Current Affairs

How Can You Talk Effectively to Anti-Vaxxers, Flat Earthers, and Climate Deniers?

A philosopher of science on how we can constructively engage with those whose identities are built around dangerous delusional beliefs.

Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, and instructor of ethics at Harvard Extension School. He is the author of a number of books, including The Scientific Attitude, Post-Truth, Respecting Truth, and most recently, How to Talk to a Science Denier. His new book looks at practical strategies for engaging with those who hold delusional anti-scientific beliefs, and the common strategies they use to present error and fraud as hidden truths. He not only analyzes the scholarly literature on persuasion but recounts his own experiences trying to change minds at a meeting of the Flat Earth International convention. He recently joined Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson for a discussion on the Current Affairs podcast. The transcript has been edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson  

I’m so excited to talk to you about How to Talk to a Science Denier because it is a very practical book. And it is also a fun book, especially at the beginning, because we’re going to start by asking you about this Flat Earth Convention that you went to. But this book is about the very, very difficult question of what we actually do in response to science denial. We know that, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, and with climate change, there is a lot of misinformation, a lot of lies out there. And a lot of people lament this a lot; we talk about the epidemic of post-truth, the fake news. But you’ve really tried in this book to deal with the question of: How do we talk? Is there a way to fight these things? What do we know works? What do we know doesn’t work? You start this book by going to the heart of science denial, by going boldly where no philosopher of science has gone before, which is to a convention of the Flat Earth Society. And you found a number of interesting things at the meeting of the Flat Earth Society. And I think they might surprise people. Flat-Earthers are very, very sincerely committed to their belief in the flat Earth.

McIntyre

They are.

Robinson

They also believe that they believe in science. They’re not necessarily ignorant people who entirely reject science. So what are some of the counterintuitive things that people might not know about flat-Earthers?

McIntyre  

First thing I need to say is to draw the immediate distinction between the Flat Earth International Conference, where I went, and the Flat Earth Society. 

Robinson

Oh, I’m so sorry.

McIntyre

They are different things. Because they hate each other. No, seriously, if you’ve ever seen [Monty Python’s] Life of Brian, you know the enmity between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. That’s what it’s like.

Robinson  

I apologize sincerely.

McIntyre  

We don’t want to insult them right off the bat. It’s funny. When I learned this myself, I couldn’t laugh. But some of the things that I learned are completely serious. And the reason that they’re completely serious is because although they’ll tell you that their beliefs are based on evidence, they’re actually based on distrust. They’re based on an identity of not believing that the scientists are telling you the truth. That’s their point of view. For everybody who’s tempted to say, how could they possibly believe this? Look at the evidence, look at the evidence, imagine that you lived in a world not unlike The Matrix, where everybody else was asleep. And the truth was out there, but very few people realized it. How would you handle that? That’s the way that they think of flat Earth. It’s this gigantic conspiracy theory. They have to be at the top of their wits in order to figure out all the clues, and they’re the ones who are there to wake up the rest of us.

Robinson  

Hmm. Well, I conducted my own version of this experiment. I didn’t go as deep as you did, but I picked up some QAnon books to write an article about QAnon. I found some of the same things that you did. It was interesting to me that in the QAnon books, there’s the rhetoric of reason and the scrutiny of evidence, and they believe that what they believe is scientific truth. And in the case of QAnon, they even say, well, do your own research and look for yourself. “I started out a skeptic, but then I was persuaded because I couldn’t refute it.” And so they ostensibly affirm that evidence has to be presented, that things can be refuted. So it’s weird. It is literally pseudo-science.

McIntyre  

It is, and that’s a very important thing to remember in speaking with them. They’re not self identifying as deniers. They’re not anti-science; Flat-Earthers regard themselves as being more scientific than the scientists. In some ways, they understand skepticism in a way that nobody else really understands skepticism. And in that way, it might give you a bit of heart because you think, “Okay, so there is at least some way that I can communicate with them, because they at least understand the relationship between evidence and belief.” And they’ll tell you that their beliefs are not based on faith, they’re based on evidence. But, of course, they’re reasoning about the evidence in the wrong way. And they have this misunderstanding of how science works. They have this misunderstanding of what it means to have sufficient evidence to believe that something is probably true. And because they’re conspiracy theorists, you’d think that that would make them the most skeptical people in the world. What it actually does is also make them the most gullible people in the world, because they are skeptical about the things that they don’t want to believe, but completely gullible about the things that they do want to believe. That is not a position that a scientist would want to be in, right? A scientist is supposed to be open-minded—skeptical but also open-minded enough to gather new evidence, but then change their mind on the basis of new evidence. Science deniers in general have this curious mix of complete respect—and, in some ways, awe of science—and complete misunderstanding of what science is about.

Robinson  

There’s a guy in your book who you say was like, “I’ve got a white lab coat.” So I am a scientist. “I might not have credentials, but I have this white lab coat.” And that really kind of shows it, right? It’s the appearance. They’ll show you a ton of studies, right? If there are several studies that support their position. But it’s all motivated reasoning. You point out the five tendencies that commonly occur, and one of them is cherry picking. You find every single thing that supports your belief, and you discard every single thing that contradicts it.

McIntyre  

Well, that’s right. That’s a wired-in tendency; we all have that cognitive bias. Read chapter and verse and Kahneman and Tversky’s work. The problem is that when you point out that that’s cherry picking, they’ll often think, “No, you’re the one who’s cherry picking.” Are they just being ironic? Are they just trolling in a way when they do that? No, I think they actually believe it. Again, it comes back to the question of trust, right? If you don’t trust NASA, then any picture that I show you of the Earth from space is automatically going to be suspect, right? Why do they think that all those pictures are faked? On one level, because it’s convenient for them to believe that. On the other hand, I think they genuinely believe that because they don’t trust the NASA scientists. So it’s like QAnon, which is a massive conspiracy theory. It’s this perversion or this toxic form of reasoning that’s not scientific even though it uses some of the same ideas and some of the same vocabulary.

Robinson  

Well, one of the ironies is that, actually, the skepticism of belief on the basis of authority is a good thing, right? I mean, believing something because someone works for NASA and believes it is not necessarily rational, right? They do emphasize that they want first person proof. And it’s true that a lot of our beliefs, even our beliefs in things that are empirically correct, are often based on trust and authority. George Orwell has this wonderful essay where he talks about his belief that the Earth is round. He says, “my belief that the Earth round is based on rather precarious reasoning” He says, you know, I believe many things that I think are scientifically true, but not because I have seen them satisfactorily proved before my own eyes, but because I was taught them by people that I trust. And he says that so much of our knowledge is not based on reasoning or experiment, but on authority, and “How can it be otherwise, when the range of knowledge is so vast that the expert himself is an ignoramus as soon as he strays away from his own specialty?” So I feel like we can’t avoid the fact that so much of our knowledge is necessarily based on trust.

McIntyre  

I love what you just said. You’ve put your finger on such an important point. And it’s this idea that even the people who love science, even the people who are allies of science, often don’t understand it. Or they just trust it. Do I know how my TV works? Do I know how Zencastr works? Do I know how wireless headphones work? No, but I trust that they’re going to work because I trust the people who made them. Now why do I trust them? You’re picking up on exactly the right point. But here’s the problem. Why are science deniers cafeteria skeptics? Why aren’t they just skeptics? Why are they skeptics only about the particular things that happen to step on the ideology that they care about? Because I mean, if they were just skeptics about everything, you know, it has to be first person evidence in front of my face right now or I won’t believe it—well, they could be Cartesian skeptics and be very happy about it. Flat-Earthers—who think, by the way, that every airline pilot is in on the conspiracy—flew in to the Flat Earth Convention in Denver on airplanes. Now, they didn’t trust the pilots, I guess. But they trusted that they knew how to fly, or they were on Twitter, on their phones. Did they understand how the phones work? Did they understand that there was satellite traffic from those phones? But they trusted the people who made the phones.

So it’s this inconsistency. It’s the illogic of saying, you know, I trust science to save my life. Look, we see it today with the pandemic. If I go to the hospital with COVID, I’m going to make sure I get monoclonal antibodies, I’m going to make sure that they do everything that they can when I need to be intubated, etc. Those doctors, I’m gonna beg them to save my life with the latest scientific techniques. But I didn’t trust them enough to take the vaccine. Why? Why is there that distinction?

Robinson  

We can lament the fact that people are irrational and inconsistent in this way. That they have complete double standards, that there’s a lot of motivated reasoning, a lot of ideologically informed reasoning. But what you’re doing in the book is trying to get past just saying the thing that we know that we can observe, which is that there is an awful lot of very, very frustrating irrationality in the world. You try to think about what the roots of that irrationality are, where that kind of mistrust comes from, and then what the potential openings are in having conversations with people about these things on which they are going wrong.

McIntyre  

Yes, because otherwise, all we’re doing is cursing the darkness. And I wanted to light a little candle, and everybody else join me and light their candles, because we can all do something about this. In order to do something, you need to understand where science denial comes from. You need to understand that it’s not just based on facts and evidence. How could it be? It’s based on identity. You’ve got to understand that it’s not just based on doubt. It’s based on distrust. I spend some of the early part of the book after the chapter on flat Earth, trying to ask and answer the question, what is science denial? How can we understand it? I then talk about how I think that we can try to mitigate it. But it’s not exactly what we thought it was. And, you know, you’re right. It could have been a book about how irrational people are. I mean, Jonathan Swift said, “You can’t reason somebody out of something they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.” That could have been the theme for the whole book. But I didn’t want it to be that book. I wanted it to be a book where once you understood what science denial really was, you would realize that we all had a part to play in trying to overcome it.

Robinson  

Well, that’s an interesting quote, because one of the conclusions that you appear to come to in the book, is that actually, it’s true. You can’t reason with someone. But you don’t purely reason someone out of this thing. At the Flat Earth Convention, you have this discussion with this guy, where you ask a very effective question, which is: what evidence would you need to see to think that the Earth is flat? And then you go on to devise an experiment with him, but then he backs out because there’s always some way that they can wriggle out of it. But then you start thinking, “Okay, just presenting pure facts and reason is insufficient if we are going to move people’s beliefs.”

McIntyre  

That’s right. I don’t want anybody to misunderstand. I’m not saying that facts and evidence don’t count, even for a science denier. I’m saying that they don’t count until that person trusts you. So your first job in talking to a science denier is to try to build trust, and to realize that their beliefs are not based on facts and evidence, or very good facts and evidence, I should say. So, you can’t just go in there with what’s called the information deficit model, tell them the facts, and they’ll say, oh, what a fool I was, and give up their beliefs. What you have to do is recognize that when you challenge their beliefs, you’re challenging who they are as a person. This is not just what they believe. This is who they are. This is their community. If you go in with that idea, and you are calm, and patient, and respectful, and you listen to them, a magical thing happens in face-to-face conversation. You begin to build trust. And with trust comes listening–not always immediately converting them, convincing them. I didn’t convince any flat-Earthers on the spot. But I did get them to listen. And I felt that that was something of a breakthrough, even just being able to talk to someone whose views are so different was progress.

Robinson  

Yeah, the fact that these beliefs are so tied to people’s identity, their sense of who they are, seems very important. When I was reading all this QAnon stuff, one of the first things that I noticed was that the actual arguments in favor of the QAnon conspiracy were almost nonexistent, right? In terms of the actual proof that there was a guy inside the administration who had access to secret information that he was dropping, that could predict the future. None of the predictions came true. But what I noticed was that he offered you this wonderful sense of secret knowledge.

McIntyre

Yes. Very important.

Robinson

It’s a confusing world out there. The world is a very baffling place, and everyone’s uncertain of themselves. And so when someone comes along and says, “Well, I have an explanation for everything, it explains all of the things that are going wrong in your life. And you can listen to me, and I will show you the secrets that will make sense, they’ll make sense of everything. And not only will they make sense of everything, but you will be one of the only ones who understands what is actually going on.” You can see how that’s powerful.

McIntyre  

Oh, absolutely. And especially to somebody who might, prior to that conversation, have felt alienated, marginalized, ridiculed, put on the outside by the elites, the scientists, the teachers, the astronauts, the pilots, you know, anybody that you’re thinking of. There is a very profound sense in which science denial comes from that break with the larger culture, and this search for community. By the way, there’s a social aspect for belief for all of us. But what happens now, these days, is whatever it is that you believe, you can find a community of people who believe it with you, and you can get together on chat rooms and you can maybe even get together in person. And then that’s what really radicalizes them. That’s what can turn somebody who just has questions into an actual denier, because then all of a sudden, they form an identity—they form a bond—with the other people.

Robinson  

Yeah. I’ve sometimes thought that one of the problems is a disconnection from the culture. Since academia is an ivory tower, a lot of people don’t really know what scientists do. They don’t see the inside of institutions. It’s very easy to paint somewhere like NASA or somewhere like the universities—conservatives are talking about the universities as these mysterious and conspiratorial places because people are disconnected from them. When we’re trying to persuade people of the science of climate change, we say, well, “97% of climate scientists,” but most people probably have never even met a climate scientist. So it’s this group of experts that you’re supposed to listen to that you are completely disconnected from. Academic journals are all behind paywalls. And the way you get information is often from people you trust, people on your social media feed. And you’re more inclined to listen to people in your life than you are to this distant, far away group of people who know more than you do.

McIntyre  

It’s true. And when you don’t know someone, you’re more likely to distrust them. And in the right political circumstance, to hate them. It can become us against them when you’re polarized. One of my favorite stories along these lines is Jim Bridenstine, who was a U.S. Congressman a few years back, who is a rock-ribbed conservative. On the floor of the US House, he gave a speech against climate change, saying all the things that climate change deniers say. And, of course, Trump appointed him to be the head of NASA, because what else would you do with somebody who is a climate change denier? Well, an interesting thing happened to Jim Bridenstine. About a month or two into his new job as head of NASA, he changed his mind publicly, came forward and said, I was wrong. Climate change is real, and human beings are causing it. I thought, what in the world is going on here? I mean, when’s the last time you heard a politician say his team was wrong, let alone publicly, about something like that? You put your finger on it: he met the scientists. They were not the other anymore. He was not alienated from them. He was their boss. And all of a sudden, they were warm and trustworthy people and the evidence and facts that they were presenting were not just things that he didn’t understand, from a journal that he couldn’t reach. They were somebody down the hall, people he actually knew personally,

Robinson  

I want to read a quote from you. You write,

“In virtually every account I’ve read of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or other ideologues who have changed their minds, they have done so on the basis of face to face encounters, where evidence was presented by someone with whom they had a trusting relationship. Kindness, empathy, and listening work. And people acquire knowledge by consulting those they trust and understand. It takes hard work, face-to-face, and over time engagement. Trust, relationships, and values are the key to real belief change.”

That’s very interesting because this is a book about science. You might be expected to say, here’s a list of logical fallacies, and point out people’s logical fallacies. But you really do emphasize the relationship-based aspects of communicating with people.

McIntyre  

There are plenty of books that diagnose the fallacies in this type of reasoning. But that’s not going to solve the problem. Number two, those books are not read by science deniers, right? They’re probably not reading my book, either. But what I’m trying to do is to empower people–regular everyday people, not just the scientists—to understand that we, too, can get out and talk to science deniers. There was an interesting study two years ago in the journal Nature Human Behavior, which provided the first empirical evidence to show that we could do this through something called technique rebuttal to talk to science deniers about the way that they were reasoning, not about the facts and evidence, but about how they were reading about the facts and evidence. And it worked. It was a statistically significant result and anyone can do it, which means that all those people who were saying, well, I wouldn’t know what to say or, you know, I would just make the problem worse or I couldn’t do any good, they’re wrong.

Robinson  

You mentioned technique rebuttal as distinct from rebutting the particular facts. 

McIntyre

That’s right. Content rebuttal.

Robinson

Content rebuttal. Could you give us an example of what that is?

McIntyre  

Content rebuttal works. It worked in the study on a particular audience in particular circumstances. And content rebuttal is the idea that if you’re a scientific expert on climate change, and you’re having an argument with somebody about their beliefs on climate change, in the right circumstances, you might—and sometimes it doesn’t always work—you might be able to convince them to give up their point of view. Contrast that with technique rebuttal. Technique rebuttal is based on some prior work by some cognitive scientists who discovered that the blueprint for science-denial reasoning was the same. Evolution denial, COVID denial, climate denial, flat Earth—all the same. And it was that they cherry-pick evidence. They believe in conspiracy theories. They engage in illogical reasoning. They rely on fake experts, and they believe that science has to be perfect. And the beauty is that once you understand those five points—the article is by Cornelia Betsch and Philipp Schmid—they give some little scripts of what they said that worked. And once you understand those, the five tropes, then you can engage in technique rebuttal. I don’t want to oversell the result to say that it always works. Because that was what I went out on the road to try to check. Will it work with hardcore science deniers? Will it work face to face? They did this in a lab setting with people who are fairly naive to scientific disinformation. And it was online. So, of course, as a philosopher, I had to push it and say, aha, what if I went to a Flat Earth convention and tried it?

Robinson  

I do want to get more precise on this technique. If I went to a QAnon person, and I said, “Well, how, how are you deciding whether this guy’s prophecies are accurate?” Or if I went to a climate change denier, and I said, “Well, how do you decide which person to listen to?” Is it like when you talk to the flat-Earth guy, where you’re basically just trying to get them to interrogate their own methods? Rather than—

McIntyre

Yes. So that’s a great example. At Flat Earth, the first day I kind of kept my mouth shut, listening to them, which was very helpful, because you learn that they have a pattern that they go through, and it’s very wide, but not very deep. And once you’ve heard the same thing several times, you know you didn’t hear them answer this question or that. A demographic fact about them is that about 70% were evangelical Christians. But even the evangelical Christians didn’t claim that their views were based on faith. They said that they were based on scientific evidence. So in a new conversation, I would often say something like, you know, I understand that a number of you here are Christians. You’re believers. That’s right. But your belief in flat Earth doesn’t seem to be based on faith. Is that correct? No, no, it’s not based on faith. So it’s based on evidence. That’s right. And I’ve been sitting here for the past 24 hours hearing all your seminars about the evidence for flat Earth. That’s right. But I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to talk about that. Because you’re not going to listen to my evidence from Galileo and Newton, and I don’t quite trust your evidence. But let’s talk about how you’re reasoning about your evidence. And then they say, ok. And I’ve gotten them through their little Socratic dialogue there. I’ve got them on ground where they don’t have any talking points. And then I would drop that question that you mentioned earlier, the Karl Popper question. So tell me, if your view is based on evidence, what evidence if I had it in my back pocket could convince you to give up your views? And then I let them sit with the discomfort that they could not answer that question. I planted the seed of doubt. Now, they didn’t say, you know, what a fool I’ve been, and give up. But I did make them uncomfortable. And that’s the point of technique rebuttal. It’s to get them to the point where they cannot answer the question. And they recognize that they should be able to answer the question, and then they begin to doubt their own reasoning.

Robinson  

I get a little frustrated when people on my side, people I agree with, appeal to the authority of experts, because we know the authority of experts is virtually meaningless to the people you’re trying to convince. 

McIntyre

That’s right. 

Robinson

They don’t care, right? You could have all the credentials in the world, saying, “100 Nobel Prize winners…” and they don’t care.

McIntyre  

You’re in league with the devil, why should they trust you?

Robinson  

Take someone who, for example, believes masks don’t work. If we say “Okay, why don’t we adopt the posture of skepticism? Let’s say, I will agree with you for right now that we have no idea.” Let’s then ask, “How would we decide whether it was rational to believe if masks worked? What would we do? What would we look at? How would we adjudicate among different kinds of evidence? What would we look at from an expert to know whether we could trust them?” If you start to have that kind of conversation—say with climate change—and you say, “Well, let’s assume we don’t know whether the Earth is warming, that we are genuine skeptics. How are we going to figure out the answer to that question together?” And I think nobody wants to admit that their conclusion is so firm that it couldn’t be dislodged by any method. I feel like that is the point at which you will start to unsettle people, because you already opened them up to real skepticism.

McIntyre  

Isn’t that the beautiful moment in the conversation, though, when you take someone who’s a self-professed skeptic, and you get them to question their own views, or you reveal them to be a hypocrite? I mean, the point is not to be rude, not to be insulting, but to take them so seriously that you flatter them by asking a hard question. You’re not saying, “Oh, you’re a fool, and I’m going to go see the sights of Denver for the next day and a half, because it’s not worth conversing with you.” But instead to say, “Look, I’m gonna ask you a hard question now, because I take your views so seriously, and then give them that tough question.” That’s beautiful.

Robinson  

Well, there’s a kind of respect for them in being willing to take the views seriously. Another important point that comes out of your book is the necessity of science and scientists being humble. There’s this humility to it. What I was just describing was a posture where you say, “Okay, because I am interested in scientific truth, I am actually open to the flat Earth, I am open to QAnon, I am open to the anti-vax thing. But you need to convince me. We need to have a conversation. Let’s both agree to be open to figuring out the truth on this.” And so when I was studying QAnon, I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll open my mind to it.” Because I don’t want to be the very thing I’m condemning where I have already discarded the flat Earth before looking at their arguments. Let’s say there was secret knowledge that I didn’t know about. It’s happened before. As you point out in your book, there are sometimes things that happen that small groups of elites have planned, so we have to be open-minded.

McIntyre  

You’re right in that attitude. That attitude of humility, and curiosity, can be very effective, right? Because then the person doesn’t feel disrespected. And then you’re also building the trust that you’re mutually embarking on this journey to find the truth. And I think that when you’re doing that, sometimes they’ll discover that they really don’t have a lot to convince you. Sometimes that works, in fact, just to say “Convince me,” because it can be frustrating for them to realize that they really can’t convince you because you’re actually a skeptic. And you’re not believing. Imagine somebody who said that they thought that they had reason to be skeptical of whether the Pfizer vaccine was safe—not just whether it was effective, but whether it was safe. And then they’re taking ivermectin. Couldn’t you use the exact same reasoning with them? And how could they answer that?

Look, here’s the crying shame. People recognize this. And then they turn the page and they say, isn’t it a pity? They don’t pursue the conversation. When you pursue the conversation, it may not work, but you’re at least holding out the hope that there’s something in the other person’s brain that will make them uncomfortable, the cognitive dissonance that you’re an intelligent, respectful person who took them seriously. And they couldn’t convince you because they didn’t have the evidence.

Robinson  

This is what Socrates did. Go around and ask people hard questions they couldn’t answer.

McIntyre

Look what happened to him.

Robinson

It was so annoying that they murdered him.

McIntyre  

Yeah.

Robinson  

I think there is this tendency to say, oh, well, you know, you can’t talk to those people, you can’t reason with those people. They are beyond hope. It’s just—give up. And one of the things you point out is that it is an extremely dangerous attitude. And it’s especially dangerous because, in the cases of climate change, and COVID-19, human lives are at stake based on what people believe. And when policymakers are captured by these incredibly irrational beliefs, people die as a result. So it’s very, very important for us to come up with an alternative to “Oh, there’s no reasoning with these people.” And you point out that the worst thing you can do is actually to leave misinformation entirely unanswered.

McIntyre  

That’s exactly right. And, by the way, that’s been empirically shown. That was in the Betsch and Schmid study from 2019. That’s the worst thing that you can do, because then only the liar has the microphone. And the other motivating thing here for me is to recognize that this is not all just based on a mistake or an accident. This is not misinformation. It’s disinformation; someone is pumping this stuff out there for a naive audience to believe. And so, it’s not as if, well, if you just don’t attend to the problem, it’s going to go away. No, this is information warfare. This is propaganda. And we all know what happens if you don’t fight back against it. I mean, in some sense—although this is a pretty strong claim—you can be a denier. You can be a denier about whether it’s possible to fight back against science denial. Understand that there’s solid scientific work that shows that all of us can play a role in convincing deniers to give up their views. And then we say, “Oh, no, I’m just gonna stay home.” Are we being deniers? Are we shirking our civic responsibility to do something?

Robinson  

That’s another crucial point because, as you say, anyone can lapse into these things. And one danger is, of course, thinking, those are the science deniers, and I am the rational person who believes in the facts and the truth. 

McIntyre

That’s right.

Robinson

But you can yourself fall into scientism, or a fake rationalism, where you become so convinced that you don’t scrutinize your own beliefs. And that’s why I think it’s so important to emphasize that the foundation of scientific thinking is, in fact, humility, which begins with self-scrutiny. Because the people who are the deniers never know they’re the deniers. So in order to check that you’re not one, you better be examining your own beliefs all the time.

McIntyre  

You have to embrace a flexibility of mind to be able to answer that question: if you could show me x, then I would change my views. And if you can’t do that, then that should be a warning signal.

Robinson  

Hey, if the flat Earth is true, I want to know. Don’t you want to know?

McIntyre  

A fascinating thing happened to me after I got back from Flat Earth. There was a moment at the convention before they knew who I was, where I was just in this group of people that were talking and they were laughing, that there was a rumor, I don’t know if it was true, that there was a conference of physicists down the street, but that they didn’t dare show up to the Flat Earth convention, because they were afraid because they knew that they couldn’t refute them. And, you know, it was all I could do to keep my mouth shut at that point. But when I got back, I wrote an article for the American Journal of Physics called “Calling All Physicists” to try to get physicists to join me. And one fellow memorably wrote me back—a very prominent fellow—and was fascinated with this question. So much so that he built a model, a computer model, based completely on flat-Earth assumptions. I mean, it wasn’t anything from Newton, it was what they said that they believed. He built it, and then showed it to me. And the amazing thing is, when you walk into this model, and you look up, you don’t see what the flat-Earthers say you should see. So by their own logic, they refute themselves. Now that’s compelling. And we had agreed that he’s going to come with me the next time, when there’s no COVID. And there’s, you know, there’s a flat Earth convention, and we’re going to get people to look at this model and see what they say.

Robinson  

I would be interested in knowing what the reaction to that is because on the one hand, you really clearly demonstrate a contradiction that they can’t explain away, which makes people uncomfortable. On the other hand, so much of this is about trust and relationships, and people find a way to find a way to explain it away. And it might be the example of—

McIntyre  

Here’s the really fascinating thing, though. They find a way to explain it away until they don’t. And then when that conversion happens, it can be immediate.

Robinson

Yeah. 

McIntyre

Deny, deny, deny, change my mind. And there are anecdotal cases. In the literature, to my knowledge, this hasn’t been studied empirically. But there are anecdotal cases in support of that quotation of mine you read earlier about how it always happens in the same way to people who are rabid anti-vaxxers, or climate deniers, who suddenly changed their mind. So you never really know what effect you might be having, right? And this is why it’s important not to just have the conversation be a one-off. You have to come back and try again and again, because you’re building that trust with the person. And you just may enlarge their sense of community. You may be planting enough doubts that they’ll give it up.

Robinson  

Yeah. There was a QAnoner whose testimony I read who said that, basically, all it took was one thing that the QAnoners believed that turned out to be false, and that he couldn’t explain, and the whole belief system collapsed. Q predicted Trump would say a thing, but he’d actually said the thing before the guy predicted it. And he said, well, then the whole thing crumbled before my eyes. You never quite know whether it’s going to take years or whether it’ll just be a thing that lodges in someone’s mind that because they can’t explain it, they get really, really stuck.

McIntyre  

That’s fascinating, what you just described to me. I wonder, how did he get that information? Did he do it on his own through study? Or did somebody present it to him? In the anecdotal accounts that I’ve read, things like that get shared by someone they trust, and then it makes a difference. The rare person will make that discovery on their own, and then change their mind, which is really a great form of intellectual honesty. They’ll pull themselves out of it. But it is rare.

Robinson  

This guy saw a YouTube video that refuted it.

McIntyre  

Wow, incredible.

Robinson  

What do you think needs to change in scientific communication, then? You do say at one point that you think some responsibility—not fault necessarily—lies with the public communicators of scientific evidence, who need to think about how to communicate effectively. I’ve always thought about climate change skepticism that I just wish there was a tour of climate scientists that went around to every city in America and they said, “Ask me anything, come get to know us.” That way it’s not coming from this mysterious place. What do you think needs to happen in science communication?

McIntyre  

What you just described sounds good to me. I think that if more people met scientists, more people would trust scientists. I think that there’s a unique role that scientists can play. Have business cards made up. Hand them out at the local PTA meeting. Find opportunities to speak with people with all of the humility that they have when they’re talking with one another—not the know-it-all, this has been proven way. Really engage with the audience and communicate with them directly. I think that might just work. I’m a big advocate of scientists doing more, and I understand that they’re already quite busy. But I think that scientists really are quite trustworthy people if you actually meet them. If they’ll get out there and meet other folks, these people can then say, yeah, I know a scientist. Think of Jim Bridenstine. Think of what happened to him. All of a sudden, he knew all these scientists, and he changed his mind.

Robinson  

One of the saddest things in the COVID-19 pandemic is all of these testimonies from doctors and nurses who are reporting from the frontlines of hospitals. They, of course, don’t have time to leave the hospital to go out and do public communication. People realize when they get in there with COVID what the actual truth is, and healthcare providers know and they’d like to tell people, but unfortunately, the truth is in the hospital, and you will realize the truth at the moment when you find yourself entering that institution and being confronted with it directly, and there is a real challenge in how you bring those truths out.

McIntyre  

I can’t lay any of that at the feet of the first responders. 

Robinson

No, of course not. 

McIntyre

I have to think that for anybody who’s reasonably paying attention, the truth is out there. The problem with COVID is that it has been so politically polarized. People are now sneaking in disguise to get their COVID vaccines, because they’re so afraid—they’re a member of a community that doesn’t get COVID vaccines. You hear about entire churches where nobody has been vaccinated because they see it as a form of bonding within the group. Again, it’s about trust. And so, in the face of that sort of polarization, I don’t think it’s really a question of getting the facts. It’s very tough.

Robinson  

Well, that’s the identity thing, right? 

McIntyre

It is.

Robinson

Once you come to conceive of the idea that vaccination is for liberals, then the facts don’t really matter. It’s like, if Joe Biden wants me to be vaccinated, therefore, I don’t want to be vaccinated.

McIntyre  

In our own lives we probably have people that we know who love and trust us, that we could communicate with. I encourage people to start there. Now, for me, I not only have people in my immediate family, but I also get mail. I get mail from people asking for advice about family members, but also for themselves. And sometimes after the initial first paragraph of insults, there’s actually a question there. And if the insults aren’t too bad, I’ll answer the question. And then we go back and forth. And it can get quite interesting, sometimes, the misconceptions people have. To meet an insult with respect, you can take the temperature down a little bit.

Robinson  

One of the points you raise is that in order to communicate effectively, we have to—and the flat-Earthers often do—we have to remain calm. And it’s very easy to let your emotions get out of control, and to not listen and to get frustrated. And it doesn’t work. And oftentimes, the scary thing, of course, is that the other side uses the communication techniques that you’re talking about. You did point out in your book that the flat-Earthers are actually evangelical. They want to figure out how to lure people to the flat Earth movement.

McIntyre

They are. Oh, yes. They have taken the red pill, and there are not that many of them. But they’re growing. And their goal is to wake up the rest of the world. They love the movie The Matrix, and they see themselves as the people to wake up the rest.

Robinson  

They may seem harmless, but they’re not. Not really.

McIntyre

They’re not.

Robinson

With flat Earth there’s not powerful economic interests behind it. But in other cases, such as climate change, it’s all the more important because oftentimes there’s a lot of money behind misinformation so it takes even more effort to fight it.

McIntyre  

For each area of science denial it can be different. Tobacco causes lung cancer, that was economic. Climate change, economic. Anti-vax is more ideological, more political, especially now with COVID. Evolution denial, more ideological; it’s religiously motivated. So it depends. I didn’t see anybody making any money off of flat Earth. That’s the one that’s always mystified me. What’s the interest at stake? I don’t know.

Robinson  

It’s an enduring mystery. I just want to read a little quick paragraph from your conclusion because I think it’s important and inspiring. You write,

“We should try to educate the next generation. We’re running out of time. Our kids will inherit the problem of climate change. Maybe they can solve it, but they aren’t in charge yet. Too many of the people in charge today are science deniers, and they hold an unreasonable amount of power over our future. So the problem of how to deal with science deniers falls to all of us right now. You cannot change someone’s beliefs against their will. Nor can you usually get them to admit that there is something they don’t already know. Harder, still, might be to get them to change their values or identity. But there is no easier path to take when dealing with science deniers. We must try to make them understand. We must try to get them to care. But first we have to go out there face to face and to begin to talk to them.”

And I think that’s the central lesson here.

McIntyre  

That’s the entire nugget. That’s the entire point of the book. We can light the candle, not curse the darkness. Light the candle and get out there and do what you can.


You can listen to this conversation in full on the Current Affairs podcast. Lee’s book How To Talk To a Science Denier is available from MIT Press.

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