The Impasse: When the “truth wins” assumption fails.


I spent the past two days at the Science Writing in the Age of Denial conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The event explored the phenomenon of denial and what it means for science writers. How can journalists effectively convey science when its uncomfortable truths face organized resistance?

I walked away from the event feeling both energized and frustrated. Denialism is easy to spot, and conference speakers like Sean B. Carroll and Naomi Oreskes were especially adept at characterizing and documenting it. During his keynote talk, Carroll outlined a “denialism manual in six steps,” which he adapted from a history of chiropractors and vaccination published in 2000.

Step 1: Doubt the science.
Step 2: Question scientists’ motives and interests.
Step 3: Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities.
Step 4: Exaggerate potential harms (scare the hell out of people).
Step 5: Appeal to personal freedom (I’m an American and no government official can tell me what vaccinations I need.)
Step 6: Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a key philosophy.

As Carroll described this denialism playbook, people in the audience nodded knowingly. Any science writer who has encountered pushback from denialists has seen these strategies at work. But the question remains: how do we counteract them?

And the answer to that question remains elusive. Keynote speaker Arthur Lupia, a political scientist who studies how people make decisions, says that attempts to educate policy makers and the general public on scientific topics commonly fail, and he puts the blame squarely on the messengers. “The problem isn’t the audience, the problem is us,” Lupia told the journalists in attendance. “We have unrealistic expectations.” Many journalists and educators assume that if they simply present the facts, their audience will recognize them and change their beliefs accordingly.

As I’ve written previously, social psychologists call this idea the “truth wins” assumption —and it rarely pans out. Why? Because people don’t assimilate facts in a vacuum, they filter them through their pre-existing belief system. Psychologists call this “motivated reasoning”—it’s the tendency to seek out and view new evidence as consistent with one’s prior views.

We seek facts that confirm what we already believe, and reject the ones that contradict our world view. People deploy skepticism asymmetrically, says social ecologist Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine.  “They have stricter criteria to accept something they don’t want to believe.”

For this reason, bombarding deniers with more evidence is a losing strategy. It doesn’t matter how many facts you throw at them, or how correct your facts are—if those facts threaten someone’s self-identity or their world view, they will find a way to dismiss them. Forget items one through five in Carroll’s denialism manual, item number six explains everything.

Is there any hope for informing the willfully ignorant? In the session on “persuasive writing in the age of denial,” my fellow panelist Steve Silberman asked the audience if any of them had ever successfully changed someone’s mind with something they’d written. Only one hand went up.

When we convey facts to an audience that doesn’t want to hear them, we come to an impasse. The stronger the pre-existing belief, the stronger the motivation to dismiss the contrary evidence and the journalists who convey it. And there’s not much journalists can do about this. One of the points that Lupia emphasized was that credibility is bestowed by the audience. He presented the following formula:

Credibility =perceived common interests x perceived expertise.

I asked him how journalists who find themselves at the impasse can find a way to speak to, rather than past, their audiences. He told me that that making a personal connection—showing them that you share common interests or values—can help. But ultimately, it’s not entirely about you, it’s about how the audience perceives you. And the hard truth is that in many cases there’s not a damn thing you can do to change that.


Photos: Club Denial by Spinneyhead

Denial gas pump by by mcfcrandall

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25 thoughts on “The Impasse: When the “truth wins” assumption fails.

  1. Excellent article. I agree with Christie that it is very difficult to change people’s minds about a preconceived idea. I am active with our astronomy club and we constantly are challenged by people who will not accept scientific facts that preceive contradict their beliefs. Emotion seems to always triumph over knowledge.

    In our public astronomy outreach activities, we always emphasis that science seeks knowledge not truth. It turns out that telling the story about how Pluto became a dwarf planet seems to open their eyes to the role of knowledge in the world. People are emotionally attached to Pluto being a planet because they learned it that way. However, almost none of them know anything about the scientific facts regarding Pluto. Perhaps that is why they seem to be open to the new idea of Pluto being a “different” kind of planet. in this case, their knowledge has been challenged but not their beliefs.

  2. Very interesting. I went to a talk at the 2008 AAAS meeting where the CDC’s Anne Schuchat talked about the importance of listening skills and empathy, which seems similar to “perceived common interest.”
    (And another guy at the symposium, a congressional aide who works with science experts before they give expert testimony to Congress, said that the most common mistake those experts make is to assume that it’s all about the facts: “if you knew what I knew, then you would think what I think.”)

    In terms of vaccines, I think it’s also really important to offer people an explanation for what they think they see (in the case of vaccine skeptics, kids who seem to lose skills shortly after they are vaccinated.) And it’s got to be a better explanation than “you’re stupid.” Or the same thing wrapped in a bow, “you don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.”

    I wrote about this at the time for my paper’s blog and we actually just republished it for WHO World Immunization week:

  3. In environmental reporting, denialism often seems to be a manifestation of the will of industries with vested interests. The fossil energy and chemical industries, for example, have used their financial and political clout to create doubts in the public mind about well-established science, in order to delay regulations they perceive as costly. (Using the playbook written by the tobacco industry.)

    So I think the “blame the messenger” theory has to take account what journalists are up against.

    Simply evoking shared values may not be enough. There’s an Evangelical Christian campaign to fight climate change which has not become mainstream in that religious movement. Why not? The “climate hawks” meme, used by Dave Roberts (Grist), Thomas Friedman, and other opinionators, evokes tried-and-true, center-right American values of independence and self-sufficiency. But hasn’t caught fire with the general public–if anything, the term “energy independence” has been bastardized to advocate for more oil and gas drilling, instead of increased reliance on cleaner energy sources.

  4. Problem with those six steps is that they apply whether or not the “denialist”* is wrong or right. For example you could easily apply this to the movement against formula feeding which went against the scientific consensus at the beginning of the 1970s

    * (Love this term btw, which equates people who disagree with you over a yet to occur and obvious unknown – to wit: the future climate of our plant, with people who deny the holocaust – an historical event to which there are still living witnesses)

  5. I’m curious: Did Steve Silberman ask the one attendee about what he or she had written, who he or she had convinced, and how?

  6. I convinced someone yesterday. On vaccines, no less. They weren’t a hardcore “denialist” — but they didn’t realize the weight of the evidence.

    The first thing is that we’re not writing for the hecklers. The hecklers are part of the show. The second is that I do think even people who disagree with you can sometimes be convinced. Maybe this comes from writing about stocks.

  7. @Scott raises an important point–sometimes it’s hard to know who is right in a debate. Or, as someone at the conference said (Trudy Lieberman?) “sometimes the troll is right.” The difference between science and denial is that science is always open to new facts and those who practice it are always open to changing their minds in light of new evidence. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Scientists cling to beliefs too.

    That said, the denialism we discussed at the conference was not about differences of opinion, but about the wholesale rejection of facts.

    The thing that’s often lost in these debates is that often what appears on the surface to be a debate about science is actually a debate about values and about how to interpret the science. That the planet is warming is an indisputable fact. Our role in causing this warming is well established, though there are uncertainties within this evidence, and where the debate gets heated is when we start talking about what to do about it and what our obligations are to address it.

    Naomi Oreskes delivered a keynote making these very points, which she documented in great detail in her book. It’s hard to counteract well-funded propaganda. Still, I think values-based/narrative based arguments have merit. For instance, we discussed the “creation care” movement in my panel.

    Yes, empathy is key. And more than anything, it’s important to avoid the impulse to demonize people who don’t agree with you. When they don’t agree with you because they deny scientific facts, it’s easy to dismiss them as ignorant or idiotic. And yet, as you say, they may have good reasons, even if their opinion goes against the science.

    The story was about home births. Unfortunately, the person was at the very back of a very large room. I should have asked her to come to the microphone…it was hard to hear what she was saying.

    I totally agree that we’re not (and shouldn’t be) writing for the hecklers. One of the points I made in the panel is that some people don’t want to debate, they want to be right. It’s a waste of time to engage them. But on most issues there are many people who truly are seeking to be informed and are open to the evidence, and that’s the audience we should write for.

  8. I was the person who made the comment about home birth. As you may be aware, it is a controversial subject. I wrote a piece for Slate arguing that *if* a woman was going to choose home birth (and women do, not just as science rejectionists but for very complex reasons), research indicates that doing so with a certified nurse midwife with OB backup and hospital access is a comparably safe choice for women who have already had a first child, citing in particular prospective UK studies about it. I also cited information about the effects of prenatal and perinatal stress on child development and ability to parent. That piece is here:

    While the piece attracted the usual vituperation and insults (these things can get VERY ugly, very quickly), the New York Times Motherlode blogger KJ Dell’Antonia wrote about it ( I also blogged it more extensively on my own blog ( and found that several women who had been adamantly anti-home birth, etc., contacted me personally by email, blogged themselves, or commented on the posts about the lack of ire and accusation in the pieces and how much they appreciated their evidence-based nature. Did they personally decide to have home births? No. But they did come around to not engaging in knee-jerk vilification of women who do and to accepting that the data don’t argue as virulently against it in every single home birth scenario. And there also seemed to be some agreement that yes, women do matter in childbirth and that that’s something the medical establishment should take into greater consideration. Finally, several expressed to me how much they disliked the strident anti-home birth movement even though they agreed with it–and I think that’s telling. Stridency and condescension can even bother the choir in these situations.

    Regarding vaccines, one point I make about the timing of autism or other developmental delay symptoms with childhood vaccinations is that several purely genetic disorders, like tuberous sclerosis, often start to show symptoms also at the time of infant/toddler vaccinations. It’s not because the vaccines trigger them but because a developmental milestone has arrived at the same time as a scheduled vaccine, a milestone that a child doesn’t meet or regresses from. That happens with these genetic disorders all the time, and whether it’s tuberous sclerosis or autism, you don’t know something’s gone astray developmentally until the time comes for you to see a certain behavior (like sitting up)–and you don’t, or an acquired behavior disappears. Given the early childhood vaccine schedule and the rapidity of early childhood development, there’s almost no point in those first years that some missed milestone won’t coincide with an administered vaccine. My rule when writing about vaccines–or anything, really–is to try to stick to evidence, try to remain calm, and try to speak to people who are reading because they’re worried or genuinely seeking more information, not because they’re looking for a fight.

  9. Sorry, one more thing I wanted to mention: Something I try to hammer on (as I did at Science Online) when I discuss how to reach people about emotional topics is “perspective-taking,” which is another way to say “empathy.” I can’t say how important I think it is to slip on those other shoes and really try to feel another’s perspective and experiences when interacting with them. I find that I suddenly make the most surprising connections with people and that they come to trust me when I do that. And it can take work, especially when it involves something that’s a particular passion. But the easy way out is to be a dismissive jerk, and that gets us nowhere.

  10. The problem here is that there’s plenty of top level climate scientists and even Nobel Prize winners who are climate skeptics. They have no industry ties, and simply question the “consensus” assumptions and reasoning process. They point to evidence, data, logic, and facts to punch big holes in the AGW theory of climate change. That’s not denialism, that’s science.

    What the author and many in the business of advocating the AGW theory miss is that science is supposed to bring as many criticisms as possible to existing assumptions and proposed hypotheses like the AGW theory. It’s not even supposed to come from outsiders, but from those who propose the theories. As RIchard Feinman said, the job of the scientist is to try as hard as he can to falsify his own theory, not to defend it. Only if it can survive every possible assault is it worth preserving. But most climate scientists these days take the opposite position, that they are supposed to work as hard as they can to defend the theory, rather than to try to destroy it. They have become political advocates for a cause, rather than scientists doing the hard work of finding truth.

    When you assume that you already know the truth, and need to defend that truth against “denialism”, you have turned it into an article of religious faith, which is the opposite of the scientific method. And that’s the problem here in a nutshell, and why those running around accusing others of being “denialists” are the real problem here, not the skeptics. The AGW hypothesis of climate is not an established theory backed up by indisputable evidence. It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis, but one can’t even speak of “denialism” without indisputable evidence that proves the case beyond any reasonable doubt.

    And yes, oil companies are paying me millions to post these comments. You can reach me on my private yacht if you wish to continue the conversation.

  11. What is missing from the discussion is the moral issue of denialism. How is a science denier, say a creationist, any different (in the ethics and honesty of his statements) from a holocaust denier?

  12. conradg

    Well said. I’m not sure either, but the behaviour of the climatologists (Hansen, Mann, Jones, etc) certainly makes me doubt their impartiality. Reading ‘The Hockey Stick Illusion’ is pretty educational, too.

  13. Ed Weber,

    I can’t see that being a creationist has any serious human or political consequences to it, unlike say denying the reality of the Holocaust. Nor are creationists insincere or dishonest. They believe they are right. I don’t think most Holocaust deniers, like the leader of Iran, are anything but cynical purveyers of things they don’t even believe in, for political advantage. But what Christian creationist actually has no genuine convictions about it? (Other than Mitt Romney) And what are the real world consequences in any case? Pretty minor, really.

  14. Thank you for sharing this article. I wish I could have been at the conference. I hear your frustration about not knowing how to counteract denialism strategies. I have a few ideas about this. Firstly, I agree with Emily Willingham about the emotional considerations in the language that we are using to communicate information. The Center for Nonviolent Communication ( has some very practical exercises for teaching how to use empathetic language so that your perspective can be heard well by people with different perspectives. I would love to see these tools used by the science communication community. Secondly, I am science writer/illustrator and I cannot stress enough the importance of also including imagery as a form of science communication. When we are trying to engage a public that is not yet science literate, visual tools can have a huge impact on the perception of the content. I would love to see more collaboration between the science writers and the science illustrators so that we can create content with a deeper reach and a broader impact.

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