Dr. Philipp Schmid discusses the best methods and potential risks of combatting science denial in a public forum.

Producer: HÃ¥kon Syrrist
04/23/2023 • 06:13 PM EST

Dr. Philipp Schmid, researcher and behavioral scientist at the University of Erfurt in Germany, discusses his latest research on effective ways to combat science denial and the importance of recognizing the rhetorical techniques and logical fallacies common in all science denialism. He compares the effectiveness of topic rebuttal and technique rebuttal and discusses the potential risks of giving a science denier an audience by engaging with one in public debate.

0:00: Hakon Syrrist:  

With us today, we have Dr. Philipp Schmid, a researcher and behavioral scientist from the University of Erfurt in Germany, who has, among other things, studied the impact of science denialism, and how to reduce the influence of science denial in public discourse. Dr. Schmid, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:17: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

Thank you so much for inviting me.

0:20: Hakon Syrrist:  

So we start, how does science denialism differ from what we would typically call skepticism?

0:26: Dr. Philipp Schmid:

So science denialism must not be confused with skepticism. Skepticism towards scientific propositions is a crucial element of science itself. We see that in mechanisms such as peer review and the replication of experimental research and so on. The common ground of this functional skepticism is that scientists use data to update their prior beliefs, regardless of the outcome. Science deniers accept evidence only if it confirms their prior beliefs. This dysfunctional skepticism is driven by how the denier would like things to be rather than what he has evidence for.

1:09: Hakon Syrrist:  

In 2019, you published a highly renowned study, Effective Strategies for Rebutting Science Denialism in Public Discussions. Can you give us a brief overview of the study and some of its most significant findings?

1:22: Dr. Philipp Schmid: 

So the study contains six experiments that we did online and the people online, they had to read a little vignette about a fictitious disease and a fictitious vaccination. And then they were asked whether they think that this vaccination is a good idea, whether they like that vaccination and so on. So basically, we asked them about their attitude towards vaccination. And then we also asked them about their intention to get vaccinated against this fictitious disease. After that, people were allocated to four different conditions.

In one condition, (1) people read messages of science denialism, basically saying stuff like you should not get vaccinated because it is not 100% safe and so on. The other people in the other conditions also read this content, but they had also an advocate for science responding to the message of science denialism. So in one of the conditions (2) the advocate for science, rebutted the message of science denialism by using what we call topic rebuttal. In the third condition, (3) the advocate for science rebutted the message of science denialism by what we call technique rebuttal. And in the fourth condition, (4) there was a combination of both approaches, topic and technique rebuttal.

In all of these six experiments, we did basically the same. So we replicated what we found in experiment one in different cultural conditions.

2:52: Hakon Syrrist:  

Can you explain the difference between topic rebuttal and technique rebuttal and the difference in the effectiveness of the two strategies?

2:59: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

Right. So topic rebuttal basically means non-refutational rebuttal. What you do when you use topical rebuttal is you would just state the facts, the scientific facts that explain the specific topic the denier is talking about. For example, if he questions vaccination, the safety and effectiveness of vaccination, then you basically deliver the facts about the safety and effectiveness of vaccination and try to overwhelm the misinformation that the science denier was saying. So you're not refuting the message from the denier. You're trying to make your own point and by doing that overwhelming the standpoint of the denier.

Now technique rebuttal is refutational rebuttal. You try to say what is wrong about the statement of the science denier by uncovering the rhetorical techniques that the science denier is using. And by uncovering what actually is wrong within the statement of the denier. So, if you think about vaccination, then topic rebuttal basically means that you have to be aware of the specific domains that a science denier can address. For example, (1) science deniers in the vaccination domain, always question that there is a threat of the disease. (2) They always question the safety of the vaccine. (3) They always question the effectiveness of the vaccine. (4) They question that you can trust the government and (5) they always claim that there are alternatives to vaccination. So these five topics are important because if you know those, then you can prepare your key messages for each of those topics and respond accordingly.

Now with technique rebuttal, you also have five different techniques and these are also very helpful because if you know those, then you can uncover those whenever a science denier is using them.

4:53: Hakon Syrrist:  

What is technique rebuttal's relationship to the inoculation theory?

4:58: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

So technique rebuttal relies on uncovering rhetorical techniques that are very general in nature and the inoculation theory uses that exact idea. It tries to uncover rhetorical techniques of science deniers or people who try to persuade you, and tries to create a protective effect against future encounters with misinformation. Now, technique rebuttal is basically taking the idea of inoculation, but it changes the timing, so you're not protecting the person beforehand, you are rebutting the misinformation afterwards. But the idea of uncovering techniques is the same in both approaches.

And the beauty of technique rebuttal to say that is when you do topic rebuttal, you are limited to a specific area of knowledge. For example, if you know a lot about vaccination, you can respond to the specific topics of vaccination, because you know, people claim that there is no threat of the disease, they claim that there is no safety of the vaccine and so on. And if you know all the facts about vaccination, you can easily rebut that. But this knowledge doesn't really help you in the arena of climate change. Or the arena of evolution theory. But technique rebuttal is more universal, because these techniques are used by all the science deniers in different domains. And if you know those techniques, and you know how to uncover them, you can do that in the vaccination arena but also in the climate change arena or the evolution theory arena. And that makes it a more universal strategy, even though it is empirically not more impactful than topic rebuttal, but maybe more useful because it has a wider area to be applied to.

And that's the same for inoculation theory. Inoculation theory claims that there is a fundamental set of persuasive techniques that you can learn about. And once you do that, you can actually apply that to a greater set of domains and knowledge arenas.

7:04: Hakon Syrrist:  

How should advocates for science prepare for public debates with science deniers? And what core messages should they focus on?

7:12: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

So that is basically bringing us back to the techniques and the topics. It is very difficult to prepare for a public debate with a science denier because they can basically say anything they want. They don't have this scientific basis that they need to come back to. They don't need to rationalize their arguments and so on. They can just invent arguments, they can basically just come up with an infinite number of statements. So that makes it very, very difficult. But if you look at the things that are actually happening in those debates, then science deniers are always using the same kind of techniques, the five techniques of science denialism. And this is in the domain of vaccination, climate change, evolution theory, and so on. T

hey always do the same stuff and within those specific areas, they always address the same topics. And if you know that, then you can prepare for these debates because you can prepare your five key messages to the five science denial techniques that uncover those techniques, and you can also prepare topic specific arguments that you can deliver when they work best within the discussion. So what you can do is limit the answers that you need to prepare by being aware of this five to five metrics in the vaccination domain, being aware of the five techniques that are always used, and being aware of the five topics. Write down your messages, learn them by heart, and then you're well prepared, at least statistically, for any debate with the science denier.

There may still be a case where a new argument is coming up that you haven't heard of before, but that is very rare.

9:02: Hakon Syrrist:  

One of the strategies you suggest when rebutting science is to reframe the debate to focus on shared values and goals. Are there any goals and values that are more effective than others? And how would these look in practice?

9:15: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

That's a good point. So yes, we are also doing a research project now where we focus on face-to-face discussions rather than public discussions. So if you talk about misinformation with a friend or someone at a bar, and it's just the science denier or someone who is influenced by a science denier. And in those situations, you have a lot more time and you can actually try to understand where the misinformation is coming from. And then you can try to address the specific attitude roots that that person has, and also the shared values. So in those situations, you shouldn't confront that person directly and say, well, you're wrong. And this reason why and here are the rhetorical techniques because that would potentially create reactance. You should rather try to understand where the misinformation is coming from, and then offer that person the opportunity to rebut that. And that's a different setting.

In mass communication, it's actually very, very difficult to try to understand what set of values the science denier has, or what kind of common ground we could establish because in public discussions, you have little time. On television, they just cut you after a few minutes. Same on radio. On social media, people are anonymous, and you don't really know what their values are, so you can only assume them and that can backfire, too. So in mass debates or mass communication situations, it's best to protect the audience and focus on the audience rather than the science denier. In face-to-face situations, it's different, but in mass communication, I would always suggest to focus on the audience and the protective effect you could have there and just say out loud, why it is wrong, what the science denier is saying.

11:08: Hakon Syrrist:  

What are some of the risks of publicly rebutting science denialism?

11:14: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

So yes, there are basically I would say two risks to rebutting misinformation in public. One is that you create an audience for the science denier. For example, if you have a science denier on social media, on Twitter, and he has no followers, and he's just claiming that Bill Gates is manipulating us with vaccination. And then Bill Gates responds to that by rebutting that misinformation with all his millions of followers, he is actually creating an audience for the misinformation. And that is a problem. So rebuttal or rebutting misinformation in public is a good idea when the science denier actually has an audience and you want to protect that audience. But if the science denier has no one to persuade, then just leave them be, because it has no impact at all and you can make things worse.

The other thing is that, as an advocate for science, you become the target of the aggression of science deniers if you're out there. And that can also be a barrier for some people to do that job, because those emails and also messages sometimes contain very aggressive language and also death threats and that's not a fun topic and it doesn't make things easier if you're threatened by those people.

12:41: Hakon Syrrist:  

What final bit of advice can you give our audience that they can use when talking to a science denier?

12:47: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

The answer to that question basically depends on in which kind of situation you are. If you are talking directly to a science denier or someone from your family or family who is claiming some weird conspiracy theory or who is delivering and believing in misinformation, then the advice is to first ask open questions. And this is rooted in motivational interviewing, because in motivational interviewing you first try to establish a relationship with the other person to then try to correct the misinformation. And what we need to establish that relationship is an understanding of what is going on in the head of the other person. And by asking open questions, you give the other person the room to actually express fears, concerns, and so on. 

So an open question could be, "what do you think about vaccination?" Rather than saying immediately, "vaccination is safe and effective, you should get it." And by asking that open question, you create this room. And after that, you actually realize all the arguments and fears and concerns that the other person is delivering. After that, you should affirm the position of the other person and that means to just say, "oh, yeah, right. I mean, if I have read all that stuff on Facebook, I would probably come to the same conclusion." So by doing that, you show respect, and you show that you understand the perspective and why that person is saying that, rather than saying ah that's stupid. And after doing that, you can offer information by saying something like, "I have done this now for over 10 years, and I know a little bit about it, do you want to hear what I think about it," and then you can actually create a talk of change. So that works in direct conversation.

In public discussions, on social media and so on, it is very important that you uncover rhetorical techniques or respond with topic rebuttal as fast as you can. Because misinformation is persuasive. And if you use those techniques, you actually have the potential to protect the audience from the impact of misinformation. Make yourself aware of the FLICC acronym of the different techniques of science, denial, and write down little responses of what you would say to those techniques and use them wherever you can. You will have an impact with that and that's what our study shows.

15:20: Hakon Syrrist:  

Okay, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Philipp Schmid, a researcher and behavioral scientist from the University of Erfurt in Germany, and author of the research paper, Effective Strategies for Rebutting Science Denialism in Public Discussions. Dr. Schmid, thank you so much for joining us today.

15:38: Dr. Philipp Schmid:  

Thank you so much for listening.