How to talk to a science denier: Another book by Lee McIntyre

Book cover

I more or less accidentally came across a copy of Lee McIntyre's 2021 book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, subtitled Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason. Having recently reviewed an earlier book of McIntyre's, The Scientific Attitude, I naturally snapped up How to Talk. I was not entirely disappointed in the book, but The Scientific Attitude, shall we say, was more impressive. How to Talk was like another New York Times Magazine article stretched into a book and must be 30 % notes.

And speaking of notes, whereas most of the notes were references, occasionally a note presented important material, but who can reference all those notes, even on an E-reader? If the material was important enough to be included in the book, it should have been in the main text, not in a note.

Oh well, on to the book:

I will define science denial the way James Thurber and E. B. White may have defined it: when I say "science denial", I mean "science denial," real, hard-core science denial like flat-earthism and climate denial. I will, however, point out that science denial differs from wrong or incorrect science. McIntyre suggests that one way to talk to a science denier is to present them with facts, a technique he calls content rebuttal; I am not as sanguine as he that mere facts will change the mind of a true science denier. Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning are powerful, and I sometimes think that, when we develop what we consider a "logical" argument for some proposition, we are just giving ourselves a pep talk to convince ourselves that we are right. Although he does not put it this way, McIntyre describes some interesting experiments wherein people deduce the result that they want, not the objectively correct result – but they get the objectively correct result when it is the one they want.

If content rebuttal fails, you can always try technique rebuttal. Technique rebuttal "relies on the idea that there are five common reasoning errors made by all science deniers":

  • Reliance on conspiracy theories,
  • Cherry-picking evidence,
  • Reliance on fake experts,
  • Setting impossible expectations for science [but not for the deniers' favored pseudoscience], and
  • Using illogical reasoning.

You do not have to know any science to apply technique rebuttal, which can be an advantage. McIntyre likes his list so well that he reminds us of it several times, though in fairness he also fleshes it out by showing precisely how various science deniers use such errors.

McIntyre also notes, correctly, that you must be unfailingly polite, a lesson that some of us commenters here on PT and elsewhere might take to heart. You will never convince somebody by telling them that their argument is bullshit. Similarly, you may have to bite your tongue and call an abortion opponent "pro-life," rather than "anti-abortion."

One of the questions McIntyre asks, and it is a good one, is, "What evidence, if it existed, would it take to convince you that you were wrong?" I would say, as Haldane reputedly said, "a rabbit in the Precambrian." I would even settle for a rabbit in the Cambrian. It is not entirely clear how many of McIntyre's interlocutors might answer that question.

That, dear reader, is the gist of this short book. The rest, though not uninteresting, consists of a sort of travelog in which the author attends a flat-earth convention in order to learn how to talk to people; visits Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, in order to learn about climate change; meets with coal miners; and discusses at length genetically modified foods in order to test his hypothesis about convincing people. The author learns a great deal as the book progresses, but sometimes I found myself wishing that he had merely given his conclusions in a much shorter form, rather than subjecting us to the learning process.

The flat-earth convention was mildly interesting. Flat-earthers think that Antarctica is not a continent but rather a wall surrounding the flat earth. The reaction of one flat-earther when McIntyre offered to fly him over Antarctica was almost worth the price of the book. It helped convince McIntyre that a strong sense of belonging is at least part of the reason that people hold irrationally wrong beliefs. If that is so, and I see no reason to think it is not, then it will be extremely difficult to change a great many minds. Think of the vast number of people who still think Trump won the 2020 election. Still, McIntyre claims to have learned tactics from the flat-earthers: "Remain calm. Be respectful. Engage them ['globalists'] in conversation. Try to build some trust." They had, as he notes, the conversion tactics just right.

The visit to the Maldives, by contrast, seemed pointless. It is true that the Maldives are likely to sink and disappear, but I can see no reason to go there to learn about climate change. That part of the book was mostly fill, though one of the people he met noted, "Outside the Maldives, no one cares. " Suddenly, McIntyre realizes that you have to not just believe in climate change, but also "give a damn." For that he had to shlep to the Maldives?

At any rate, we will certainly not change very many minds one at a time, and McIntyre was not singularly successful with the flat-earthers. Fair enough, because the main reason he went to the flat-earth convention was to learn how to talk to such people.

McIntyre talks to coal miners and learns the truth of Upton Sinclair's dictum, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it," with a twist:

If a miner was willing to go to work every day and risk their own life and health, why would they stop just because of a risk to the Earth or to someone else's health, maybe halfway around the world? That wasn't callous; it was reality. There weren't any other jobs, and they had to feed their family. What did anyone expect them to do?

It is a fair question and shows not necessarily why denial is so entrenched but rather how difficult the problem truly is. After all, the coal miner he talked to mostly accepted the reality of climate change; he just refused to give up his job. McIntyre later notes a distinction between beliefs and values; the question is, "How do you convince someone to care about something or someone that they previously did not care about?" And remember: identity influences both your beliefs and your values.

McIntyre spends a long time seemingly desperate to find liberal science denial and finally hits on GMO's. Presumably after his education from the flat-earthers and sources in the literature, he describes long, friendly discussions on GMO's with his pseudonymous friend Ted. Ted prefers to "trust in nature," whereas McIntyre prefers to "trust in reason." Ted is not unreasonably concerned with unforeseen consequences such as mongooses in Hawaii (not to mention the more well-known rabbits in Australia). Unfortunately, Ted is also prepared to write off countless third-world children by denying them a GMO known as golden rice, partly because it is a GMO but also partly because the earth is on the road to overpopulation. I do not mean to be catty, but you can tell that Ted's job does not depend on planting GMO's.

The last chapter concerns largely the coronavirus pandemic. The book came out during the height of the pandemic, but it was not as dated as you might have expected. In particular he notes that identity has divided people into, for example, maskers and anti-maskers (as well as vaxxers and anti-vaxxers) – and sure enough maskers and anti-maskers broke down largely along party lines.

Finally, the book is well and clearly written, with very few errors (such as effected for affected and quorum for, I think, plurality). I thought, though, that it is somewhat overlong in places, most particularly the Maldives, the conversations, and the text leading up to liberal science denial. And from our Consistency Department, on a single page, we find: 2 degree Celsius goal, 1.5 degree C increase, 1.5 Celsius target. I think I have made this complaint before: Where, oh where, are the copy editors?