terrifying “denialism”.

I consider myself to be a fairly inquisitive and knowledgeable person when it comes to the things that I endorse. Specter brought up many arguments in this particular book
Dec 20, 2009 Donna rated it really liked it
What I expected from this book was a neurological explanation of the propensity we all have for denialism--from the psychologically protective mechanisms involved in absorbing tragedy in stages to the obstinate refusal of sometimes educated or influential people--from Samuel Shenton (founder of the Flat Earth Society) to Sarah Palin--to acknowledge scientific fact. I still think that would be a very good book, and someone ought to write it.

As it turns out, Denialism is more about the scientific
May 23, 2011 Darrell rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed
"Farm animals take up the vast majority of agricultural land and eat one-third of the world's grain. In the rich nations we consume three times the meat and four times the milk per capita of people in poorer countries. [...] Livestock already consume 80 percent of the world's soybeans and more than half the corn. Cattle require staggering amounts of fresh, potable water. It takes thirteen hundred gallons of water to produce a single hamburger; a steak requires double that amount. [...] To make a ...more
Nov 23, 2010 Amanda rated it it was ok
Recommended to Amanda by: lifehacker, i think
Shelves: non-fiction
Not a good book. For the most part, it read like an extended blog post, with some case studies on cool technologies, but without a lot of discussion on why people tend towards being anti-science, or even about how culture discourages science literacy! It was just some guy saying hey! These people are stupid for taking person X's word for granted, and not taking scientist Y's word for granted, but they should totally take MY word for granted, even though I am also picking what experts and quotes ...more
Nov 01, 2009 Trish rated it liked it
Sometimes one just wants to give up on people. Maybe give them what they want, doubled, in a place they will notice its presence. Who knows if the science is right or wrong. It's the best attempt of a blind man to determine the extent of an elephant. If we put aside our greed and made a good faith effort not to blow the planet to smithereens, I think we could claim the joy the Buddhists tell us is our birthright.

In this book Specter voices his frustration at the illogic, misinformation, and dow
John Wenning
Mar 02, 2014 John Wenning rated it liked it
If you are unfamiliar with the topics in this book, then I recommend it; otherwise I really don't. I've read many books on vaccines, GMOs, alternative medicine, climate change and so on so there wasn't any new material here for me to read and was more just preaching to the choir. This book is much more politically neutral than other books on these topics such as "The Republican War on Science" (a critique of the right) and "Science Left Behind" (a critique of the left) and covers topics covered ...more
Anthony Faber
Jun 15, 2014 Anthony Faber rated it really liked it
He briefly notes a lot of denialism in the introduction, then goes into depth in chapters on vaccines, organic food, supplements, racial differences in medicine and Genetically Modified Organisms. From a political point of view, I'm disturbed that all of these are (as far as I can see) leftie things. Why not have chapters on climate change, sex ed, evolution, etc.? I read a book on conspiracy theories a while ago, ant the author of that book was even-handed and I think that makes more sense. The ...more
David Dinaburg
Mar 04, 2015 David Dinaburg rated it liked it
Confirmation bias is a harsh mistress. Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives stands a testament to that, and—whether it meant to or not—forced examination of how I process and internalize information in order to form opinions.

The first half of the book is appealing, in both the “this content is informative” way as well as the “I agree with this general sentiment” way. The early chapters bounce from vaccines to Vioxx, Complementa
Blake Nelson
Mar 03, 2010 Blake Nelson rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
I have noticed more and more lately that there is a strong anti-science, anti-expert sentiment going around. I've never really understood it - if an important decision needs to be made, then I want the most qualified people involved in making that decision. Why is it that in some circles, advertising how much you don't know seems to be a qualification for high positions or power? A particular pet peeve of mine - why do people trust politicians or other lay people about climate change more than t ...more
Todd Martin
Feb 17, 2010 Todd Martin rated it liked it
“Denialism” outlines several of the ways that “irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives” as per the subtitle.

Before we look at the book’s content, first let me say that the book offends one of my sensibilities. The publisher has made the book appear to be substantial by using huge page margins and double spaced paragraphs. This entire book would fit neatly into a medium-sized pamphlet (though I suspect no one would be enticed to shell out $27.95
Jan 26, 2010 Danielle rated it liked it
I put this book on my too-read list after seeing the author on The Daily Show and my in-laws bought it for me for Christmas. It was an okay read. It was fairly interesting, but I don't think I completely bought everything the author had to say and definitely felt he was stretching in the last couple of chapters. I also felt he often did not stay focused on what the book was actually supposed to be about based on its title. He focuses on a different area in each chapter to talk about how often fe ...more
Apr 12, 2010 Austin rated it liked it
While I agree with the sentiment, the problem with writing a book to call out zealots and denialists is that to do it convincingly and passionately the author comes across as a zealot. It's an unfortunate paradox. As an example from another arena: I explain my political views as "the opposite of Rush Limbaugh" ... as I define it, that's not Michael Moore or Keith Olbermann, but NPR. Sometimes fighting fire with fire is not the way to go.

Denialism, written by a science writer for the New Yorker,
Lindsay Beyerstein
Nov 21, 2010 Lindsay Beyerstein rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
Michael Specter, a science writer for the New Yorker, sees denialism as an irrational emotional reaction by ordinary people who fear technology because they fear loss of control over their own lives. This is an unconventional definition of the term, but there's nothing wrong with it. "Denialism" is a neologism and the meaning is still being hashed out. (By contrast, I think of denialism as a style of rhetoric designed to deny the obvious for ulterior motives, or at least introduce enough spuriou ...more
Cassandra Kay Silva
Oct 16, 2013 Cassandra Kay Silva rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Personally I had never heard this "view" on any of these subjects before so it was hard for me to formulate an opinion. I always believed that organic was the way to go and "natural" was the way to be, but surprisingly the author did challenge a lot of these assumptions for me and helped me come to terms with a number of ways that this can be taken overboard, out of context, and be just plain wrong. In this way I was enthralled. However, the writing and the cohesiveness of his arguments needed a ...more
Aug 14, 2015 Linda rated it liked it
Childhood vacicnes cause autism. Genetically modified foods might poison you or cause severe environmental damage. All pharmaceutical companies pursue profits to the disadvantage of and possible damage of consumers.

If you believe any of these statements, you are practicing denialism and you should read this book.

First of all I want to clarify that Specter is NOT standing up for an unvarnished look at science and government. He freely admits that companies, and governments, are as stupid as peopl
Todd Stockslager
Jun 05, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it really liked it
Dylan's infamous (and considered apocraphal until documented on the official bootleg version of the concert) retort to British hecklers during his 1965 plugged-in tour serves as a good colloquial definition of "denialism", Specter's term for the tendency to "replace the rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment."

Specter documents denialism in its most visible and he believes most damaging manifestations: anti-vaccination activism, orga
Jul 22, 2014 Gary rated it really liked it
First, the narrator gives the book the exciting breathless manner the book deserves. Science and education are the best defense we have against the denialist of the scientific method and believers in anecdotal data over reason. Oddly, the best chapter in the book is on Vioxx and how the pharmaceutical companies purposely mislead us on its side effects. That leads to a partial defense wrongly used by anti-immunization zealots justifying their positions for not trusting everything "they" tell us.

Pretty much preaching to the choir with a book about denialism and irrational fear of science. But the book was nevertheless disappointing. It wasn't very coherent. Often times, it seemed to be more about a lack of understanding of some science as opposed to outright denialism. Not that it's a bad thing, but not what I was expecting. Meh.
Mar 05, 2010 Polly rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2010
Specter has a good point, but he is so convinced that it's true that he comes across as shrill in deriding those who don't believe in the scientific method. He tries not to be just a cheerleader for science, but he doesn't end up exploring ethical issues beyond, "We should talk about this" or "We can't put the genie back in the bottle."
Elaine Nelson
Interesting review of aspects of modern society where emotional reactions and political positions overwhelm scientific thinking. Mostly focuses on the anti-vaccine nutters and organic food (and its problems for feeding larger numbers of people). Not in agreement with everything he has to say, and the end trails off awkwardly, but good reading.
Feb 16, 2010 Robert rated it did not like it
Even though I was completely prepared to agree with the author, and for the most part still do, I was shocked at the poor logic, and especially the confounding of different issues under the same discussion (e.g., genetically modified foods, pesticide use, and unsustainable industrial agricultural). A badly written book.
Jan 14, 2014 Elle rated it really liked it
I'm not entirely sure why many below reviewers were demanding answers or solutions in this book. The last time I was required in an informative essay to expound some sort of solution to the issue presented was in International Relations 101. The fact is that reading the book, and sources like it, with hard science saying, "Look! Look! Facts to rebut your insane health fetishes and unreasonable hatred for science!" should be sufficient. The problem is that people trust their Facebook friends and ...more
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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. Since joining the magazine, he has written several articles about the global AIDS epidemic, as we ...more
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“NATURAL” DOES NOT mean good, or safe, or healthy, or wholesome. It never did. In fact, legally, it means nothing at all. Mercury, lead, and asbestos are natural, and so are viruses, E. coli, and salmonella. A” 0 likes
“Those vaccines, and others, have prevented unimaginable misery. But the misery is only unimaginable to Americans today because they no longer need to know such diseases exist.” 0 likes
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