A New Study Explains Why—And How—You Should Respond to Science Deniers

A group of protesters march for science.

( © afishman64/Adobe)

You read an online article about climate change, then start scanning the comments on Facebook. Right on cue, Seth the Science Denier chimes in with:

The study found that science deniers whose arguments go unchallenged can harm other people's attitudes toward science.

"Humans didn't cause this. Climate is always changing. The earth has always had cycles of warming and cooling—what's happening now isn't new. The idea that humans are causing something that happened long before humans were even around is absurd."

You know he's wrong. You recognize the fallacy in his argument. Do you take the time to engage with him, or write him off and move along?

New research suggests that countering science deniers like Seth is important—not necessarily to change their minds, but to keep them from influencing others.

Looking at Seth's argument, someone without much of a science background might think it makes sense. After all, climate is always changing. The earth has always gone through cycles, even before humans. Without a scientifically sound response, a reader may begin to doubt that human-caused climate change is really a thing.

A study published in Nature found that science deniers whose arguments go unchallenged can harm other people's attitudes toward science. Many people read discussions without actively engaging themselves, and some may not recognize erroneous information when they see it. Without someone to point out how a denier's statements are false or misleading, people are more likely to be influenced by the denier's arguments.

Researchers tested two strategies for countering science denial—by topic (presenting the facts) and by technique (addressing the illogical argument). Rebutting a science denier with facts and pointing out the fallacies in their arguments both had a positive effect on audience attitudes toward legitimate science. A combination of topic and technique rebuttals also had a positive effect.

"In the light of these findings we recommend that advocates for science train in topic and technique rebuttal," the authors wrote. "Both strategies were equally effective in mitigating the influence of science deniers in public debates. Advocates can choose which strategy they prefer, depending on their levels of expertise and confidence."

Who you're really addressing are the lurkers who might be swayed by misinformation if it isn't countered by real science.

So what does that look like? If we were to counter Seth's statements with a topic rebuttal, focusing on facts, it might look something like this:

Yes, climate has always changed due to varying CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Scientists have tracked that data. But they also have data showing that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, has dramatically increased CO2 levels. Climate change is now happening at a rate that isn't natural and is dangerous for life as we know it.

A technique rebuttal might focus on how Seth is using selective information and leaving out important facts:

Climate has always changed, that's true. But you've omitted important information about why it changes and what's different about the changes we're seeing now.

Ultimately, we could combine the two techniques in something like this:

Climate has always changed, but you've omitted important information about why it changes and what's different about what we're seeing now. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are largely what drives natural climate change, but human activity has increased CO2 beyond natural levels. That's making climate change happen faster than it should, with devastating effects for life on Earth.

Remember that the point is not to convince Seth, though it's great if that happens. Who you're really addressing are the lurkers who might be swayed by misinformation if it isn't countered by truth.

It's a wacky world out there, science lovers. Keep on fighting the good fight.

Annie Reneau
Annie is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone.
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On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.

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Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.

Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.

This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.