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How to Talk to a Science Denier - Lee McIntyre ***

Anyone who has friends in the US probably has at least one who could be described as a science denier. Lee McIntyre offers us the intriguing promise of delivering 'Conservations with flat earthers, climate deniers and others who defy reason.' 

There are certainly elements of this present, which is when the book really comes alive, but the problem for the reader is that (not entirely the author's fault) it doesn't deliver on that promise. The majority of the book, which doesn't involve such conversations, but rather McIntyre's pondering on the matter, seems often to go round and round in circles on the difficulty of doing anything about science deniers' beliefs.

Unfortunately, though McIntyre does get to speak to flat Earthers, he fails to meet any climate change deniers (frankly, he doesn’t try hard - rather than go to a Trump rally, for example, he accesses a self-selected group from a mining community). Similarly his idea of going to a Whole Foods store to talk to GMO science deniers is thwarted by COVID, so he tries a friend who once tried to treat his headache by re-aligning his chakras rather than his requested ibuprofen. She turns out not to be a GMO science denier - making this a bit of a waste of space. A more anti-GMO friend gives more value for money - but even so he isn’t the kind of extreme believer McIntyre uncovers among the flat Earthers.

One thing that worries me is that McIntyre doesn’t seem to see the irony of flying from the US to the Maldives to see how they’re threatened by climate change - I’m sorry, carbon offsetting is just another way of saying there's one rule for the rich - this book is all about how to get the message across, and the only way to do that is to stop flying. Like all too many academics, McIntyre seems to go more for 'do as I say, not as I do' when it comes to responding to climate change.

We spend quite a while trying to discover if there are liberal science deniers (outcome there probably are), but there is no real coverage of liberal science denial in anti-nuclear sentiment and support for organic farming (except in a passing reference to nuclear in a quote from Michael Shermer). This perhaps is reflected in the way McIntyre tiptoes around the sensibilities of liberal science deniers who are anti-GMO - he clearly thinks they’re on a par with climate change deniers, but gives them an easier ride by far. 

When it comes to solutions, the book indentifies the key tools of science deniers such as cherry picking, expecting science to deliver the definitive truth and conspiracy theories, but does not give any great ways to deal with a resistant denier who simply says they don't believe your data and you can't prove it, except by winning their trust with a lengthy engagement - which is fine for the occasional friend but it is hard to see how it could help such a divided US, the country which seems to have a particularly big issue with this problem, especially because it seems to be a matter of identity there, rather than logic.

Overall, the book has a worthy aim, but doesn't do what it says on the cover - and fails to do so in a way that isn't particularly readable.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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