John Grant. Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions and the War Against Reality. Prometheus, 2011
One of the blurbs on this book describes John Grant as "the living heir of Martin Gardener", this is, I think, less than fair to Grant. Martin Gardner often took on soft targets and subjected them to ridicule, Grant takes on the big boys. The assaults on science that Grant dissects are not, by and large, the products of isolated cranks, who are either just badly educated or who have mental health issues, they are the products of major, often well-funded and politically motivated campaigns. 🔻
Of the principle assaults Grant discusses, those which are closest to the issues often covered in Magonia are the promotion of creationism and intelligent design, the various forms of alternative medicine and the hidden memory/satanic abuse myths. The other examples are much closer to the scientific and cultural mainstreams, the campaigns against the MMR vaccine orchestrated by Andrew Wakefield; the claims that AIDS is not caused by HIV; the attempts by the tobacco industry to argue that cigarette smoking was not responsible for cancer; and the attacks on the growing evidence that human caused carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for global warming.
What is revealing is the extent to which many of the these apparently disparate campaigns all seem to have connections to each other and to figures on the far right of the US Republican Party. In the case of the climate change "deniers" a significant number seem to be funded by the US oil giant ExonMobile.
Unlike some of the soft targets that tend to be the targets of the 'skeptics movement', these anti-scientific crusades can have catastrophic consequences, take for example the endorsement of the idea that aids isn't caused by HIV by the former South African president Thabo Mbeki, that led to thousands if not millions of unnecessary deaths, and it is possible that that figure could be dwarfed if actions are not taken to both cut carbon dioxide emissions and to develop technologies to counter the worst consequences of such warming.
While much of Grant's book does at times seem to have a rather parochial US focus, no doubt because of the desperate state of politics there, we in the UK should not feel too smug. Much of the climate change 'denial' is being orchestrated by the British right, including those noted Tory newspapers The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.
Many of these campaigns get the support of credential scientists of one kind or another, the retired and those whose expertise is in distant subjects tending to predominate, and this can impress people who don't understand there isn't any position on any topic that you can't get some 'credentialed scientist' to endorse.
They also tend to rely on anecdotal evidence, appeals to emotion and to vague notions of 'fairness', in which any minority however tiny can claim equal status to the vast majority. Grant also notes how they often use fake statistics and quotes from their own publications.
It is perhaps from one the topics briefly mentioned that the final horror story comes; the execution of a prisoner in Texas for an alleged arson, the evidence for which was discredited. The governor responsible for refusing the appeal and thus sending a almost certainly innocent man to his death was Rick Perry, supporter of Creationism and climate change denier and now a Republican presidential contender. – Peter Rogerson