New Yorker reporter talks public health and denial

Denial can be a dangerous thing when society as a whole gets on board, said New Yorker staff reporter Michael Specter at a Morse College Master’s Tea on Monday.

Sixty students and faculty members attended the event, where Specter discussed sections of his latest book ‘Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives’. He primarily addressed vaccination and the genetic modification of food. Students said they enjoyed the chance the talk gave them to think more about denialism.

“It made me think a lot,” Sam Martin ’13 said. “It made me question a lot — both things that he is saying and also things that I’m sort of interested in.”

Specter told students and faculty that one should considera range of thingswhen deciding whether to be vaccinated. While there are risks to every drug, Specter said, there is a need for a balanced and scientific perspective when tackling matters of public health.

Specter did concede, however, that pharmaceutical companies sometimes have different priorities.

“[A pharmaceutical company’s] job is to make profits for the stakeholders,” Specter said.

Nevertheless, Specter said this is not a valid reason for individuals to avoid these companies’ products, ashe arguedit could endanger the lives of others. One of the strongest arguments for immunization is explained by the “herd effect:”the idea that by immunizing yourself you are also preventing other people from being infected, Specter said.

“The issue of wondering of how people can deny the ominous is really interesting and one we should pay attention to,” Andrew Miranker, associate professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, said.

Specter also discussed genetically engineered food, another topic included in his book. He saidthat he is annoyed when people oppose genetically-modified food, because, he said, it could save or considerably improve the lives of millions of undernourished people.

He supported this point by referring to golden rice, which is rice fortified with vitamin A and other nutrients. Because a deficiency of vitamin A can cause severe vision problems, Specter said that golden rice could salvage the eyesightof many.

“[Synthetic biology] has a great deal of promise,” Specter said.

Specter was well received by attending students.

Ethan Carlson ’12 said that it was one of the best master’s teas he has attended at Yale, adding that he was impressed by Specter’sintellectualism and scientific approach.

“He appealed to my rationality,” Carlson said.

Abhinav Nayar ’14 said that even though he found the talk entertaining, he was disappointed not to have heard more about denialism, the topic of Specter’s book.

A veteran reporter, Specter worked for the Washington Post and the New York Times before becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1998.

Comments

  • bhilly

    > Specter also discussed genetically engineered food, another topic included in his book. He saidthat he is annoyed when people oppose genetically-modified food, because, he said, it could save or considerably improve the lives of millions of undernourished people.

    Genetically modified food may have already considerably damaged the lives of millions of otherwise healthy people. It seems too strange to be coincidence that corn, wheat, milk and soy are among both the most hyperallergenic foods and the most genetically modified, and also that the discovery and implementation of GM foods was closely followed by an increase in food allergies. Although not yet proven, it is very possible that the human body can’t recognize and accept synthetic produce as easily as it can natural foods.

    Is rendering staple foods inedible for many a fair price to pay for enhancing the diets of many others? I don’t think so. I think that Mr. Specter is living in denial, that he refuses to realize that a solution to a devastating problem might not be as elegant as it originally seemed. But since I can’t eat any of the foods I mentioned above, I’m a bit biased. Regardless, this certainly is an issue worthy of debate and further study.