How to Effectively Talk Science With A Denier
It helps to find common ground — and choose your battles.
Fact and Fiction
We live in a time when more scientific studies are carried out than ever before, and when the average person has better than ever access to those findings. However, it’s still worryingly easy for people to bury their head in the sand and ignore basic facts if they choose to do so.
Climate change skeptics remain steadfast, despite the masses of evidence that humans are having a palpable negative effect on the environment. Studies have shown that fluoride is completely safe, but there are still pockets of resistance against adding it to the water supply. Any link between vaccines and autism has long since been debunked, and there are still holdouts campaigning against the practice.
Any attempt to engage with people who hold these kinds of ideas can be very frustrating. However, with the right approach, making your point isn’t completely impossible.
Why Facts Don’t Work
The first is cognitive dissonance, the tension that arises when a person holds two conflicting thoughts in their head at the same time. Even when a position is seemingly indefensible due to contradictory information, it’s not uncommon to see someone try and put a certain spin on the facts that are available.
The second is known as the backfire effect. This term describes the tendency for corrections to cause people to double down on viewpoints that can be proven wrong. It’s easier for some to maintain a certain perspective than to admit defeat.
All of this may be because, as brain scans have shown, our emotions are inextricably tied up in the reasoning we use to make decisions. As Stony Brook University political scientist Charles Taber told Mother Jones, someone faced with a contradicting fact will simply “retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs, and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”
It’s useful to know what’s going on in someone’s head when they end up ignoring the facts to propagate a particular argument. That said, to have any hope of changing their mind, it’s important to head into a discussion with a strategy that’s capable of knocking down these mental barricades.
The Great Debate
Convincing someone that their deep-rooted beliefs are false is never going to be easy, but it’s not impossible. There are various ways and means of getting a point across despite the recipient’s blinders.
First and foremost, it’s important to know your limits. There are some people who are simply too stubborn to ever reconsider their position. As troubling as it may be, there are individuals who will continue to ardently deny climate change until it’s their home that’s underwater — and that same egocentric line of thinking applies to all kinds of other topics, too.
If you can find some common ground with the person you’re debating, you’ll have an easier time. Too often, this kind of discussion can devolve into an argument when it seems that both sides are at loggerheads. So don’t let this happen. Instead, focus on something you both share—like wanting to protect your family’s health, or having access to nutritious food, or keeping our country economically competitive.
When facts don’t work, values might be more applicable. What’s more, studies have shown that positive discourse is more likely to have the desired effect than the dissection of a false argument, or even empathetic comments.
For instance, it’s a matter of delineating the benefits of fluoride, rather than criticizing someone for believing in its supposed detriments. In a perfect world, facts should have currency no matter how they are presented—but if you’re really trying to get through to someone who would rather stick with what they know already, just being factually correct often isn’t enough.