This article just appeared in Nature, and while it’s well intentioned, and gives advice that will work sometimes, it’s not, as the author implies, a panacea we can use to convince science deniers of the truth.
Click on the screenshot to read (it’s free).
Now there are lots of techniques for changing the minds of creationists, anti-vaxers, people who think the Jews plotted the 9/11 attacks, and so on. One is good old-fashioned mockery, and don’t think that that’s not effective. There are few things as effective at getting you to examine your views than being laughed at by people you respect (or should respect). Then there is giving lectures on the evidence, or writing books about it. That’s what I spent much of my career doing to counteract creationists. I debated one of them once (Hugh Ross), but it was clear that the audience (the Alaska Bar Association) was in no position to adjudicate the evidence, and of course debate usually involves rhetoric rather than truth (viz., the “Gish gallop“). I won’t be debating creationists again.
Author Lee McIntyre has another way: a kindlier version of debating. McIntyre has just written a book on the topic; Nature gives his bona fides this way:
Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, Massachusetts, and author of the forthcoming book How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations With Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason (MIT Press, 2021).
And perhaps the specific beliefs of his opponents—those loons who believe in a flat earth—are the key to his success.
McIntyre feels that the way to convince someone who thinks the earth is a disc that it’s really a sphere involves first gaining their trust by respecting them, and then asking them leading questions. So he first listens carefully to the deniers and then goes to work. Here’s how he describes it:
So how does ‘technique rebuttal’ work in practice? Here’s my experience. When I attended the Flat Earth International Conference in 2018, I chose to say nothing on the first day, although it was hard to keep my mouth shut when I heard that Antarctica is a wall of ice that keeps the sea from flowing off Earth. By the second day, I was glad I’d waited. I knew if I’d offered evidence, they’d say that space was fake and scientists were liars.
Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already
Although I didn’t convince any flat-earthers on the spot, I did learn how to get them to listen. I let them speak, then followed up with questions once the dialogue was rolling. Instead of refuting arguments, I asked, “What evidence might change your mind?” If they said they needed ‘proof’, I asked why existing evidence was insufficient. If they shared a conspiracy theory, I asked why they trusted the evidence for it. By doing that — and not monologuing the facts — I was able to let them wonder why they couldn’t answer my questions.
It is an axiom of science communication that you cannot convince a science denier with facts alone [JAC: I don’t believe that because I’ve seen it happen repeatedly]; most science deniers don’t have a deficit of information, but a deficit of trust. And trust has to be built, with patience, respect, empathy and interpersonal connections. Because I spent the first day listening, even committed deniers were interested in what I had to say.
At one Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, I had two ex-Hasidic Jews come up to me (in a single day!) and tell me that they realized evolution was true when they started reading about it as kids. That led to them abandoning not just creationism (a belief of many Hasids), but their faith—and ultimately they were rejected by their families. But it was the facts that did the job.
Unfortunately, McIntyre doesn’t actually tell us how many—if any—of the flat-earthers came around to his side. If you know of a panoply of ways to convince science deniers that they’re wrong, the way to find out the best technique is to test the different techniques and compare the results after some months have passed. Nobody’s really done that. Now virtually all methods will work on some people, but different methods may be required for different people, so I’m wary of McIntyre’s “one method cures all” approach.
He does report that it works (as all methods will) with respect to the vaccine hesitant:
Arnaud Gagneur, a researcher and physician at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada, and his colleagues conducted more than 1,000 20-minute interviews in which they listened to new parents’ concerns about vaccinations and answered their questions. Those parents’ children were 9% more likely to receive all the vaccines on the schedule than were those of uninterviewed parents whose babies were delivered in the same maternity ward (T. Lemaitre et al. Hum. Vaccin. Immunother. 15, 732–739; 2019). One mother told him: “It’s the first time that I’ve had a discussion like this, and I feel respected, and I trust you.”
Well, sure, that would work (to the extent of 9% success), but what if you show them an ad like the one I’ll put up later today: an ad depicting the ravages of Covid? (I’ve suggested something similar before: showing ads with the relatives and loved ones of those who died of the disease giving their heartbreaking testimony?)
What if you showed parents videos of kids with whooping cough or tetanus? Might that not work better? The problem with Gagneur’s experiment is that the control is “no intervention,” not a “different intervention.” If you’re weighing strategies to combat the science-deniers, you have to test them all.
With respect to my own bête noire—creationists—I’m wary of McIntyre’s method, for I’ve used it. When you use it on creationists, and then ask them questions, they don’t start listening to you simply because they respect you more (well, a few of them will), for you’re attacking not just science, but the entire foundation of their faith: the veracity of the Bible. Doing what McIntyre recommends might change some creationists’ minds, but it’s time-consuming. I’d rather lecture on the evidence for evolution, contrasting that with what creationism predicts, and let the chips fall where they may. In fact, just attacking religion itself might be a better way to dispel creationism than discussing scientific beliefs and evidence, for when religion goes, so goes creationism. You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.
This is why I’m always wary of those who tell me the best way to convince people of the truth of evolution, or of the efficacy of vaccination. (Remember Chris Mooney’s similar advice?) With science denialists, let a thousand strategies blossom!
So yes, by all means, if you’re so constituted, follow McIntyre’s recommendations below. They surely can’t hurt. But sometimes I just like to point out the follies of faith.
Where should you do this? Wherever science deniers can be found. Speak up in line at the pharmacy. Volunteer to speak at your kids’ school. Or, if you’re ambitious, join me at the upcoming flat-earth convention. I already have a physicist friend coming along.
Those who want to make a difference can learn how to do so. Resources are available through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in Stony Brook, New York, and the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Public Engagement with Science in Ohio. It isn’t as comfortable as cheering with fellow marchers, but it can be more effective.