BOOK REVIEW: How to Talk to a Science Denier

By on June 15th, 2023 in Articles, Book Reviews, Case Studies, Environment, Ethics, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations With Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason.

By Lee McIntyre (Cambridge, MA, USA: M.I.T. Press, 2021, 264 pp.)

Reviewed by Jacob Ossar


In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Socrates narrates preparing to go home from a festival when he is playfully “arrested” by an acquaintance and told that because he is outnumbered he has no choice but to stay. “Why, is there not left,” said I, “the alternative of our persuading you that you ought to let us go?” “But could you persuade us,” said he, “if we refused to listen?” Here, at the beginning of the Western philosophical tradition, we encounter a perennial problem: how to deal with those who refuse even to listen to reason, let alone allow themselves to be moved by it. In How to Talk to a Science Denier, Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, addresses one manifestation of this problem: science denial.

McIntyre explores what causes people to become science deniers, why they remain so even in the face of rationally compelling arguments against their views, and how one might nevertheless woo them away from their science denial. After opening with an account of attending a flat Earth convention and speaking with the participants, McIntyre focuses on weightier and more timely genres of science denial, especially those who deny the reality of climate change. He argues that all forms of science denial spring from a common set of sources, and therefore each calls for a similar response. Perhaps surprisingly, given McIntyre’s background, the responses he champions reside squarely in the realm of psychology. His book is not a philosophical treatise; epistemological issues take a backseat to practical and interpersonal ones. McIntyre summarizes and explains the relevant psychological research and then, in largely anecdotal chapters, models how one might apply it in practice.

A perennial problem: how to deal with those who refuse even to listen to reason, let alone allow themselves to be moved by it.

In the book’s opening chapter, McIntyre describes attending a flat Earth convention. He recounts his conversations with attendees there, investigating what motivated them to adopt this fringe worldview and walking us through his unsuccessful attempts to get them to abandon it. After showing us what science denial looks like in practice, McIntyre moves on to the analytic heart of the book, where he describes the key characteristics of science denial. McIntyre relies heavily here on social science research, which he cites in copious endnotes. According to this research, science denial has five key characteristics: 1) cherry-picking evidence; 2) belief in conspiracy theories; 3) reliance on fake experts (and denigration of real experts); 4) committing logical errors; and 5) setting impossible expectations for what science can achieve.

Part of what makes science denial so recalcitrant is how these rhetorical moves, working in concert, can frustrate or evade almost any attempt at good faith rational engagement. The most insidious of these is belief in conspiracy theories, which invites the notion that the very absence of evidence for what one says is the result of conscious suppression of said evidence by malicious conspirators, and hence is actually proof that what one says is true. As McIntyre sees it, though, what matters is not so much how science deniers parry challenges to their beliefs as why they are motivated to cling to them so tenaciously in the first place.

McIntyre rejects the “information deficit model,” according to which science denial is the result of a lack of information. If this model were true, the best way to combat science denial would simply be to provide accurate scientific information. As many peoples’ interactions with science deniers (including McIntyre’s at the flat Earth convention) show, this approach has a miserable track record. This suggests that science deniers arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of a dispassionate analysis of the cognitive content of the ideas in question, but out of some deeper need. McIntyre describes sitting in on a session at the flat Earth convention about how to recruit new members and being struck by how similar the tactics the speaker recommended were to the methods religious cults use to attract followers. Both seek out people disaffected from more mainstream society for whatever reason and invite them into a welcoming new community. It is not the beliefs per se that are the attraction, but rather gaining an identity; being on a “team.” As Kurt Vonnegut puts it in Breakfast of Champions: “And here  was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: ‘Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.”’

Science denial has five key characteristics: 1) cherry-picking evidence; 2) belief in conspiracy theories; 3) reliance on fake experts (and denigration of real experts); 4) committing logical errors; and 5) setting impossible expectations for what science can achieve.

The fact that science denial is deeply implicated in identity helps explain why science deniers are usually unmoved by contrary evidence that on a purely rational level should be extremely convincing. Such threats to their sense of self provoke “identity-protective cognition,” often employing the kinds of tactics (cherry-picking evidence, etc.) described above. This also helps show the error of attributing science denial to lack of intelligence. The smarter you are, the more skillfully you can deploy motivated reasoning to get to the answers you want to be true. So is it even possible to convince a science denier to listen to, and be persuaded by, reason? To answer this question, McIntyre draws heavily on the work of behavioral scientists Philipp Schmid and Cornelia Betsch. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, Schmid and Betsch did not find a backfire effect, where challenging a science denier’s beliefs causes them to double down on those beliefs. In fact, they find the worst outcome is to leave the ideas to fester, unrebutted. At least in the case of those who have been exposed to misinformation but not yet gone completely down the rabbit hole into hardcore science denial, their research suggests rebuttals can reverse or at least mitigate this slide.

Of course, McIntyre is most interested in those who are full-blown science deniers. He draws inspiration from cases where people with strong extremist commitments (e.g., virulent antisemites) have been led to abandon their extremism. This kind of deprogramming is not easy, but it can be accomplished by establishing a bond of trust where all parties can genuinely and respectfully listen to one another. This process is not quick or easy; building such a relationship requires time, empathy, and patience. McIntyre emphasizes the positive here: he writes that helping someone find a way out of science denial does not require any special knowledge or expertise about science, but rather is something that anybody can do. But this also means that there is no simple messaging tweak or other quick fix that can counteract science denial at scale. It is no accident that McIntyre titles his book “How to Talk to a Science Denier” rather than “How to Combat Science Denial.” As he sees it, the problem must largely be confronted on a personal scale, one science denier at a time.

Having laid out his understanding of science denial and his general approach to engaging with individual science deniers, McIntyre devotes most of the rest of the book to walking us through what that looks like in practice. He turns first to climate change denial. The scientific consensus about human-caused climate change will probably be familiar to anyone interested in this book, so McIntyre is more interested in discussing how fossil fuel interests promoted climate change denial and recounting how he experienced the effects of climate change firsthand on a fact-finding trip to the Maldive islands, a country incredibly vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather. His seeks out climate change deniers by setting up a meeting with Pennsylvania coal miners who, in accordance with Upton Sinclair’s maxim that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” one might expect to be resistant to scientific findings that threaten their livelihoods. However, the miners he attracts are not dyed-in-the-wool science deniers, although they evince hesitancy about various proposals for addressing climate change. While this is a nice demonstration of McIntyre’s claim that if you really listen to people, you will find that their views are much more nuanced than you might expect at first blush, it is not an especially fruitful case study of his larger claims.

The fact that science denial is deeply implicated in identity helps explain why science deniers are usually unmoved by contrary evidence that on a purely rational level should be extremely convincing.

The varieties of science denial that McIntyre has discussed so far all have a right-wing political valence (even flat Earthers, whose numbers are largely drawn from conservative Christians), so he then looks for a topic that might arouse left-wing science denial. This leads him to examine opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He goes into some detail arguing that, while there may be good reasons for caution or skepticism in particular instances, it is irrational to insist that all GMOs are unsafe to eat. He follows this up with a substantial chapter giving the most detailed, blow-by-blow account in the book of conversations aimed at coaxing people to accept a scientific consensus they disbelieve, in this case two of his GMO-skeptical friends. As this is his most in-depth depiction of what it looks like to dispute a view you disagree with in a context of trust and mutual respect, it is ironic that he ultimately concludes his friends do not fit the criteria that define science deniers. Furthermore, he claims that while it is only a contingent matter that opposition to GMOs is not a central part of left-wing identity, it is nonetheless true that at present there is no widespread left-wing science denial. His efforts to be even-handed are admirable, but giving such a substantial Section of his book on talking to science deniers over to people he concludes are not science deniers might be taking the pursuit of balance too far.

The COVID pandemic hangs over this book. It disrupted McIntyre’s plans by preventing follow-up interviews with the coal miners and forestalled setting up face-to-face conversations with anyone else. This helps explain why, apart from the first chapter, the book does not include extensive conversations with the hard-core science deniers with whom McIntyre is most concerned. The pandemic also makes itself felt by showing how rapidly a form of science denial can be spun up. The harm COVID denial does to its adherents is evident on a much shorter time scale than the consequences of climate denial, yet it still thrives.

The COVID Pandemic highlights some of the limitations of McIntyre’s approach. Changing identity takes time, but new flavors of science denial can be whipped up seemingly overnight. And while measures to mitigate COVID often preclude the kind of face-to-face encounters that are so important to McIntyre, social media make it easy for anti-vaxxers to find like-minded people and make it likely that what encounters they do have with those who advocate vaccination mostly involve angry denunciation or ridicule. McIntyre emphasizes that talking to science deniers takes patience and empathy but costs us nothing apart from our time and perhaps a measure of self-righteousness. But the COVID pandemic has shown that there can be costs that he nowhere acknowledges. Anti-vaxxers have harassed and vilified not just outspoken defenders of mainstream medical and scientific recommendations, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, but also ordinary people who were merely wearing masks. McIntyre is far from blind to the political forces stoking the anti-vaxx movement and other science denial, but his prescription for effecting political change is the same as it is for trying to change someone’s mind about science denial: go outside your comfort zone and have difficult conversations with those with whom you disagree. Doing so is slow at best and not guaranteed to succeed but, McIntyre says, it is the best we can do.