May 27, 2024

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Science It Works

Book review: ‘How to Talk to a Science Denier’ by Lee McIntyre

Respect and patience will lead to more constructive conversations with sceptics than just shouting.

Last month, American rock star Gene Simmons, frontman of Kiss, warned his cohort of devoted fans that they would not be welcome at his band’s ‘End of the Road Tour’ gigs unless they were vaccinated against Covid-19. Suspecting that there were ‘science deniers’ among his hardcore fanbase, to emphasise his point, Simmons added: “I don’t care if you think the Earth is flat.”

While it’s easy to empathise with the singer’s position, pronouncements like this raise the question of how best to communicate with people whose minds are closed to irrefutable, undisputable, incontrovertible scientific fact. While the ever-popular Simmons will no doubt have got his point across, what can those of us who are not metal gods do?

Help is at hand in the form of Lee McIntyre’s superb ‘How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason’ by Lee McIntyre (The MIT Press, £19.99, ISBN  9780262046107). Something of a pragmatist, professional philosopher McIntyre decides that you can’t argue with your enemy unless you know the way they think. To get to know them, he goes undercover and infiltrates a flat-earther convention.

Although he’s quick to point out that he’s not a qualified psychologist, it seems pretty obvious to McIntyre that the people he meets there have all undergone some sort of deep psychological trauma, which means that regular logic simply isn’t going to work. Flat earthers (as well as climate change sceptics; Holocaust deniers; lunar landing refuseniks, and those that think Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon) routinely employ short-circuited logic, circular arguments and small-minded ideologies when confronted with big pictures.

How does McIntyre propose we go about bringing these people back in from the fringe? There’s no point in shouting at them, he says, because one of their main counter-tactics is to get you to lose your cool and, in so doing, undermine your credibility. There’s no point in being smug, superior or even scientific for that matter, because that just serves to confirm the irrationality of their beliefs. No, says our author, you’ve got to treat them with respect and patience, while encouraging them to draw their own conclusions about themselves.

You’ve got to admire his patience. At one point he takes a flat-earther out to dinner, offering to pay for him to fly across Antarctica to prove the world is round. That’s just the surreal starting point of one expert’s attempt to rationalise the irrational, to try to understand why there is an increasing global trend towards science denial. Living in our ‘post-truth world’ it’s reassuring that there are people like McIntyre that still use the word ‘lunatic’.

While it may seem as though our valiant author is banging his head against a brick wall in his attempt to explain how to make common sense prevail, he comes out of the experience the undisputed victor, even if he is preaching to the choir.

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