For years the bulk of the scientific community has ignored science deniers — people who refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, for example, or that human activities are causing global warming.
Scientists have often been reluctant to engage such deniers partly because doing so often seems pointless and partly because it can lead to hate-filled and even threatening personal attacks.
But the reluctance also stems from a fear that taking on science deniers with a public debunking of their lies and misinformation will backfire. It’s a very real worry. Research has shown that when people feel their existing beliefs or political ideologies are threatened by the presentation of facts — by a scientist or anyone else — they are likely to cling even more strongly to their misconceptions.
A new study suggests, however, that efforts to counter science deniers aren’t futile. Published recently in the journal Nature Human Behavior, the study found that such efforts can help mitigate the impact that deniers have on audiences — although not, perhaps, as much as hoped.
Still, any reduction in that impact is welcome, given what is at stake.
“There is an urgent need for good strategies to counter science deniers, because we see how much damage they can do,” said Cornelia Betsch, one of the study’s authors and a professor of health communication at the University of Erfurt in Germany, in an interview with Scientific American magazine.
That damage has taken the form of people turning down “life-saving HIV/AIDS treatments or preventive measures such as vaccinations, leading to distorted attitudes and years of severe illness and death,” Betsch and her co-author, doctoral student Philipp Schmid, point out in their study.
Science denialism is not the same as science skepticism. As Betsch and Schmid explain in their study, skepticism is a main driver of scientific research, while denialism is a dysfunctional form of skepticism that is “driven by how the denier would like things to be rather than what he has evidence for.”
A series of experiments
For the study, Betsch and Schmid conducted six online experiments that tested the effectiveness of two primary strategic tools for countering science denialism: “topic rebuttal” and “technique rebuttal.”
With topic rebuttal, “an advocate can aim to overwhelm the opposing position by providing support only for her own view or she can aim to refute the opposing position by attacking its plausibility and explaining why it is wrong,” the researchers write. An example would be pointing to the overwhelming safety record of vaccines when a science denier argues that vaccines should be 100 percent safe.
The second strategy, technique rebuttal, involves educating audiences “about why arguments of denial are appealing but incorrect,” the researchers explain. “For example, when a denier argues that vaccines should be 100% safe, the advocate can uncover the technique of impossible expectations — because no medical product can ever guarantee 100% safety.”
For their six experiments, Betsch and Schmid recruited a total of almost 1,800 participants. Some of the experiments dealt with the issue of vaccines, while others dealt with climate change.
The participants were questioned about their attitudes and intentions (either to get vaccinated to take action to fight climate change) before and after either listening to or reading the arguments of a science denier. Each participant was then randomly assigned to listen to or read a topic rebuttal, a technique rebuttal — or both — from a science advocate. A fourth group of participants in each experiment received no rebuttal argument (although they were debriefed about the nature of the experiment after it was over).
After the rebuttal, the participants answered questions yet again to see if their attitudes and intentions regarding vaccines or climate change had changed.
The experiments were conducted with groups of people in Germany and in the United States. Sometimes they involved only undergraduate students; other times, the participants came from the general population.
The experiments revealed that “public discussions with a science denier have a damaging effect on the audience, as revealed by negative changes in attitudes and intentions [toward vaccines and climate change],” write Betsch and Schmid.
That’s a discouraging finding, to say the least. But the researchers also discovered that if the participants heard from a science advocate, they were less likely to be swayed by the science denier’s arguments.
It didn’t matter if the advocate refuted the science denier’s arguments with a topic rebuttal or a technique rebuttal. Both strategies worked. Combining the two tactics didn’t offer any extra benefit, however.
Interestingly, science deniers tended to have a bigger influence on the attitudes and intentions of individuals in the study with conservative political views than on those with liberal ones, particularly in the United States. The study also found that the technique rebuttal strategy — the one that unmasks for audiences how science deniers are distorting the facts — was the most effective way of reducing the influence of the deniers’ arguments among conservatives.
Inoculating against misinformation
This study comes with plenty of caveats. Most notably, it was conducted online and not in a “real-world” setting. It also involved a relatively small number of participants who came from just two countries.
Still, the study and its findings are robust enough to offer a somewhat hopeful path forward for people who are trying to counter the damaging fallout of science denialism.
“In the light of these findings, we recommend that advocates for science train in topic and technique rebuttal,” write Betsch and Schmid. “Both strategies were equally effective in mitigating the influence of science deniers in public debate. Advocates can choose which strategy they prefer, depending on their levels of expertise and confidence.”
“But advocates who take part in debates should not expect too much for their efforts,” they add. “Therefore, facing deniers in public debates can be only one building block in the concerted effort to fight misinformation.”
Efforts must also be taken to “inoculate individuals against misinformation” by teaching people from a young age how to separate scientific fact from fiction.
“The goal of inoculation is to make individuals aware of the arguments of denial before the actual information is obtained and to provide them with the ability to come up with counterarguments,” the researchers write. “An inoculated audience may be less susceptible to the arguments of deniers and the effects shown in the present experiments may be weaker in such an audience.”
FMI: The study can be read online through the Nature Human Behavior website.