When I started this blog a few years ago, I fully expected that I would make a lot of people upset. I anticipated the hordes of angry anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, creationists, etc. What I didn’t predict, however, was the push-back that I often receive from other skeptics who argue that, at best, my efforts (and the efforts of public skeptics more generally) are a waste of time, and, at worst, are actually harmful. Nevertheless, I frequently receive these comments admonishing me to halt my efforts. I find this both frustrating and concerning, because if these people are right and sites like mine actually do more harm than good, then I agree that I should stop (it would, after all, save me a great deal of time). Therefore, I want to take a few minutes to talk about these criticisms and explain why I don’t think that they have any merit.
The core premise of these arguments is the claim that those who are already entrenched in pseudoscience will never change their minds no matter what evidence or logic you present. From this, they argue that, at the very least, efforts to persuade them are a waste of time, and, in many cases, will simply cause them to dig their heals in deeper and resent science even more. There are, however, a few key problems with this premise that I want to discuss. As I will elaborate on, I don’t think that all die-hards are lost causes (though many certainly are), and, this argument is a bit of a straw man fallacy, because the die-hards aren’t actually my target audience.
Some people can be persuaded
At the outset, I disagree with the notion that debating committed anti-scientists is never fruitful, and I say that because, as I have previously explained, I used to be one of them, and public skeptics helped me to realize just how wrong I was. To be clear, there was no one debate in which I declared the skeptics victorious and instantly rejected my ridiculous views. Indeed, I was just as stubborn as most science deniers, and in every debate, I was the infamous chess-playing pigeon who simply knocked over the pieces, then declared victory. Nevertheless, those debates made me think, they exposed me to evidence, and they gradually wore me down. Further, once I got to the point that I was really willing to question, skeptic websites were invaluable to me. They were extremely useful tools that directed me towards actual scientific evidence and helped me to see the flaws in my logic. So I, for one, am extremely thankful for the existence of skeptic blogs/websites, and I am very glad that skeptics chose to engage with me rather than writing me off as a lost cause.
Having said that, I do fully admit that I am an outlier. There certainly are others like me who have transitioned from science denier to skeptic (and I have met many such people through my blog), but I obviously don’t have any actual statistics to show that there are a substantial number of us, and I suspect that most (but not all) science deniers are indeed lost causes who will never accept any evidence that doesn’t fit their world view. Nevertheless, I think that the fight is worth it for the few who are willing to change their views. However, as I will explain below, those people are not actually my primary targets, and I don’t think that persuading them is the best motivation for writing/sharing pro-science posts, memes, etc.
It’s all about the fence-sitters
Because most anti-scientists will probably never change their position, they are not the ones that I generally have in mind when I write posts. Rather, my target audience is usually the fence-sitters. There are plenty of people out there who just want information and aren’t yet fully committed to one position. They may be leaning strongly in one direction, but if they haven’t gone full anti-scientist yet, then there is hope. So, when I write a post, I try as hard as possible to make it factually accurate, to cite my sources, and to explain the problems with the anti-science arguments thoroughly enough that any fence-sitters reading the post will be able to clearly see the evidence and why the scientific position is correct.
Similarly, when I debate people in the comments sections, my goal is rarely to persuade the person that I am actually debating. Rather, my goal is to make sure that when anyone else reads that thread and sees the anti-science comments, they will also immediately see pro-science comments explaining why the anti-science comments are nonsense. Indeed, a recent study found that the comments sections on posts actually had a large impact on what views people held after reading the post/comments (Witteman et al. 2016). So, people clearly are influenced by those debates, which means that the efforts aren’t futile.
What about the backfire effect?
At this point, people usually bring up the backfire effect. This is the phenomenon where explaining to someone why they are wrong just makes them hold that incorrect view more closely. In other words, it reinforces their misconceptions. I have several responses to that. First, the backfire effect is actually not all that well established in the literature. There are several studies supporting it, but there are also studies that have found that people’s views are pliable and will sometimes adjust to new information. Indeed, a recent study suggested that the backfire effect may actually only apply to a limited number of topics (Wood and Porter 2016). So, at this point I’d say that the jury is out, and we really need more studies before placing too much weight on it (there is a good interview with the authors of the 2016 paper here).
Second, assuming that it is a real and widespread issue, it is not at all clear to me that it causes negative reactions among fence-sitters, which are, once again, my primary targets. In other words, maybe my blog is making die-hard anti-vaccers even more convinced that vaccines are dangerous, but that doesn’t bother me much, because they were already die-hard anti-vaccers before reading my blog. Thus, my blog hasn’t really make the situation substantively worse. For those who are on the fence, however, the backfire effect should not occur (or should at least be minimized) because they aren’t already entrenched in a position. In other words, they don’t already have a core belief that they are desperately trying to defend, which means that they should be more receptive to new information. So, the way I see it, making some anti-scientists even more convinced of their delusions is a small price to pay for preventing others from joining their ranks.
Finally, even with a backfire effect, I would argue that a world with active skeptics is clearly better than one without them. This is a really important point, so I actually want to devote a whole subsection to it below.
What’s the alternative?
This is the key question that those who belittle public skeptics never seem to consider. What would the world be like without us? You would still have tons of anti-science groups, pages, memes, etc., but you would no longer have easily accessible information explaining why those groups are wrong, and that strikes me as a bad thing.
Really think about this. Right now, if you Google “vaccines cause autism,” you are going to find several scientific studies that most people either don’t read or don’t understand, you’ll find lots of anti-vaccine pages like Natural News, Green Med Info, etc. claiming that vaccines do cause autism, and you’ll find lots of pro-science pages like the Skeptical Raptor, I Speak of Dreams, Doc Bastard, and mine talking about the problems with the anti-vaccine position and explaining the scientific studies in a way that most people can understand. Now, imagine the alternative. Imagine a world in which all of the public skeptics gave up and closed down their sites. Then, when people Googled “vaccines cause autism,” they would still find page after page after page claiming that vaccines do cause autism, but they would no longer find the evidence-based pages explaining why we know that vaccines don’t cause autism. That seems, at least to me, to clearly be a worse situation, even with the backfire effect.
Now, you may try to counter that by arguing that anti-vaccers will never take the pro-science pages seriously anyway, in which case I would direct you back to my first two sub-sections and remind you that a small minority will and, more importantly, there are lots of people who aren’t committed anti-vaccers and are just looking for information. When people like that get on Google, I want them to see at least one scientifically accurate post for every pseudoscience post.
What about memes
Sometimes, I encounter people who aren’t necessarily opposed to actual articles, blog posts, etc., but they do vehemently take issue with memes and argue that they are entirely worthless and often harmful. I would respond to that by first saying that memes are tricky because it is admittedly difficult to accurately convey information in such a terse format without over-simplifying. Nevertheless, I do think that they are useful for many of the same reasons listed above. I have, for example, personally encountered several very well-crafted memes that made me stop and really think about a political or philosophical position that I held. That is, admittedly, a personal anecdote, and perhaps I am the only person in the entire world who has had a meme make them stop and think, but I highly doubt it.
Further, the internet is going to be flooded with anti-science memes one way or the other, and it is well known that when people are see or hear a statement over and over again, they are more likely to think that it is true (Lewandowsky 2012). Thus, much like my example of articles about autism and vaccines, I don’t want people to only see anti-science memes. Rather, at the very least, I want their news feeds to contain as many pro-science memes as anti-science memes. To put that another way, an individual meme is probably not very persuasive, but when someone sees their friends and family members repeatedly assert that science works, vaccines are safe, etc. that should have an impact.
Additionally, memes have a huge advantage over articles in that they go viral much more easily and when they show up in people’s news feeds, they are often read, rather than ignored. So, in an ideal world, I would certainly prefer it if people read my lengthy, citation heavy articles on climate change, for example, but I realize that most won’t. In contrast, I can put a few key points into a meme that many people will actually see and read. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Finally, memes have one other huge benefit. Namely (and, honestly, probably most importantly) they drive traffic to skeptic pages. The vast majority of traffic to my Facebook page comes from memes, and posting new memes always results in a spike in my followers, and that gives me a bigger audience when I post actual articles. In other words, perhaps the memes themselves do nothing to influence people, but even if that is true, they help to give me a platform from which I can disseminate actual articles. So, if nothing else, they are useful as a means to an end.
The importance of civility
Finally, I have encountered many who are not necessarily opposed to the concept of skeptical blogs, memes, etc., but they take issue with their execution and argue that they are often too confrontational and belittle their opponents rather than truly educating. On that point, I actually largely agree. I do frequently see people simply bash their opponents and call them idiots rather than actually dealing with the arguments or, even if they do present evidence and arguments, they also take the time to berate their opponents for being stupid. I don’t think that is a particularly helpful approach and would encourage everyone to be civil when dealing with anti-scientists. Again, this largely comes back to the onlookers. Your opponent probably won’t change their view regardless of whether you mock them, but I suspect that someone who is questioning or looking for information will be far more likely to take an argument seriously if it is presented in a calm logical way, rather than as part of a shouting match (I am admittedly speculating here, so if you have evidence that I am wrong about this, by all means show me).
Having said that, I would also stipulate that some people are way too uptight about this. Sarcasm and humour certainly have their place, and lightly pocking fun at a position can often be a useful way of getting people to engage with an issue and see the problems in a position. Also, saying that we should not cruelly mock our opponents is not the same thing as saying that we should be tolerant of ignorant nonsense. Factually incorrect statements should be called out, and there is nothing wrong with explaining to people why they are wrong, but that explanation should be presented in a civil manner (in my opinion).
In short, I strongly disagree with those who think that skeptical blogs/Facebook pages are damaging or even just a waste of time. Although it is true that many people who are entrenched in pseudoscience will never change their minds, there are some who will, and, more importantly, there are many who are not yet entrenched who can be saved from that fate. Therefore, I think that public skeptics do a tremendous service, and I’m not just talking about bloggers and page admins here. I think that everyone who shares memes and posts, makes rational, evidence based comments on posts, etc. is contributing, and I, for one, appreciate your efforts.
- Lewandowsky 2012. Misinformation and its correction: continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13:106–131.
- Witteman et al. 2016. One-sided social media comments influenced opinions and intentions about home birth: an experimental study. Health Affairs 35:726–733.
- Wood and Porter 2016. The elusive backfired effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherenece.
I for one am very grateful for the work you do. My background is not climate science so your site has allowed me to become quickly acquainted with the evidence/data for human activity related climate change. I have referenced it in several discussions. Arrogant ignorance is difficult to overcome but please keep up the great work
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There may be strategies for minimising backfire. make it easy for people to agree with you, without having to deny the beliefs that define them. For example, when discussing climate change I would mention the idea that fossil fuels are incorrectly priced according to free-market economic theory, since their price does not include external damage. Invoke support from authorities that your audience will find non-threatening. When discussing evolution, I invoke Francis Collins rather than Richard Dawkins. When discussing GMO, I mention Norman Borlaug.
A couple of times recently, I have blogged about evolution and found my creationist commenters surprised and appreciative when I treated their arguments with a respectful and non-condescending seriousness.
Most importantly, you never know where the ripples are going to spread
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When discussing evolution, I invoke Francis Collins rather than Richard Dawkins.
This is, I think, a very useful principle; likewise Francisco Ayala.
I do frequently see people simply bash their opponents and call them idiots rather than actually dealing with the arguments or, even if they do present evidence and arguments, they also take the time to berate their opponents for being stupid. I don’t think that is a particularly helpful approach and would encourage everyone to be civil when dealing with anti-scientists.
I always find this a very difficult issue, because of the assumption that it’s reasonable to expect scientists/skeptics to deal with arguments that they’ve already generously taken the time to deal with approximately 7.3 billion times before. The information as to the falsehood of the claim that, for example, climate change is simply a product of variations in the solar output is out there in countless sources, from books to articles to blogs to Facebook posts and beyond, so that anyone who comes along and presents the claim as if it were fresh is almost certainly being deliberately obtuse, willfully ignorant, or dishonest. To require the blogger to go through the explanation of the science all over again is pretty insulting; even to require her to produce a few relevant links is likewise, because the commenter has presumably declined to spend the time to look at the rest of her blog — is in effect demanding that the blogger spend the time the commenter is unwilling to spend.
By way of analogy, there comes a point in the rearing of a child where, after the question “Why is X?” has been answered with a full and careful explanation a dozen times, the better, more educational response is to tell the child to stop being an idiot.
So I’m a fence-sitter on this. I really don’t know if the courteous approach is more effective than the blunt one, or if a mixture of the two is the way to go.
Someone says there is no proof of evolution. I can think of for possible replies, and lists in order of increasing merit
1) Get into a discussion of the nature of proof, and how science doesn’t do proof in the sense that mathematics does proof. Set aside the rest of your day to deal with the resulting correspondence from all sides
2) Tell the person who says that that they haven’t been paying any attention for the past 150 years, that they are wilfully ignorant, that all the national academies support evolution, etc
4) Reply as briefly as possible. Bypass the word “proof”, in order to get the discussion on your own territory, rather than your opponent’s. Say that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and you can only point to a small sample. Then write two sentences, giving easily understood examples, including good web links. If your opponent says you have still failed to provide any evidence, ignore. He (in my experience it usually is he) cannot be reached, and bystanders can see perfectly well what has happened.
Any alternatives? And does anything at all work for an anti-vaxxer, a GMO opponent, or an anti-fracker?
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Most of me is in agreement with what you’re saying, but . . .
Say that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and you can only point to a small sample. Then write two sentences, giving easily understood examples, including good web links.
I’m more familiar with arguing the toss with science deniers in the field of climate change. There the likely result of this approach is that the AGW denier comes back with their own couple of sentences plus some links to, say, Watts Up With That? If you ignore their response, the later reader/fence-sitter can’t easily judge which of the two of you is in the right. If you don’t ignore it, you’re all too likely to find yourself embroiled in your Stage (1), alas.
And does anything at all work for an anti-vaxxer, a GMO opponent, or an anti-fracker?
My own impression is that GMO opponents are open to persuasion by introduction to the science and that antivaxxers aren’t — that they’re perhaps even more dedicated to rejecting reality than are AGW deniers.
As I say, I’m a fence-sitter on the issue of which is the best approach, or if there is such a thing as a best approach. I certainly think our host is commendable for the amount of patience he shows to the science deniers who, er, grace his blog with their presence. (See? I can do this courtesy business too!)
I see your point, but for me, it again comes back to the fence-sitters. If someone who has not yet studied the topic sees that thread, and sees the argument being met with mockery and derision rather than evidence, they may simply conclude that the argument is a good one and science supports are mocking simply because they don’t actually have any evidence (anti-scientists use that tactic all the time, after all). So I want to guarantee that fence sitters see the problem with that argument without having to do any additional searching.
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Oh, I agree with you in principle, and I certainly agree that it’s more important to focus on the fence-sitters rather than the diehards, who’re unlikely to change their views (and who, anyway, in discussions in fields such as climate change may very well be bots, or as good as). As I say, I don’t know the right answer, or if there is a right answer.
I have been persuaded by scientific evidence regarding vaccines and GMO’s. My initial reaction was to be against both, but after reviewing the evidence, I see nothing that supported my previous opinion. Keep working, you are making a difference.
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I love what you do. I subscribe to one other skeptic blog and often find myself wanting to throw things at my computer when I do. He is so often openly contemptuous. I read it because he occasionally makes a reasoned argument or points me to another source. You on the other hand are always reasonable. You argue the logic of science with logic. You get the point that the people on the fence are the target. The topic I most often want to convince my friends about are GMOs. You write about them so well and make it clear that thinking GMOs are dangerous is akin to being an antivaccer or climate denier. Most of my friends are not anti-science but on GMOs they don’t realize that they are being anti-science.
Keep up the good work.
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I’m grateful you’ve put so much time, care, and civility into this website. It was one of the key factors which helped me change my attitude towards vaccines, GMOs, and alternative medicine generally, and is one of the first sources I consult and link to in conversations with friends and acquaintances about these issues. Certain other, less civil blogs and websites may be informative and well researched, and occupy their own niche, but in my experience they will push many fence-sitters the wrong way. Thank you again for this wonderful resource.
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I think you are right. Keep going, just as you are.
I was never completely antivax but I was personally (as in for myself) against the flu vaccine, and I used to be anti-GMO. Blogs such as this and exposing myself to more information is what swayed me, and now I’m more cognizant of searching for empirical and peer reviewed evidence. You’re exactly right about potentially swaying the next person who reads your comments. That way the ignorance is not the only/last they see.
I really enjoy your blog and appreciate all the information. I will send links to people. I don’t know if it helps or hurts. Either way, thank you very much.
Sending links, reblogging if you blog yourself, and posting links (with vert brief comment if appropriate) on FaceBook and twitter are things that help get the word out for blogs you want to help spread
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We should get rid of the word debate except for absolute beginners to the fray. Surely balanced DISCUSSION is more likely to get more truths out or falsehoods properly examined .Your five stages of grief when replying to internet comment all have an element of ” I can’t be bothered” in them and that will get you nowhere.
When talking to fence-sitters, it is certainly possible and fruitful to have discussions, rather than debates (in some contexts at least), but when dealing with those who are thoroughly entrenched in a position, it will inevitably be a debate, not a discussion, and I don’t neccissarily see that as a bad thing. Debates are a great way to get both sides to lay out their evidence, arguments, and counter-arguments for all to see. They can also be quite effective when done correctly (things like the Socratic method of asking your opponent questions, rather than simply pummeling them with facts are quite useful).
Asking questions, clearly paying attention – in my experience this impresses bystanders who came expecting a food fight. Let your opponent debate away, while you discuss
Important, however, not to let your opponent push the burden of proof onto you. The one who makes a claim is the one who has to justify it
Fence sitting is not evil. It is the only true position a true scientist can take until better and overwhelmingly numerous other points and proofs come along. Don’t be afraid of being an agnostic except when delay would actually cause harm to humans.
I never said that it was, and for topics that have not been well-studied, it is an appropriate position (see, for example, my comments on the backfire effect). However, on topics like vaccines, climate change, evolution, etc. we have thousands of studies that agree with each other. We are as certain of them as we ever will be. Thus, fence sitting is not longer justified.
I so agree. We need science-based information now more than ever! And I certainly hope you continue. You are a breath of (logical and civil) fresh air! I have learned so much from skeptics throughout the years and proudly call myself one. Sometimes it feels lonely surrounded by those caught up in “alternative reality.” I will speak up in a conversation, but recently a yoga teacher began waving hands around me — to wake up my aura or some such thing — and I had to close my eyes and get a grip, not laugh!
Why not laugh?
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I am coming back to this article after reading it when it was published. Thank you for writing it. I’ve been a skeptic for 15 years and followed a lot of the original skeptic blogs and speakers. But I left the community after I saw it fracturing in response to questions about women’s role in skepticism. Your blog is a breath of fresh air, and this post in particular has made me feel more comfortable speaking out against anti-scientists again. I used to remain silent and feel like there was no hope of changing anyone’s mind. But now I feel like I can speak. Thank you.