Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives

by Michael Specter

(The Penguin Press, 304 pages, $27.95, November, 2009)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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"Don't judge a book by its cover." That maxim, though not restricted to the literary world, provides valuable guidance to readers and book critics alike.

But it should not shield the author or publisher when the title and subtitle are misleading, as is the case for Michael Specter's Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. The mismatch between its content and readers' expectations is certain to bring out critical grumbles about all aspects of the book.

The title leads readers to expect answers to important questions. Why do people develop unrealistic worldviews? Why do they allow faith or ideology to supersede science in their interpretations of factual evidence?

In ethical decisions that are fraught with ambiguity, science alone is not the answer; but denying the facts should not be an option.

The subtitle leads readers to expect evidence of the range problems caused by denialism: damage to people, social institutions, and the Earth itself. But they also expect guidance on how to replace denial with reality-based thinking.

They get plenty of evidence but very little guidance. The book reads like a litany of complaints by a technophile about the Luddites around him. That is reflected in its often condescending tone.

At its best, a book like this can educate uninformed but not unreachable readers, many of whom might respond with the kind of open-minded skepticism that a scientist values. Instead, parts of it read like sermons laden with unsupported and probably incorrect claims like "...it is unlikely that another [nuclear power plant] will be built in the United States."

Specter bemoans that too many people pay attention to celebrities and are deceived by "experts" who are paid to mischaracterize science. Yet he provides no guidance for overcoming that problem.

And in an astonishing lapse, the book barely discusses the most significant area in which denialism is harming the planet. It has exactly one sentence that mentions "the greatest threat the earth has ever faced: the rapid pace of global warming."

Do readers have a right to expect a chapter that discusses the pervasive misinformation campaign that fuels denialism on that issue? Specter decided they don't. That's his prerogative as an author, but then he should have insisted on a different subtitle.

With a properly descriptive title and subtitle, some readers might be content with Specter's health-related emphasis ("Vaccines and the Great Denial"; the "fetish" of organic foods; and medical treatment fine-tuned to an individual's genome, among others).

Whether they would appreciate being in a preached-to choir, however, is an open question.

Fred Bortz is a physicist and author of nearly 20 books for young readers.