Your COVID-denying Uncle Isn’t a Bad Person

Many Americans don’t believe the scientific consensus. Philosopher Michael Goldsby talks about why, and examines how good people can be led to bad ideas.

  • November 8, 2022
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  • Interview
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  • By E.J. Iannelli

In an era when terms like post-truth and alternative facts have entered the popular lexicon, it can be useful to take a step back and reflect on the conditions that give rise to those terms in the first place.

Michael Goldsby, an associate professor of philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs at Washington State University, gives a Speakers Bureau talk that examines the phenomenon of science denialism.

Fittingly titled “Why Deny Science?”, the talk is Goldsby’s attempt to answer that question through his own research on the logic and epistemology of science. In addition to highlighting the ways in which conventional wisdom about science deniers can be unhelpful, he explains why the rejection of established scientific findings poses a grave, even existential threat. On a hopeful note, Goldsby also proposes ways to find common ground with science deniers—which might just be the key to changing their minds.

Humanities Washington: Taking a page from the title of your talk, let’s start by asking the obvious: Why would someone deny science?

Michael Goldsby: It’s an interesting case. It turns out there are a lot of theories as to why those who deny science actually do so. And in my talk, I look at why many of those theories don’t actually work.

More often than not, people will assume that those who deny scientific claims simply don’t understand the science. If a science denier had more information, the assumption runs, then they really wouldn’t deny the science. But there’s actually quite a bit of empirical evidence that shows that, once you adjust for education level, people who deny science pretty much know about the same as anybody who believes the science. It’s kind of a confounding finding.

They’ve done this with, say, the theory of evolution and climate change. Instead of asking true or false questions about science, they ask, what do climate scientists or evolutionary biologists say about this topic? And when you raise the question that way, people who deny science pretty much know what the climate scientists or evolutionary biologists are saying about the science. So it turns out that it’s not really that much of a knowledge gap—contrary to what I think is a prevailing opinion.

Another claim is that science denialism is all just political and tribal. And while that can account for some results, it comes down more to an approach that ignores shared values. Specifically, in our polarized society, when you say something to the effect of, “The science says this thing is happening, and you’re partially complicit,” somebody makes the inference, “Well, I don’t feel like I’m a bad person. And since I’m not a bad person, that means the science can’t be real.”

And, unfortunately, politics does enter into it in the form of a political apparatus that reinforces that claim. It says, “You’re actually good people, and it’s the science that’s wrong in trying to make you feel bad.”

There is empirical evidence that shows that people on both sides of the political spectrum actually care about the future. Neither side wants to hurt the poor. Neither wants to saddle future generations with more burdens. And neither wants to hurt the environment.

But doesn’t consistent bad behavior define a bad person?

There’s a suppressed premise there. If living a particular lifestyle is bad for the climate, does continuing to live that lifestyle indeed make you an inherently bad person overall? No. It does mean that you’re contributing to the problem if you can’t make changes for the better. But it doesn’t make you a bad person.

Sadly, I think our political debates actually do set it up such that everybody who opposes a particular thing is seen as a villain. And, ironically, when you school somebody who’s, say, a climate denier, by saying, “You’re killing the planet,” you’re actually exacerbating the problem. Because it gives them more reason to double down. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, one way out of this is to promote shared values: “I know you’re not a bad person. You’re just doing some things that are not as good as they could be.”

So we should instead proceed from the assumption: good person, bad behavior?

Yes. I’m not necessarily religious, but I’m going to go ahead and say that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There’s some truth to that. But it doesn’t mean that we’re all bad people. We all have bits of bad behavior, but some bad behavior doesn’t make us bad.

And this again returns to my point about shared values. There is empirical evidence that shows that people on both sides of the political spectrum actually care about the future. Neither side wants to hurt the poor. Neither wants to saddle future generations with more burdens. And neither wants to hurt the environment. In fact, study after study shows both sides of the political spectrum generally agree on those issues.

The thing is, if you tell somebody that their actions will end up hurting the poor, they reflect on themselves and say, “You know, we both understand that hurting the poor is what a bad person does, which means you’re accusing me of being a bad person. And I’m not a bad person overall.” So of course they’re going to have to reject the scientific claims—at least to keep consistent in their own heads.

What’s the role of social media in all this?

There’s a lot of work being done on that. Believe it or not, philosophers of science have been looking at this for a long time. It’s called the looping effect, which is this ability to validate your choices based on further affirmative interactions.

Now, I’m not an expert on social media, but it does seem like social media in particular rewards more extreme claims. If you say, “I had a cupcake,” you’re not going to get as many likes as if you said, “I had the best cupcake in the world!” There’s a certain, dare I say, ratings-centered approach to many people’s engagement on social media.

This ratings-centered approach likewise incentivizes the vilification of people who anger you. If you say, “Oh, I had a disagreement with my friend,” that’s not going to get as many likes as, “My friend is the devil! They believe that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese!” At first it sounds kind of funny, but I believe that adds to the vilification and, actually, it encourages people to double down.

Let’s face it: The people who deny science aren’t genocidal maniacs. They’re regular people trying to do what’s best as a general rule. But when you’re not talking about a particular behavior that could be made better, you’re actually making it about the character. And of course they’re going to react.

Framing things in terms of “good” and “bad” invariably lends things a moral dimension. Couldn’t people also deny science for the sake of convenience—that is, to persist in hedonistic or selfish behavior?

I wouldn’t rule out that people are denying science for selfish reasons. Or that some people are doing it because it conveniently allows them to live the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to. And it is hard to make a lot of changes. For example, I call myself a chegan, and that’s a vegan who cheats. So I will occasionally have a cheeseburger.

But there is this tendency toward extremes, and believe it or not, the denial of science in this arena is actually informed by certain values. Someone who rejects the science that tells them to cut down on cheeseburgers is defending a value of allowing the future to be able to enjoy the same things that they enjoyed in some regard.

You’d mentioned something about remaining consistent. How does a desire for consistency inform the logic of science denialism?

One thing that I look at a lot is how people reason through these things. I’m not a psychologist. Instead I pay attention to the reasoning behind ideas and behavior.

If you engage with a science denier, one thing you can’t do, ironically, is go in and provide what you think are the scientific facts or the necessary evidence. This is because a skilled science denier—and it doesn’t really take much effort—can always come up with some response to every challenge you make. They’re able to remain consistent.

Consistency is the minimum standard of rationality. It’s a very low bar and easy to maintain. To avoid threatening that consistency, we’ve got to start thinking about emphasizing shared values and refrain from vilifying those who deny the science.

Another thing to bear in mind—and I find this link especially interesting—is that it turns out that there’s also quite a bit of similarity between science denialism and conspiracy theories. Almost every conspiracy theory can remain consistent no matter what evidence you provide. Trying to disprove them is like playing whack-a-mole with the counterarguments.

But aside from being frustrating for their interlocutor, this dogged consistency actually erodes the science denier’s or conspiracy theorist’s ability to make predictions. And that means it erodes their ability to make good policy decisions—or good decisions in general. To my mind, this is the biggest threat posed by science denialism.

One appeal of conspiracy theories is that you’re privy to some higher-order truth. Does science denialism also rest in that same sense of specialness, so that folks can romanticize themselves as skeptics or a free thinkers?

I can’t really speak to the romantic appeal. However, what I can say is that one of the best ways of combating conspiracy theories or science denialism is actually to turn it around and say, “My side, we can make predictions. Why don’t you tell us what’s going to happen in the future?”

In a way, what you’re doing there is avoiding the game of whack-a-mole, trying to defeat every claim and every assumption back to first principles. You’re not stuck trying to disprove their theory, you’re asking them to validate it: “Do you feel your theory is strong enough that you can make good predictions? Because if it is, then it’s valuable. And if it’s not, then there might actually be something wrong with the theory despite the fact that you’re able to remain consistent.”

So the practical advice for Thanksgiving dinners is to tell your ranting uncle to make a prediction for next year?

Actually, yes! Ask them to make a prediction. Because, once again, it’s so simple to maintain consistency—especially when it comes to conspiracy theories, which offer a ‘truth’ and a very fluid ‘cover story’ that allows them to remain consistent.

That approach often works because our arguments tend to rely on showing that our interlocutor is inconsistent. It’s a long and hallowed tradition in philosophy to argue in that way. However, I think people are more sophisticated. Maybe the tradition ought to be, how well can you make predictions based on the claims you’re making?

So, next Thanksgiving, do that experiment. Then, in a year’s time, see if your climate-change-denying relative has changed their mind—or at least doesn’t bring that topic up anymore.

Has our conversation been a “Why Deny Science?” spoiler, or do you have extra perks for your audiences?

It’s not all doom and gloom, and I do try to have fun. One of the things I do in my talk is teach you how to become a science denier in three easy steps. And then, of course, I explain why you ought not to be.

And I also try to offer a little hope, because it’s really easy to look at the news and the tribalism and to lose heart. But by exposing the mechanics and dangers of science denialism and the fact that shared values can help us overcome it, I’d like to think we’re working on a roadmap to a better place.

E.J. Iannelli is the arts and music director at Spokane Public Radio, and a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He’s a regular contributor to regional newspapers and magazines as well as the Times Literary Supplement.

Check out Michael Goldsby’s Speakers Bureau talk, Why Deny Science?, online and in-person around the state.