Many people believe that climate change is fake, that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that vaccines cause autism. Scientists, intellectuals, and politically liberal people find that more than odd. In conversations with scientists, I’ve seen immense frustration about “science denial,” which is often treated as absurd or ridiculous. I’ve also been part of many conversations in which scientists and academics ask how to “educate” the broader public to remedy the ills of science denial. But it seems that education in the traditional sense will fail to sway the public. Why? Because there is growing resistance to education as elitist.
What’s more, many persuasive strategies do more than fail: they reinforce prior attitudes against science. According to Sara Pluviano, Caroline Watt, and Sergio Della Sala, attempting to persuade opponents of vaccination can create “backfire effects.” Their manuscript, entitled, “Misinformation lingers in memory: Failure of three pro-vaccination strategies,” demonstrates that rather than changing their minds in the face of evidence, people tend to double down on beliefs that vaccines are harmful. The promotion of “facts” has failed, leaving scientists wondering how they can convince people to receive vaccines or to support policies that would mitigate climate change.
In 2013, Dan Kahan outlined what he called “motivated reasoning”–reasoning driven by prior attitudes. Essentially, Kahan’s analysis shows that people tend to interpret facts based on their ideology, rather than generating positions based on facts. Ideology, I would argue, is formed early, and it is increasingly reinforced by social media echo chambers and “filter bubbles.” It’s easy to be cynical if Kahan’s motivated reasoning really is a driving force in society. But there is hope if we broaden our thinking beyond evidence-based reasoning.
Pluviano et al. found that folks who saw frightening images attributed to vaccine side effects were especially likely to oppose vaccination. The images they viewed reinforced their beliefs, but they also point to something we’ve known for quite some time: that images are powerful, and that narratives using images are especially potent. Scientists should recognize that power and use it to generate counter narratives–if, of course, education efforts continue to falter. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth provided strong evidence with striking visuals. While it is difficult to say with certainty how many people were persuaded by the film, it was a step toward creating counter-narratives. Still, in its insistence on data and facts, An Inconvenient Truth may have generated backfire effects in people with what I would call “science fatigue.”
For those who have little interest in digging into data and facts, traditional argumentative strategies–those based on evidence leading to claims–are unlikely to be persuasive. Rather, focusing on scientific narratives might work. We might draw on Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in their versions of Cosmos to see how dramatizing and narrating science is effective for lay audiences. Scientists can focus on important discoveries that make our everyday lives possible, down to microwaves and cell phones, to strengthen adherence to science in general. Scientists still have a duty to be ethical and to avoid the trappings of propaganda, but we can’t rely on well-reasoned arguments to sway the broader public.
As for vaccines? Show them what polio looked like. Let them see how smallpox ravaged people around the world. Recognize that we have to engage with these attitudes–don’t write them off as stupid, even if you believe anti-vax attitudes are dangerous. Take their concerns seriously, show them the dangers of diseases we’ve eradicated, and hear out their concerns. Such counter-narratives aren’t guaranteed to work, but they stand the chance of reversing someone’s motivated reasoning.