Talking to science deniers and sceptics is not hopeless
12 August 2021
Public Engagement - report
Lee McIntyre writing in Nature talks about how to go about engaging with science deniers and skeptics.
Whilst scientists (particularly at universities) have been enjoying high levels of trust amongst the public, increasing during the pandemic, there's no denying that there are groups of people who have a deep mistrust of science, instead backing anti- or non-scientific ideas and theories.
In some cases this can be seen as harmless to society, whilst in others it can increasingly be seen to result in dangerous behaviours, and more concerningly, spreading to others leading to e.g., vaccine hesitancy, lack of action against the climate crisis, and so on.
And so unsurprisingly a desire to 'change the minds' of and correct science deniers, and combat 'misinformation' is up there amongst the aims of many scientists taking an interest in science communication and public engagement. But just as common as is this motivation is the sense that attempting to engage individuals with such views is hopeless and a waste of time.
In this article, written by Lee McIntyre (a research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, who just happens to have recently published a book on this very subject) published in Nature, he puts forward the evidence and his experiences of how to effectively talk to science deniers and sceptics.
This includes evidence that the 'back-fire effect' (when trying to tackle misinformation only entrenches belief in that information) isn't total - there are ways to apply corrections to misinformation without people becoming more entrenched in their mistaken beliefs.
He talks about the tactics he used when attending a Flat Earther convention, including critiquing flawed reasoning techniques through listening and asking questions rather than relying on feeding facts, and pointing to where you can find more resources and guides.
"It is an axiom of science communication that you cannot convince a science denier with facts alone; most science deniers don’t have a deficit of information, but a deficit of trust. And trust has to be built, with patience, respect, empathy and interpersonal connections."
What to read next
4 June 2020
An article reviewing what we know about misinformation's origins, how we process information, and why it's so tricky to tackle misinformation. It provides some simple practical recommendations for anyone interested in understanding more to improve their practice.
23 July 2020
The Public Attitudes to Science surveys take place every five or so years, taking the pulse of the nation in terms of how people feel about science - covering various aspects of engagement with and trust of science, as well as attitudes towards specific topics.
This comment piece in Nature provides excellent, clear tips and food for thought if you're a researcher who wants to communicate the evidence to foster public discussion and build trust.
12 November 2020
"Even during a bitter election season, persuasive conversations were not only possible, but surprisingly attainable". It might feel like it's utterly impossible to have productive conversations about science sometimes but this article featured in Scientific American gives a really interesting perspective and reflections on effective strategies for having potentially sticky conversations. Get yourself a cuppa and give it a read; especially if your research is in climate change or any other 'controversial' area.