Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Michael Specter: The danger of science denial

By Stephen M.

Michael Specter speaks of the danger of not allowing science to progress. He uses many examples of how science is an assisting factor in our lives. He uses facts to prove his point that scientific advances should be welcomed and not shunned by the public. I will summarize the talk, the tools and skills used, the reaction and my own opinion on it in the following paragraphs.

Specter opens his talk with an interesting notion "Lets pretend there's a machine, a time machine and everyone in the room has to go into it. You can go forward or back, but you can't stay where you are." Though many would go back in time, Michael intends to go forward. He states that this is because this is the greatest time there has ever been on our planet, be it by health, wealth, mobility or declining rates of disease as some of his examples. He praises the scientific method and its achievements "
Vaccines, modern medicine, our ability to feed billions of people, those are triumphs of the scientific method." He points at many medical comparisons to get his point across such as the life span of a child in New Deli being equal to the richest man in the world 100 years ago. Specter then goes on to describe the problems that face the globe: "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." Specter tells the audience that the only thing preventing this progress is ourselves. He thinks that though we should be sceptical about discoveries and scientific advancement we can't deny the ones that actually work: "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." Several years ago Specter wrote a story about vaccines and people argued against it. This happened with more of his articles and he explains the reason for this as people's inability to welcome progress. He says that people don't have the same relationship with it because we've lost faith in institutions, authority, and even science. He then gives reasons as to why " You can just say a few names and people will understand. Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Challenger, Vioxx, weapons of mass destruction, hanging chads." He accuses our fear of many of these but also a story published that linked measles, mumps and rubella vaccines with autism written in the 90's. Thousands of tests were done and no correlation was found but the epidemic of fear had been instilled. He says that people would prefer to believe what makes them feel alive and not factual evidence.

One of his greatest examples of the denial of scientific progress is that of Paul Offit. Offit co-engineered the Rotavirus vaccine, a virus that affects many thousands of people worldwide every day. Specter talks about how much hate is directed towards Paul despite the great invention: "Well, it's good, except that Paul goes around talking about vaccines and says how valuable they are and that people ought to just stop the whining. And he actually says it that way. So, Paul's a terrorist. When Paul speaks in a public hearing, he can't testify without armed guards". Specter tells the audience that people love to be wrapped in lies. For proof of this he looks at supplements that are taken by the developed world daily. He describes the total effects of them as this: "The data says it all the time. They darken your urine. They almost never do more than that." He says that we do this because we don't trust government and shouldn't but that science is not at fault. This leads him to his final topic: GE or genetically engineered foods. Michael dictates that the fear of GE foods as a new, dangerous technology is absurd: "You know, there weren't tangerines in the garden of Eden. There wasn't any cantaloupe. There weren't Christmas trees. We made it all." He tells the audience that every objection to GE foods isn't scientific, but moral: "Well, the things I constantly hear are: Too many chemicals, pesticides, hormones,monoculture, we don't want giant fields of the same thing, that's wrong. We don't have companies patenting life." Specter agrees with this but points to the fact that they are moral issues. He points out that in 50 years 70 percent more food will have to be grown to feed the world. He talks about how GE foods can help poor nations a great deal: "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." Micheal ends the presentation with a plea for the audience to embrace scientific advancement and "go ahead" in the time machine.

Specter opens his talk with an interesting notion for the audience, the time machine. This is a fantastic way to start a presentation because it immediately latches the audience to the talk. The time machine is a metaphor to our relation to scientific progress and how many people object to moving forward. This works well and is the closing statement as well. Specter represents both sides of the debate by telling the audience not to trust everything like Chernobyl and Vioxx and to be sceptical of discoveries. He is a good public speaker and proves this throughout the presentation by controlling his voice and involving the assembly with rhetorical questions relating to the subjects. Sadly, it appears that though the room's occupants agreed with him, the audiences on the TED website didn't. Though I believed the talk was well done it appears that it hasn't swayed opinions about GE foods or the scientific method online. 422 comment threads are almost exclusively filled with argument and contradiction to the talk. In particular GE foods seem to be a focus. It seems that though the talk was in my opinion well done, it failed to have the same effect that I think Micheal Specter wanted.

In conclusion, I would recommend this talk to anyone interested in technology, world issues or the debate on GE foods (the comment section alone will provide enough). I found the talk to be informative and interesting. The only thing I could have wanted more is additional information on GE foods.

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