How to talk to a science denier: The golden rules of Lee McIntyre
a calendar icon
March 7, 2023
min read

How to talk to a science denier: The golden rules of Lee McIntyre

How to we talk to those who defy reason and climate science? Philosopher Lee McIntyre can help us out.

The forms of denial

Often when we talk about the impact and importance of climate change, sooner or later, we will encounter a climate change denier. These are people who might believe at least one of the following things:

1 Climate change isn’t real

2 Climate change is exaggerated and it isn’t going to have any major consequences

3 Climate change isn’t caused by human fossil fuel activity

4 Climate has always been changing and this is simply part of earth’s natural cycle, for which there’s nothing we can do

5 There’s not enough evidence that it is happening or that it is human caused. It us uncertain, therefore, we don’t have to do anything about it yet.

Whilst a dose of healthy scepticism is essential to the scientific method, we’re talking here about a complete denial of scientific facts in the face of empirical evidence. Deniers might be difficult to persuade and talk to. If we want to do something about climate change however, we need everyone to be on-board. The science philosopher, Lee McIntyre has studied conspiracy theorists and science deniers of all sorts, including climate deniers. His insight might be crucial in helping us talk to people who for one reason or another, deny climate change. This will be important when we try to educate not only them but others who might be sceptical as well.

The rules of climate science denialism

The first rule; Do not call them deniers. They prefer to use words like “sceptic” Instead. Here you can open the conversation by asking them what precisely they’re sceptical about, why they’re sceptical about it and what would take to change their mind. Keep the conversation open and flowing. Don’t let them become defensive with closed questions.

The second rule: Take your time and listen carefully to their arguments. A lot of the arguments will have holes in them but you need to listen and understand why they believe the things they do.

The third rule: Pay attention to cheery picking. Climate deniers have all the data mounted against them so one of the only ways for them to try and make a coherent argument will be by using cherry picked data.

Fourth rule: Look out for conspiracy theories. Behind cherry picked numbers, often hides a conspiracy theory which connects the whole thread. Do not call them conspiracies but simply ask the denier to elaborate. Eventually, they’ll hit upon a point where they’ll have to deny empirical data in order to believe the conspiracy.

Fifth rule:  Climate deniers rely on fake experts and discredited research to support their points. When they bring up a study, it is always worthy to look into the researchers and the methodology. Every single paper from those few which don’t agree with the rest of the climate experts, will have some methodological mistake or is using fake statistics.

Sixth rule: Look out for illogical reasoning. Deniers will constantly use logical fallacies in order for them to step over the empirical data which doesn’t agree with their conclusion. Fallacies take different forms and most of them will target the authority of science itself.

Seventh rule: Deniers will insist that science needs to always be 100% certain in order for them to believe it, which is impossible. They’ll set an unreachable standard of proof for science whilst believing pseudoscience at face value. Here we can ask them about the evidence that supports their existing beliefs and point out that the evidence is far from perfect in that direction as well.

In our path to educate others on climate change and the impact it has on our environment, we need to be well equipped with the skills needed to pushback on denialism. We might not be able to change someone's mind straight away but we will be able to plant seeds on the people around us which will eventually blossom when the conditions are right. We need to talk to people about the science and be patient with them. We need everyone on the same page. Climate education in the face of denial, is crucial.