AAAS Kavli Lecture: NYU's Dan Fagin on the Persistence of Denialism

Earl Lane

Toms River is an All-American town in central New Jersey that was on a steep growth trajectory during the 1960s and 70s, fueled by a Swiss-owned chemical manufacturing complex that employed 1,300 people at its peak and ultimately produced some 3 billion pounds of dyes and plastics ― as well as 200,000 drums of toxic waste haphazardly buried on the factory property near the center of town, and billions of gallons of toxic wastewater pumped out to sea.

Even as children in town started developing cancers, there was a reluctance to confront the awful reality that something was wrong. “Nobody really wanted to ask too many questions about what was happening in town,” said Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University during an Oct. 28 lecture at Hofstra University on Long Island.

Dan Fagin                                            Credit: Alexis Friedman

The denial persisted even as evidence of harm began to mount, and one local mother started making her own map of cancer cases she believed were tied to the infiltration of toxic residues into the town’s drinking water. The State Health Department declined initially to undertake an investigation. Professionals were skeptical, Fagin said, because cancer clusters are notoriously difficult to prove. “We tend to see patterns when they don’t always exist,” he said.

In his talk, sponsored by the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards program and hosted by Hofstra’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, Fagin revisited his reporting on Toms River in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Why does denial occur, he asked, whether in a town where the economic impact of a local chemical plant holds sway or during a global pandemic when evidence-based science on vaccines and mask use can take a back seat to cultural norms and political polarization?

Fagin, whose bestselling book ― Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation ― was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, noted the work of Yale University law and psychology professor Daniel Kahan on why people feel the way they do on important questions and what can cause them to ignore evidence to the contrary.

In general, Kahan found, the more you know about science, the more likely you are to provide the right answers to questions about climate change and other science-related topics. Educated Democrats and Republicans surveyed by Kahan generally agreed that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing global temperatures to rise. They also agreed that rising carbon dioxide levels can increase the amount of photosynthesis by plants but are not associated with a higher risk of skin cancer.

But when asked whether there is solid evidence of global warming due to human activity such as burning fossil fuels – a politically charged question – liberal Democrats were more likely to say yes than conservative Republicans, even though respondents from both groups were knowledgeable about science. In fact, he found, the more Republicans knew about science, the more likely they were to deny a human role in climate change – a very counterintuitive finding.

The explanation, Kahan found, is that once a question becomes “culturally freighted,” as Fagin put it, denial can kick in. Kahan says such behavior is not irrational. “They are following their peer group,” Fagin said, “and the cost of being alienated from your peers is extremely high.”

So, what finally changed in Toms River to break the cycle of denial? A nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was concerned about the unusually high number of young patients from Toms River she was seeing in the pediatric oncology ward. She told her sister-in-law, an EPA employee, about the cases and she brought them to the attention of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an Atlanta-based federal health agency. Working with the New Jersey Department of Health, it mounted a cursory investigation that found cancer incidence rates were much higher among Toms River children compared to other localities. But the state kept the findings, based on limited data, secret, Fagin said. When a newspaper reporter uncovered the study, parents in town started to ask angry questions.

The New Jersey health department undertook a seven-year study that confirmed a non-random, dose-related link between exposure to polluted air and water in Toms River and childhood leukemia in certain groups of local children. Eighty or more young people may have lost their lives because of their exposure to toxic compounds, Fagin said.

Despite the gloomy history in Toms River, Fagin said he remains optimistic that cycles of denial need not be inevitable. “Public health interventions work,” he said. Halting of polluted air emissions from the chemical plant and proper filtering of contaminated well water did help to bring down leukemia cases in town. “We can act on information and make things better,” Fagin said, adding that “changing your mind is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of intelligence.”

“Scientists change their minds all the time,” he said, based on new evidence and more comprehensive research. They also are comfortable with uncertainty and the role of probabilities in assessing risk. “We all have to be smart and understand that by following the weight of the scientific evidence, we are going to have better lives,” Fagin said.

Speaking to an audience largely composed of students, Fagin urged them to become “thoughtful environmentalists, not just reflexive opponents” and recognize there may be a need for tradeoffs when tough economic issues are at stake. He also urged them individually to “rise to the obligation of what it really means to be a citizen,” adding that “democracy doesn’t run by itself. It depends on us.”

The final AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture of 2021 will be on Wednesday, Nov. 3, when NPR science correspondent Joe Palca delivers a 12:00 p.m. virtual talk at Georgetown University about fighting myths and misinformation in the time of COVID-19. Earlier, senior writer Helen Branswell of STAT spoke on Oct. 6 at MIT about her coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, her grappling with misinformation about the disease and her introduction to the craft of science journalism.