Science Deniers: How to Reach and Persuade Those Who Deny Science

Solving The Science Denier Problem:  The Problem is Growing

A Sherwood Communications White Paper

Sarah Sherwood, publicist

November 22, 2017

Many scientists are trying to figure out how to have constructive conversations with climate change Deniers.  Extensive efforts to educate certain populations have not lead to significant shifts in a change of opinion. Using fear or guilt has not been effective in getting people to act, either. As a publicist who has worked with scientists for many years, I share insight into how to appeal to and influence these publics.

Science Denial Is Growing

We know that the majority of Americans care deeply about the environment.  But due to recent elections we also know that the minority—those who do not believe climate change is real and doubt science in general—can have big influence on policy.  Here we are, with elected officials and the president’s EPA working against what we know to be helpful to the environment.  It’s extraordinary.  Moreover, we know from Gallup data and social scientists that a shocking 32%[1] of Americans don’t believe in climate change, and that group is actually growing, so we need to act.  What can science-based organizations do to sway science Deniers to examine the truth?  Is there a way?  I believe there is.

As a country, we’re used to concrete facts being taken as such, and we’re used to society having patience for the theories worth testing.  What is new is the trend toward almost immediate denial of climate change and growing apathy about change in a significant minority of Americans, even though the current administration acts contrary to the majority of public opinion.

The lesson lies in treating the Denier population as scientists do normally when studying it. 

How To Begin to Reach Deniers:  Seven Recommendations to Reach and Influence

As we work with different populations, we also deal with unpredictable behavior.  We are complex beings who are often tough to figure out.  But we know what denialism is: a person's choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth.[2]    At this time in history we have a challenge:  How to deal with people who deny facts, who live in an alternative, almost cult-like world of reaction and dogma that has real consequences.  This audience may interpret the Christian Bible without a coherent explanation and historical context.  They may determine to vote a certain way because of other issues important to them, thereby convincing themselves in an illogical attempt to side with a political party or some other social group.  They may believe that “the money’s not in it,” when in fact, the investment in alternative energy is both profitable and popular. 

Whatever their reason, climate change denial is dangerous and considered a national security issue to those who study it.  So how do we communicate so that these publics can begin to listen and be open to scientific expertise once again?  Here are several of my recommendations:

1.  To Begin to Engage, Really Know the Audience

To begin to search for answers in the way we can publicly communicate, we need to look at our audience:  who is the climate denier?

Generally speaking, they are Evangelical Christian Conservatives[3], but that’s not all.  They are also executives who have a financial investment in oil and other products that are unfriendly to the environment.  There are other groups who fit into the Denier audience category, including anti-government groups, low-income Americans and lower-educated Americans.   For each group, there is a perceived “payoff” to denying climate change.  These three rewards can be helpful for formulating a communications strategy aimed at educating Denier Americans:

A.  A social reward:  the bonds they so desire are there when they “agree” with their social group and its leadership.  Understandably, this “opinion” is not deep (because they are followers), but it does matter at the ballot box.  Because this opinion doesn’t begin with their experience, but with the leaders of their social group, there is an opportunity to educate them on the science, and there is a way to communicate the facts that I will go into below.

Oil and gas executives also gain socially, patting each other on the back with each “win” against the environment.  There is an “in” there, too.

B.  A financial reward:  Obviously oil and gas is a very profitable business.  But there is one industry that is suffering due to lay offs and industry predictions and that is coal.  They are losing both profit and reputation.  So we have opportunity here as well, with coal industry executives, to create ways to help them profitably transition to more meaningful methods of energy. Once we make headway there, we can use that success to reach oil executives, too.  There is a long-term strategy here that I believe in.  Proving that the financial rewards are short term begins with shining a light on what has happened with coal.  The growing unpopularity with the oil and gas industry is the next story.

C.  The last is what I call “a passion reward.”   Believing in something powerful gives you a personal reward, a feeling of belonging plus another personal belief that helps define you, so that you feel knowledgeable, helpful and content in who you are.  This is especially rewarding to lower educated and lower income Americans.  But does this passion reward sound familiar?  We all crave this; however, some form passions based largely on fact—and some do not.

One insight into the Evangelical group is how they are strong followers of evangelical leadership.  They believe each leader is sent from God, so they follow their instructions closely.  A tight community, they are often monitored by each other, as well as the leadership.  Those who fall in line are accepted and those who don’t are “counseled” to believe and act differently.  Those who disagree may still be accepted by the group, (depending on the issue), but there remains a tension between the disagreeing person and the rest of the community. 

There is much more insight here, but my point is that armed with intimate knowledge about what motivates Deniers, we can begin to formulate strategies to both reach and educate them.  Which brings us to the next critical step…

2.  Recruit Those Deniers Admire to Spread Important Facts

Taking what we know about Deniers into consideration, begin to form partnerships with leaders who may have influence, perhaps Evangelicals who do believe thoughtfully in conservation, animal-welfare and/or public health to present the science.  Using language that is respectful of what they believe, meet them where they are by praising their beliefs in scientific fact. 

There are Christians, Christian leaders, Republicans[4], Libertarians[5], National Executive Groups[6], as well as Oil Executives[7], who are concerned about the environment and share an appreciation for what has been discovered about climate change and the dangers it poses.  For example, recently, several thinking Republicans have supported measures aimed at “using American innovation to improve environmental stewardship.”[8]

Approaching climate-conscious conservatives and other supportive groups and individuals and urging them to speak out on the issue—separately from known environmental groups--is a way to meet these groups where they are without making them feel threatened.  Since many of the groups who are dismissive of the environment are followers, they can have great influence.  Some in the environmental movement are taking it further by communicating to those who do not believe in climate change in respectful ways.[9]  Choosing language that is more psychologically influential is a powerful part of public communication.

The best way for these leaders to communicate with Deniers is to show them how and why they support the environment.  Indeed, there are intellectual Christian arguments to support the environment[10] and there are economic and pro-investment reasons as well.  I often refer to the economic successes of solar energy, for example.  And I’ve recited this scripture:  “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.” (Numbers 35:33-34)  Speaking in their language is often a strong motivator, but encouraging and making way for a leader they admire, be it an astronaut or military leader, who speaks their language, and is motivated by some of their own beliefs, is much stronger than going alone.

3. Give Republicans the Tools To Save Face

I believe, based on what’s going on in Washington, that many elected Republican officials want to support the environment, but the extreme wing of the party currently carries too much influence.  Environmental issues are typically seen as a liberal agenda, with climate change action and green energy policy originating with the Democratic party and its voters only. That motivates Republican members to push back for political reasons rather than what they actually believe is true.  But what if they came up with a superior policy all on their own?  What would a creative Republican-driven climate-friendly policy look like?  What if they were the heroes who got something done and worked across the isle to win bi-partisan support?  Both parties would win, but more importantly, our environment would benefit.

It’s not all politics; denial is also a reality of our evolutionary make-up, which leads me to another evolutionary secret to persuasion…

4.  Appeal to Women to Talk to Denier Men about Climate Change: A Personal Campaign

Do mothers, grandmothers, wives, aunts, daughters and sisters have influence?  You bet they do.[11]  We have a courageous army we don’t acknowledge.  In fact, a majority of conservative women believe in climate change.[12]

A highly personal campaign, showing concern for loved ones is not only smart, it is necessary.

Just as commercials about Medicare show women speaking to their husbands about the importance of their health, the right kind of campaign educates Republican families on why Republicans, Nixon and Ford, for example, supported the environment.  I see Christian wives, sisters, aunts and daughters who can argue what the Bible really says about environmental stewardship.[13]  And the smartest gender on investment could talk to their husbands about why supporting environmental investment and dollars is critical, as well as their vote.

And there is another critical audience that has influence...

5.  Smart American CEO’s Should Speak Directly To Wall Street Republicans

The immature, simple-minded fight over climate change policy often shows itself as the economy-versus-environment debate.  It makes for great television drama, but it isn’t quite right.  It’s the ugliness of politics at work and overcoming that position is complicated.  But lining up the facts as well as CEOs who recognize why this is so important, may be easier with Wall Street Republicans, who can be moderate on the environment.  Regulations is their dirty word, but here you have a greater educated public than the other audiences we have discussed here. CEO’s care about their businesses and the markets effected by climate change at the end of the day, and we need to show them how a healing environment is worth their time and energy—as well as their reputation.

And speaking of markets…

6.  Go Local and Bring the Threat Home

Segmenting is the way publicists and public communicators effectively spread ideas--and it is effective.  To counter the disconnect that we’ve been talking about, talk to all audiences about what they see happening and why.  Why are there more hurricanes that hit our town?  Why are the trees in our forest dying?  Why is the cost of our local oranges going up? Climate change discussions need to be framed as matters related to current impacts at the local level. It is great that we want to save polar bears, but what will motivate most people are the risks right now, and in their own backyard.

We know humans tend not to protect those things they either don’t know or don’t value, so ingraining a sense of value in their backyards is critical. In fact, there is a strong relationship between an individual’s connection to nature and their ecological behavior.

The last tactic is…

7.  Conduct Preventative Campaigns

Last, it is not enough to push out the facts; you also must combat misinformation.  According to inoculation theory, facts are important but by themselves aren’t sufficient to convince people as long as misinformation is also a daily reality. People also have to be inoculated against the misinformation. [14]  This means pre-emptively protecting public attitudes about climate change against real-world misinformation.

We know now that a foreign government has been seeking to spread false information here in the U.S. in order to cause chaos.  We also know that groups here are doing the very same thing.  As I mentioned, there are groups who listen to this information and they are followers—and they actually look for consensus cues. [15]  In the absence of their own intellectual curiosity, and often feeling marginalized themselves, what should I believe is their own internal struggle.  These are not truth seekers; they are easily fooled.  How do we help them?  By taking them out of their subjective perception and clearly showing them the overwhelming consensus that climate change is real and threatening.  Along the way, you want to use the correct spokespeople to communicate with them about the weakest parts of the untruth, explaining the fallacies employed by the myth. Once the audience understands the techniques used to distort the truth, they can reconcile the myth they once believed in with what is real.

There is both a wrong and an effective way to communicate this.  We must be dedicated to communicate in their language, with leadership they respect and through media outlets they watch and read.  After all, it is issues that drive wave elections, but that only makes a difference when voters understand who truly represents their beliefs.

We can showcase the message that we can all acknowledge that our intuition can be wrong at times, therefore forgiving this giant and unfortunate mistake of denial.[16]

Again, there are communications strategies that will meet the Deniers right where they are, in order to finally get through to them, but only once we believe it can be done.

Sarah Sherwood is a publicist in Northern California who has worked for Stanford Hospital & Clinics, Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, the CDC and many other clients in science and medicine.  She is the chair of hospitality for her beloved church.