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…But the Flat Earth movement is growing, and its tactics are spreading. It’s time we learned how to talk to science deniers



EVERY DAY IN THE MEDIA, WE SEE ONCEunthinkable science headlines. More than 700 cases of measles across 22 states in the U.S., largely due to those who believe vaccines do more harm than good. Climate change legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate—mainly because of partisan politicians who routinely confuse climate and weather—even as scientists tell us that we have only until 2030 to cut worldwide carbon emissions by half, then drop them to zero by 2050. And, in one of the most incredible developments of my lifetime, the Flat Earth movement is on the rise.

The attack on science has gotten so bad that two years ago there was a “March for Science” in 600 cities around the world. At the one in Boston, I saw signs that said, “Keep calm and think critically,” “Extremely mad scientist,” “No science, no Twitter,” “It’s so severe, the nerds are here,” and “I could be in the lab right now.” It takes a lot to get scientists out of their labs and onto the streets, but what else were they supposed to do? The issue of what’s special about science is no longer purely academic. If we cannot do a better job of defending science—of saying how it works and why its findings have a privileged claim to believability—we will be at the mercy of those who would reject it.

Scientists (and others who care about it) have not really found an effective way of ighting back against science denial. In this “post-truth” era—with headlines like “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds”—it is an open question how to convince people who reject evidence, not just in science, but also on a host of other factual matters. In the empirical realm, scientists often choose to respond by presenting their evidence, then get upset and refuse to engage more when their data aren’t accepted or their integrity is questioned. Perhaps this is understandable, but I also believe it is dangerous just to walk away and dismiss science deniers as irrational (even if they are). Even worse is to react to their hectoring on the question of whether there is “100 percent consensus” on global warming, or whether we’re “certain” that vaccines don’t cause autism, by blustering about “proof,” which only gives aid and comfort to one of the most damaging myths about science: that until we have proof, any theory is just as good as any other. But we really can’t afford to do this anymore, nor can we afford to defend science simply by talking about its successes.

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