How do you change the minds of science deniers?

August 12, 2021 • 10:45 am

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.

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.

42 thoughts on “How do you change the minds of science deniers?

  1. Just a few observations and opinions:

    1. One difference between creationism and some of these other kinds of denial is that creationism comes backed with a whole religious universe and centuries old social empire. It must be a lot harder to convince a believer to turn their back on that. On the other hand, vaccine denial doesn’t really have that. It is much weaker and more recent. Most of its followers just have bad information.

    2. One reason McIntyre doesn’t say how many successful conversions he’s had with his approach is due to how people leave cults. Rather than a sudden epiphany and conversion, they likely just drift away from their belief. Also, very few converts are honest or open enough to admit their conversion right away.

    3. Conversions are probably most effective with those on the margins between belief and non-belief. In any group, there will be a continuum of belief strengths. If a solid flat-earther brings his mildly interested and impressionable cousin to the convention, that cousin could perhaps go either way. He loves spending time with his outgoing cousin but he’s not sure that the flat earth theory makes sense. Listening to the science may force the cousin to deny the flat earth theory. Such a person would at most admit to himself that he’d dodged a bullet. To anyone else, he’d assure them that he never really believed that flat earth garbage in the first place.

    1. I read this article in the Post when it came out last month. Just like everything else, they do it big in Texas. Really scary bunch and i don’t think you could talk them into anything. Like all religion thought, it is all about money. Another con for Trump as well.

      1. With anti-vaxxers , you can always point to the way cases dropped in Israel after so much of the population was fully vaccinated.

        Remember though to cut off the graph at the start of July.

        1. Right. The reason I said that these people were not anti-vaxxers is that they have an enormous needle on top of their church 🙂 That’s the first thing I noticed.

          And why did things turn after the middle of July?

  2. I believe Jason Rosenhouse suggested a similar listen-and-gain-trust approach in his book Among the Creationists.

    As you say PCC, let a thousand strategies bloom. All of them work some of the time, and none of them work all of the time. I’d only add that part of it may be how good the mainstreamer is at using the technique they’ve chosen. Good explainers should explain. Good socialites should socialize. And so on.

    1. It’s a bit like getting people to quit smoking or to stop any other drug…you don’t restrict yourself to just one available method (or you shouldn’t) because different things work for different people, and each given attempt only has a certain percentage chance of success, but repeated iterations of attempts, perhaps of varying kinds, gradually increases the odds and success.

  3. I’m going to be an anti-curmudgeon and suggest that arguing or debating people with set mindsets will mostly reinforce their mindset. Who wants to give up something as important as an emotionally founded identity just because of mere facts?

    So when you encounter a cultist (Arch Republican, Arch Democrat, flat earther, Coronavirus conspiracy, God struck, anti-germ theory) just give a crooked smile and walk away. In some cases *not* engaging might be the best action as it will allow any doubts they have to fester.

    Of course some people are so distanced from normality that they do illegal or hurtful things. They have to be resisted, but you have the general backing of society behind you.

    1. Arguing with or debating people with “set mindsets” will never work, because if they change their mind even a little they obviously didn’t have a set mindset to begin with. You defined an intractable class.

      And that’s the tricky bit: you can’t tell these two groups apart. Consider how many atheists were once True Believers. Something or someone broke the bubble of consensus that surrounded them. Sometimes recognizing that seemingly ordinary people disagree with you can be more effective than expert scientific explanations.

      And sometimes it’s the other way around.

      1. Breaking the bubble is what drugs do, like pot, mushrooms, LSD and such. That to me is the only way to break through to the rubes…and it worked for me. Now how to get shrooms in the drinking water? That’s tricky. 😉

        1. I came across this new documentary about fungi a few weeks ago that looked like it might be pretty good. I finally watched it night before last. I was hoping for beautiful imagery and interesting science, but it was a real let down. There was some very interesting science sprinkled throughout it, but mostly it was about old guys going on about how mind blowingly awesome getting high on mushrooms is, how if everyone did them it would transform humanity into a higher level of existence (or something).

          There was also some interesting hypotheses floated. For example, what caused the relatively rapid increase in human cognition that occurred about a million years ago? Yep, you guessed it, psilocybin mushrooms.

          1. I hate it when that happens. You watch what you think is going to be a sciency documentary and instead find a human interest story where the humans aren’t really all that interesting.

            There are a lot of documentaries on YouTube that are worthwhile. Although their makers certainly like to make money, the market is different. There is plenty of dreck but a lot of good stuff is organized in various “channels”. It’s amazing what one finds in the middle of those cute cat videos.

  4. I hang out on a large and diverse photography forum, and it includes a general chit-chat section which is always interesting to visit. During the early months of this pandemic, there were all manner of aging conservatives who would seize upon every excuse to deny the seriousness of the situation and the need to listen to Dr. Fauci. No need to describe those fallacies here as you’ve all heard them.
    Between then and now, the situation seems to have changed. It seems to me that the same posters are now very quiet about their ‘former selves’. No one brings up hydroxychloroquine!

  5. The task would be much easier — particularly as to COVID, climate change, and evolution — if politicians and pundits and preachers who hold sway over the deniers, and who should know better, would stop propagating arrant BS.

  6. I think when you find your belief or habit in a smaller and shrinking circle. Maybe it starts to become inconvenient and difficult over time. I never had a problem with religion so i really have no idea what works with that. But smoking, I know all about that – did it for many years. It started to get inconvenient when they kicked it outside. Going out in the cold to smoke was pretty stupid. It was getting harder to continue – no doubt about that. Then I had a health issue, not directly related but still, I was going in for a serious operation. So that was it. I quit and never went back. 22 years ago. I would hope quitting religion would be so easy.

  7. With the Flat Earth/ Atlantis/ Aliens built the pyramids types, we are talking about a prime example of “other ways of knowing”. The methodical reasoning and logical processes you and I might use to evaluate such claims are not held in common with such people.
    In trying to convince them, you are trying to bridge a vast gulf. You might be using words that you both hold in common, but they do not understand the language you are speaking.

    I think there is some of that with some of the vax people. But there is also a basic skepticism born of the fact that much of the government pandemic response continues to be irrational or at least counter intuitive. It is not unreasonable to think that if someone is lying to you about one thing, anything else they say becomes suspect as well.

    I got vaccinated not because the CDC told me to, but because I am married to a smart physician, who has close connections to infectious disease specialists, and she told me it was safe and advisable, even after having the disease.
    On the other hand, I do know a lot about equipment and methods for working safely in areas contaminated with dangerous pathogens or chemical warfare agents. From that perspective, most of the masking/distancing rules in effect and as practiced are at best theatrical, and at worst are examples of arbitrary and petty shows of power.
    It seems that the official stance is that danger of Covid spread is largely based on politics. Lollapalooza or Juneteenth gatherings pose little or no risk, while Sturgis is almost homicidally negligent.
    The same people who want you arrested for playing catch with your child in a field, far from other people, are the ones issuing vaccine requirements. Even with a layman’s limited understanding of infectious disease protocols, a normal and reasonable person will conclude that they are being bullshitted to some extent, and are left to separate the truth from everything else.

    1. Were the catch-players breaking a rule against non-essential travel? Don’t you think such rules need to be written broadly so as to be easily understood? Isn’t it reasonable to establish and enforce temporary public-health measures in an emergency?

      1. It may be reasonable to establish and enforce temporary public-health measures in an emergency, but when governors are traveling for personal reasons after issuing travel bans, dining in large unmasked crowds after banning indoor dining and mandating masks, etc. it’s easy to lose respect for the rules. Either the elites know something we don’t, or they think the rules don’t apply to them…

        1. It didn’t take much for you to lose respect for the rules. A governor cheats and you’re ready to throw in the towel. It’s as if you think it’s a game. The rules were intended to keep people safe. Learning that a governor forgot or ignored this is not permission for you to do it too. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

        2. In such a case I would still respect the rules, I would just lose my respect for the governor, if I had any to begin with. Otherwise stated, I think for myself.

        3. I’d go with the latter, “the rules don’t apply to them.”
          Case in point. One health minister handling the Covid response. Lockdown in full swing. Smug ning-nong health minister takes his wife and kids for a mountain bike ride, a drive to a location 40 minutes outside his local area.
          He lost his job after his replacement got up to speed with the response issues and policies.
          Covid has it’s own rules and bypassing health ministers’ ain’t one of them.

      2. I guess we probably disagree on the basic function of government. I think broad prohibitions on basic common activities should be made only when absolutely necessary, and even then, written so that they have the minimum possible negative impact on people’s rights.

        I am not a fan of bans on “non-essential travel”, either. To begin with, that puts some person in the position of deciding what is or is not essential. It also seems to come with the assumption that my non essential travel necessarily conveys a risk of disease transmission. My playing catch with one of my kids out by ourselves in a field may not be essential in your mind, but it is also not going to spread disease.
        There are much better legal minds here, but the phrase “malum prohibitum” comes to mind.

        The family in question was obeying a posted edict of no more than four to a group, and the park was open for walking hiking and similar activities. My understanding was that organized baseball games had been cancelled, but the responding officers seemed to be fixated on the fact that the family was playing catch with a baseball, although in an empty area between soccer goals. They called a supervisor for instructions, then four unmasked and ungloved officers arrested him.

    2. Right. As McIntyre wrote, “most science deniers don’t have a deficit of information, but a deficit of trust”. Regarding COVID, I think so much of the opposition is due to the politicization of it and the obvious double standards, both of which erode trust.

      The media used the pandemic as a political weapon against Trump – first downplaying the virus (“it’s not dangerous… the real danger is racism”) and then later upplaying it. Health experts politicized it, telling us that massive BLM protests were acceptable vis a vis COVID transmission, while a hundred people protesting lockdowns were “literally killing people”. Elites get caught repeatedly breaking their own rules. Biden issues a mask mandate for all federal land and is soon photographed with his whole family maskless on federal land. But that’s okay because “they were celebrating”, but celebration is no excuse for you. Obama can have a birthday party with hundreds of unmasked guests in close proximity and it’s okay because they’re “sophisticated” and “mostly vaccinated”, but if you want to get an order of magnitude fewer people together for a birthday party, you’re practically a murderer.

      I remember the CDC’s draft recommendations for vaccine distribution said that the elderly should be deprioritized because “racial and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented among adults >= 65” (i.e. the elderly are too white), even though their own models showed that thousands more would die as a result. I guess saving lives is not their top priority, at least if you’re white (as most conservatives are).

      I remember when scientists and fact-checkers dismissed claims that the virus may have come from the Wuhan lab simply because, as they recently admitted, they didn’t want to say anything might lend support to something Trump said. That’s politicization of science and of fact-checkers.

      Where can you draw the line between the truth and the bullshit? Who can you really trust to have your interests at heart, if you’re a conservative?

      Just as many on the left were initially afraid to take their masks off because “they might think I’m a Trumper” (i.e. because masking had become a sign of political affiliation), many on the right are primarily opposed to masks and the vaccine not for medical reasons but for political reasons. I know quite a few who are convinced or mostly convinced that the vaccine is safe and effective or at least “probably safe”, but who still oppose it precisely because to get the vaccine is to acquiesce to a political enemy.

  8. … people who want you arrested for playing catch with your child in a field …

    Who has called for that?

    1. Well, at least a supervising officer of the Brighton, Co. police seemed to think it was a good idea. Police all over the world are patrolling parks, beaches and trails, either keeping people away completely, or watching for people doing prohibited things or interacting with prohibited persons. In other cases, activities are considered to only spread disease during certain hours.

      1. Are these the “same people who … are … issuing vaccine requirements”? That was the specific claim made in your original comment.

        1. I can’t say for sure whether that particular police supervisor has personally issued vaccine requirements. I suspect that is more a function of their health department or city council.
          Generally, the police do not act independently of local government officials.

          If some of your relatives were rounded up and shot by einzatzgruppen, it is unlikely that any of those troops participated in the Wannsee conference. But any survivors would reasonably assign blame collectively, from Heydrich right down to private Schmidt. That does not imply any sort of equivalence, of course. Any group that issues rules need some sort of enforcement branch, otherwise the rules are merely suggestions.

          1. Wait, you’re actually drawing an analogy between mask mandates/social distancing/vaccine requirements and the Schutzstaffel?

  9. When I taught biology classes for non-majors, I learned to do what I couldn’t have done with high school students. I brought the argument to against creationism to their source, Genesis. I talked about the poetry of the first creation story and compared it to the second, much older story which has a different style, different image of God, different sequence of events. I said that the theme, the bottom line of both stories, was that God created the world (and the rest of the universe), not how it happened. I pointed out that even if God had somehow explained to somebody about evolution, nobody would have believed it, so it wouldn’t have been written down and treasured.

    I did point out, “If evolution is true, and it is, and there is a God, he must be a lot weirder than we like to think. But you don’t have to look very hard around the world to see that if there is a God, he must be weirder than we like to think.”

    I don’t know that this convinced anyone, but follow-up questions suggested it make some people think in new ways.

  10. Not that I needed ANY convincing of evolution, but I could see how your standard WEIT lecture where you go through the evidence would be (at least partly) successful as you lay down each part of your case logically and in decent detail.
    Creationists and anti-vaxers make me bang my head on the table. Hurts my head and damages my table.

  11. Great article. I find it exhausting to try and win over science deniers with consistent back-and-forth, especially if it seems like their mind is made up. I respect the science communicators who take it upon themselves to do it though. That takes sheer endurance. The best I have done is run articles I am sent through fact checkers, like Snopes, and send it right back to the misinformed person. Another method I know is the “I will not let you near my immunocompromised/vulnerable family members unless you get vaccinated”. I have not had to use it myself yet, but I probably will have to some day.

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