How to Talk to a Science Denier
Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason
MIT Press 2022
Pb, 280pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780262545051
In this era of post-truth, outlandish conspiracy theories and science denial, debates about subjects such as vaccinations, climate change and genetically modified organisms are often acrimonious, divisive and heated. In this thought-provoking book Lee McIntyre, from Boston University’s Center for Philosophy and History of Science, considers how scientists and their supporters can challenge and change the entrenched views that underlie and fuel science denial.
Take Flat Earthers: McIntyre, who attended the 2018 Flat Earth International Conference, notes that the theory’s adherents are completely serious and are “routinely persecuted”, losing their jobs, being asked to leave their churches and alienating their families. And the view isn’t as uncommon as you might expect: some 11 million people in Brazil are Flat Earthers.
McIntyre notes that “Flat Earthers have a profound distrust of authority – and great belief in first-person sensory experience”. Many endured trauma that led them to question everything, which coincided with their conversion to flat earth theory. Being a Flat Earther is not an evidence-based belief, he comments, but an identity that could give life purpose.
In a wide-ranging discussion, McIntyre covers conspiracy theories, climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms. Despite the varied topics, science deniers, McIntyre argues, make five reasoning errors: belief in conspiracy theories; cherry-picking evidence; relying on fake experts and denigrating real experts; setting science impossible expectations; and committing logical errors.
Many issues are, however, more complex than simple reasoning errors. A particularly compelling chapter discusses climate change with coal miners in Pennsylvania. Many miners and their families accept climate change. But mining’s dangers breed a certain fatalism. And, especially in poorer working class areas, people worry more about the day-to-day reality of paying the bills than a nebulous future threat.
There are no easy answers. To reach out to deniers, McIntyre suggests direct personal contact, showing respect and humility, and being transparent and open about how science works. In particular, McIntyre argues that a “willingness to change their hypothesis if it does not fit with the evidence” separates science from non-science.
And he asks a question that everyone – conspiracy theorist, fortean or scientist – should bear in mind: “What evidence, if it existed, would it take to convince you that you were wrong?”