Michael Specter

New Yorker Staff Writer
Author, Denialism

A refreshing counter-reaction to the growing rejection
of the benefits of modern science.

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Biography

Michael Specter’s truthful, rigorously researched, and often politically incorrect views are the perfect antidote to the widespread rebellion against scientific thought and the products of scientific inquiry, such as the new wonder drugs, the new vaccines that are being refused by the public, as well as the genetically engineered foods that many are boycotting.

A skillful writer and a great speaker with a masterful stage presence, Michael brings a dose of rationality and knowledge to all the events in which he participates. Michael is the author of Denialism, a meticulously reported investigation of the growing mistrust among people around the world of science and its byproducts. He argues that irrationality, politically-inspired fear, and misplaced skepticism have undermined public acceptance of the scientific marvels of our age, and the benefits they all provide humankind. The reprint edition is now available.

Michael won the Stop TB Partnership Annual Award for Excellence in Reporting for his New Yorker article, A Deadly Misdiagnosis, about the dangers of inaccurate TB tests in India, which has the highest rate of TB in the world. The Stop TB Partnership was established by the World Health Organization and is an international network of public and private organizations, countries, and donors dedicated to eradicating TB.

Michael is the winner of the 2009 Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking, presented by The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, for his book Denialism. Michael argues that by turning our backs on scientific impartiality, we are abandoning rational thought in favor of hearsay, rumors and vague promises, which he sees manifested in the rush to organic foods, as well as vitamins, dietary supplements and "natural" cures that do no good and sometimes cause harm.

Most importantly, he gives voice to the growing fear that denialism, as he calls the phenomenon, will stifle scientific inquiry and progress, prevent us from solving solvable problems such as famine in third world countries, and create new windows of opportunity for devastating diseases to appear in the world.

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

"Michael Specter has written a lucid and insightful book about a very frightening and irrational phenomenon — the fear and superstition that threaten human science and progress. A superb and convincing work."
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink.

The New Yorker
At The New Yorker, Michael has written about the global AIDS epidemic, avian influenza, malaria, scientific efforts to resurrect extinct viruses, synthetic biology, genetically modified food, efforts to mine the human genome to fight disease; the world’s diminishing freshwater resources, and the Bush Administration’s war on science.

He has also profiled many fascinating well-known personalities, including Lance Armstrong, Richard Branson, the ethicist Peter Singer, Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, Manolo Blahnik, AIDS activist Larry Kramer, and Ingrid Newkirk, the highly controversial founder of PETA.

Credentials

  • The New Yorker staff writer since 1998
  • Stop TB Partnership Annual Award for Excellence in Reporting, 2011
  • 2009 Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking Award
  • Specter has twice received the Global Health Council's Excellence in Media Award, 2001 and 2004
  • Science Journalism Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2004
  • Correspondent, Moscow Bureau Chief, The New York Times National science reporter, New York Bureau Chief, Washington Post

Books

Denialism

How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives

Michael Specter

A superb and convincing work.
— Malcolm Gladwell

In this provocative and headline- making book, Michael Specter confronts the widespread fear of science and its terrible toll on individuals and the planet.

In Denialism, New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter reveals that Americans have come to mistrust institutions and especially the institution of science more today than ever before. For centuries, the general view had been that science is neither good nor bad-that it merely supplies information and that new information is always beneficial. Now, science is viewed as a political constituency that isn't always in our best interest. We live in a world where the leaders of African nations prefer to let their citizens starve to death rather than import genetically modified grains. Childhood vaccines have proven to be the most effective public health measure in history, yet people march on Washington to protest their use. In the United States a growing series of studies show that dietary supplements and "natural" cures have almost no value, and often cause harm. We still spend billions of dollars on them. In hundreds of the best universities in the world, laboratories are anonymous, unmarked, and surrounded by platoons of security guards-such is the opposition to any research that includes experiments with animals. And pharmaceutical companies that just forty years ago were perhaps the most visible symbol of our remarkable advance against disease have increasingly been seen as callous corporations propelled solely by avarice and greed.

As Michael Specter sees it, this amounts to a war against progress. The issues may be complex but the choices are not: Are we going to continue to embrace new technologies, along with acknowledging their limitations and threats, or are we ready to slink back into an era of magical thinking? In Denialism, Specter makes an argument for a new Enlightenment, the revival of an approach to the physical world that was stunningly effective for hundreds of years: What can be understood and reliably repeated by experiment is what nature regarded as true. Now, at the time of mankind's greatest scientific advances-and our greatest need for them-that deal must be renewed.

Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (October 26, 2010)
Penguin Press HC, The (October 29, 2009)

Review

Firing Bullets of Data at Cozy Anti-ScienceThe New York Times

Topics

Michael tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

The Placebo Effect

Half of all American adults medicated themselves; either with vitamins, antioxidant mixtures or a pill that they have decided is more likely to help them than the drugs their doctors prescribe. Hospitals, doctors, health management leaders detest this fact, but denying it doesn't mean it isn't so. To explore this phenomenon, Harvard now has an entire institute devoted to the study of placebos. It's the Program of Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter which looks at the study and eventual deployment of placebos as drugs. Post docs and graduate students are waiting in line to get in. The research has been propelled in large measure by the emerging discipline of neuroimaging.

In several recent studies, placebos have performed as well as drugs that Americans spend millions of dollars on every year.

It is currently up to the healthcare system to explain to patients why one treatment matters and others don't and there is a need to talk to patients honestly about all of the available options.

Denialism

Videos

'This Week' Opting Out on Vaccines? | ABC News

The danger of science denial | TED

Feedback

A natural history museum:
Michael — Our community is still abuzz after your presentation - provocative but not polarizing and thoroughly engaging. You were a great ambassador for science in the global public interest!

An organization representing science centers and museums worldwide:
He was fantastic — people were tweeting excerpts from his keynote as he was speaking in real time. We had great feedback on his address.

A senior public health official:
Michael — Thank you is inadequate to express my personal and professional appreciation for your trip to [...]; you delivered in spades. The feedback to the meeting, the session with the students and the evening gala is remarkable; 10.5 out of 10. You really need to hit the college campus circuit much more as your message really resonates with this crowd (professors and students.) We need entire courses about denialism and how we must train our current students how to best respond.

A food science and technology company:
Michael — On behalf of everyone here, I want to thank you for a great presentation. As you know, I was collecting all the questions backstage and this was the most questions we've ever received in the last four years — and they were all good questions at that!

An audience member at TED:
This session did a phenom job in forcing us to ask questions and not be complacent about the way we think and act. I particularly thought that Michael's talk was incredibly thought provoking.

A food and beverage trade association:
Our members had such a great experience with Michael. They enjoyed his presentation immensely. We highly recommend him!

Articles

— The New Yorker
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