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).