How best to respond to anti-science, nonsense-loving folk.
October 11, 2013 2:22 PM   Subscribe

What are some good, persuasive (and good natured) ways to respond to folk who have zero faith in the scientific method but who happily follow every scam and pseudo-scientific nonsense that cross their path?

So, a kooky (but nice) friend of mine sent this to me as sort of an "aha!" gotcha article, and somehow it is supposed to prove to me that science is nonsense, but homeopathy and its ilk are more valid. Yes indeed, my friend is one of those people who thinks that cancer has been cured but the drug companies are keeping it from being made public. She believes that one should avoid vaccines because they cause more problems than they cure. She thinks that waving a crystal over a sick person is every bit as helpful as medicine... I'm out of words. My friend will get a lot of use out of quoting this article to justify her hatred of "big medicine", because, to her, this shows that science is corrupt and thoroughly without merit.
posted by newfers to Science & Nature (42 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Seriously, that way of thinking is so divorced from the process of weighing evidence and thereby reaching conclusions that it's unlikely that any evidence you cite is going to sway them.

Or were you not wanting to sway her, just to have some response other than an eye-roll? I think "we should probably talk about something else" is as good as I would be able to come up with, and I'll watch this space to see what other people would do. I personally can't be friends with people like this because the woo eventually winds up in an ethics incompatibility (like with herd-immunity destroying antivaxxers) that I just can't deal with.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:31 PM on October 11, 2013

Don't bother. I had a FB argument with a close friend about GMO's which has left the relationship somewhat strained.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:33 PM on October 11, 2013

You could try to cure the disease by feeding it. I recommend Everything Is Under Control by Robert Anton Wilson.
posted by No Robots at 2:35 PM on October 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

I agree that the only way to win is not to play. There doesn't seem to be any percentage in arguing rationally with this person, and taking the bait might even be construed as defensiveness or uncertainty on your part.

Ignore the email and don't bring up the article. It doesn't even make the point your friend thinks it's making, anyway.
posted by Gelatin at 2:35 PM on October 11, 2013

From the article:
He wanted to test if the scientific journals that charge a fee to publish articles had adequate peer review to weed out shoddy science. Of the 300 or so journals he approached... only 40 per cent rejected the paper.
Emphasis mine. His effort was to test FOR-PAY PUBLICATIONS, not to show that Big Science is a scam. His test proved that the majority of such shady publications are 100% shady. So really, the big news here is that 40% of these publications actually reviewed the submission enough to reject it.

But at some point, a person is so tied to their viewpoint that there is no way to shift them. They are not listening to logic, because truth comes from something else, like the gut or something. Maybe the kneecaps.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:37 PM on October 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into. There are a whole lot of tools for understanding the world that that person completely lacks, and unless you're willing to give them a complete education in the scientific method, don't waste your time. I usually, the first time someone sends me something like this, tell them that I don't want them to send me anything like that again, and if they persist, I just block/ignore them.
posted by empath at 2:38 PM on October 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

In response to that specific article, I'd start by pointing out that it fails to score points against anything except the dodgy pay-to-publish journals that it discusses. If your friend does not understand this, I guess I'd just give up.
posted by thelonius at 2:39 PM on October 11, 2013

As much as I appreciate the "don't bother" response, I really feel as though it's not good to leave stuff like this alone. I'm not interested in attacking anyone, I'm just interested in a reasonable response to what may be overlooked in her reading of this particular article, and which seems to be bolstering her "science is hogwash!" world-view. Perhaps I exaggerate here, but I find these people to be potentially dangerous, as their way of thinking is contagious within their peer group.
posted by newfers at 2:39 PM on October 11, 2013

The response to any article like that is that part of the scientific process is skepticism and exposing scientific fraud, and that this is the system working.
posted by empath at 2:42 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

My brother bought one of those rubber hologram bracelets that claim to make you stronger and more athletic. I showed him articles about how they're banned in Austrailia, and the company selling them there had to give a refund to anyone who'd bought one. He was so crestfallen and embarrassed that I wished I'd never said anything.

As MoonOrb said above, the only winning move is not to play. Even if you do convince them.
posted by wryly at 2:43 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

This is the take-away line for discussions like these. If no reasoning was involved in the first place, you can provide no reasoning to sway the person.

But because you are dedicated to trying to discuss the topic of science with this person, remember to keep calm, cool, and level-headed. Because your communications are online, if you feel your emotions rising, do something else.

Over time, you might be able to shift their views by chipping away at what they hold true. You most likely can't break it with one strong blow to their beliefs, but by pointing out the thousands of ways their cobbled beliefs are false and built on anecdotes, playing the odds, and natural systems finding their own balance with or without outside assistance.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:43 PM on October 11, 2013

The author of this study discusses his work in more detail than that CBC blurb here. Maybe that would help you find something meaningful to respond with.
posted by thelonius at 2:43 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

How about Ben Goldacre's Bad Pharma? Goldacre is, of course, a big cheerleader for evidence based medicine, as well as being an amusing and engaging writer, so this might be a good false flag.
posted by howfar at 2:43 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Buy a bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills. Try to find one with the most woo packaging you can find.

Bring them with you next time you see your friend.

Tell your friend you've been having trouble sleeping, show her the bottle, and ask her if she thinks those will help.

Take the entire bottle in one chug.

Proceed not to die.

Repeat as necessary until your friend either hates you or you will her out of being an idiot.
posted by phunniemee at 2:44 PM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

If I wanted to explain the context of that article to someone, I'd say something like "bad science making it into journals is a problem for the specific journal, but not for the community as a whole. The basis of science is that ideas are tested by experiment. If someone publishes false information, it will be disregarded if other people can't recreate the experiment. This happens all the time and is part of how scientific communities function."

But yeah, I probably wouldn't bother.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 2:45 PM on October 11, 2013

Maybe she doesn't know the difference between for-pay journals and real journals? Maybe she doesn't understand the process of peer review? Those concepts may not be within her desire to grasp, but you could point them out, I guess.

"Yeah, that's the whole point of peer review in the real journals, is to keep stuff like this out. It's why it's a good idea to check what kind of source you're getting your info from" simultaneously engages with her on the article, and points out an important general principle.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:46 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have good luck responding to people like this with extremely narrow fact-based criticisms, one tiny step at a time. So, for example:

Her: "Look, science is BS!"
Me: "That's not what that paper says."

Her: "But they'll just publish any old thing!"
Me: "That's not what that paper says. It's a criticism of one specific kind of journal. There's nothing in it that applies anywhere outside of that."

etc. It usually gets to a point where the person is either enlightened or else learns not to try and argue this stuff with you in the future.
posted by KathrynT at 2:46 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

If they don't believe in science, ask them to power their home with crystals.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:56 PM on October 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

If your friend will read through the article, the Science Mag link provided by thelonius upthread really details the larger issue with for-pay publications, and how wide-spread the issue is. Lots of Important Sounding publications are taking money from (quite literally) poor researchers, and using that money to spread any bunk that gets sold to them. At the same time, the article goes into some detail of what peer-review publications should be doing.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:56 PM on October 11, 2013

These folks generally don't understand what science is or how it works, so I talk about things like our ability to accurately predict the position of any near celestial object at any arbitrary second, past or future; how internal combustion engines and cell phones work (if science is nonsense, how did they send you an email?); things like the penny and feather in an evacuated tube demonstration, etc.
posted by kavasa at 2:56 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

One argument that I think is at least somewhat convincing for the homeopathy/natural healing set (which tend to be very liberal politically) is to ask them how they feel about global warming. Why is it that they distrust scientists in one arena (health), but blindly believe "the establishment" when it comes to global warming?

It may not be 100% effective, but pointing out that by choosing fringe voices, harping on every mainstream misstep, and refusing to accept that there is such a thing as a scientific consensus, they are doing the exact same thing as the mouth-breathers on the far right that follow the same battle plan with regards to climate change.

If people won't listen to facts, shame can be the next best thing...
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 2:57 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I feel like the line quoted above, "You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into," usually gets interpreted backwards. Most people don't reason themselves into much of any position. Our positions come out of a combination of receptivity to excitement, of habit, vague observation, and the opinions of people we trust. Think about how few people who trust the work of science, actually do any science themselves. They didn't reason themselves into that, because they didn't do the experiments themselves.

The point being, how does your friend develop these opinions? Does she find them interesting because they're presented in suspenseful exciting ways ("You'll never guess how the airlines are trying to kill you!"), or because they fit a pre-existing religious belief ("They're going to tattoo your social security number on your left hand, because if you add up the digits, that's the mark of the beast!"), because they challenge a hegemonic belief she doesn't like (the cancer and homeopathy examples above are held by a lot of people who have had awful experiences at the doctor's office), or because they come from trusted people (family, best friends, pastor), or what?

If you're going to challenge the things she sends you, then a lot depends on where your friendship is, and how tolerant you two are of disagreement. I've got friends who jokingly call me a shill for big pharma, and they know not to get into big homeopathy discussions with me, because they would find the disagreement uncomfortable. Other friends are more tolerant of disagreement, and we can joke about it rather than making it into a big argument. So, based on where your friendship is, use your sense of humor, make your rebuttal as exciting as possible, and disagree with wild abandon. Be respectful of her, but not her ideas. Short punchy answers are best, because most of the beliefs you're responding to are short and punchy (which is how they get embedded in the culture so well). And then, once you've given the answer, you've done your job. You don't have to keep hammering at it, because that gets annoying and offputting. But just do the same next time she brings it up. And the next time. So she'll either expect to be disagreed with and back off, or she'll enjoy it, and you'll discover a rich new vein of friendship based on your differences.
posted by mittens at 2:57 PM on October 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

Yes. I know it's not what you want to hear, but you're arguing against a brick wall here. You can keep arguing, but you won't win.
posted by cnc at 3:07 PM on October 11, 2013

Being argumentative or condescending - not that you would - will make it harder to get through.

Make I statements that are genuine and straightforward. "Thanks for sharing this with me. I read the article and my takeaway was that some scientific publications have unethical practices. I agree with that and I think it's a shame, because science is so important to our world. What did you think?"

It's much easier to persuade me or make me think when I feel respected and heard, and know that people are being honest without trying to MAKE me change my thinking.

Keep it short but keep the conversation open.
posted by bunderful at 3:15 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just to address a couple misconceptions above, there's not actually anything fundamentally wrong with journals that require payment to publish. They're usually open-access journals that don't make any money off subscriptions so they need the researchers to pay up-front. They range in quality from PLOS-One, which is well respected, to really crappy journals run by hucksters. So saying it's only a problem with "for-pay" journals and not "real" journals isn't the best way of framing the issue.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 3:15 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

If your friend's only "Aha! Science is not science-y!" thing was about this article, then I'd say go ahead and break that study down with her.

But given all the other stuff? Cancer is cured and Big Pharma, anti-vax, etc. - this is a very difficult thing to reason someone out of. I really feel you on the I really feel as though it's not good to leave stuff like this alone attitude, and you can try, but you must be prepared to either lose the friendship over it or stop talking about those topics altogether with her.

Anecdata: The sister of a friend of mine is anti-vax. My friend is a nurse. The sister is very smart, is college-educated, has a good amount and variety of life experience, etc. My friend, and her parents, have simply had to stop discussing this with the sister, because she will not be moved in this and it was either leave the subject alone or fracture the relationships entirely.
posted by rtha at 3:17 PM on October 11, 2013

I'd start by giving up on the dichotomy between science and woo, it makes discussion impossible and is, in my opinion, one of the main causes of the divide between people like your friend and people like you.

I'd say for most non-scientists, "science" is that incomprehensible activity conducted by (possibly evil, possibly misguided) scientists that happens in labs controlled by (definitely evil) corporations. It tends to present itself in a particular style, within a particular framework, and rejects all experience which cannot be captured within the respective framework. This obviously means that frequently people who like to describe themselves as scientifically-minded deny the validity of anything which cannot be approached within the respective framework. So science is that thing that tells you that personal experience doesn't matter, that there is no uniqueness, tries to control you via your health, seeks to defraud you via the health-system, builds golden palaces on your poverty and manipulates you via your credulity.

Now, if you divorce science and woo as an antithetical pair, and also the almost-but-not-quite the same materialist and generally spiritual attitudes from each other as well as the former pair, you have a far better chance, in my experience, to introduce people to the scientific method as one of the (very important) approaches to phenomena, whilst making it clear that you remain agnostic on issues which cannot, strictly speaking, be approached in this fashion. This might seem like an impossible concession to you, but I think it is of critical importance, because you don't ask people to shift completely from one stance to the other, but rather to build an outpost in the scientific approach to deal with relevant things.

So, the existence of God? No idea. Evolution versus creation? Different story. The virtues of homeopathy? You're waiting with interest on peer-reviewed studies which fulfill criteria xyz (quick crash-course on why peer-reviews are important/ what relevant criteria are); so far you're on the fence, and these are your worries about relying on homeopathy. Same with vaccines (concession, then worries about anti-vax arguments etc).

I think mittens above is right - people tend to fall in what gets called the "woo" camp for many reasons, but quite a few of them would be encouraged to explore further if they met with more openness and if the topic were broached from the right angle. Because there ARE good reasons to be mistrustful of SOME state-of-the-art science, at least historically. Someone above mentioned climate change - well, about 10 - 15 years ago, when my social circle consisted mainly of postgrads and lecturers, many of them in one or the other of the sciences plus engineering at a top university, pretty much everybody was a climate change denier (the many, many discussions of global warming as woo! about tree-huggers!) with the exception of a friend doing a masters in environment and development.

Once you become someone they genuinely feel they can discuss things with, you can send them the article on "how to read a scientific paper as a non-specialist" which was linked to not long ago from the blue, which is incredibly informative, whether you want to read the latest on genetics or just a report on how L'Oreal tests its face-creams.
posted by miorita at 3:35 PM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I had some luck recently with a friend who was being mildly xenophobic by saying to him essentially, "Cognitive bias. Do you know what that is?"


"Well, we all do it. We get in the habit of looking for information that tells us what we want to hear. I'm like that with movies I'm looking forward to. I'm very good at noticing the good reviews, ignoring the bad ones."

And so on. The point wasn't to win a particular argument but to entertain the notion of something we all do ...
posted by philip-random at 4:16 PM on October 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

Frankly, I am having a little trouble understanding why you are asking this. As someone who gets attacked as "woo" and "unscientific," if I were your friend, I think I would eventually reject you because it sounds like you have just zero respect for this person. I do not view people as friends who are openly contemptuous of me and clearly think I am an idiot because my world view differs from theirs.

So I have been struggling to find a way to say to you that your friend has reasons why she believes those things and she likely already gets a lot of flack off of other people. You are likely not the only person giving her the message that she is merely stupid. And it generally does not win anyone over by starting with insulting them and simply dismissing things they say out of hand. In fact, it typically comes across as you blindly rejecting anything that falls outside of your (irrational/inflexible) belief system.

This gets discussed a lot on some alternative med lists. I still nominally belong to an anti-vax list that routinely talks about conventional medicine using strong negative language to the effect that it involves brainwashing and that doctors in their white lab coats are "priests" in their "robes" and mouthpieces of an "insane religion"...etc. Thus, it is entirely possible your friend is currently asking a similar question on a "woo" list about how to convince you that you are wrong.

So I will suggest that you start from a place of wondering why she thinks these things and, for now, do not try to win her over. Just listen. At some point, you might be able to help her more clearly distinguish good science from bad but, right now, I think you do not understand her life experience and world view well enough to make any meaningful headway. Until you do, I would follow the advice that the only way to win is to not play.

I will leave you with this anecdote: An American was working in a foreign country (Asian, iirc). He was often stymied and frustrated by cultural differences. One day when he felt things were going well, he said they were finally thinking along parallel lines. The local national agreed. Not long later, things again were going badly and he expressed frustration which led to the other guy noting "parallel lines never meet", which, obviously, was not the metaphor the American had in mind when he used the expression.

You and your friend are mentally living in parallel universes. I think you need to understand the shape of hers before you have any hope of engineering a meeting of the minds. Right now, that isn't even on your agenda.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:20 PM on October 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

The idea that cancer is actually cured and that the secret is hidden from us does sort of assume that no-one in big pharma has ever had a family member or loved one die from cancer. And why would a company bother researching a drug that it has no intention of selling? That's expensive and doesn't make any business sense (and it's not like they could find the drug by accident. Well, they could find it, but proving it cured cancer would be, at least, tens of millions of dollars in clinical trials. If you aren't going to sell the drug, you won't bother doing the trials).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 5:53 PM on October 11, 2013

This snopes article regarding promising cancer treatment drugs actually has a mixed conclusion.
So it's not far reached to see that your friend who is already distrustful of the health system could read things like that and come to the conclusion that if it was found that eating a cup of grass clippings a day cured cancer, that pharmaceutical companies would fund the research needed to prove and package that as science.
I think the world needs some pessimistic thinkers around, it keeps everyone digging deeper for truth.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 6:19 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you must play...I'd say that this article gives weight to the truth that a single article does not a scientific standard make.
Studies have to be reproducible by multiple people and theories only become accepted after repeated verification.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:26 PM on October 11, 2013

BTW, that is an awesome comment by Michelle in California, that applies to a lot of stuff besides science
posted by SLC Mom at 6:31 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're never going to have a conversation if you can't find some common ground. Does she really have "zero" faith in the scientific method? Does she really contend that "science is nonsense?" Does she really "happily follow every scam ?" If she is as extreme and inflexible as that, then there is no common ground, and there is no point in engaging. But if you are painting a caricature and presenting her views in the most absurd light possible, you might want to back off just a little bit, really listen to what she is saying, and attempt to present your views respectfully.
posted by Wordwoman at 6:31 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

So, your friend read that on the Internet? ... Funny, the Internet came about because a scientist (physicist to be precise) was looking at better ways to share experimental data with colleagues. If science is nonsense, your friend should give up their computer because, without science, their computer would never have been built. Same for their phone. Actually, same for electricity, and all appliances that depend on them. Homeopathy was conceived at a time when we did not understand basic chemistry. If homeopathy is correct, then all of known chemistry is bogus.

If they don't understand these basic facts, there is likely nothing you can do to change their mind.
posted by aroberge at 6:48 PM on October 11, 2013

You could show them the short video for Tim Minchen's Storm.
posted by ovvl at 7:33 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

What are some good, persuasive (and good natured) ways to respond to folk who have zero faith in the scientific method but who happily follow every scam and pseudo-scientific nonsense that cross their path?

just your thinking in this first sentence is very all or nothing: zero faith in the scientific method, follows every scam. maybe trying to find a bit of nuance in your own thinking would help you engage your friend. things are rarely as black and white as people paint them to be--except when things really are black and white. ;) life is complex that way and there is both good & bad in both science and alternative treatments. from what you've written yes your friend believes in some pretty useless stuff, but there are plenty of alternative health treatments that are valid and studies have even been done to prove them effective. of course some are totally useless & bogus but try focusing on the ones that are valid. not everyone needs a scientific study to prove everything if they've tried something and it has worked for them a few times.

the other thing is that science does not have all the answers and has made its share of mistakes. as miorita eloquently said it is a false dichotomy to pit science and the spiritual against each other. there was just this article from the LA Times about climate change and how the science is not adding up as the global temps are not currently rising despite soaring greenhouse gas levels: Global warming 'hiatus' puts climate change scientists on the spot. (i have no clue if manmade climate change theories are right. i figured the scientists were probably correct, but now i just say "who knows".) so, embrace uncertainty, try a little humility and who knows you may even learn a thing or two from your friend someday. most of the best things in life (love, joy, etc) can't be proven by the scientific method at all and some of us *gasp* embrace both the material and the spiritual. welcome to the 21st century.
posted by wildflower at 7:45 PM on October 11, 2013

Buy a bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills. Try to find one with the most woo packaging you can find.

Bring them with you next time you see your friend.

Tell your friend you've been having trouble sleeping, show her the bottle, and ask her if she thinks those will help.

Take the entire bottle in one chug.

Proceed not to die.

Repeat as necessary until your friend either hates you or you will her out of being an idiot.
posted by phunniemee at 5:44 PM on October 11
[5 favorites +] [!]

Emphasized for due diligence.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:06 PM on October 12, 2013

Yeah. That method relies on trusting the competence of the manufacturer of the homeopathic "remedy" at making dilutions in the way they claim. It's always stunning to me when people effectively say "homeopaths are completely nuts wrt science, and also I trust them with my life when they say they've done a 10-143 dilution."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:13 AM on October 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Michele in California,

I did not post my question in any sort of attempt to START an argument with my friend. She initiated the discussion by posting the link to my Facebook wall with a snarky comment, daring me to defend my precious science. I would never do the same thing to another person ie. send an atheist quote to a Christian friend's page with a comment, for example. I post plenty of that stuff on my own wall, of course, but actually have the foresight to block some of that stuff from my more religious friends.

But in regards to the friend mentioned in my post...she sent the link to me, with the implied challenge that I couldn't POSSIBLY defend it,so I came here to AskMeFi for some advice!
posted by newfers at 4:21 AM on October 16, 2013

Have you asked her to defend her stance? Why are her beliefs any more valid than yours? That could open up a discussion about the scientific method, of investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge; based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. You can talk of biases, reproducible experiments and quantifiable results. But try to keep it more of a discussion than a lecture, opening with a small piece of information and building from there if the discussion continues.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:06 PM on October 16, 2013

I would still treat it first and foremost as an issue of mutual respect. You do not owe her justification for your beliefs anymore than she owes you justification. If you have genuinely done nothing previously to provoke her, I would address it along the lines of "Hey, it's a free country. You are allowed to go to a homeopath without first asking my permission. I am allowed to go to a doctor without asking yours. Sorry if other sciency people are being disrespectful buttheads to you but I am not. Please do not take it out on me. If you are genuinely curious why I believe what I believe, we can discuss that. But this looks like a personal attack to me and I really do not care to play that game. I consider you a friend and friendship has to be based on mutual respect. Coming gunning for me doesn't meet that standard."

If she continues to take potshots at you, I would seriously just try to distance myself. She is allowed to believe what she believes. You do not have to "fix" that. You also do not have to put up with so-called friends attacking you out of the blue for having a different world view.

Best of luck. This type of social politicking always sucks.
posted by Michele in California at 3:48 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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