October 13, 2019

How to Debate a Science Denier

“The U.S. is currently experiencing the largest outbreak of measles since 1992. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been more than 1,000 confirmed cases since January. Scientific research overwhelmingly supports the use of vaccinations against measles. Mistaken worries about their harms has led to a reduction in the number of immunizations, contributing to the return of a disease that was said to be eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. “There is an urgent need for good strategies to counter science deniers, because we see how much damage they can do,” says Cornelia Betsch, a professor of health communication at the University of Erfurt in Germany.

Betsch and Philipp Schmid, a doctoral student in her lab, decided to examine two strategies for counteracting the spread of misinformation in public debates: The first, called topic rebuttal, opposes misinformation about a given issue with established facts. Another, known as technique rebuttal, involves unmasking methods that science deniers use to mislead their audience. In a study published on June 24 in Nature Human Behaviour, the two researchers report that both methods reduced the influence of science deniers—especially among individuals who were already vulnerable to antiscience beliefs.

Technique rebuttals are a particularly effective and economic tool, according to Betsch, because methods used by science deniers tend to be very similar. One such technique, called selectivity, involves cherry-picking isolated papers that support an unconventional viewpoint or discrediting a few flawed papers to cast doubt on an entire field of science. Another method raises impossible expectations for science—arguing, for example, that rejecting vaccination is acceptable because vaccines are not 100 percent safe, although science can never guarantee that certainty for any medical product. Even routinely used medications such as aspirin come with potential risks.”

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