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    • Michael Specter: The danger of science denial (lecture)

      1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (26 votes, average: 4.23 out of 5)

      This video is actually a lecture made by Michael Specter, a journalist who has written on science and technology for the Washington Post and The New York Times. He has received numerous awards, including the Science Journalism Award for his piece on AIDS and the population crisis.

      Specter’s talk is also based on his book,”Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives”, where he talks about how people have come to reject scientific truths which have been supported by data and research, and instead readily believe fiction and hearsay, as these are more convenient and comfortable.

      Specter stresses that this kind of thinking hinders the progress we should have achieved, if only we explore more into the data from science. He cites examples like vaccine safety and organic food as some of those that people have readily rejected.

      Specter has been awarded the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking for his work on this book. The award goes to work that demonstrates “healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science” and is given annually.

      This talk is presented during TED Talk 2010.

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      Published on April 21, 2010 · Filed under: Health, Science, Technology
    • Rob

      Fantastic, very well put.

    • Chloe

      I’m all for seeing things in a different perspective but his argument is flawed in some aspects. Corporations do not invest money in ventures for philanthropic reasons, they do it to make a profit. It’s laughable to hear that GM companies want to make artificial high nutrient foods to provide for the poor in third world countries. No, they do it to make a profit, not for the sake of mankind. Don’t bring science into this to try sway people, this is all about making a buck. I’m in business to make money and big corporations have even bigger pressures to perform. My partner is in corporate law, my friends work for corporations or own businesses themselves and don’t assume for a second that we do it for fun or to stop someone from going blind from eating cassavas.

      If you truly want to provide for the third world, firstly give their children education so they may provide for themselves. Stop banks like IMF and World Bank from lending them crippling debt ridden loans so they have money to provide for their own people. Stop cheap food imports from the first world so their own farmers can be competitive and offer higher value foods for their people. You can do all this WITHOUT GM foods. Plus it will be sustainable and they can get themselves out of poverty. To force them to eat GM foods continually while they remain poor and uneducated is promoting a cycle of continuous poverty.

      The argument for GM being exactly like farmers cross breeding plants to make hybrids is a joke. Your audiences are smarter than that. Farmers can only cross breed similar plants together, whereas GM companies cross breed different SPECIES together and chemicals too (very different to traditional farming). They can cross animal genes into plants, pesticides into plants and vice versa. This is by no means natural. The franken plants can also contaminate normal non-GM plants if they’re grown close enough to GM crops. I’m more than happy to eat GM foods if they cross similar breeds of plant genes together. I don’t want to eat tomatoes with flounder fish genes inserted into it. Nor do I want to eat BT corn mixed with pesticides. This is not about science going backwards, it’s about common sense and survival – no intelligent human being wants to put food that isn’t safe in their mouths. Let alone feed it to their children.

      I am all for scientific progress, so long as it doesn’t promote harm to us or the environment.

      With the information about vaccines, I totally agree with him on that. Look at the research and judge for yourself.

      Lastly, I think he shot himself in the foot when he said “does anyone here take vitamins today?.. they’re useless, they don’t work blah blah..” Then he went on to say “did you know that they can now engineer vitamin A into rice? That will save millions of lives!!” Ummm.. I thought you said vitamins are useless? I don’t believe that everything natural is automatically good for you but to poo poo everything in the realm of natural therapy such as vitamins is a bit flawed. If natural foods and vitamins are useless, I’d like to see him eat only processed foods for the rest of his life and see if he really does live to 90.

    • Rob

      I think many people have an anger against capitalism and confuse it with an anger for science. Large companies do everything for profits but that does not mean that the technology they are using is inherently wrong. If people first accept the science that can help poorer people, humanitarian charities or businesses or whoever can use this to help others (or make a profit). Either way the technology may have to be developed in western institutions to make it as far as the poorest people on Earth. If this technology is stopped at the first hurdle by public reaction without good evidence, then there is no hope for the technology to reach those in most need of it. It’s fine for a westerner to say that all foods must be natural and grown like pre-modern farming methods, because they can afford it. Tell that to people struggling to grow enough food to eat. No one wants to eat anything that isn’t safe but we should not cripple the expansion of technology by using the precautionary principle. If we were worried about everything being unsafe, then no one would go outside or drive a car. Opinion about these matters does not equal unbiased evidence constituting a careful risk assessment.
      With vitamins, westerners don’t usually need extra unless they have a medical deficiency. Too many vitamins can actually be bad. However, if like in the third world people are dying of vitamin deficiencies then engineering it into the only plant that they can grow seems a good idea to me.
      GM foods could represent a lifeline to poorer farmers, with drought-resistant yield-boosting crops. Only if there are demonstrated health risks should this be stopped. If companies take this technology and try to squeeze a profit out of poor people then that is out of the realm of science.
      What is wrong with flounder genes in tomatoes if its shown to not harm anyone? I would eat a flounder, and I would eat a tomato. Mixing DNA of the two does not necessarily introduce any ‘evil’. We eat carcinogenic compounds all of the time in minute quantities. We eat smoked and chargrilled foods. We sit out in the sun, which causes UV damage – which can lead to cancer, although we need the sunlight to produce vitamin D. In each of our bodies is every harmful known substance plus probably some more unknown ones, except all below the threshold for harm. Nothing can be danger-free, but it is when the benefits outweigh the risks then we should not sneer at the products of science. We all get side effects from medication, but it is administered with the intent that the benefits will outweigh the risk of harm. If something is demonstrated to cause harm then it will be removed from sale. If not, you’ve elected the wrong government.
      May I point that that a ‘chemical’ is any atomic molecule, produced either synthetically or by a living organism. For example, starch and glucose are biochemical molecules, still ‘chemicals’.
      An extra gene inserted into a different organism can cause that organism to produce a new compound, such as vitamin A. Vitamin A in this organism is exactly the same as vitamin A in any other organism, the fact that it is the protein-product of transgenic DNA says nothing about its safety. We can put the genes for mice eyes into fruit flies, and they still come out as fly eyes (strange I know). Scientists know what they are doing. Arguments about the safety of GM should be based on actual evidence, not on a spiritual view of the ‘harmony’ of nature.

      I recommend the book ‘The March of Unreason’ by Dick Taverne, it has a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of GM food, and the state of science in relation to the public and politics.

    • Will C. Soon

      Help starving, malnourished people cultivate greater variety of produce to supply them a complete spectrum of nourishment. Why modify a casaba or rice crop? Show them how to practice soil reform. Show them how to culture variety into their farming and their fields, like is shown in ‘The Farm of the Future’ documentay. The only thing reliance on the agri-industry of North America will do for the starving is put them in debt to the I.M.F. on top of the starvation. It’s obvious the specter behind Specter is big oil, agriculture and greed based science. Exactly the stuff that got us into this mess. Besides, his banter sounds like Vince, the ‘Sham Wow’ guy, and exudes a tone insincerity reminisent of the dishonest used auto salesman or some such character. A documentary like this should score very low on the scale because the speaker is so obviously biased, offering the propaganda of greedy, corporate interests, that reap profits by creating dependencies wherever, whenever and however they can, instead of fact. Speakers like Specter need to be viewed with scepticism. His lecture is not helping present world conditions at all and is rather stale and tiresome. His arguements are totally refutable. Here is interesting comment and rebutal on Specter from another source:

    • Robbyou

      I think the rating system here should be more accurate. if it is a 5 give it a 5 …..once and a while… …. 5 and 1 are not the only two stars. your votes reflect what is whatched here

    • sashibot

      I totally agree with Chloe. My opinion is 180′ from this man’s, and I AM totally for the progress of science. I am for progress that is not clouded and misguided. Big Pharma, the companies that would benefit from GMO production (i.e. Monsanto), the Dairy and Cattle Associations, etc. are all about creativity and innovation, but for the dollar. I would say that it is not that they are diametrically opposed to science and advancement that is healthful or beneficial to mankind, but if the advancement that they propose which will make them lots of money IS, then they ARE.

      I am so for curing Diabetes, particularly when it can be done with diet. I heard an ad for the company Novo nordisk on NPR today. It stated that they were seeking a cure for Diabetes. This is completely opposed to securing a sustainable business model for them. Why would they want to lose all of those clients, when they are cured? It’s a conflict of interest for them. Unless they move into the business of diet regimens, their aim is not to cure people. We should maintain a purity in scientific progress, and not be lured by the insane amount of money that large corporation dedicate to R&D. They are not interested in science. They are interested in R&D for their company. Who doesn’t get that? I mean who cares if you’re on some big money genetics project, if it is designing something that may be harmful to humans. Where did the ethics of science go? Shouldn’t things like GMOs be studied long-term before they are released onto the market without labeling? The fact that this is the case is a tragedy, and should be illegal. He is definitely mixing science and politics. I am shocked that he has gained such popularity. His arguments are juvenile and ignorant. He’s not even that funny. haha. What’s the allure? There is enough research showing that GMOs have adverse health effects, for me as a layman to want more research done. I just don’t understand where is argument is coming from, and I’m surprised at TED to be quite frank. If the discussion was actually about a hesitancy towards the progress of science in today’s day and age, then I would find that interesting and worth discussing.

    • Leo


      Yea… who wants EFFICIENT pesticides.
      Thats easy to say when your fields aren’t overrun by locusts as in africa.

      Who needs GM foods.. organic foods can do fine…
      Hmm.. well a gentleman by the name of Norman Borlaug would disagree with you. You see instead of getting online and making ridiculous racist arguments why something is wrong and making up ten different things that could maybe do something possibly sometime in the unforseeable future. No, he got off his ass and saved billions of lives… you see friend what people like you who like to blow things out of proportion don’t understand is the THOUSANDS OF KIDS THAT DIE OF STARVATION ON A DAILY BASIS!!!! But hey… let’s just teach them and in a few generations they can do it all theirselves right?
      Oh but wait.. there’s another hickup… you see… if we do eat only organic and “NATURAL” foods as you put it (btw.. wtf does that even mean… natural foods)
      if we did go all organic… the decreased ouput and LESS efficient insecticides, oh and the use of fertilizers like cow dung which is known to harbor E. Coli and other TASTY treats would only lead to say a planet that can harbor about 4 billion people.

      I mean how dare you tell anyone living in 3rd world conditions that their child can’t eat an ear of GM corn? There are people like you going to africa and even though you say we should teach them, you tell them this food will kill their people and they turn down FREE SHIPMENTS OF FOOD AND SEEDS THAT THEY COULD FEED THOSE PEOPLE WITH BECAUSE THEY ARE UNDER YOUR MISCONCEPTION.

      Of course corporations are in it for the money but that has nothing…… NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SCIENCE.

      Statements like “I’d like to see him eat only processed foods for the rest of his life and see if he really does live to 90.”

      HOW DO YOU KNOW HE WON’T? The life expectancy for children born now are at the highest it’s ever been. We are at a point where we are basically looking at an increase of one year every year to life expectancy. But as long as you can make a vague statement like that and scare some people you’re ok right?

      That is not SCIENCE IT’S SPECULATION ON WHEN HE’LL LIVE TIL… show me GENUINE PEER reviewed science that counters anything he said and i will listen to you with both ears open, however you won’t, you’ll just come back with “do this or do that and one day you’ll be sorry…… you’ll see”

      I don’t normally get this mad but i have nothing but contempt for you. You know there are children dying from hunger at this minute and you would refuse them the right to eat something that would keep them alive.

    • Leo

      MY GOD you all have been brainwashed.

      FACT… SO CALLED “NATURAL” AND “ORGANIC” WOULD ONLY FEED JUST OVER HALF OF THE PLANET. Which 3 billion people do you think should suffer for your opinions?

      There has been not ONE STUDY linking GM foods to ANYTHING HARMFUL yet they have this reputation simply because of fearmongering.


    • LKB

      Good job as usual Leo!! The last line of dialogue, of your link,worked!!

    • bob

      complete propoganda for big pharma.this lecture is full of errors sounds good do.anyone who has done any research on gm foods will realise that this technololgy is full of problems.for one every year gm crops need more and pesticides so where will these crops be in 20 years.more and more people are becoming allergic to gm.
      as for vacinnes curing all diseases it was actually better sanitation better homes heating better education not vacination the healtiest family i know have 3 generations that never got any vacinations and they have no health problems at all no high blood pressure no flu no colds and thats all of them, but there husbans and wives who where vacinated are sick like everybody else.wake up injesting msg mercury and aluminum into a 3 month old baby isnt good for it.Time will tell you cant mess with nature and expect no reaction.