How To Deal With Science Deniers

How To Deal With Science Deniers

Science denial has real, societal consequences. Denial of the link between HIV and AIDS led to more than 330,000 premature deaths in South Africa. Denial of the link between smoking and cancer has caused millions of premature deaths. Thanks to vaccination denial, preventable diseases are making a comeback.

Vaccination picture from Shutterstock

Denial is not something we can ignore or, well, deny. So what does scientific research say is the most effective response? Common wisdom says that communicating more science should be the solution. But a growing body of evidence indicates that this approach can actually backfire, reinforcing people’s prior beliefs.

When you present evidence that threatens a person’s worldview, it can actually strengthen their beliefs. This is called the “worldview backfire effect”. One of the first scientific experiments that observed this effect dates back to 1975.

A psychologist from the University of Kansas presented evidence to teenage Christians that Jesus Christ did not come back from the dead. Now, the evidence wasn’t genuine; it was created for the experiment to see how the participants would react.

What happened was their faith actually strengthened in response to evidence challenging their faith. This type of reaction happens across a range of issues. When US Republicans are given evidence of no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they believe more strongly that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When you debunk the myth linking vaccination to autism, anti-vaxxers respond by opposing vaccination more strongly.

In my own research, when I’ve informed strong political conservatives that there’s a scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming, they become less accepting that humans are causing climate change.

Brute force meets resistance

Ironically, the practice of throwing more science at science denial ignores the social science research into denial. You can’t adequately address this issue without considering the root cause: personal beliefs and ideology driving the rejection of scientific evidence. Attempts at science communication that ignore the potent influence effect of worldview can be futile or even counterproductive.

How then should scientists respond to science denial? The answer lies in a branch of psychology dating back to the 1960s known as “inoculation theory“. Inoculation is an idea that changed history: stop a virus from spreading by exposing people to a weak form of the virus. This simple concept has saved millions of lives.

In the psychological domain, inoculation theory applies the concept of inoculation to knowledge. When we teach science, we typically restrict ourselves to just explaining the science. This is like giving people vitamins. We’re providing the information required for a healthier understanding. But vitamins don’t necessarily grant immunity against a virus.

There is a similar dynamic with misinformation. You might have a healthy understanding of the science. But if you encounter a myth that distorts the science, you’re confronted with a conflict between the science and the myth. If you don’t understand the technique used to distort the science, you have no way to resolve that conflict.

Half a century of research into inoculation theory has found that the way to neutralise misinformation is to expose people to a weak form of the misinformation. The way to achieve this is to explain the fallacy employed by the myth. Once people understand the techniques used to distort the science, they can reconcile the myth with the fact.

Source: Skeptical Science

There is perhaps no more apt way to demonstrate inoculation theory than to address a myth about vaccination. A persistent myth about vaccination is that it causes autism.

This myth originated from a Lancet study which was subsequently shown to be fraudulent and was retracted by the journal. Nevertheless, the myth persists simply due to the persuasive fact that some children have developed autism around the same time they were vaccinated.

This myth uses the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”. This is a fallacy because correlation does not imply causation. Just because one event happens around the same time as another event doesn’t imply that one causes the other.

The only way to demonstrate causation is through statistically rigorous scientific research. Many studies have investigated this issue and shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccination and autism.

Inoculating minds

The response to science denial is not just more science. We stop science denial by exposing people to a weak form of science denial. We need to inoculate minds against misinformation.

The practical application of inoculation theory is already happening in classrooms, with educators adopting the teaching approach of misconception-based learning (also known as agnotology-based learning or refutational teaching).

This involves teaching science by debunking misconceptions about the science. This approach results in significantly higher learning gains than customary lectures that simply teach the science.

While this is currently happening in a few classrooms, Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) offer the opportunity to scale up this teaching approach to reach potentially hundreds of thousands of students. At the University of Queensland, we’re launching a MOOC that makes sense of climate science denial.

Our approach draws upon inoculation theory, educational research into misconception-based learning and the cognitive psychology of debunking. We explain the psychological research into why and how people deny climate science.

Having laid the framework, we examine the fallacies behind the most common climate myths. Our goal is for students to learn how to identify the techniques used to distort climate science and feel confident responding to misinformation.

A typical response of scientists to science denial is to teach more science. But that only provides half of what’s needed. Scientific research has offered us a solution: build resistance to science denial by exposing people to a weak form of science denial.The ConversationJohn Cook is Climate Communication Research Fellow at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • There is also the problem of people who are just damn crazy. My wife’s friend and her husband (and his brother that hangs around alot) all believe in just about every conspiracy there is. Chemtrails, vaccines, illuminati etc.

    When we’ve had social events where they’ve been I just throw my own made up conspiracies back at them. “Oh, no, I vaccinate my kids. If I don’t give them low doses of poison their kidneys won’t have anything to do and will atrophy. It’s like muscles, you have to use them”.

    I’ve tried getting to the point with them several times, but when everything is a conspiracy you can believe whatever you want and discard anything.

  • How about the oil exec holding a gun to denier’s heads and stuffing their pockets with bribe money and telling them what to think and say conspiracy?
    You remaining “believers” are just slow learners;
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by trust worthy politicians.

    What part of science’s laughable 97% certainty giving us the last 34 YEARS of climate action FAILURE to save the planet do you not get?
    Only unstoppable denial is certain and denying that is why it was called; “belief”.

    • And this kind of poorly written, nonsensical crap is exactly why no one of note takes conspiracy theorists seriously.

      • Mate, Most people cant articulate the sheer scope a woken mind has unearthed when dealing with sheeples indoctrinated beliefs and cognitive dissonance.

        Average article at best on the basis that science is only true based on what we know.

        Considering we cannot explore over 98% of the electromagnetic spectrum I think its fair to say that we are scientifically correct until we are proven fucking stupid. ie. cocaine used in medicine 100 years ago. The world is flat, persecute those that think otherwise holds as much plausible credence as you are pumping out atm.

        Chemtrails arent a thing? We cant power cars on alternative sources? IS is evil as fuck yet spawned out of no where? Lol. Come have a coffee with me and let me teach you HOW to think and not WHAT to think.

        Further to the above the stigma associated with anything that isnt mainstream opinion is “conspiracy theorists”. Pretty smart ploy to feed into your shitty ingrained logic.

        • Again, wtf are you on about? At least make an effort in trying to write a coherent post. As a qualified, practicing research scientist, I suspect I have a far greater grasp of logic and how to think than what you’ve picked up from whatever backwater conspiracy websites you frequent. You may want to familiarise yourself with current research on the psychology of conspiracy thinking (e.g. the work of Prof. Stephan Lewandowsky). Basically, your over inflated egos don’t permit you to think things through logically since you’re so obsessed with wanting to be “special” and “in the know”, regardless of how completely nonsensical your beliefs are.

  • There’s no point using evidence and logic with ingrained deniers. They will just withdraw into cognitive dissonance, publication bias or fallacy. To attempt this just flatters and reinforces their world view.

    Instead they should be mocked and ridiculed … publicly and repeatedly. This is a low tactic and far from preferable. But the more mature and reasonable approach clearly isn’t working.

  • Speaking as someone with a science degree and a high interest in and regard for science, I get concerned at this sort of l anguage. Labelling people as “science deniers” or other such emotive tags reaks of manipulation laziness.
    To try to bring people around to your point of view by insulting their inteligence (even if their inteligence is questionable) rather than by convincing them of the rightness of your case is not the stuff of integrity or maturity.

    • Obviously if a person’s belief is susceptible to evidence and reason, I’d be a complete jerk to ridicule, I should instead use evidence and reason.

      But if I can see that their belief isn’t based on evidence, it’s resistant to evidence. In that case you need to plant that evidence like grit in an oyster, with ridicule.

      The ridicule is to induce anger.

      In the short term the anger is counter-productive. They’ll outright reject your arguments.

      But emotions make a powerful memories. The memory will cause them to repeatedly think back on my arguments at a later time, when they aren’t actively engaged in defending their belief, and if my arguments were good the cognitive dissonance will cause them to change their belief.

      I understand that you disapprove of emotional manipulation, and I agree that if I’d used fear or immersion or various other tricks I’d be completely out of line, but I don’t see that merely using emotion to be memorable is intellectually dishonest.

  • I’ve resorted to using less scientific language with them.
    e.g. with the vaccine debate, I liken it to seatbelts.
    There is a really, really small chance that by putting seatbelts on your kids that in the case of an accident they could get trapped and the seatbelt be complicit in them being injured or even die.
    However, the chance of that happening is extremely small, and the chance of it saving their lives, saving them from harm is extremely high.
    So we put seatbelts on our kids, even though there are some extremely unlikely, yet possible, situations where they could be detrimental.
    This has actually worked with some anti-vax people we know, the analogy wormed away at them, I asked them if they would stop their kids wearing seatbelts if they heard of a few cases where seatbelts caused a death or an injury, they answered ‘of course not’.

    In some ways, moving away from the detailed scientific language and stepping back from the debate and working on simpler forms of reason seems to help. It doesn’t make them feel stupid or discount some risk they have imagined, but puts it in perspective that even if their perceived risk was real, that it still wouldn’t make sense to avoid vaccinations.

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