If you’re distressed about climate change and COVID-19 spread, it might be tempting to write off people who dismiss or deny that these issues exist. But if you’re open to challenging conversations, you might find some solace, as well as change a few minds.
We tapped Lee McIntyre, author of the new book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, to share his best resources for disarming and connecting with people who distrust expertise and facts. There are tools and tips to communicate calmly and respectfully — ideally in a way that leaves them more curious and less susceptible to misinformation.
Read on for McIntyre’s expert guide, starting with how the tobacco industry kicked off the science denialist movement, before weaving from Bill Nye to chatbots. As you’ll see from the articles, podcasts, videos, and books, the solution is not found in berating and belittling, but instead engaging and listening with perseverance and compassion.
Image by Fanatic Studio / Gary Waters / Getty Images
Naomi OreskesScientific American
Lee McIntyre: “In this brief article, the eminent historian of science Naomi Oreskes provides a bit-sized version of her masterful 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt. Here she argues that modern science denial all began when a group of tobacco executives sat down with a public relations expert at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in the 1950s and decided to ‘fight the science’ that linked smoking and cancer. All subsequent denialist campaigns since then have followed this blueprint.”
Laura Hazard OwenNieman Journalism Lab
LM: “This article describes the latest cutting edge research from Cornelia Betsch and Philipp Schmid, who discovered the first empirical evidence to show that you can talk someone out of their denialist beliefs. And you don’t need to be a scientist to do it. The original study is fascinating and worthwhile, but a tougher read. Start here.”
Answers in GenesisYouTube
LM: “Do not start this video until you are ready to watch it straight through. Turn off the phone. Unplug the iron. Shut off the faucet. You won’t be back until you're done.”
Andrew KeenLiterary Hub
LM: “You think vaccines are important for physical health? This author shows that we can and must also vaccinate our minds against virulent ideas… like vaccine denial itself. For more on this fascinating topic, grab Andy Norman’s new book, Mental Immunity.”
Charlie WarzelThe New York Times
LM: “This article came out at the very beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, when vaccines were still half a year away, but the advice is superb. Show respect, listen, remain calm. That’s how you convince people. It’s about trust, not just facts.”
Lena SunMaureen O’HaganThe Washington Post
LM: “Before the Covid crisis hit, anti-vaxx was already a thing. In southern Washington state there was an outbreak of measles, and Gov. Jay Inslee sent public health officials there to talk to people, one on one. It worked.”
Daryl DavisTEDx Talks
LM: “Daryl Davis is an amazing example of someone who can talk others out of extremist beliefs using calm, patience, and respect — and he’s been doing it for over twenty years. Davis is an African American blues musician who has talked 200 Ku Klux Klan members into giving up their beliefs! As a mark of their conversion, they also give him their robes. If he can do that, you can talk to your uncle Frank at Thanksgiving about why he should get his covid shot.”
Mick WestSimon and Schuster
LM: “In this book, Mick West gives some great practical advice, rooted in a deep understanding of how conspiracy theorists think. From Flat Earth to lizard people to chem trails, if they cherry pick facts, rely on conspiracy theories, and cite fake experts, this book will tell you how to make sense of it. Or not.”
Michael ShermerScientific American
LM: “Shermer is the pioneer of good practical advice on how to talk to people when facts aren’t working. Everyone who has written on this subject since then owes him a big debt.”
Seed World GroupYouTube
LM: “Listen to this fascinating talk by Mark Lynas, one of the founders of anti-GMO activism — which included burning crops and vandalizing farmers’ equipment — on his scientific conversion to supporting genetically modified foods… for which there have been no credible empirical studies showing that they are unsafe to eat.”
LM: “Don’t know where to find the facts on the internet to push back against climate denialist claims about global warming? This website is your one stop shopping center.”
Karin TameriusArnaud GagneurThe New York Times
LM: “An interactive chatbot guide by one of the pioneers in talking people into taking their shots. You enter the ‘but what if they say’ and it tells you ‘this is what to say.’”
LM: “Stuck for practical advice? You already know the facts, but not how to get them across? This easy-to-read guidebook is just the thing for you.”
Rose BraniginThe Washington Post
LM: “Hear from a former anti-vaxxer about what brought her to give up her beliefs. Surprise, it was trust and patience. Are you noticing a theme here?”
Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. He is the author of Post-Truth (MIT Press, 2018) and The Scientific Attitude (MIT Press, 2019), as well as numerous popular essays that have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Scientific American, and The Times Higher Education Supplement. His new book How to Talk to a Science Denier, was published by MIT press in August 2021.