Saturday, October 28, 2017

Book Review, Denying to the Grave

Denying to the Grave 

Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us
Sara Gorman and Jack Gorman
2017; Oxford University Press; Oxford

This book is about the politics of bad science. Here are a few examples.
  • Phony science, based on a sample of 12 individuals, created the cult of anti-vaxxers. These are the people who refuse to vaccinate their children against disease because they think it will induce autism in them.
  • News stories about outbreaks of the Zika virus, for example, created panic in the US when the disease briefly appeared there. Much of North America began to panic when four US cases of the disease took people’s lives. To put that in perspective, about 2.5 million people die in the US each year – on average, 6,775 per day. The threat was almost infinitesimally small.
  • Many Americans, who have easy access to firearms, believe that having guns at home makes them safer even though social science has demonstrated conclusively that it puts their lives at much greater risk.
  • In Calgary in particular, there are endless arguments about whether man-made climate change is really real, although the bulk of scientific research has repeatedly confirmed that these phenomena are real.
  • Patients insist on antibiotics for viral infections even though viruses are immune to antibiotics. Why is that? Of equal interest, why do doctors prescribe them, knowing they will make no difference?
  • Why do conspiracy theorists still believe that many people conspired to kill President Kennedy, when the most exhaustive investigation ever into a single homicide concluded decisively that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?
  • Genetically modified foods have greatly increased harvests, and have never caused illness. Yet Europeans in particular call them Franken foods, suggesting they are somehow like the Frankenstein monster which Mary Shelley’s book brought into the vocabulary.
In summary, many people insist that science and other kinds of creditable research are wrong. Often based on information provided by charismatic leaders, they argue that they are right because the evidence is incomplete. Unidentified hazards lurk everywhere, making the world an innately dangerous place.

The authors are Sara Gorman, whose specialty is public health, and her father Jack Gorman, an MD and psychiatrist.

As a discussion in Goodreads puts it, in this book the two authors “explore the psychology of health science denial. Using several examples of such denial as test cases, they propose six key principles that may lead individuals to reject “accepted” health-related wisdom: the charismatic leader; fear of complexity; confirmation bias and the internet; fear of corporate and government conspiracies; causality and filling the ignorance gap; and the nature of risk prediction. The authors argue that the health sciences are especially vulnerable to our innate resistance to integrate new concepts with pre-existing beliefs. This psychological difficulty of incorporating new information is on the cutting edge of neuroscience research, as scientists continue to identify brain responses to new information that reveal deep-seated, innate discomfort with changing our minds.”

Those are good comments, but they refer essentially to the book’s conclusion. What that reviewer fails to mention is that the fun part is getting there. This is an enormously intelligent book. It includes well-sourced information from scientific literature, but also commentary from unreliable online sources. As one example, it includes a quotation from actress Angelina Jolie, from an American Firearms website. “I bought original, real guns of the type we used in Tomb Raider for security,” she told a British newspaper. “Brad and I are not against having a gun in the house, and we do have one. And yes, I’d be able to use it if I had to…. If anybody comes into my home and tries to hurt my kids, I’ve no problem shooting them.”

Countless studies have shown that having guns in the house makes people less safe, not safer. As an experiment, the authors signed up as members of a pro-gun website, joined a discussion group, and began posting scientific information about the dangers of gun ownership. Without fail, the response they got was anger. Put another way, the other members of this group were saying “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” In passing, they note that in the US 10,000 people die from gunshot wounds each year. Another 20,000 men and women use guns to commit suicide – by far the most popular method.

As Shakespeare might have written about American gun laws, “Now thou art come unto a feast of death, a terrible and unavoided danger.”

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