‘Hey Bill Nye, How Do You Reason with a Science Skeptic?’

Television Host and Science Educator
Denial comes in all flavors. Some think the moon landing was staged, some think Tupac is alive, and others reject vaccines. If the United States learnt anything in the 2016 election, it's that social bubbles need to be broken down — so how do you reason with someone who ignores evidence or bends it to fit their worldview? This has been on Bill Nye's mind more and more since climate change denial has become a political issue rather than a scientific one. People can't change their minds instantly when their beliefs are ingrained, so it's not a matter of convincing them on the spot. Nye suggests working together towards scientific understanding by tactfully pointing out that perhaps this person is rejecting evidence because the alternative makes them uncomfortable. Understanding is a process, not a flip switch. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

  • Transcript


Daniel: Hi Bill. My name is Daniel from Texas. My question is how do you reach someone who is maybe a conspiracy theorist or someone who is anti-vaccines, someone who is staunchly scientifically illiterate and agree with them on what a good source of facts is? Thank you.

Bill Nye: So Daniel. How do I recommend reasoning with a conspiracy theorist. Right now, the last couple of months I’ve been messing around with this idea of cognitive dissonance. This is to say you have a world view; You’re presented with evidence that conflicts with the world view; So you either have to change your world view, which is hard because you’ve lived your whole life with it, or you just dismiss the evidence and dismiss the authorities that may have provided the evidence. The authority could be a person or it could be a book. Or, excuse me, an article on the electric-internet-computer-machine.

So you dismiss the evidence, so that you don’t have this discomfort or conflict in your mind—this dissonance. That’s what I’m working with right now, and apparently the way to overcome that is to say, “We’re all in this together, let’s learn about this together.”
Present the conspiracy theorist with the idea that he or she may be rejecting evidence because it’s just so uncomfortable. And you’re in it together. We’re in it together. I’m uncomfortable too. But when it comes to moon landings, just ask the person how you would generate all that paperwork! The warehouses full of documentation that NASA created to make landings on the moon would overwhelm anybody trying to do it on the side. It would just be very difficult to print all that. 

And just understand it’s a process. Somebody who has a world view that’s inconsistent with evidence—and I may have some—it takes a while for you to turn around. Like the example of palm reading it’s not something that people reverse their ideas on immediately. It takes, in my experience it takes about two years for somebody to sort of look at palm reading, look at cold-reading or a tarot card reading for a while and then realize that these tarot card readers/palm readers are just taking information that you’ve given them, the client has given them, and feeding it back to you. 

It takes a long time and in the same way people who are anti-vaccine I think have just lost sight of the history. Vaccines—you know, part of the reason I’m able to be here talking with you is my grandparents did not die in 1918 during the Spanish flu when it is estimated 50 million people died—Twice as many people as were killed in combat in World War I died of this disease.

If you go to old cemeteries you can see these tombstones of very young people who died of the flu. So people just lost sight of history, and we all tend to go, “Well look at the facts. Change your mind!” But it takes people a couple of years to change their mind. So my recommendation, Daniel, is: stick with it! You’ll get frustrated, the person will get frustrated, but present the idea of cognitive dissonance. This is my latest idea about a way to work together to a scientific understanding.