Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jun. 1, 2012
Published on: Cosmos Magazine
7 min read
OPINION | ‘Just the Facts’ Ain’t Enough
Arguing with climate change deniers, creationists or anti-vaccination adherents is not a debate – it's a bar fight

Simply presenting people with evidence does not alter beliefs, especially those that are deeply held. But that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate quackery.

By Wilson da Silva

FACTS DON’T WIN. Ideas are more powerful than facts, especially ideas that conform to your world view. Deep down, I guess I’ve always suspected this. You cannot engage in debate with climate change contrarians, creationists or anti-vaccination proponents without encountering a dogged intransigence to logical arguments backed by overwhelming data.

No amount of devastating ripostes, or unlimited armoury of crushing evidence, seems to have any effect. As each fallacy, misconception, inconsistency and even brazen falsehood – as each of them is decapitated by evidence and lucid reasoning, another specious argument arises. It’s like battling the Hydra, the mythical serpent with 100 heads which, when any was severed, another would grow in its place.

My fear was confirmed at Science Writing in an Age of Denial, a gathering of science journalists and social researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where over two days in April 2012, the issue was dissected in great detail. I’d been invited to speak on two panels, but I spent most of the time listening to the excellent talent the organisers had brought to bear, and delighted in the insights they offered.

Sean B. Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the university, listed the six steps used by all denialists in discussion:

  1. Doubt the science.

  2. Question scientists’ motives and interests.

  3. Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities.

  4. Exaggerate the potential harm of believing the science (and scare people).

  5. Appeal to personal liberty and freedom (no government official should tell me what vaccinations I need).

  6. Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a cherished common philosophy or worldview held by most people.

Carroll actually gained this insight from reading a scholarly paper on the history of chiropractors and their long antipathy to vaccination. The paper found that this stems from the founding philosophy of chiropractic, which eschews the germ theory of infectious disease and considers almost all ailments to be the result of spinal nerve dysfunction caused by misplaced vertebrae.

Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who studies how people make decisions, said educating people about divisive issues never works. And it’s not because people are stupid or don’t have enough information. “The problem isn’t the audience, the problem is us [the communicators]. We have unrealistic expectations.” Simply presenting facts does not alter beliefs.

My fellow panelist Christie Aschwanden, a distinguished science writer, noted that people don’t assimilate facts in a vacuum, they filter them through their pre-existing belief system. Psychologists call this ‘motivated reasoning’: the tendency to seek out evidence that conforms to our views. “We seek facts that confirm what we already believe, and reject the ones that contradict our worldview.”

Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science, speaking at Science Writing in an Age of Denial

Lupia argued that to make a dent against such odds, you need credibility to help carry the day, and this is only is bestowed by the audience: it’s about how the audience perceives you. He defined credibility as being “perceived common interests” multiplied by “perceived expertise”.

When you convey facts to an audience that doesn’t want to hear them, you reach an impasse. The stronger the pre-existing belief, the stronger the motivation to dismiss the contrary evidence and the people conveying it. As one journalist noted, “People will run away from you cognitively if you pull the rug out from under their feet.”

Is the answer to be respectful of people’s deep beliefs when challenging them? As I told the audience in one panel discussion, I’m not convinced this is a solution: it can easily sounds like dishonest pandering, and quickly drift into the mollycoddling of defective reasoning.

Yes, you must always be respectful of your audience, and engage them in an exchange of ideas. But you must defend evidence forcefully, and take a firm stand against quackery.

This doesn’t mean you bludgeon people with evidence and statistics, but you use cogent argument and – well, good old fashioned debating skills like reason, evidence, clarity, confidence, tone, pace, gestures and eye contact. Also helpful is engagement, conviction and likeability, as well as body language, use of pronouns, rhetorical questions, emotion, dramatic flourishes and analogy.

Essential, I think, is humour; just because a topic is serious doesn’t mean you can’t make a funny aside, especially one that gently ridicules your opponent, or smites a central thesis of the opposing argument. As the audience laughs, you have subtly pulled them closer to your camp.

It also helps to make analogies, and break arguments out of the regimented boxes that often bind them. For example: we demand solid evidence from a physician, an accountant or a mechanic before making decisions – why accept any less when considering climate change, genetically modified food, stem cells, biodiversity, nanotechnology or evolution?

It’s not that these issues are necessarily complex: it’s just that they can’t be reduced to a sound bite. Complex ideas require timely consideration, an exposition of the evidence and, yes, an effort to understand. But I think people will genuinely try to understand if you connect with them and present evidence in a lively manner, than pander to their prejudices.

Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS Magazine. You can read blog reports of the Science Writing in an Age of Denial conference, or watch selected highlights on video.