Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Michael Specter - Denialistic?

I listen to NPR in my studio each day while I'm working. It keeps me informed, inspired, and incensed. Yesterday, I heard that author Michael Specter would be interviewed about his new book, "Denialism; How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives." This sounded very compelling, as I am so stymied by mainstream denial of things like climate change, poverty, injustice, health care issues, nutrition, and problems associated with our current agricultural methods. I expected Mr. Specter to give everyone a good lashing.

Instead, he denounced any relationship between immunizations and autism, made a stink about people who take vitamins, and stated that we might solve world hunger by embracing genetically modified foods and reducing emphasis on organic farming.

Now, it has been six years and I have gotten rid of all of my "Immunization Research" file, but when Anouk was born, I read extensively about vaccinations. It is a very emotional subject when you are trying to make the best decision for the health of your child. I recall that every study I read was funded all or in part by an Autism research organization or pharmaceutical companies or insurance companies. Depending on funding sources, conclusions varied dramatically, so it was important to read through it carefully. Most compelling to me were papers and articles explaining how immunizations work when they enter the body, and that there are inherent, measured neurological effects. I found an excellent pediatrician who is informed on both sides of the issue, who took time to help me with this huge decision, and we worked out a vaccination schedule that I feel good about. My daughter is immunized against the major diseases (not chicken pox) and will be protected when we travel to other countries, but she was never administered a "cocktail" where they give up to 5 shots at the same time. Her doctor's main argument is that he sees far more children getting diseases from lack of immunization than children who have been affected by Autism. So, it's a crap shoot, but parents are usually making this choice after serious research, not out of deliberate ignorance.

As for vitamins, who cares? Maybe they help, maybe they don't. I personally believe that we have far better results from eating a good diet, so I rarely take supplements. My husband takes a handful of vitamins every day, and has been seeing his cholesterol improve steadily with no other lifestyle change. If he thinks it helps, I support it.

Now, the organic food question is one that gets me all steamed up. I'm no expert, but from all that I've read and heard (on NPR, of course), our stupid agricultural methods are part of what has gotten us into this mess to begin with. More and more food is grown on high-production farms, using pesticides, sold for bottom dollar. Scientists believe it is a contributing factor to the loss of about 1/3 of our commercial bee population, which then results in lower crop yield, and we are anticipating future decreases in food supply from bee shortages alone. Pesticide run-off enters our water systems, causing environmental degradation and affecting the fish we have also relied on for food. Food can be grown locally, in people's yards, on rooftops, in raised beds - I even heard about a CSA in New York where the food is grown in a truck bed. Small, organic, community farms are being cultivated in some poverty stricken areas, providing good food for the local people. (I heard about it on NPR!) Michael Specter's suggestion that we create synthetic foods with little inherent nutritional value (I believe they add vitamins) to feed to poor people strikes me as very "Soilent Green."

When a caller questioned the author on this topic, he started talking again about genetically modified foods solving the hunger problem, rather than answering her question, which gave me the impression that he has not fully researched this topic. I think he has an opinion and he's sticking to it. That's denialism, buddy.

While genetically modified food is not necessarily the same as non-organic food, I recall reading an article that explained how one affects the other. An example described two adjacent farms, both growing corn, one genetically modified to resist a pesticide and the other organic. By creating a corn variety that is not killed by this pesticide, they can spray it liberally by plane, killing the weed or bug or whatever they are trying to eliminate, but not hurting the corn. But, the pesticide doesn't just go away. The nearby organic farm gets a good dose of the spray by proximity, which takes out a portion of their non-resistant crop. The pesticide also enters the water table, so everyone else in the neighborhood gets to drink it, water their crops with it, and wildlife get their share as well.

So, obviously, I am not a scientist or an expert of any kind, and I'm writing this from memory without siting sources. But, I swear, the original sources were reliable. For Michael Specter to claim that everyone who reads the same information, yet does not draw conclusions in agreement with his own, is in denial seems superbly arrogant.

Now, if he had just made statements that I agree with, I'd say he was right on the money!

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