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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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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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.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!