Leland Teschler, Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
The March for Science recently wrapped up in more than 600 cities worldwide. Estimates are that marchers numbering in the hundreds of thousands took to the streets partly because of “an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.” The more prosaic expression of this sentiment is that more and more people seem to label certitudes that are inconvenient to their beliefs as either false facts or fake news.
No question it can be exasperating to deal with someone who is immune to indisputable evidence. Our urge may be to grab such individuals by the lapels and shake them, though we know this sort of persuasion isn’t likely to work. But neither, unfortunately, is a science march. So we might wonder where to turn for advice on how to deal with people who won’t change their mind in the face of overwhelming evidence.
A good place to start might be with Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. Shermer has experience dealing with purveyors of false facts that stretches back to before the subject was trendy. He says he’s long been hounded by 9/11 truthers who expect him to be a skeptic of the official explanation for 9/11. He says he has also had run-ins with Holocaust deniers after he penned an article on the subject for Skeptic and subsequently expanded it into a book.
Both truthers and deniers employ a tactic that Shermer dubs “anomalies as proof:” They seize on what seem to be small inconsistencies in the narrative of events, then claim that these small irregularities add up to a hoax. The 9/11 truthers, for example, often argue that fires in the Twin Towers caused by burning jet fuel from the crashed planes could not have caused the buildings’ collapse. The reason is because jet fuel burns at 1,500°F while steel melts at about 2,800°. Conspiracy theorists insist some other incendiary substance must have been present to implode the Towers.
Of course, this difference in temperatures isn’t really an anomaly. The problem with this argument is that steel loses half its strength at 650°F and can lose as much as 90% of its strength at 1,800°F. Thus the heat from burning fuel would have been high enough to cause structural failure.
But don’t try telling that to a 9/11 truther. Shermer says it is often a waste of time to point out that science has a good explanation for these so-called anomalies. In many cases, the proponents of these cockamamie theories hold deep-set worldviews that are threatened by contrary evidence, making scientific facts an enemy to be slain.
If bringing up corrective facts only leads to more heated arguments, you might wonder if there is any hope for dealing with the false-facts crowd. Shermer has some suggestions for what to do when you find yourself in one of these no-win situations. Among them: Keep emotions out of the exchange — always a good idea when dealing with extremists. Also, discuss, rather than attack, and listen carefully. Finally, and perhaps the hardest action to master in potentially charged exchanges: Show respect.
We suspect Shermer’s advice would probably go a lot farther toward calming a crowd that “discredits scientific consensus” than a march of defiant scientists.