In How to Talk to a Science Denier, Lee McIntyre comments that “our fellow citizens don’t seem to listen to facts anymore.” Still, be the topic climate change or vaccines, he endorses respectful conversation as the best way to expose faults in reasoning.
The book opens at a flat Earth conference, where McIntyre struggles to avoid confrontations with deluded attendees. The problem is less about science, he knows, than logic. Science skeptics exhibit five common reasoning errors: cherry-picking evidence, believing conspiracy theories, relying on fake experts while denouncing real ones, succumbing to classical errors of logic, and having impossible expectations, such as that science must offer perfect solutions. But studies have shown that, with enough negativity cast on an opinion, people will back down.
McIntyre is heartened about such tipping points, but concedes that argumentation can backfire. Graphs tend to be more effective than texts at conveying opposing information, he says, and he recognizes the roles played by ego, fear, and politics. People build identities based on beliefs, so emotional context matters, and those who change their views often cite a positive influencer who engaged them at a personal level and built a relationship of trust through dialogue.
The book gilds its research with anecdotes. McIntyre is most concerned with climate change, and through travel to the Maldives and interviews with ex-coal miners in Pittsburgh, he demonstrates how the crisis affects people. Looking for a “liberal” science-denying position to balance the picture, he has discussions with two longtime friends who are resistant to GMOs.
As Covid-19 antivaxxers, like climate deniers, perpetuate dangerous myths on an accelerated schedule, misinformation must be challenged, because “science denial can kill,” McIntyre warns. Timely and founded in sound psychology, How to Talk to a Science Denier is vital reading for fraught times.
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