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Opinion: How to Confront Anti-Science Sentiment

Reaching a science skeptic is not a matter of credentials; it’s a matter of heart.

Photograph of Bill Sullivan
Bill Sullivan

Bill Sullivan is the Showalter Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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Most people seek out experts for health and science information they can trust. They appreciate that scientists and physicians go through many years of schooling and intensive training to learn the intricacies associated with their specialty. They see an MD or PhD as a reliability indicator that distinguishes sound advice from nonsense or potentially dangerous ideas.

But a number of individuals, especially an increasingly vocal cadre of social media users, don’t always trust physicians and scientists. Rather, they view them as elites and members of the establishment. They are in bed with Big Pharma or spout alarmist news to fund their research. Conspiracy theories circulate online about mad scientists seeking to control the masses.

Flaunting one’s scientific credentials can do more harm than good when engaging people who hold these beliefs. Initiating conversations from an authoritative position may feel natural to the credentialed, but it can trigger a skeptical defense in some listeners that obfuscates a productive exchange.

The knee-jerk response to people who doubt established science or medicine is to dismiss their concerns as absurd: trusting in expertise is common sense. If your computer isn’t booting up, you don’t call the fire department. If your house is on fire, you don’t call a computer technician. Logic dictates that matters of science and health are best addressed by scientists and physicians. 

But as Voltaire observed, “Common sense is not so common.” The abundance of quackery and pseudoscience currently succeeding in the marketplace of ideas demonstrates the human proclivity to reject the scientific method in favor of unestablished, or even disreputable, goods and services. The widespread resistance to vaccination against COVID-19 or other infectious diseases, in some cases resulting in threats and attacks on doctors, is testament to this flagrant rejection of expertise. It also underscores the urgency of addressing rather than ignoring this problem. 

We got into science and medicine to help people, and like it or not, that includes those who have turned their back on the establishment.

The solution lies in recognizing that people do not develop suspicions about scientists and medical experts in a vacuum. Some may have had horrible experiences with the healthcare system. Perhaps their health concerns were rudely scoffed at by contemptuous doctors. Some people reject what today’s experts say because yesterday’s experts said the opposite—a normal occurrence in the process of science but one that nonetheless can come across as inconsistent to people unfamiliar with such dynamics. And then there are issues concerning pharmaceutical companies and governments the world over that have made serious blunders in the past, from scandalously precipitating the opioid epidemic to sending confusing messages about the COVID-19 pandemic. While these reasons do not justify dismissal of entire professions or of the biomedical enterprise, acknowledging them should engender the empathy you need to have a constructive dialogue with skeptics.

According to some researchers, distrust of experts is compounded by coordinated “anti-science” attacks intended to advance political agendas. Certain pundits and politicians, especially in the US of late, have amassed great popularity in their public dismissal of mainstream science and medicine. Whether their bashing of expertise is a genuine belief or merely a dubious ploy for attention or political gain, the end result is the same: the public gets confused. Unsubstantiated claims gain an air of acceptance simply by being amplified and discussed, which elevates their promoters at the expense of experts. Many people have not had the privilege of learning how to critically evaluate this plethora of conflicting information. Rather than blaming the victim for being lured away by a siren’s song, we should learn to sing a more appealing tune.

I participate in a lot of science outreach activities and occasionally encounter people who are suspicious of me or scoff at the information I present. Here are some of the strategies I employ based on what I’ve learned from these experiences so far.

Get curious

We cannot stem the tide of anti-science without understanding the forces involved. Scientists and doctors should treat science skepticism as a mystery that needs solving. Someone who is skeptical of science isn’t going to be swayed by more science, so switch from preaching to sleuthing. Why did this individual depart from the mainstream? What life experience led them to their unorthodox belief? By finding the clues needed to understand different worldviews, you not only gather vital intelligence about the source of these beliefs, but you also signal to the science skeptic that you respect them enough to learn more about them. Showing compassion is a crucial step toward altering the perception of professionals as snobby elitists hellbent on controlling the lives of others. As Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. . . . That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance, and kindness.” 

Find common ground

To win back trust, the elitist stereotype associated with credentials must be dispelled. All of us wear many different hats, and our professional cap is not always the best one to justify our beliefs. As you listen to a science skeptic tell his story, take note of what he cares about. Then, speak not as a scientist or doctor, but as a person who shares one or more of his values. For example, speak as a fellow parent, patriot, hobbyist, or member of the same political party or religion. People rarely get to see the non-professional side of a scientist or doctor, and showing a more relatable facet of your own experience is a promising way to win back trust.

Tell a compelling story

An effective tool of persuasion is storytelling—and all the more so if stories are told with feeling. If you’re a scientist, build up to the findings of a study as if it were a compelling mystery. If you’re a doctor, tell emotive stories about patients. Highlight the process of science: yes, it can be messy, and results may conflict, but it has proven to be the best way to uncover the truth in the long run. Take care to restrain your anger and frustration if you fail to see eye to eye. On the contrary, thank the person for listening and engaging. Remember, a key objective is for them to have a positive experience with an expert.

Be persistent, but patient

There are plenty of science and medical skeptics who are reasonable and will be inclined to engage in dialogue, but it is naive to think that one or a few encounters will turn the tide of their mistrust. Beliefs are like concrete and it usually takes many hits to break through. It can be arduous, but it is a wall worth knocking down. Avoid playing into the stereotype of an alarmist or authoritarian and maintain a hopeful attitude of respect and courtesy.

We got into science and medicine to help people, and like it or not, that includes those who have turned their back on the establishment. As we are moved to care for the ill or to research biological questions, we should be moved to care for those who have been ill-informed and to study the social phenomenon. When titles, positions, or credentials fail to persuade, we may still be able to make headway by showing more heart and less mind. 

Bill Sullivan is the Showalter Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Indiana University School of Medicine. 

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