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Skepticism and the Persuasive Power of Conversion Stories

Those of us in the skeptical community have our work cut out for us. In the process of disseminating scientific thinking, we often challenge unsubstantiated beliefs that are held with considerable conviction. Every one of us who has tried to persuade committed believers in astrology or homeopathy that they are mistaken knows just how challenging—and in some cases, how futile— this endeavor can be. We skeptics rarely win popularity contests.

So how can we effectively persuade believers in dubious claims to change their minds, or at least to give our contrary ideas a fair hearing? Traditionally, much of the science communication literature has operated implicitly from the “information deficit model.” From this perspective, which is premised on Sir Francis Bacon’s principle that knowledge is power, the primary driver of pseudoscience is inadequate scientific literacy. If we could only find a means of better educating the general public about science, this model assumes, most unsupported ideas would lose their stranglehold over the populace. Nevertheless, recent data suggest that the information deficit model, al though probably containing a kernel of truth, does not tell the full story. For example, research by Dan Kahan of Yale University and his colleagues reveals that among political conservatives (but not liberals), higher levels of scientific literacy are associated with greater skepticism of global warming and its damaging impacts (Kahan et al. 2012). Although such findings are open to multiple interpretations, they raise the possibility that imparting scientific knowledge might in some cases backfire, perhaps by affording individuals who hold unwarranted beliefs the intellectual ammunition to rebut scientific arguments. If corrective science education has its limits, are there better alternatives to debunking erroneous beliefs?

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