How to talk to a science denier

An MIT professor explains what can be a successful approach with family and friends who are vaccine resisters

  
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Lee McIntyre is an MIT professor, a philosopher who went out and to speak with those who deny science, and authored How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason.

The book is obviously particularly relevant as we’re in the midst of a pandemic in which millions deny the science of vaccines — and the coronavirus itself. The same is true of climate change, which is an existential threat.

I interviewed McIntyre on my SiriusXM program to get his insights in the hopes they could help others, in particular family and friends who have been hesitant of getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

Though we’ve come into a time when the vaccinated are fed up and angry — rightly — at the unvaccinated for their role in keeping the pandemic continue, McIntyre says anger is just not going to work, and neither is “fact-flinging.”

He says trust is key — the denier needs to trust the person speaking with them — and that you need to ask the denier a lot of questions, allowing them to verbalize their own answers, frustrating as it can be. This is why, he says, that politicians can’t really change people’s minds even if they’re admired by those people — even Donald Trump, who got boo’d by his own supporters for telling them they should get vaccinated:

It’s a funny thing because when you’re talking about family and friends, the trust is already there and so that’s half the battle right there. Sometimes I think people are reluctant to have these conversations because they don’t want to make it worse. They don’t want to have a rift with a family member. And they’ll say it’s not worth it to do it.

On the other hand, sometimes people go at it way too hard. There’s something about the fact that it’s a family member that leads to disrespect rather than respect. People will be insulting sometimes with those they’re closest to in their lives.

Both of those [approaches} are a mistake.

Those who listen to my show, know that the approach I take with anti-vaxxers who call in after hearing me talking about Covid-19 and vaccines is indeed very hard. Sometimes it’s completely nuclear!

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But I’m not someone these callers trust, so there’s no way I’m going to convince them anyway. They’re not calling me to get insight or just to chat about what’s going on in their lives, like they would with a friend of family member. They’re calling me to do battle, feeling their worldview threatened. They are calling to try to use my show to disseminate more misinformation on the airwaves.

My goal in engaging with them is to expose their lies and conspiracies for many other people across the country — some of whom might be misinformed and even on the fence, who might see how ridiculous these people sound. So, it’s a very different interaction — on both sides — than a one-on-one discussion with a family member or friend.

I think McIntyre makes a good point about trust and asking questions — and answering questions — and giving it time. After the interview, several people called the show who either used this approach themselves with people they know and were successful, or were themselves previously resistant to getting vaccinated but eventually did because someone they trusted approached them this way.

So, I know for many of you it’s the end of the rope with some family and friends and you’ve given up. And maybe you’ve tried something similar to what McIntyre advises.

But I think it might be good to hear him out. And I’d love to hear from those of you have in fact convinced people to get vaccinated. What worked? Others will certainly appreciate the advise.

Listen in and let us know your thoughts and experiences.

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