On Science

We have met the enemy

By Anthony Doerr
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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In 1621 a ship named the Discovery left London carrying “divers sorte of seed, and fruit trees . . . and Beehives.’’ Four months later, the European honeybee landed in North America. By 1730, Virginia was exporting hundreds of tons of beeswax to Europe every year, and the insects were helping settlers unroll clover-covered pastures across the New World.

Nowadays keepers truck their bees all over the United States: The same hive might pollinate Washington apples and Maine blueberries in the same year. Farmers rely on managed hives to pollinate almonds, cranberries, melons, onions, turnips, celery, squash, and dozens of other crops - roughly one of every three forkfuls of food we put in our mouths. All told, a recent Cornell University study valued the contributions of honeybees to the US economy at around $15 billion.

Alas, as you probably already know, a mysterious killer known as Colony Collapse Disorder is killing the bees by the billions. Eight hundred thousand American bee colonies were wiped out in 2007; a million more died in 2008. Is Colony Collapse Disorder caused by pesticides? Mites? A virus? Bees’ diminished genetic diversity? How about cellphone signals or genetically modified corn? Aliens?

In “A World Without Bees,’’ English writers and beekeepers Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum comb through the prevailing theories and eventually settle on an unsurprising culprit: us.

They write, “We are the ones killing the honeybee through ignorance, unsustainable agricultural practices and dangerous use of chemicals.’’

First, they argue, we’ve treated bees like livestock, breeding them for a docile nature, high yields of honey, and activity in the early spring. Along the way, they’ve lost genetic health. Second, we’ve stripped away vast swaths of habitat. Every new housing development means fewer wild plants for bees to forage on. Third, we’ve exposed them to a bewildering cocktail of insecticides. Fourth, single-crop agriculture has exposed them to acre after acre of the same plant - not exactly a healthy, diversified diet. And fifth, by mixing populations from all over the world, we’ve tipped our bees into a melting pot of mites, viruses, and diseases.

“If we treat animals like automata, then we shouldn’t be surprised when they break,’’ conclude Benjamin and McCallum. They wrote “A World Without Bees’’ more than a year ago, and the book is not filled with up-to-the minute details about Colony Collapse Disorder. But it does make yet another compelling case for systemic changes in our food production. Otherwise, four centuries after they arrived, our honeybees could be gone.

“There has been no more volatile subject in American medicine for the past decade than the safety of vaccines,’’ writes New Yorker contributor Michael Specter in his searing new book, “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.’’

The most compelling chapter elegantly traces how, despite numerous studies confirming a lack of association between vaccinations and autism, anguished parents of children with the disorder continue to insist the two are linked. There’s no doubt that the concerns of a parent with an autistic child are valid and wrenching, Specter says. But there’s also no doubt, statistically speaking, that parents who choose not to vaccinate their children put their children (and potentially their neighbors’ children) at greater risk of contracting diseases.

As diseases like measles and polio regain ground among the unvaccinated in the United Kingdom and northern Nigeria, respectively, and as many of us in the United States debate whether to inoculate our children against H1N1, the debate over vaccinations continues to be as relevant as ever.

Specter sees denialists everywhere, not only in the antivaccine movement. “Attacks on progress have become routine,’’ he writes. Denialism proposes an odd synthesis, arguing that parents who reject vaccinations, people who promote alternative medicine, politically correct doctors who refuse to investigate race as a diagnostic tool, and activists who oppose genetically modified crops are linked in a conspiracy against science.

“Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,’’ Specter writes, “or you don’t.’’ It’s hard to argue with that. I was surprised, though, that he includes only a paragraph on creationists, who have to be the prototypical denialists. Nor does he spend more than a few sentences on the confused souls who refuse to believe that humans have affected the global climate. Perhaps he feels that territory already is well covered.

My misgivings aside, “Denialism’’ is a firestorm of a book, a broadside against anyone who would wish to hold back science out of fear. “Denialism is a virus,’’ Specter writes, “and viruses are contagious.’’ Specter argues that in every case tangible benefits outweigh theoretical harms, even in fields like synthetic biology, which has the potential both to deliver breathtaking answers for the world’s fuel requirements and to reduce the planet, in Prince Charles’s words, to “grey goo.’’

“We are either going to embrace new technologies, along with their limitations and threats,’’ Specter says, “or slink into an era of magical thinking.’’ What if we could generate genome-based, truly personalized medicine? What if we could eradicate malaria altogether? What if we could engineer a “super bee’’ that would be more resistant to the honeybee’s most lethal assailants?

Specter’s most important point is his most irresistible one. The only thing scarier than new technologies is refusing to have a healthy, informed, and civil discussion about them.

Anthony Doerr is the author of “The Shell Collector,’’ “About Grace,’’ and “Four Seasons in Rome.’’

By Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum
Pegasus, 336 pp., illustrated, $26

DENIALISM: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives
By Michael Specter
Penguin, 304 pp., $27.95

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