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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Astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency displays Extra Dwarf Pak Choi plants growing aboard the International Space Station. The plants were grown for the Veggie study which is exploring space agriculture as a way to sustain astronauts on future missions to the Moon or Mars.

Johnson Space Center/NASA

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Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized thought leader on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies. A best-selling author, he wrote Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic and Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back Into Politics. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. He co-founded the Pro-Truth Pledge project.