Does engaging with science denial work?

science denial

If you engage with some who hold anti-science beliefs such as creationism, anti-vax, or a flat earth belief, what you will often encounter is a stubborn immunity to evidence and facts. This can only leave you wondering if it is best to simply roll your eyes and move on whenever you encounter such science denial, and so in effect skip over the argument bit.

A recently published article (June 2019) in Nature Human Behaviour titled “Effective strategies for rebutting science denialism in public discussions” suggests that engaging can be both productive and it can also make a difference.

What is this new Study about?

The abstract explains …

Science deniers question scientific milestones and spread misinformation, contradicting decades of scientific endeavourAdvocates for science need effective rebuttal strategies and are concerned about backfire effects in public debates.

We conducted six experiments to assess how to mitigate the influence of a denier on the audience. An internal meta-analysis across all the experiments revealed that not responding to science deniers has a negative effect on attitudes towards behaviours favoured by science (for example, vaccination) and intentions to perform these behaviours. Providing the facts about the topic or uncovering the rhetorical techniques typical for denialism had positive effects.
We found no evidence that complex combinations of topic and technique rebuttals are more effective than single strategies, nor that rebutting science denialism in public discussions backfires, not even in vulnerable groups (for example, US conservatives). As science deniers use the same rhetoric across domains, uncovering their rhetorical techniques is an effective and economic addition to the advocates’ toolbox.

Fact vs Fiction – What exactly are we talking about?

Vaccines are safe and effective. Humans cause global warming. Evolutionary theory explains the diversity and change of life. Through the process of the scientific methodology these are the conclusions, and yet some, a minority, do push against this consensus.

Key Point: The promotion of misinformation is not skepticism, but rather is denialism.

Skepticism is about updating our understanding when new evidence is presented. As a contrast to that, denialism is about sticking with a conclusion, and then cherry picking “evidence” that appears to support that conclusion, while discarding anything that conflicts with it.

Strategies to address this:

Addressing the problem of denialism has various strategies, such as these…

  1. Inoculate individuals against misinformation before they encounter it (See my previous posting about the “Bad News” game for an example of this)
  2. Correcting the information once it is out there
  3. Presenting counter arguments of denial at the very moment that they reach an audience – rebutting deniers in public discussions

The new study is specifically focused on the 3rd option above.

But what about the Backfire Effect?

One concern might be what is known as the backfire effect. This is where a rebuttal results in the science denier doubling down even further. This concern led the researches who conducted the study to wonder if countering misinformation was effective, hence their research.

Why might the backfire effect kick in?

Backfire effects are most likely to be found among audiences whose prior beliefs or political ideologies are threatened by the advocate. For example, attempts to correct misconceptions about vaccination in an audience with low confidence in the safety of vaccination can ironically reinforce the misconception. The same effect occurred among US conservatives (who strongly object to governmental regulation regarding climate change) when there were attempts to debunk misinformation about climate change; that is, when they received information that eventually might lead to regulation. This fear of governmental regulation has also been discussed as a cause for US conservatives distrusting scientists on the topic of vaccination.

These risks make it difficult for science advocates to decide whether they should participate in a public discussion at all, potentially leading to the absence of advocates for science from a discussion.

Rebuttal Strategy for Science Denial

What can you do?

Advocates for science can respond to misinformation by supporting the scientific standpoint with scientific facts, that is, topic rebuttal. However, critics of this basic approach sometimes suggest that this does not explain why the misinformation is wrong.

This naturally leads to a strategy that involves also explaining how the science denial works. This is where you are educating people about why the denial is appealing but also wrong.

So what actually works, what strategy is effective, should you just present the basic facts, or alternatively conduct technique rebuttal, or a combination of both?

The Study

The team ran 6 online experiments using vaccines and also climate change as topics to experiment with. They measured the attitudes of participants both before and also after they listened to or read a debate with a science denier.

Participants were also randomly assigned exposure to variations of topic rebuttal, technique rebuttal, a combination, or no rebuttal.

So what happened?

They found that public discussions with a science denier had a damaging effect on the audience.

They also found that single strategies, (just the facts, or uncovering the misinformation techniques) helped to counter the information, and that combining both rebuttal techniques did not increase the effectiveness.

Key Discovery

Their results did not support the backfire hypothesis, but instead suggested that both topic and technique rebuttal as single strategies or as a combined strategy can reduce the impact of a science denier. Moreover, it is especially beneficial to use rebuttal strategies among audiences whose prior beliefs or ideology render them particularly vulnerable to science deniers.

Combating Science Denial – Recommendations

What naturally drops out of these results is this – Use topic and/or technique rebuttal. Both strategies were equally effective in mitigating the influence of science denial.

Pick whichever approach you prefer. Your choice will depend on your levels of expertise and confidence.

You don’t need to do both, since combining both strategies has no additional benefit.

It appears that the worst possible outcome happens when you do not engage at all.

Technique rebuttal vs topic rebuttal – An example

Technique rebuttal vs topic rebuttal is the choice.

What is interesting about technique rebuttal is that most topic arguments fall into five core categories and that deniers use the same five techniques to make those arguments appealing. Hence, selecting technique rebuttal, means that you only need to prepare five key messages that address the core topics or techniques.

Below is an illustration from the study.

What is also clear is that silence results in the worst possible outcome. By speaking up you really can potentially make a difference.

Leave a Reply