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How to Talk to a Science Denier: A Reading List

Follow author Lee McIntyre into the deep as he explores how conspiracy theories are forged and how to connect with people who’ve been pulled under.

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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

To Understand How Science Denial Works, Look to History

Naomi Oreskes
Scientific 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.”

Bill Nye Debates Ken Ham [WATCH]

Answers in Genesis

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.”

How to Actually Talk to Anti-Maskers

Charlie Warzel
The 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.”

Why I, as a Black Man, Attend KKK Rallies [LISTEN]

Daryl Davis
TEDx 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.”

Escaping the Rabbit Hole [READ]

Mick West
Simon 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.”

Lee McIntyre

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.