Dr. Lee McIntyre discusses how to take the first step in talking to a science denier.

Producer: HÃ¥kon Syrrist and Michael Gordon
03/17/2023 • 01:21 AM EST

Dr. Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center of Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, and author of the book How to Talk to a Science Denier, discusses the origins of modern science denial and the business of instilling doubt, as well as the complex social motivations of those that buy into it. He also discusses how to take the first step in building trust and breaking through the defenses of a science denier. 

0:00: Hakon Syrrist:

With us today, we have Dr. Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center of Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, and author of the book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, Dr. Lee McIntyre, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:13: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

0:16: Hakon Syrrist:

So to start, what is a science denier?

0:19: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Yeah, we never use the word denier in front of a denier because they don't like that. So in some ways they would claim, you know, there is no such thing as a science denier or, you know, I'm a science denier. A science denier, I think is someone who not only denies the consensus of science, but someone who cannot tell you what evidence would convince them to change their mind and whose alternative view is really not based on any evidence that they can point to. So I've sometimes had people that I consider to be deniers like flat earthers, say, you know, how dare you call me a science denier just because I'm questioning the scientific consensus. I mean, scientists do that all the time, don't they? Yes, they do. But then the real question is, okay, if you're going to deny the consensus, what else do you have? And do you have any evidence for it? And now that we're talking about evidence, tell me what evidence, if I had it, could make you change your mind. That's where they usually check out.

1:27: Hakon Syrrist:

Is this trend of science denial in the U.S. a fairly new phenomena, or has it been around for quite some time?

1:34: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Science denial has been around for a very long time. Modern science denial has been around since 1953. In the United States, December 15th, 1953, the heads of the largest tobacco companies had a meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York City where they hatched a strategy to push back against a forthcoming study that was going to show a definitive link between smoking and lung cancer. And their game plan after that meeting was fight the science, and they fought the science, not with science, they fought it through propaganda, as I'm sure you know.

That was really what, that's modern science denial. And of course, even more modern is when you fight it not just through propaganda in newspapers as they did, but on the internet. So I mean, the medium through which you get the propaganda out changes over time, but I call that the beginning of modern science denial. And you could read more about it in Naomi Oreskes's terrific book, Merchants of Doubt. Because this was where they really figured out that you didn't have to fight science with science, you could fight science with lies. And that blueprint became the blueprint for climate denial and really every other science denial campaign afterward. That's when things really got hairy. And you now have so many science deniers in the U.S. Congress that up until recently we couldn't really get anything meaningful done about climate change.

3:11: Michael Gordon:

Looking at the climate change issue, would you say the approach that's used to muddy the waters for that is very similar to the blueprint that was used by the tobacco industry? Do you see that same blueprint?

3:23: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Yeah. I mean, it's kind of interesting. I mean, I've thought about this more and more you know, looking at Oreskes and Conway's work, Merchants of Doubt, you know, doubt. And I mean, the strategy is create doubt where there wasn't any. You know, where there's no reasonable doubt amongst the scientists. And why do they do that? It's because they didn't need to prove that smoking didn't cause lung cancer. They needed to show that there was reason to doubt it. And of course, anybody who's read David Hume understands that of course, there's always reason to doubt, you know, causal reasoning, you know, inductive reasoning, there's just, you can never, what do they say, you can't prove a negative, right? You cannot have overwhelming evidence that could never be controverted by further evidence, because that's just not how science works.

So yes, doubt, doubt, doubt. That's what they need. The really insidious part comes though, in that if you just want to sell your product, if you just want to sell oil or you just want to sell cigarettes, all you need is doubt. But if you want to start a revolution, if you want political power, if what you're after is ideology, not money, then you need something more than doubt. Then you need to corrupt the people that you're convincing into hating the truth tellers. Not just doubting what they say, but believing that the truth tellers are the enemy and liars and maybe even deserve physical violence. That's the metastasis of what we saw from 1953, when the people figured out, ah, you mean you don't just have to create doubt, you can actually use this to create an army of doubters who will do anything you say. And that's why facts don't matter.

That's why the facts won't convince them, because what they've actually managed to do is to erode trust, not just to plant in your mind the idea that, well, maybe cigarettes cause cancer, maybe they don't. But that every time a scientist says, well, you know, don't you understand that the evidence in favor of the hypothesis that smoking causes lung cancer is overwhelming? They say "you're a liar" because they don't trust them anymore. That's the really insidious part. It's the erosion of trust.

5:52: Hakon Syrrist:

At the beginning of your book, you write about your trip to the Flat Earth Convention. Can you take us through that experience?

5:58: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Yeah, so the Flat Earth Convention was very enlightening to me because I had been studying science deniers from my study for a decade, and I finally decided to go out and talk to them, you know, face-to-face. And I wanted to choose the worst of the worst, you know, not just the climate deniers or the anti-vaxxers, but flat earthers. I mean, how could this possibly be a thing? I remember before I went thinking, this couldn't possibly be a thing. And I got there to find out this is very much a thing. And friends warned me, oh, they're just goofing around. How could it possibly be real? But here's the thing, it is real.

And the reason it's real is because they're conspiracy theorists who don't just doubt but distrust, who even in some instances hate, they think that the other side is lying to them. Stephen Lewandowski, who I understand you've had on your program, he and John Cook have done some work on this idea that there are the five tropes of denialist reasoning. And these are common across all forms of science denial. They cherry pick evidence, they believe in conspiracy theories, engage in illogical reasoning, rely on fake experts, and think that science has to be perfect to be credible. Well, once you know that, then you've got a blueprint, don't you? Then you know how to talk to science deniers. At least that's what I set out to do.

I didn't go to the Flat Earth Convention to present physics to them because I'm not a physicist. And they had read it, but they didn't trust the physicists. So there was a problem. And what I did was, I'm a philosopher, so I wanted to talk to them about how they were reasoning. So I would ask them questions like, okay, what's your evidence that you're right? And then they would come up with things which are not really evidence. But what do you say then? Oh, well, you got your evidence. I've got mine. Here's the question that stopped them, was Karl Popper's question. And I touched on it earlier, "what evidence, if I had it in my back pocket, would convince you to change your mind?" They really couldn't answer that question, and they should have been able to, if they were really scientists, as they claimed.

They claimed that their views were not based on faith, they were based on evidence and scientific reasoning. So why couldn't they say, if you found X, then I would give up my view. Because then at least I would have some respect for the idea that, oh, I see their empirically-minded. And by gosh, they did do experiments. And there's a wonderful documentary film called Behind the Curve that shows them doing experiments, but it also shows them, you know, in quiet voice when the experiment goes wrong, saying, don't tell anyone. Oh, no, no, you can't do that and be a scientist. So that was the trouble. And I went there not to convince them,  though that would've been nice, but to see if I could get them to listen. And I found that I could, I didn't have hostile conversations. They wanted to engage. And the reason was because I listened to them, I listened to them, they listened to me. That was how it worked.

And my whole book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, which starts with flat earth, is about the idea that facts are just not gonna work unless the person trusts you. So you have to build trust first. How do you build trust? Face-to-face conversation? If you have face-to-face conversation with someone, it's very hard for them to hate you. And that's what I found. Now again, I did, I wasn't there long enough and maybe I wasn't good enough at it to convince them to give up their views, but my goodness, that's how it's done. You know, you build trust and you can get people to change their mind. And that's now been empirically shown. After I got back from Flat Earth, there was a scientific study which came out in Nature Human Behavior in 2019, which showed that you could convince people. And even in the way that I was trying it.

And so no wonder I loved that study, right? Because it was confirmation bias. Of course, you know? Yeah. This is just what I was doing. Great. so it was fun, but also exhausting and a little spooky to be at the Flat Earth Convention.

10:35: Hakon Syrrist:

So in your book, you talk about the true primary methods that can be used for talking to climate deniers. Could you talk a little bit about these?

10:43: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Yeah. They don't just work for climate deniers. They work for any science denier. These are the Betsch and Schmid study techniques. The first is called content rebuttal. And interestingly enough, for all the people who worry about the backfire effect, oh, you know, don't talk to anybody about facts, it'll just harden them up. No, Betsch and Schmid found no backfire effect. They found that you could talk to people about content and sometimes change their mind. But here's the caveat, you have to be an expert, because if you're not an expert, you will get your head handed to you. I know a lot of physics, but I'm not a physicist. And so if I had tried to go into flat earth only armed with physics, it would've been a very humiliating experience, because the minute I say, well, but what about a Foucault's pendulum? Or what about the ship going whole down over the horizon? And then they've got five reasons why that experiment was faked. And I can't blow every one of those five out of the water. And I don't really know which one's a lie or not, because I never, I didn't read the thing that they read and I can't quite remember what the Coriolis effect is. And maybe you can't either.

You think you're gonna go in there and just muddy them and you're not, you're just not, because some of them are smart and they've read some Newton. So you have to be an expert to do that. But if you are, go nuts, right? That's fine. But the other way is technique rebuttal. And this is what I love as a philosopher and what I was doing before Betsch and Schmid validated it, which is again, why I love their study, right? Which is look at these five tropes of science denial. Say to them, well, isn't that a conspiracy theory? And they say, yeah, what's the matter with a conspiracy theory? Well, do you believe all conspiracy theories? Well, like what? Well, do you believe that the royal family or lizard people? No, that's stupid. Well, well why not? I mean that's a very effective technique in philosophy, right? Make their argument stronger and show them it's absurd.

So I mean, so you can do that. You can try to discredit the experts that they're dealing with. Try to gosh, there's a technique called prebunking, right? Rather than debunk it, prebunk it. Show them in advance, this is what the conspiracy theorist is gonna say, and then it seems less compelling later. So there are all sorts of tools in the toolkit when you're talking about how to reason, content versus technique. Fascinating conclusion in the study. They were both effective, equally effective, and there was no additive effect. Which means that you can be a layperson and be just as effective in talking to a science designer as a scientist is. That's no reason for a scientist not to do it, because they've got special expertise. But it means that nobody's got an excuse to stay home. We can all do this. There was nothing rare about me being able to go to a flat earth convention and have the kind of conversations that I did. I didn't learn in philosophy graduate school how to do that. It was just studying the five tropes of reasoning for science deniers and being curious and patient.

14:12: Michael Gordon:

We didn't mention this yet, but can you touch upon the information deficit model and how that works?

14:20: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Yeah, that's one of my favorites. The information deficit model is the idea that all you really need to do to convince someone, is to tell them the facts, because they're just like your scientific colleagues. I mean, what would you do with a rational person? If they didn't believe something? You'd say, oh, well didn't, you know the definitive study was done in you know Nature two years ago. And they go, oh really? I'll have to read that. Oh, yeah, you're right. I changed my mind.

No, that's not how it works. And it's because deniers usually, it's not that they lack information, they lack trust. How do you make up for that? It's the trust deficit, not the information deficit. And because their beliefs are sometimes based on identity and community. An awful lot of those flat earthers were very happy to be in the community of flat earthers. They were their kin, their family, their friends. They would encourage one another to marry within the flat earth community, raise their children. Ooh, how do you break out of that? That's not an information deficit. That is really a much, much deeper problem.

15:31: Hakon Syrrist:

What other steps, than talking to science deniers, can we use as a society to combat science denial and promote trust in science?

15:42: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

I think that the number one thing to do is to not be shy to have conversations. People seem to think, maybe it's because of the information deficit model, that once you've told somebody the truth and they don't accept it, you just walk away. You know, Hey, I tried to tell them the earth was round. They didn't listen. It's not worth talking to them anymore. What are you talking about? That's not how it works, right? If you just, if they're hearing lies, lies, lies, lies in their ear all day long, and then you tell them the truth once and they don't accept it and you walk away, guess what? They're just gonna continue to hear the lie.

So, I mean, I talked to some people who are experts on information warfare, you know, the real information, foreign information warfare, and there's some principles of of information warfare that I talk about it a little bit in my new book. One of the most, I mean, these are pretty basic common sense things, tell the truth over and over, right? Lies are repeated. Truth should be repeated too. Put the truth in the hands of the best amplifier for that truth. I mean, truth can be amplified as well. So, this idea that, well, you know what? We've done everything we can just leave them alone. That's really wrong. You have to get out there. If I'd had 20 people with me at the Flat Earth Convention, we might have convinced some people,

I mean, one of the things they said on that first day when I was just keeping my ears open and my mouth shut, they said, you know, I heard there was a convention of physicists down the street. Yeah, well, well why aren't they here? They must be afraid. If it's so easy to refute us, why aren't they here? So when I got back I wrote a an article called Calling All Physicists to say, you need to strap on your boots and do this. It is worth your time. And by the way, if you think it's not worth your time, you're a science denier because read the Betsch and Schmid study. I mean, I not like I can tell you what's worth your time, but if you're saying this will never work, you're wrong. It can work. Content rebuttal, get out there. Right? I don't know how many people I've tried to convert. Now I'm trying not to just convert the deniers, but scientists, they need to get out there and do something. But some people have come along and are, you know, doing something about that.

And you know, look, my goal is not just to convince the deniers, it's to take down the tone of some of the hateful rhetoric back and forth. If people who believe in science buy into the hatred of the other side, it's just gonna get worse. We need to let people know there is room for them on the team that celebrates science. And the way you let somebody know there's room for them on the team is by not humiliating them and being, you know, hateful to them. I mean, it would be a better world if we were nicer. And here's something that's important. They're victims. A lot of them are victims. They didn't wake up one day wondering if there's a Jewish space laser. Somebody made up that bullshit, and then they believed it. I feel sorry for them. You know, it feels some empathy for them.

19:08: Hakon Syrrist:

Okay, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Lee McIntyre, research fellow at the Center of Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, and author of the book, How to Talk to a Science Denier. Dr. Lee McIntyre, thank you so much for joining us today.

19:24: Dr. Lee McIntyre:

Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.