I went to a conference at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) on June 28 titled Science Denialism, Public Policy, and Global Health. It was presented jointly by the Rutgers Global Health Institute and the academy. The goal of the conference was to discuss the social, cultural, behavioral and economic roots of science denialism, and to ask how to make the best case for science.
The panelists included Allan Brandt, professor of the history of science at Harvard University; Dominique Brossard, chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Kelly Brownell, professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, and Kelly Greenhill, associate professor and director, International Relations Program at Tufts University. Journalist Ira Flatow, NPR correspondent and host of Science Friday, was the moderator.
I have had a long interest in science denialism. I attended the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting in Germany in June 2017 and wrote a post for this blog about how scientists and journalists were struggling with the problem worldwide. As co-chairman of Science Writers in New York, I of the was one of the organizers of the conference Science, Journalism and Democracy: Grappling with a New Reality which was held September 6, 2017 at Rockefeller University. Journalist and author Carl Zimmer was the keynote speaker. Mariette Di Christina, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, and Michael Lemonick, SciAm's opinion editor, both moderated panels. (You can watch this conference online.)
My attraction to the conference at NYAS was the opportunity to hear the perspective of academics who could address the history of science denialism as well as the societal, political and financial interests at play.
Every panelist stressed how science denialism was not new. A slide show highlighted some of the famous cases, including the denial that handwashing could save lives in hospitals. As far back as 1847, Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis argued that washing hands could lower the rate of hospital acquired-infections. In a lecture in 1850 at Vienna General Hospital, Semmelweis urged his colleagues to wash their hands before examining women about to deliver babies to help prevent the deadly malady known as “childbed” fever. He was laughed at and his recommendations ignored. Sadly, handwashing rates are shockingly low today. According to Consumers Union, proper handwashing compliance occurs only 30 percent of the time that health care workers interact with patients.
The panelists urged the audience not to think of science denialism as a monolith, noting that people pick and choose their beliefs. For example, a person who doesn't believe in climate change still wants his car and airplane designed by engineers with a science background.
Flatow told about a listener to a show he did on why people believed that vaccines cause autism even though study after study found they didn't. A female caller said that she knew vaccines caused autism. When Flatow asked the woman what it would take to change her belief, she said "nothing. I don't trust anything the government says."
Sometimes you shouldn't trust the government. Brandt spoke about the AIDS policies of former South African President Thabo Mbeki which were directly responsible for the avoidable deaths of more than a third of a million people in the country. He told how Mbeki was influenced by the AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg, a then well-respected scientist from the University of California, Berkeley. "Duesberg insisted that the HIV virus did not cause AIDS. And unfortunately, Mkebi believed him and refused to supply HIV drugs to AIDS patients in South Africa."
The panelists cited the tobacco industry as an example of how financial interests play a role in science denial. Brandt and Brossard told how tobacco companies went on the offensive to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency's 1993 ruling that declared secondhand smoke a known human carcinogen and a preventable cause of death. "The tobacco industry collaborated to confuse people about the harm of their products. They created oppositional science to create conflicts," Brandt said. "The tobacco industry spent millions to set doubts in the minds of the public, lawmakers and smokers." Court documents have shown how the tobacco industry, through its public relations arm, commissioned "independent" research as a strategy to support its goals of protecting and advancing the industry's interests.
When asked how to combat science denialism, the panelists said there needed to be a better dialogue between scientists and the public. Brownell and Greenhill discussed the need to understand people's belief systems. "Scientists are at a disadvantage, Brossard said. "Marketers know what moves people. As Larry Page, the co-founder of Google said, scientists have a marketing problem." Flatow said the efforts by Alan Alda to make scientists better communicators is a good start. Flatow said for years, he has urged universities to make communication skills a requirement for PhD candidates.
This was a fascinating discussion. You can watch it online and I hope you will. The conference sponsors said they will hold a one-day conference devoted to strategies to combat science denialism in November.