Science denial: Vaccines, vitamins and GMOs

The danger of science denial is a TED talk by Michael Specter that touches on a number of issues in society relating to a dissonance between science and the populace. The issues that he identifies are vaccines, vitamins, and genetically modified foods. Along the way he also brings strong messages about ending poverty and environmental damage.

The overriding message however, is one of the necessity of scientific thinking. Not only do we have to support the continued work of science, we have to accept it when science demonstrates the truth of something that is contrary to our beliefs. If we are unable to do these things we may be heading for a very dark place.

The good news

Today we have the best health, wealth and mobility of any time so far in history. We have declining rates of disease, thanks primarily to innovations and investments in public health around the world. Specter says, “A kid born in New Delhi today can expect to live as long as the richest man in the world did 100 years ago.” We have vanquished smallpox and have seriously curbed diseases such as diptheria, rubella, and polio.

The bad news

A billion people live in extreme poverty in this world, and we have been rapidly consuming our natural resources and damaging our ecosystems. Specter warns us, “Potable water, arable land, rainforests, oil, gas: they’re going away, and they’re going away soon, and unless we innovate our way out of this mess, we’re going away too.”

Science and progress

Specter states the fundamental distinction between science and opinion:

People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion; they’re even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what you’re not entitled to? You’re not entitled to your own facts.

Specter has run up against a lot of people in the last dozen years who are very against scientific advancements like vaccines and GMOs. The people complaining about these things were not fanatics; they seemed to be thoughtful, reasonable people, and Specter found this upsetting.

According to Specter, the last few decades have transformed our perceptions of the world in fundamental ways. He says that people even perceive the notion of progress differently than in previous times:

We’re at a point in this world where we don’t have the same relationship to progress that we used to. We talk about it ambivalently. We talk about it in ironic terms with little quotes around it: ‘Progress.’

Loss of faith in science

Specter claims that people have lost faith in many of our institutions and to some extent in science itself. He believes that this is primarily because of notorious scientific failures or dangers. He mentions:

  1. Chernobyl, the infamous nuclear reactor accident in the Ukraine.
  2. Nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
  3. Vioxx: A widely-distributed drug that was pulled off the market due to health concerns.
  4. The Bhopal disaster, in which thousands of people died because of a chemical leak in India.
  5. The Challenger disaster, in which the warnings of engineers were ignored and the space shuttle was launched and failed, killing the entire crew.
  6. Hanging chads“, referring to the year 2000 federal US election in which many Florida votes were not counted due to the nature of the automated counting machine, despite a precedent of these sort of votes being counted in the past.

Specter says:

There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted. But here’s the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we’re not that good at doing that. And the reason I can say that is because we’re now in an epidemic of fear like one I’ve never seen and hope never to see again.

What is the epidemic of fear? Specter speaks directly on the topics of vaccines and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Along the way he also demonstrates denialist thinking with an example about vitamins that people take for their health.


Vaccines do not cause autism

Specter is unequivocal when he states that vaccines are “the most effective public health measure in human history”. What is people’s problem with them? It all started in 1998 when a paper was published in The Lancet (a respected British medical journal), which stated that autism spectrum disorders could be caused by the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.1 This set off a large number of studies to see if these claims were actually correct. The subsequent studies have demonstrated no correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism.2 3

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that the author of the article, Andrew Wakefield, had multiple conflicts of interest and had manipulated evidence. Prior to the publishing of the paper, Wakefield had been given a grant of £55,000 from a group seeking evidence that could be used against vaccine manufacturers. Also, it was found that Wakefield had applied for patents on a vaccine that would be a rival to the MMR vaccine.4 The Lancet has issued a full retraction of the paper in the light of these facts. Wakefield has been found guilty of serious professional misconduct, and his name has been struck from the medical register of the United Kingdom.5

People still fear vaccines

Specter points out that people believe anecdotes rather than officials. We have looked into this in more detail in our piece on personal change, when we discussed why people believe anecdotes over science.

The result of all this? Many people fear vaccines, especially for their children. Specter says: “The United States is one of the only countries in the world where the vaccine rate for measles is going down. That is disgraceful, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.”

Why has this fear gained so much sway? Most likely it is because we don’t have to fear measles, mumps or rubella much in North America. Measles has been effectively eliminated from the United States. However, Specter says that in 2009 160,000 people died from measles in the world. That is 20 per hour. One person every three minutes.

Specter says: “But since it didn’t happen here[in the United States], we can put it out of our minds, and people like Jenny McCarthy can go around preaching messages of fear and illiteracy from platforms like Oprah and Larry King Live.”

Disease can come back

The real fear should be this: Without strong vaccine programs, disease can come back. Dangerous diseases exist in many areas of the world. In the developed world we must still safeguard ourselves carefully against these diseases because of the possibilities for their transmission and spread even to us. With the interconnected nature of the world today, diseases can cross oceans on planes, and be exposed to thousands of people in airports and malls.

Vitamins & Supplements

Specter claims that vitamins and supplements have been shown to do very little for people’s health, and yet Americans pour billions of dollars into them. Facing the question of why people do this, Specter says:

Well, I think I understand, we hate big pharma. We hate big government. We don’t trust the man. And we shouldn’t. Our health care system sucks. It’s cruel to millions of people. It’s absolutely astonishingly cold and soul-bending to those of us who can even afford it. So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of big placebo.

Specter mentions a number of vitamins and health supplements that have been shown to have shown to be nothing more than placebos in clinical trials.

When confronted with the question of why he doesn’t just let people believe what they want to believe, Specter is again unequivocal. His words on this topic are worth showing in full:

When I say this stuff, people scream at me, and they say, “What do you care? Let people do what they want to do. it makes them feel good.” And you know what? You’re wrong. Because I don’t care if it’s the secretary of H.H.S. who’s saying, “Hmm, I’m not going to take the evidence of my experts on mammograms,” or some cancer quack who wants to treat his patient with coffee enemas.
When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS. Hundreds of thousands of needless deaths in a country that has been plagued worse than any other by this disease. Please, don’t tell me there are no consequences to these things. There are. There always are.

Genetically modified organisms

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been altered in specific ways using technology that humans have acquired in recent decades.

It is important to note that humans are responsible for altering organisms over the course of our history. We have done so through artificial selection along with selective breeding for thousands of years. The foods and animals that humans have domesticated figure prominently in our advancement as a species. Humans have been engineering species to be more useful for thousands of years. From wild cabbage, we have produced vegetables ranging from kale to broccoli to cabbage. This is analyzed in great detail by Jared Diamond in his excellent book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

For the most part, artificial selection depends on random variation in individuals. Individuals (whether plant or animal) that are better suited to human needs are the ones that we have deliberately cultivated. When we deliberately cultivate certain individuals, we tend to keep their traits in the gene pool. This leads to successive generations of domesticated plants and animals that become more and more well-suited to our needs.

Since this process depends on random variation, it is quite slow. Most slight variations in generations will be disadvantageous rather than advantageous. The result is that artificial selection often takes many generations for substantial change to come about.

GMOs are created using techniques that allow humans to change species in a much faster and more specific fashion. Our techniques for modifying organisms have improved, allowing us to make substantial changes in a short time.

People are concerned about the spread of GMOs for a number of reasons:

Risks to human health?

People are concerned that GMOs are unhealthy. Scientific studies to date have uncovered no adverse health effects due to eating GMOs.6 The public fears are substantial enough that new foods are being tested for their safety.7 Despite these efforts, there is tremendous continuing suspicion of the health effects of GMOs.

Specter mentions that using these techniques we are actually able to make our foods a lot healthier. He says, “we can put something like vitamin A into rice, and that stuff can help millions of people, millions of people, prolong their lives.”

One of the crops grown extensively in very poor areas of Africa is cassava. Specter mentions that innovation of cassava can dramatically help the health of those people stuck in extreme poverty:

Cassava’s something that half a billion people eat. It’s kind of like a potato. It’s just a bunch of calories. It sucks. It doesn’t have nutrients, it doesn’t have protein, and scientists are engineering all of that into it right now. And then people would be able to eat it and they’d be able to not go blind. They wouldn’t starve, and you know what? That would be nice. It wouldn’t be Chez Panisse, but it would be nice.

GMOs and corporate food

In opposition to GMOs, Specter has also heard reasons such as these:

  1. Pesticides
  2. Herbicides
  3. Monocultures
  4. Hormones
  5. Patenting Life
  6. Seed Ownership

We can regard the first four of these as more of general food issues, while the last two are very strongly related to the GMO industry as it currently exists.

General food issues

Pesticides, herbicides and monocultures have to do with the way we do our farming today. These problems occur even if we are using non-GMO plants. Companies that deal in GMOs sometimes exacerbate these problems however by making GMOs deliberately stronger or weaker against certain pests and herbicides. The plants can be tailored for instance to be maximally resistant to a certain type of herbicide, which of course the GMO company will sell.  In this way the companies that manufacture the GMOs can also sell the pesticides and herbicides that are necessary to keep them pest and weed free. This makes the farmers more and more dependent on their products.8

Hormones are used in much of our food production. This is especially true for our livestock, where they are used for instance to accelerate growth and increase milk production. People are concerned with a number of possible health risks to humans. Among these are the possible danger of increased risk of breast cancer. People also believe that hormones in food may be contributing to the earlier onset of puberty in contemporary girls. As of yet, there don’t seem to be any scientifically demonstrated human health issues with hormone use.9 Unfortunately this seems to be due to the fact that data is simply lacking on many of these issues.

The first four factors can thus be seen as separate from the GMO debate to a large extent. It can be argued that the practices of companies such as Monsanto exacerbate these problems by utilizing them for their own financial gain. Specter says that we should deal with these issues, but not put a stop on GMO research or adoption. We agree with him that these issues should be dealt with, and should not stop research into GMOs.

GMO industry issues

Patenting life

There has been a legal battle throughout the world over whether it is legal to patent a gene sequence. The US patent office has granted many patents to industries, but in October 2010 a brief from the US federal government has declared that genes that are natural in origin are not eligible to be patented.

Patents on genes are problematic for many reasons. For instance, crops with patented genes can spread beyond where they are planted. Lawsuits are underway in places where patented crops have been found in farmer’s fields. Interestingly, there are lawsuits in both directions.

GMO companies have sued farmers for having patented crops on their fields that they didn’t pay for. This can happen when seeds are accidentally spread, or when plants cross-pollinate with patented organisms. Since it is the genes that are patented, it means that the company then claims ownership of part of the value of the plant. Also, farmers have sued GMO companies for patented crops ‘trespassing’ on their land.10

Seed ownership

Since companies can own patented seeds, it means that every time the seeds are sold, the companies must be paid royalties. Normally farmers save seeds from year to year so that they can replant in the spring using some of their harvest from the previous year. Seed ownership by companies takes away much (or all) of the economic benefit of saving seeds from year to year. This is another way in which the farmers of our society are being squeezed economically.

Seed ownership can mean that the GMO company retains ownership of the seeds even if they were from last year’s harvest. It can also mean that there is a terminator gene built into the seeds, making it so that they will not produce fertile seeds for more than one year. This ‘terminator technology‘ is a technique that is not yet used due to public backlash and some possible disadvantages. It is an example of how genetic modification technology has been used to fit a corporate agenda while providing no benefit to humanity.

Seed ownership is an issue that societies will have to analyze carefully. If farmers rely on biotechnology companies for all of their seeds and products, they may have a reduced ability to steward their land in the most effective manner. Quality land stewardship can maintain or even improve long-term land quality, while poor stewardship can lead to dramatic reduction in the quality of arable land. The prosperity of farmers is a crucial factor for the stability and sustainability of a civilization.

Specter accurately points out that these issues are not technically problems with GMOs. We claim that these are primarily problems with the commercialization of life forms. GMOs do present great opportunities for advancement of human well-being as long as they are effectively and safely employed.

Regulation of biotechnology companies is necessary to ensure that these problems do not strangle GMO development by privatizing all of the positives. Our society can benefit immensely from the power of these technologies, but not if they are monopolized by companies like Monsanto.

High-tech colonialism

Specter is very angry about the fact that people are resisting the development of improved crop varieties for use in alleviating poverty in Africa. He says that the prosperity brought about by these crops is being harnessed by our civilization, but we are denying the possible gains to the poor countries of the world. He closes with the following statement:

This is about moving genes around. It’s not about chemicals. It’s not about our ridiculous passion for hormones, our insistence on having bigger food, better food, singular food. This isn’t about Rice Krispies, this is about keeping people alive, and it’s about time we started to understand what that meant. Because, you know something? If we don’t, if we continue to act the way we’re acting, we’re guilty of something that I don’t think we want to be guilty of, high-tech colonialism. There’s no other way to describe what’s going on here. It’s selfish, it’s ugly, it’s beneath us, and we really have to stop it.

What is science?

Specter’s main point is that these issues are not scientific in origin. These are social and moral problems for our society to solve. What people perceive as being problems with science itself are in fact moral, economic, and societal problems that are blamed on the advance of science. These issues are made worse by the fundamental disconnect between science and personal experience.

Specter is extremely clear about what science is:

You know science isn’t a company. It’s not a country. It’s not even an idea; it’s a process. It’s a process, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But the idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we’re afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.”

We second this opinion. Science is a process of gaining understanding. Supporting scientific development is supporting the advancement of our knowledge. Additional knowledge empowers our society as well as each of us as individuals.

However, as with all tools, scientific knowledge can be employed well or poorly, for the benefit of mankind or to its detriment. It is the responsibility of our government to regulate advances when necessary. It is our responsibility as citizens to hold the government to this task, and to show discretion in our own lives. Scientific knowledge is guaranteed to better our society only if we ensure that it is used towards such a goal.

To see the talk, go to The danger of science denial at TED. Michael Specter has also written a book on the subject entitled Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

  1. Wikipedia: MMR vaccine controversy. Accessed October 30th, 2010. []
  2. Vaccines and autism: evidence does not support a causal association. DeStefano F. Statistics and Epidemiology Unit, RTI International, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. []
  3. Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypotheses. Jeffrey S. Gerber and Paul A. Offit. Division of Infectious Diseases, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Accessed November 2nd, 2010. []
  4. Wikipedia: MMR vaccine controversy: Conflict of interest allegations. Accessed October 30th, 2010. []
  5. Wikipedia: MMR vaccine controversy: Latest Developments. Accessed October 30th, 2010. []
  6. Wikipedia: Genetically modified organism: Foodchain. Accessed October 30th, 2010. Some of the studies cited are not publicly available without a fee or some sort of organizational access. If they were public we would cite the text directly. []
  7. Assessment of the safety of foods derived from genetically modified (GM) crops. König et al. Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University. []
  8. Roundup-Ready Soybeans. Union of Concerned Scientists. Accessed November 3rd, 2010. []
  9. Consumer Concerns About Hormones in Food. Cornell University. Accessed November 2nd, 2010. UPDATE Sept 15th, 2011: Now pointing to google cache version since the original seems to be gone. []
  10. Farmers, Others Sue USDA Over Monsanto GMO Alfalfa. Health Freedom Alliance. November 2nd, 2010. []

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

2 thoughts to “Science denial: Vaccines, vitamins and GMOs”

  1. Good! So many people forget or otherwise don’t consider the vital distinction between opposing GMOs (which is silly at best, harmful and patronizing at worst) and opposing Monsanto and its ilk, which is IMO necessary and even the moral thing to do.

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