How Can a Book About Science Denialism Ignore the Most Pervasive Forms of Science Denialism?

26 September 2021

by Bo Winegard

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason by Lee McIntyre, MIT Press, £19.99, pp.264 (August 2021)

I have defended what some critics derisively call “scientism”, which I take to be the view that science is the best (in fact, the only) tool for achieving progressive knowledge about the world. Therefore, one might think that I would be the perfect target for Lee McIntyre’s new book, How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason. As it turns out, however, I am not. What is more troubling for the book is that I can’t imagine who would be. Although displaying a congenial spirit and advocating laudable, but possibly platitudinous positions, it is ultimately disappointing, marred by a simplistic view of science and a slanted (and ideologically convenient) idea of what constitutes ‘science denialism’. Thus, although the book’s ultimate message that “we need to start talking to one another again, especially to those with whom we disagree” (p.175) is praiseworthy, its flaws, its lack of nuance, and its absence of discussion of many forms of leftwing “science denial” overwhelm and undermine its commendable thesis.

McIntrye begins by contending that “for a number of years it has been fairly clear – at least in the United States – that truth is under assault. Our fellow citizens don’t seem to listen to facts anymore” (p.xi), an observation which motivated his previous work such as Post-Truth. This is a common claim, of course, and one that I have almost certainly made myself, but it’s not at all clear that it is accurate. Is the truth more under assault now than it was during the Vietnam War? During the era of pushback to claims about a causal link between smoking and cancer? During the rise and temporary triumph of Freudian psychology? I’m sceptical. Probably the claim that truth is uniquely under assault is like the claim that Western Civilisation is collapsing: it feels true to every generation because there are always challenges to truth, to science, to civilisation.

And there are always challenges because science, like civilisation, is very unnatural. This doesn’t mean that it requires completely suppressing human proclivities and, as it were, reshaping the human mind. Rather, it means that it requires the appropriate (and historically rare) norms and institutions to flourish. Like a diligent landscaper, science guides and disciplines nature. And its fruits should be as astonishing as Kew Gardens or green lawns in the desert of Arizona. Like those miracles of human attention and ingenuity, science requires constant vigilance lest the jungle of human impulses overtake the truth with a thicket of myth, superstition, and ideologically useful flapdoodle. Put shortly, the truth is always under assault, not just by liars, charlatans, cranks, and millionaire profiteers, but by human nature. The hackneyed movie line that the real enemy is inside is appropriate because the struggle for science is mostly a struggle against innate emotions and biases. And the surprising thing is not that many people misunderstand, misrepresent, and opportunistically attack the truth, but rather that we care about the truth at all.

This is important because to understand ‘science denialism’, we have to understand science. And this is a major problem with McIntyre’s book. His understanding of science seems simplistic and unrealistically unambiguous. I should confess that I have not read his earlier book, The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience, so it is quite possible that he has a more sophisticated and nuanced view of science than I can discern from How to Talk to a Science Denier. But if so, then I wish he had made those views more obvious in this book. After all, if one is going to call a person a “science denier”, then one should be clear about what the person is denying.

Instead, readers can find only hints and intimations of what science actually is (and thus what a science denier is denying). For example: “In my earlier book, The Scientific Attitude, I had argued that the primary thing that separates science from nonscience is that scientists embrace an attitude of willingness to change their hypothesis if it does not fit with the evidence.” (p.10.) And: “But this is quite simply not how science works. Scientists do not merely look for support for what they hope to be true; they design tests that can show whether their hypothesis might be false.” (p.35.) And: “Scientific consensus is the gold standard for rational belief.” (p.137.)

It’s laudable, of course, to be humble, skeptical, and willing to change one’s mind, but I don’t think that embracing these qualities is the sine qua non of science. I’ve met quite a few practicing scientists, and I’d wager their propensity for dogmatism is about the same as anybody else’s. And in fact, many revered and consequential scientists were dogmatic, arrogant, and steadfastly (and even irrationally) committed to proving their own theories despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Looking for some unique attitude or marker of science, in my view, is a bit like looking for the attitude or marker that distinguishes market capitalism from other economic systems. Science, like capitalism, is a real ‘thing’ (or process). We can talk about it usefully. But it is incredibly complicated and fuzzy and is not easily demarcated from other human activities. Furthermore, it is not distinguished by a particular, unique attitude, but rather by norms and institutional constraints. The individual scientist, like the individual businessman, has myriad motives and proclivities, some noble, some base, which are mostly irrelevant. And just as widespread affluence is merely a positive externality of the free market, so too knowledge is merely an externality of science. The fuel for the engine of scientific progress is a mixture of a desire for wealth and prestige. In general, it’s not from the love of knowledge of the scientist that we get our truth. And we should certainly not count on scientists to work diligently to disprove their own theories.

This makes the notion of a “science denier” exceedingly difficult since it is not clear what science is in the first place. Following other researchers, McIntyre does provide a guide to the tactics of science denialism, which include: “(1) Cherry-picking evidence (2) Belief in conspiracy theories (3) Reliance on fake experts (and the denigration of real experts) (4) Committing logical errors (5) Setting impossible expectations for what science can achieve” and he quotes Mark and Chris Hoofnagle’s claim that science denial is “the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none” (p.33). But although these are helpful, they are also vague.  I suspect, for example, that my view of denialism (not a term I like, but one I will use for this review) is quite different from Lee McIntyre’s and Mark and Chris Hoofnagle’s.

This brings me to the next flaw with McIntyre’s book: its coverage of science denialism is both obvious and tendentious. It begins with flat earthers, perhaps because McIntyre wanted to start with an indisputable example of science denial, and then moves through a gallery of typical (from a leftwing perspective) anti-science rogues such as global warming deniers and ‘anti-vaxxers’. Early in the book, McIntyre writes: “Thus, the question remains of whether it is possible for there to be instances of ‘liberal’ science denial.” (p.49.) To his credit, he does answer affirmatively, and notes that: “Whether liberal or conservative, we’re all open to the problem of identity-protective cognition, whether the identity we’re trying to protect is a political one or not.” (p.160.) But he focuses almost exclusively on anti-GMO attitudes and completely ignores what, in my view, is the biggest and most consequential domain of leftwing denialism: human variation, especially in socially important traits such as cognitive ability and criminality (to which I will return shortly).

Part of the problem is that McIntyre’s diagnosis of the causes of denialism is both vague and dubious. Of flat earth believers, he asks (perhaps rhetorically): “I came away from the convention with the feeling that many of the Flat Earthers were broken people. Could that be true for other science deniers as well?” (p.48.) Although the claim that Flat Earthers are “broken” might make some sense in informal discourse, it’s hard to justify something so imprecise in a book about science denialism. What is a broken person? Is there any evidence that broken people are less scientifically literate or skeptical or openminded than those who are not broken? Are people who deny sex differences or population differences similarly broken?

At times, McIntyre refers to more plausible causes of denialism such as ideology, and he even notes: “We lie to ourselves as a means of more efficiently lying to others,” (p.47) which is a profoundly important but underdeveloped argument. More often, he refers to the sinister economic interests of high-powered people who purposely create doubt and denialism, noting that: “Science denial is not an error, it is a lie. Disinformation is intentionally created.” (p.46.) It is undoubtedly true that powerful people will promulgate lies when it serves their or their tribe’s interests. But I am sceptical that most denialism is caused straightforwardly by intentionally (and maliciously) created disinformation.

A far more important cause of denialism, in my view, is sacred narratives, or narratives about the world that are held with great fervor by people and that are often related to tribal identity. Sacred narratives are composed of sacred values, or values “that a moral community treats as possessing transcendental significance” (Tetlock, p.320). A human life, for example, is a sacred value. The thought of killing an innocent human for a car, a house, a bundle of money, or a good cup of coffee is repellent to us. That is, we not only would not trade a sacred value for a mundane value (ordinary material goods), but we are often enraged and appalled at the mere suggestion of such a trade. More germane, most of us would not trade the truth for a human life either. That is, if the choice were between (1) promoting a lie and (2) killing an innocent girl, most of us would choose to promote (and even believe) a lie.

Sacred narratives are often filled with empirical claims and thus with claims that science might someday challenge. When such a challenge occurs, people often cling to their sacred narrative and reject the discomfiting claims of science. History of course is full of such examples, from those who rejected heliocentrism to those who rejected evolution by natural selection. This is an important and under-appreciated point. Science is not just a great tool for the accumulation of knowledge; it is also a great destroyer, and thus its fruits grow from a soil enriched by the corpses of many once-revered theories and myths.

What McIntyre calls science denialism is easy to spot in the past or in other moral tribes, but very difficult to spot in one’s own moral tribe. The best way to look for it objectively is to look for sacred values, especially if those sacred values permeate an entire institution. Science does not rely upon researchers who are ascetically committed to the truth, but rather to a spirit of competition. Bad theories are vigorously scrutinised and criticised by other scientists. But when most people in scientific community share the same sacred values, the spirit of competition vanishes. Nonsense can flourish while facts and theories that challenge the sacred narrative are suppressed.

I will not focus on right-wing sacred values (or science denialism) because such denialism is widely discussed in academia, in the prestige media, and in McIntyre’s book. Instead, I want to focus on left-wing sacred values and science denial to draw attention to what How to Talk to a Science Denier ignores and to illustrate the weaknesses (and possibly hypocrisy) of McIntyre’s analyses. These left-wing sacred values are also more consequential for science, especially the social sciences, in my view precisely because most social scientists are on the political left and share a sacred narrative about perceived victim groups (e.g. racial, sexual, and religious minorities, women), which my colleagues and I have called equalitarianism. The major premise of equalitarianism is that all groups are roughly equal in potential on all socially desirable traits. Therefore, if we want to look for left-wing denialism, we should look at topics that could potentially contradict this value.

As it turns out, of course, these are not very difficult to find. Sex and population differences in psychological and cognitive traits are ubiquitous. Although the causes of such differences are hotly contested and still subject to plausible doubt, the differences themselves are not a matter of dispute among relevant experts. Does widespread refusal to discuss or debate these differences and their causes constitute science denialism?

When discussing Flat Earthers, McIntyre writes that one person told him, “If we dumped what we found right now, it would be bad. It would be bad. What I just told you was confidential” and he then incredulously (and rhetorically) asks, “Can one imagine an actual scientist saying this?” (p.11) But, as a matter of fact, I can easily imagine a scientist saying this. In fact, they do so all the time. Many scientists have private beliefs that they refuse to share widely for fear of moral retribution; and some have even explicitly argued that we should remain silent about certain controversial topics (and refrain from researching them) because they are too divisive and may lead to a recrudescence of racism or sexism in a society already plagued by such pathologies. In other words, some scientists and leftwing intellectuals actively argue that we should promote science denialism!

But this isn’t merely academic. In 2017, for one prominent example, James Damore, then an engineer at Google, was fired for writing a memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” which argued, inter alia, that we should take innate sex differences seriously when designing diversity programs. Although its specific claims about sex differences were each debatable (all scientific claims are, after all), many experts noted that the memo’s assertions were accurate and supported by a voluminous peer-reviewed literature. Astonishingly, in a book about science denialism, McIntyre does not address this, even when he does explicitly address the question of whether liberal science denialism exists.

In fact, the view that the West is systemically biased against women (or other perceived victims’ groups) is probably the most widespread and easily addressed form of liberal science denialism because it requires suppression of many of these inconvenient truths about sex (and other group) differences. Throughout How to Talk to a Science Denier, McIntyre subjects forms of science denialism to scrutiny illustrating how proponents deploy the five tactics (described above) of science denialism. Consider, then, how the theory of pervasive misogyny fits those categories.

  1. Cherry-picking evidence. Proponents of pervasive misogyny point to outcome disparities between men and women as incontrovertible evidence of invidious discrimination but ignore (1) underlying (confounding) differences in traits, and (2) the myriad outcome disparities between men and women that favor women. Any serious analysis of sexism in the West has to consider both sex differences and the entire range of outcome disparities, from those that favor men to those that do not.
  2. Belief in conspiracy theories. McIntyre, using a definition from Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, describes a conspiracy theory as an “…explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim” (p.36). Proponents of pervasive misogyny contend that outcome differences are caused not by differences in interests and abilities, but by the widespread sexism of the West. They contend that these “malevolent forces” (of misogyny) seek “to advance” the “nefarious aim” of perpetuating White male supremacy. In other words, advocates reject simpler, more neutral causal forces (sex differences) for more agential and malevolent ones (sexism).
  3. Reliance on fake experts and denigration of real experts. Proponents of pervasive misogyny often appeal to dubious experts such as Judith Butler or Kate Manne instead of real experts such as David Geary. (This tactic is so vague and underspecified that it is probably useless. Almost any position will have “real” experts. And I’m not sure it’s possible to distinguish a “fake” expert from a “real” expert. Was Freud an expert? Was Darwin? Was Newton? What about Newton when he was doing alchemy? Although some people do indeed attempt to denigrate experts and expertise for profit, prestige, or idle entertainment, I don’t think this is a useful way to distinguish science deniers from science accepters.)
  4. Committing logical errors. Proponents of pervasive misogyny are guilty of myriad logical fallacies, including ad hominem attacks, straw man attacks, poisoning the well, and ignoring obvious confound variables. For example, proponents not only assail the character of prominent intellectuals, such as Jordan Peterson, but they also attack people for merely defending them. In addition, they often refuse to discuss conspicuous confound variables such as underlying differences between men and women in mathematical ability (especially at the right-hand tail of the distribution) or in career preferences. Today, some deny innate differences in athletic ability. And some even argue that sex is a continuum, not a binary, because there are rare examples of intersex people (.01-.05% of the population), which would be like arguing that life and death is a continuum because some people who are pronounced dead return to life (e.g., Lazarus syndrome).
  5. Setting impossible expectations for what science can achieve. Proponents of pervasive misogyny often denigrate those who claim that sex differences might be caused partially by innate differences by noting that nobody can isolate the specific causal pathways responsible for the differences. Of course, anything as complicated as sex differences in cognition and temperament will be difficult to understand completely and our knowledge will always be provisional. However, that no more means we can’t make accurate, sensible, and well-supported assertions about sex differences than not understanding the exact causal pathways of addiction means we can’t make reasonable assertions about alcohol dependency.

The point of this exercise is not that the theory of pervasive misogyny is undeniable pseudoscience (nor was it to be charitable to proponents of pervasive misogyny!); it is that these five tactics are (1) widespread; (2) incredibly difficult to specify and so vague that almost any theory can be shown to be full of deniers; and (3) rife on both the political right and the political left.

McIntyre argues that “Climate change denial represents the biggest, most important case of science denial in our time” (p.81), but I’m not so sure. One could argue that leftwing equalitarianism is a bigger, more important case because it is both socially consequential and so pervasive in the elite institutions in the West. At least “climate denial” is incessantly called out and ridiculed by the media. Equalitarianism is not only not called out, but also it is actively promoted and celebrated. Imagine the (legitimate) ridicule I would receive if I wrote a book called How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist that focused extensively on popular leftwing conspiracies, but completely ignored the widely believed theory that Trump actually won the 2020 election. This is what McIntyre has done by ignoring pervasive leftwing denialism in a book about science deniers.

To confront an obvious retort, my complaint here is not just idle whataboutery. Instead, it illustrates a theoretical problem with McIntyre’s book. How to Talk to a Science Denier doesn’t wrestle seriously with the nature of science or science denialism and thus is abjectly silent (perhaps ignorant of) widespread denialism on the left. Furthermore, this silence detracts from the practical and non-partisan appeal of a book that is ultimately supposed to be about unifying people because it makes the book appear ideologically tilted. Again, I want to be clear that McIntyre is admirably aware of the possibility of “liberal denialism”. But most of his exemplars of science denial are clearly on the right. It is difficult for me to imagine a conservative reading this book without being a bit vexed by this obvious bias.

I’ve been critical of How to Talk to a Science Denier, mostly because I was so disappointed by it. I did not like the title, but I thought, “This is a timely book, and McIntyre seems like a sincere person. I look forward to reading it.” Unfortunately, the book is not particularly trenchant or helpful. However, it’s worth noting that it’s not awful either. Despite my criticisms of its obvious biases, it is not a mindless jeremiad against conservatives. McIntyre tries to be fair. And he does promote a worthy message about talking to each other sympathetically. At times, he even hints that he could have written a much more nuanced and complicated book. For example, near the end, he writes, “I have long held that one of the greatest weapons we have to fight back against science denial is to embrace uncertainty as a strength rather than a weakness of science” (p.177).

How much of what McIntyre considers “science denialism” is really just an understandable scepticism of experts who have pretended too often to have knowledge and certainty that they did not have? In 2020, for just one obvious example, after railing against those who were protesting COVID-19 lockdowns, many epidemiologists committed a dramatic and very public volte-face after the death of George Floyd. Instead of reprimanding those who protested against racism, they actively praised them, signing a letter that said that the protests were “vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of black people in the United States”. In a piece in the Atlantic attempting to justify this apparent double standard, Julia Marcus and Gregg Gonslaves wrote that there is no hypocrisy because health experts have “always tried to… maximise the health of the population across all aspects of life. And health is about more than simply remaining free of coronavirus infection.” In other words, politics matter. And experts have political preferences which often saturate their supposedly objective, value-free pronouncements. That’s fine, of course, but it will inevitably create backlash and distrust in those who have different values, especially when coupled with a “you must trust the science” message that is silent about or pretends not to be affected by political or moral concerns.

I wish McIntyre would have focused more on these complexities and on the inevitable tension between human nature, sacred narratives, and scientific knowledge instead of on obvious liberal bogeymen such as climate change deniers. It would have made for a richer, more subtle and serious book. As it is, I can’t recommend How to Talk to a Science Denier to the average reader, but I can enthusiastically endorse its thesis: We still need to learn to talk to each other more effectively. That might not end science denialism, but it would make for more interesting conversations. And it remains a laudable principle even as it quickly becomes hackneyed and inconsistently applied.

Bo Winegard has a PhD in Psychology