How to Talk With a Science Denier: Five Characteristics to Help Conversation

Lee McIntyre, author of “How to Talk to a Science Denier,” outlines 5 traits of all science deniers that help in talking with people who struggle with science.

Five Characteristic Tropes of Science Deniers

  1. Cherry pick evidence
  2. Believe in conspiracy theories
  3. Rely on fake experts and denigrate real experts
  4. Engage in illogical reasoning
  5. Insist that science has to be perfect

A good video summary (of 35 minutes, unfortunately) stands here
How to Talk to a Science Denier - with Lee McIntyre - YouTube

If you get a chance to listen to or watch it, I think you will find it helpful. The characteristics of a false teacher posted on another thread made me think of these.

Some points:

  1. All who changed their mind did so when they developed a one-to-one, trusting relationship.
    a. Example: Jim Bridenstine, a climate change denier, apparently learned from NASA that it does
  2. Context matters. Avoid yelling or insulting. Stay calm, patient, and respectful. Eventually, they will ask you what you think, and you can respond with questions.
  3. Graphs often help
  4. Conservatives tend to respond to scientific consensus
  5. By listening, you will affirm them and allow them to create the conditions to change their own mind
  6. Take your time and allow them to develop trust.
  7. Consider asking what evidence would convince them to change their minds.
  8. Remember that the Internet has given a lot of power to science disinformation. As a result, many science deniers are actually victims of those who originate them.

I would be interested in your thoughts.



An interesting video, but it’s very hard to talk to science deniers who are religiously motivated. (Will you try to talk your pastor out of his YEC beliefs?) One of the dead people featured on SorryAntivaxxers was a fellow who was an antivaxxer, a 9/11 denier, and a flat-earther. Even if he were still alive, how do you deal with that kind of person?

Also, in the case of climate change denial, a lot of those people don’t want to face the implications involved. They know facing the facts might involve more regulations, lifestyle changes, and higher prices for some things. Why not push it off and let the next generation deal with the coming disaster?


Well, good questions. McIntyre’s actual book points out in even better detail how the “backfire effect,” which was a theory that talking with a denier could make them even more resistant, doesn’t really occur. So, as he put it, we can’t make it worse by the simple talking (I’m sure if we’re mean, we can make it worse!). Also, another point that convicted me was that we are all the same at the base–we tend to follow our elephants, and if we can find the common ground, they are likely to change their minds.

The one quibble I have with him is that I still don’t think Thanksgiving table is the right place to bring it up. Family is way more important than an issue, especially if one or both of us is not mature enough to keep their temper. At that point, it’s off the table, and I’m putting family ahead of abstracts, as relevant as they are to my own daily work.


The other step is in small doses. At least for me. Once a year, typically in winter when I’m already miserable and bitter I’ll torture myself a bit by joining a YECists Facebook group. In the first week or two I apply most of those. The last week or two, I block a ridiculous amount of people and get loose with words like dumb and challenge them to take a 9th grade earth science test.

So for me I think for now on I’ll simply drop down to a weke or two at the most in the groups and limit it to just 1-3 posts and 1-2 threads per post for a response or two and then bounce.

When i randomly run into them while hiking in summer I like to find a non venomous snake and challenge them to prove their faith by picking it up while leading them to thinking it’s venomous. They almost always say no because it’s a test to god. The few times someone was actually going to hold a snake they really thought was venomous I just point out they are consistently dumb and no it’s not venomous but if they want to hold it it may still bite but they will be ok and they can’t get scared and fling it and then I try to talk about stewardship and avoid tooocs like evolution. Once I almost let a guy pick up an actual venomous snake because he said he’s done it before and god will protect him and he was nervous and I think maybe he lied or was lucky but I stopped him because I’m sure it’s a sin to talk a idiot into it. So I told him not too and poured water on the snake to make it leave so he would not do it.

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35 minutes well spent.

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Here is a story about “cherry-picking” evidence.

There’s an urban legend about a Texas man who takes a ri!e to the side of his

barn and sprays bullets across the wall, more or less at random. Then he "nds

Do the Omicron Numbers Mean What We Think They Mean? | The New Yorker 1/18/22, 9:21 AM

the densest clusters of holes and paints a bull’s-eye around each one. Later, a passerby,

impressed by this display, trots off in search of the marksman. In a reversal of cause and

effect, the Texas Sharpshooter is born.

The Sharpshooter Fallacy is often used by

scientists to illustrate our tendency to

narrativize data after the fact. We may

observe an unusual grouping of cancer cases

and back into an explanation for it, cherrypicking

statistics and ignoring the vagaries

of chance. As we muddle through covid-

19’s winter surge, the story holds a deeper

lesson about the perils of interpreting data

without a full appreciation of the context.

Omicron, because of its extraordinary

contagiousness and its relative mildness, has

transformed the risks and the

consequences of infection, but not our

reading of the statistics that have been guiding us through the pandemic. Do the

numbers still mean what we think they mean?

Excellent question. No doubt they have changed as well. Unfortunately, many times science recognizes that better than the media and the general public, and when recommendations change, the conspiracy folk in particular then say the authorities are not being consistent, when if fact they are following the changing data and science. It is a difficult path to walk. Of course, even people who should know better fall into that trap, as some of the criticism of changing isolation periods comes from medical professionals. I have been guilty also of that.


Joe: Why don’t you trust scientists, Aunty Vaxxer.
Aunty Vaxxer: Those scientists are always changing their minds about stuff. Just can’t trust’em.
Joe: What could they do to make you trust them more?
Aunty Vaxxer: I would trust them more if they changed their mind about ivermectin.


There is another side to this, and that is the ability to actually talk to them. Some just want to argue, to actively feed their sense of righteous indignation that THEY are right and YOU are wrong. It’s not that these people are very common, but we are far more likely to encounter them online because they are actively seeking confrontation. I think many of these people have narcissistic personalities, perhaps even a personality disorder (I can’t diagnose), The personal belief they cannot be wrong (narcissism) gets even worse when combined with a belief in Biblical Inerrancy, Biblical inerrancy reinforces personal inerrancy. Again, this is not common, but someone who is already a narcissist may be drawn to latch on to complementary beliefs.

Some advice: There is no arguing with such people - they can never be convinced (egotistic narcissism is considered to be an untreatable personality disorder). You might argue them to a standstill, but they will never be persuaded. Don’t waste your time with long replies refuting they, use short replies on a single point and make they spend more time than you do. Long replies only give them more choices on how they can aggravate you further. Draw them out with questions, get them to give details and specifics. Be patient. They will be very happy to supply you with lots of information. Use this - look for contradiction statement or beliefs - turn their own arguments and beliefs back on them. Make them defend themselves and catch more contradictions as they do. Don’t let them change the subject or divert to another subject. This approach takes some practice, but it’s the only method that ever results in any notable success. You still can’t win - there is no winning - but you can frustrate and embarrass them.

I think there is no point debating people you don’t have a relationship with, the tricky part is when people you actually care about are sucked in to conspiratorial thinking and rampant fear-mongering.

I’ve given up on trying to present facts and rational arguments. Now I just share anecdotes and feelings. That’s the currency we are using these days.

“I got vaccinated and boosted and had no side effects and now I feel so much better about life.”

“I got my kids vaccinated and boosted and they had no side effects and are so glad I let them get their shots because they aren’t as worried about spreading COVID or getting really sick. They are less stressed now. It was great for their mental health.”

“I feel so much more peace now that I’m vaccinated because I know I have reduced the chance I will spread COVID to some vulnerable person. I’ve done what I can do.”

Etc, etc. With Christians I pull out the “I’ll pray you come to peace about getting vaccinated because it really is the wisest and best things to do and I know God will take away your fear of the vaccine if you put it in his hands.” It’s bad form to argue with other people’s prayers.


Personal experience sounds like a good path…non judgemental.

In regard to others’ experience, I am blown away by people who have nearly died and still oppose the shot. It is something much deeper than I understand.

I am frustrated at my exasperation, because I know they are victims.

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I skimmed over AiG’s article on Flat Earthism which almost reads as a self-parody. One paragraph really struck me as having a lot of truth:

I think that can apply to a lot of anti-science movements.


Well put. In reflection, knowledge itself is a sort of power–and subjects us all to the potential for abuse. It may be entirely chance that got me on the right side. I was on the wrong side in regard to YEC till I was a young man, and the switch was mainly made easier by very kind, humble profs who gently responded to my questions.

In talking to people hesitant about the vaccine, I’ve noted that Paul Offit is sometimes right–it’s often a feeling not of being anti-vax, per se, but more of a fear of doing anything new. Sometimes, it’s a sensation that not doing anything can put off the possibility (and responsibility) of a potential harm. The fear of the harm can stem from the hyperscrutiny of the vaccine, as well.


That is probably part of it. There is also identity, namely political and cultural identity. I don’t think it is an accident that so many of these sentiments are divided across political and cultural divides.

I watched a Youtube video about a week ago (can’t remember who published it) where someone went around asking people in a very conservative small town why they weren’t getting the vaccine. The answers ranged from not wanting to be part of an experiment (even though the vaccine isn’t experimental), not trusting the government (even though the vaccine was developed by pharmaceutical companies and not the government), and claims about COVID being no worse than the flu. Do people really believe this, or is it something they just say in order to be part of the community they have chosen for themselves?


Wow, the irony is massive… not just in that, but the whole thing!

I wonder if science is just not real enough to them, if they’ve never had a laboratory class, for instance.

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Yes, if people I hear are any indication.

On pharmaceutical companies not being the government, they are considered to be in it for money and in league with evil big-government to price-gouge medicines, ban “healthy God-given all-natural” panaceas in favor of evil artificial chemicals, and indoctrinate YOU (YOUR CHILDREN, WHOEVER) to consent to our wonderful nation being destroyed by the commies (or whoever it is).

That (or very conservative rural area) would describe almost anywhere within a 45-minute drive of where I live.


I agree. I think that there is a wide variety of views. I’ve heard very similar conspiracy theories. “Illogical reasoning” seems pretty characteristic.

I boggle at people who refuse to even test–it seems that they are afraid of being tracked, or else of knowing if they have a positive test.

A friend was telling me about a sixty year old man who claimed (unironically) that he didn’t want to get the vaccine because he was worried about the effect it might have on fertility ten years down the road. Seriously? What kind of fertility does a monogamous man married to a menopausal woman need at seventy?


That belongs over here:

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