Gravity is also a theory: Lee McIntyre on Science Denial

What do vaccines, climate change, evolution, and the moon landing all have in common? Short answer, science! The longer, sometimes more disagreeable answer is that many of us have a whacky neighbor who doesn’t believe in at least one of those things. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to author Lee McIntyre, whose latest book is entitled How To Talk To A Science Denier. In our wide-ranging conversation, we try to unearth some commonalities among people who latch onto conspiracy theories and eschew scientific evidence. From climate science to 5G technology, what makes people suspicious of science and what’s the most effective way to help change their minds?

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:25 Lee McIntyre (LM) – Radical transformation can happen in a fairly short period of time. If we’re talking to one another, and we can break down the wall of distrust that I think is the absolute key doesn’t always work, but I think it’s the only thing that will work if anything can.

00:44 Narrator – What do vaccines, climate change, evolution, and the moon landing all have in common? Short answer, science! The longer, sometimes more disagreeable answer is that many of us have a whacky neighbor who doesn’t believe in at least one of those things. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to author Lee McIntyre, whose latest book is entitled “How To Talk To A Science Denier.” In our wide-ranging conversation, we try to unearth some commonalities among people who latch onto conspiracy theories and eschew scientific evidence. From climate science to 5G technology, what makes people suspicious of science and what’s the most effective way to help change their minds?

01:40 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Lee McIntyre. Lee is an author of 16 books. His last book is entitled “How to Talk to a Science Denier.” He is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. Lee, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:59 Lee McIntyre (LM) – Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

02:02 Alex Wise (AW) – Since you teach the history of science and you’re an expert in this field, why don’t you give us a brief snapshot of the history of climate change denialism? If you can, over the last few decades.

02:14 LM – One of the most important things to note is that deniers are selective. You can be a denier on one topic, but not on another, and in fact, I call them cafeteria deniers or cafeteria skeptics. So while things may be getting a little bit better, maybe on climate change, the goalposts have changed. We’ve got more deniers now about vaccines. Flat Earth is making a comeback. I mean, it’s just, you know, it’s it’s awful. So for climate, here’s the problem with climate denial. They followed the blueprint from the tobacco strategy from the 1950s that Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway wrote about so well in their book “Merchants of Doubt.” That blueprint was just sort of expertly done by the fossil fuel companies to, you know, create doubt as long as they possibly could. And you know, to fund the, you know the think tanks and others who were doubting it, you know, to put some money behind it. And what’s happened is that, you know, if somebody’s goal is to get people to believe a falsehood. Raising doubt is enough, but once an issue becomes politicized, then you don’t just want to raise doubt. You want to create a kind of an us versus them. You want to create distrust. You know the people on the other side are the enemy.

03:40 AW – And “they just don’t get it. We get it.”

03:44 LM – That’s right.

03:45 AW – “We’re hip to what’s actually going on.”

03:47 LM – That’s right. And so it’s not at that point, it’s not about facts anymore. It’s about which team you’re on. And so once the climate debate got politicized in that way, then things got really bad. Now you remember that moment, not that many years ago, when there was the commercial with who was it? Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi, who were sitting on the couch talking about climate change?  I forget. It was about the year 2000, maybe a little bit.

04:22 AW – I don’t remember this, sorry.

04:24 LM – But there was a moment of almost something close to my partisanship. And then it got politicized. And that made it worse and worse for a very long time. And meanwhile, the fossil fuel companies are profiting. And the difference, as you point out there, I think you said it a second ago, is that the goal posts change you know because you can only deny even if it’s not a factual debate anymore, it’s political. One facts have some relevance and you can only deny them for so long. So what happens? Well, the goalposts change. At first the climate deniers’ goal was to say, “well, it isn’t happening.” And then once there’s enough evidence to show that it’s happening, “well, it’s happening, but we’re not the cause of it.” Then eventually there’s enough data to show no, we really are the cause of it. The next move they’re going to make is “we can’t do anything about it.” Or when you show them that there is something to do about it, then it will be “well, but there’s not enough time. “ Or, “Well, there is time, but it’s too expensive.” So you know, there’s always some reason which of course makes you skeptical of the idea that are they actually denying or even more subtle thing. Did they just not care? I mean, this was something I ran into in writing my book because there’s this idea that people don’t think that climate change is real. They’re deniers of the fact. But it’s almost it’s a weird thing these days that it’s almost more acceptable to be a denier than to be somebody who says I don’t care. I’ll be dead by then and I think that’s where actually a lot of people are. They know climate change is real. They know we can do something about it. They know there’s time. But they don’t care. That’s the trouble.

06:13 AW – Any kind of propaganda needs a very susceptible demographic, and who’s more susceptible than children. So what part of this is a failure of education ultimately, Lee?

06:26 LM – The ignition point is fear. If you can get somebody to be afraid, it doesn’t matter what age they are, you know you can spark kind of whatever belief you want because people, people are not as critical of what they’re hearing. If it’s, you know, when they’re afraid. You’re right that the long game can be too…and you think of kids, you think of education when You think about something like that, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t have to work in that way, right? It can just be that you change the norms in society where people, for instance, no longer expect public officials to tell the truth. Or they become convinced that every that all journalism is biased. All you know, those sorts of things have a way of making everybody more cynical. You know, making everybody feel that they, they don’t really know who to trust. And here’s the problem with that. In that environment, there’s no such thing as blame or accountability, which is kind of why autocrats love propaganda and disinformation so much, right? Because if you can create a situation in which there’s no truth. Then or that that everybody’s biased or everybody’s a liar. Then you know why hold me accountable. So I think I, I mean, I think the long game that you’re talking about here is a long game for hearts and minds of everyone in the service of political power. It’s not just that you’re going to get, you know, true believer that if you can get to them young, you can have true believers for life. It’s that if you can get enough people to believe the lie, then it doesn’t even matter if there’s an opposition because you can dominate their reality. If you’ve got enough political power, I mean, this is something I learned from Jason Stanley who wrote this wonderful book “How Propaganda Works.” The goal of propaganda is not to convince you, it’s to show you who’s boss. That’s the really scary part.

08:56 (Music Break)

09:45 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Lee McIntyre. He’s an author and a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. His new book is “How to Talk to a Science Denier.” And your upcoming book, Lee, is called “On Disinformation.” We were just talking about education and the seedlings of propaganda, if you will. It’s easy to just dismiss demographically say oh, it’s red versus blue, right versus left. And I tend to fall into that trap too often, but let’s break down the demographics of science denialism, if you can.  It’s not so simple. It’s not just race, gender, socioeconomic, etc.

10:31 LM – It’s not. I mean, if boy, if I have the secret sauce to answer that question, would that be wonderful? I mean, I I’m not even aware of polling data which breaks it down in that way. Based on my experience, my anecdotal experience going out and talking to deniers, talking to climate deniers, talking to flat Earthers, talking to anti-vaxxers. You cannot tell. I mean, yes, once something has been politicized, then you know the red blue can sort of predict it and you know the funny part, you have people changing teams too. You have Marin County, California, which used to be a hotbed of anti-vaxx and also quite a liberal place, you know, a lot of Democrats in Marin County. But now if you go back post COVID, there was a story in the New York Times about about this. A lot of a lot of them have given up their anti VAX police because they don’t want anybody to confuse. Them with the conservative. Because I think that the politicization. Of anti VAX. Is now stronger. That’s the one that predicts it.

11:41 AW – So you’re saying that since the right wing has latched on to the anti VAX mantle, the marine moms who identify as liberal and Democrats may have had some skepticism early on, but they’ve decided to kind of switch back to accepting vaccines because the right wing has, yes, sullied that message. For them.

12:02 LM – That is exactly what I’m saying, and some of the early anti vacs was not about COVID cause COVID wasn’t around, it was about you know the MMR vaccine or, you know, other vaccines and such. Look, this this exists elsewhere too. In the environmental movement.

12:20 AW – Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was one of the biggest environmental attorneys in the country, had a big national stage on a radio show and became one of the…

12:31 LM – The Disinformation Dozen.”

12:33 AW – One of the “Disinformation Dozen, unfortunately.

12:36 LM – Absolutely. He he is no the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 65% of the anti VAX propaganda on Twitter was spread by 12 people, one of whom was him.

12:47 AW – Yeah, it’s really it’s sad to see that transformation. So what are some of the common characteristics then of science deniers? Like if we can’t pin it on party affiliation necessarily, can we look at it as a uniquely American thing either? No, we can’t, right?

13:05 LM – And now it exists in other places too. I mean, look, the United States is probably #1 for for most types of science denial. But you know, then you get these weird anomalies, like the last survey I saw, Turkey was number one on evolution denial. Even more so than the United States.

13:26 AW – What is that attributed to?

13:28 LM – I don’t know. I didn’t delve into that one. This was this may have changed, but it’s not that science now is bipartisan, or that it’s equal. Most science denial these days comes from the right most denial about climate change, about vaccines, about evolution comes from the right. So I’m not saying that it’s that there are no correlations here, or that it’s, you know, impossible to predict based on, you know, various demographic data. The thing that I find fascinating is that you know you do have people who don’t fall into, you know, whatever the predicted demographic is, who are deniers. And sometimes they’re deniers about different sorts of things, and that’s really what makes me so interested in it, because it’s not just about one thing, and I’ve often wondered, is it just we all have the same cognitive biases, but some of us fall for these things. And some of us don’t and some of us fall for them about. One topic, but not on another part one chapter in my book is about genetically modified organisms. Because I was trying to test the hypothesis that a friend of mine made where he said, you know, that virtually all you know the the majority of science and all came from the right. And I thought, well, what about GMO’s? You know, it’s it started to investigate this because, you know, that just seemed like a, you know, there’s vaccines. Before COVID, but no, that’s not quite as sexy as you know, is this still, something where you get to know on both sides? Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to really investigate that one as much as I wanted to because COVID intervened and I was at that point in my research.

15:28 AW – Well, I’ve had a decent amount of conversations with GMO deniers and….

15:31 LM – And what have you found?

15:32 AW – Well, one of my friends who’s a nutritionist I talked to about this – and this was when it was first kind of springing up – and she really just seemed to not have a lot of science behind her. She was just like, “yeah, they’re just really bad.” That was basically all she could say was, “yeah, they’re just really bad.” I was like, “well, you know. I’m scared of them too. I had a a very small child when this when the GMO scare really kind of hit. But I also had read stuff by Stewart Brand talking about how the GM revolution had eliminated starvation in some ways. So yeah, we can peel it back and and it’s not so it’s not so black and white, is the point. Science needs to be dictating how we think about it.

16:21 LM – We need some science in there and the the truth is, if you look at the scientific studies on the very narrow question of whether GMO foods are safe to eat. The answer is that there is no study which has ever shown that there was a danger to eating GMO foods. Now I want to immediately separate that out from the question of pesticides, because one of the first things people talk about in this debate is, well, but what about Monsanto? And they’re creating GMO products so that they can. Take more pesticide on their crops. Pesticides are dangerous, right? I understand. You don’t want pesticides in your food. But what in the world does that have to do with the other kinds of GMOs, as a class that are not to allow more pesticides, an example being golden rice, which I think is what you were just referring to, where, you know, golden rice is a way not only to improve. But to keep people from getting vitamin A deficiency and going blind. Yet the anti-GMO organizations have pretty much stopped the widespread adoption of golden rice. Now, is this denial, is it something else? It seems to me that when people are making judgments about empirical topics, it has to be based on the science. And you know, that’s why I included the chapter in GMO’s and what I did. It’s funny, Alex, you mentioned you talking to your friend. That’s what I did. I was going. I was originally going to, you know, go out to Whole Foods and start to talk to people about GMO’s. Well, then the pandemic came. Now I wasn’t going to go to Whole Foods and talk to people about GMO’s. But I called some of my friends who shop, you know, seem like maybe they shop at Whole Foods, you know? They’re liberals. They fit the stereotype that I was looking for. You know what would happen?  And I really learned a lot about the dangers of stereotyping what somebody’s beliefs are based on demographics. You can’t tell.

18:34 AW – You can understand why a Monsanto, if they’re involved in the GMO trade, may not engender a lot of goodwill from decades of misinformation when it comes to…

18:47 LM – And Agent Orange and DDT and all the other stuff they did.

18:51 AW – Right. So when they come out with a thing promoting GMOs, you can see why somebody might look at it with a skeptical eye. And that’s a good thing. But we still need to be able to parse out good science from bad science.

19:06 LM – That’s correct. And the really interesting thing to me about that is what happens when you get the cross references? You know the things that don’t line up with what somebody else’s ideological beliefs are. The example I’m thinking of here is nuclear power. You know, if somebody is very interested in what we can do about climate change, why are they not in favor of nuclear power? And there’s supposed to be a big debate right now. One of my friends that I talked about, GMOs, said there’s a big debate right now in the green movement over what our attitude should be toward nuclear power. Because if the idea is well, it’s not safe. It can never be safe. Uh, you know, I just don’t trust it. Well, isn’t that kind of what the anti-vaxxers are saying and you know you don’t want to use that type of. So, and I mean I haven’t delved into this, that wasn’t part of the book, but I mean something I got interested in.

20:13 AW – Well, a lot of it is the fear of the unknown, though.

20:16 LM – It’s fear of the unknown.

20:16 AW – And Stewart Brand gets into this in that same book about GMOs, where he talks about the precautionary principle, where we are more afraid of the potential of something really bad happening than the reality so people are more afraid of a nuclear reactor meltdown in their neighborhoods, then actually, breathing in coal fumes from a coal-fired plant which we know is making millions of people sick around the globe, but people are more comfortable with coal than nuclear. If you look at some of the surveys, this was from 1015 years ago, of course. I think that mentality may have shifted.

20:53 LM – You’re right and as I was saying before, fear can be part of this and it’s hard at the beginning when you know when something new comes along. You don’t know much about it. Where do you get your information? What are the reliable sources, and if everybody that you know is talking about something, then it kind of seems like, well, maybe there’s something to this maybe there’s a problem here that I should know about when 5G first came out, I started to get nervous about this and because I mean, how precautionary principle. OK, you know, how could this be good for me, right? Could I avoid it? I have to get a vaccine for measles because getting measles is worse. But I don’t have to use 5G or live anywhere. If I you know why, why shouldn’t I just use a precautionary principle and avoid it? So I went out and I bought myself a little Faraday cage because where it’s my main source of 5G, it was the damn router under my desk. And so I’m sitting there at my desk all day with 5G blasts. And I thought, well, let me put the, you know, the cover on the router and my wife would complain, “what’s the matter with the Internet?” Well, I’ve got a wired connection, so there was nothing matter with the Internet but anywhere else in the house was a problem. And then the more time went on, I kind of somebody I would forget to put the cover on the router and then I would realize, you know, I’m sitting here writing a book on science. And I’m saying an incantation over my router every day. Let me start to check the science on this. And there wasn’t any. 5G had been very well studied and you know, as with anything in science, you you can’t prove it. You don’t know with 100% certainty, but I eventually took that off.

22:55 AW – And the irony is that you spent more time probably figuring out how to protect yourself from the 5G wireless router in your house than it took you to learn a little bit more about the science, right?

23:09 LM – Yeah. And I and I took more of a risk in my car driving to the, you know, Walmart to to buy it the router than I did from the 5G that I was covering up. So it’s hard. Anybody can be a science denier about any given topic.

24:15 (Music Break)

24:32 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Lee McIntyre. He’s an author and a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University. So the name of your book is “How to Talk to a Science Denier.” Why don’t you tell us how to talk to a science denier, Lee? Let’s say you go to a home of a friend of yours who’s an anti-vaxxer and you know that everybody else at the dinner table is also anti-vaxx. They’re really convinced that these people need to get their vaccinations for their own safety. Forget if it’s COVID or whatever. But what is the methodology that you would apply to win them over and and to get them to embrace science instead of science denialism?

25:17 LM – It’s hard. You should not go in with the expectation of changing their mind. Remember that the book is called How to Talk to a Science Denier, not how to convince or persuade one. But the route is the same because to talk to somebody, you have to be willing to listen to them and to get them to listen to you. Because remember that this is not just about facts, it’s about trust, and especially if they’ve heard disinformation. They don’t trust you. You’re not on the same team. You don’t have the same beliefs. The way to proceed is to be calm, to be respectful, to be patient. If you can have a calm, respectful, patient conversation in person, you can usually make some sort of progress, maybe not toward changing their mind to give up their beliefs on the spot, which rarely happens, but to trust you. And once they trust you and you, maybe you have more than one conversation. Then it can happen. And I pursue many examples in my book – of people overcoming the trust barrier and then changing their mind, that’s in fact, I think the key, it’s not about facts. It’s about trust.

26:38 AW – And it has to be their own idea, ultimately, right? It can’t be that, “OK, you’ve convinced me.” It’s like, “you know what? I’ve changed my mind.” You have to have that self-determination.

26:48 LM – That’s right. Yeah, people tend not to say “you win, I changed my mind,” but if they trust you, they let their guard down and they will hear facts. Maybe that will later allow them to ruminate on it and change their mind. I direct you to the story about Jim Bridenstine, the Republican member of Congress. Who was the most hard headed climate denier. There was gave a speech in Congress about it. Then Trump appointed him head of NASA, which, you know, does all this climate research. And Jim Bridenstine changed his mind within a few weeks? Because he began to meet the scientists and trust them. Radical transformation can happen in a fairly short period of time. If we’re talking to one another, and we can breakdown the wall of distrust that I think is the absolute key doesn’t always work, but I think it’s the only thing that will work if anything can.

27:55 AW – The book is called “How to Talk to a Science Denier.” Lee McIntyre. Lee, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:02 LM – Thanks very much.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Average White Band, Men At Work and Black Sabbath. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.