Last Sunday, I was fortunate to attend a lecture featuring Bill Nye the Science Guy, hosted by the Skeptic Society. Bill Nye was terrific in both his brief opening remarks and in conversation with Skeptic Society president Michael Shermer. Nye was there to promote his new book, Undeniable, in which he succinctly lays out the case for evolution. I was thrilled to be there in the company of my dad, sister, uncle, and friends – fellow skeptics and critical thinkers all. Yet, I was disquieted by the notion that the lecture hall was filled with similarly-minded people – not the people Bill Nye is trying to convince with his book. So when the opportunity came, I stood up to ask a question, which was this: when the people reading books by authors like Nye and Shermer are the ones who already agree, how are we supposed to reach the people who don’t agree?
This is a more complicated question than it seems. Research has shown that when people are deeply committed to their beliefs, being exposed to factual information that refutes their views actually makes people embrace them even more tenaciously than before. This is known as the “backfire effect.” In the face of that response, a book aimed at changing people’s minds is unlikely to have any effect. This troubles me. If providing a climate change denier, anti-vaccine campaigner, or creationist with facts is only going to make them dig in their heels, then what chance do we have of convincing people? Bill Nye did have an answer, of sorts; he asked how many people in the audience were atheist or agnostic, and nearly every hand in the hall went up. He then asked how many of those people were raised in what they considered to be a religious household, and again, nearly every hand went up. His answer, then, was essentially to keep chipping away; and understandably, given that his career as the Science Guy was focused on science education for children, to educate the next generation.
I wish Nye had been able to offer something more concrete, but I don’t blame him for that. How are we supposed to overcome such deeply ingrained psychological patterns? Of course, it doesn’t help that there is a false equivalence given to the non-factual side in many of these debates. This logical fallacy holds that when there is disagreement on an issue, equal weight must be given to both sides of the debate. This seems like a fair thing to do, but when one position has the lion’s share of facts and evidence on its side, it actually harms the debate to pretend that the other side’s argument is of equivalent merit. This was illustrated beautifully – and hilariously – by John Oliver, with the help of none other than Bill Nye. Citing the fact that 97% of climate scientists agree that the world is warming and that human activity is to blame, Oliver argued that in debates, the climate deniers should get three representatives – and the climate scientists get 97. He showed this visually by seating three deniers on one side of the table, and Bill Nye on the other… along with 96 other scientists! It is worth watching the video clip to see how this plays out.
This false equivalence extends to many other debates – and interestingly Bill Nye was accused by some of doing a disservice to the science of evolution by engaging in a debate with creationist Ken Ham, thereby creating the illusion of equivalence. That may or may not be true; for my part, I thought the debate was so lopsided in Nye’s favor that it was nearly comical; but then again, I hold very strongly to my “belief” in evolution, so perhaps nothing Ham said could change my mind! Of course, I have the advantage of facts and the scientific method on my side, so my “belief” is truly irrelevant; the same claim cannot be made by Ham or other creationists. But that false equivalence may still be convincing to some people, and when it comes to issues like climate change and vaccination, the media are doing the public a tremendous disservice by treating both sides as if they are the same.
As a critical thinker, skeptic, anthropologist, and educator, I can only keep doing as the Science Guy suggests and continue to chip away at irrational beliefs, logical fallacies, and uncritical acceptance of unsupported ideas, and hope that by chipping away we can eventually sculpt a better informed populace.