How to Persuade People to Listen to Reason, from a Former Climate Skeptic

Killing prejudice with kindness is probably the best way to go, says former climate skeptic Michael Shermer. The secularist discusses his history with religion and how he speaks about it now.

Michael Shermer: So how do you win people over? Well this is the big question that skeptics, atheists, seculars have, you know. It’s like okay, we have a position here and we have a set of tenants and beliefs that we believe in science and reason and critical thinking and this is our position on all these different issues. Now how do I convince you of this?

If you attack somebody pretty aggressively and you don’t treat them with respect the wall goes up. Cognitive dissonance kicks in. “These are my beliefs and you’re telling me I’m wrong? Okay, whoa. I’m going to double down.” If I want to sell you a vacuum cleaner or whatever what’s the best thing I should do? Or I want you to take my survey so I mail you the survey and I put a dollar in there. Why do they do that? Because that’s a tried and true tested method of reciprocity. It’s like “Oh I got this dollar,” and you put it in your wallet. “Oh I’ve got a dollar. All right I better fill out the form. I feel obligated because they gave me something. I should give them something back.” It’s a basic principle of human psychology.

I will give you respect if you hear me out and you give me respect if I hear you out. And there you can at least plant a seed of doubt. It’s rare that anybody’s going to listen to the arguments about carbon dioxide or the ice core data and go “Yeah, yeah, you know, that climate skepticism stuff is a lot of nonsense. I changed my mind right now.” That almost never happens. What you want to do is just put a few things in there and then maybe the next day or a month later when they’re thinking about it and the next time they’re reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or listening to talk radio the thing – “Oh yeah, yeah. I remember Shermer was saying something about that.” And they just start thinking about it. They change their way of thinking. That begins to shift the paradigm a little bit.

I have had that range of beliefs in my life – I used to be a Christian. For example I used to be a climate skeptic. I was against gun control. So on any of these issues I can say, “You know, I used to be a Christian too.” “You were?” “Oh yeah, I totally accepted Jesus into my heart as my savior. God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son. John 3:16.” I repeated that. “Wow. What happened?” “I changed my mind.” “How come you changed your mind?” “Well, you know, I started thinking about this and that and the evidence, the problem of evil.” “The problem of evil? Oh yeah, yeah.” And so my just saying, “Well here’s what I think,” in a respectful way. “You believe what you want. I understand. I used to believe that too.” But if you do it in an insulting way like, you know, “I used to be a child too but I grew up.” The wall is going up. “You just insulted me. Bam. Well screw you too. Bam.” End of conversation.


Killing prejudice with kindness is probably the best way to go, says former climate skeptic Michael Shermer. If you attack someone aggressively on their point of view, they are more likely to double down on their beliefs. Reciprocity is a better way to go: "I will give you respect if you hear me out, and you give me respect if I hear you out." From here, says Shermer, you can at least plant a seed of doubt. The secularist discusses his history with religion and how he speaks about it now.

Why San Francisco felt like the set of a sci-fi flick

But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.

Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP / Getty Images
Surprising Science

On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.

Keep reading Show less

AI reveals the Sahara actually has millions of trees

A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.

Credit: bassvdo/Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
  • At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
  • Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Keep reading Show less

Why the number 137 is one of the greatest mysteries in physics

Famous physicists like Richard Feynman think 137 holds the answers to the Universe.

Surprising Science
  • The fine structure constant has mystified scientists since the 1800s.
  • The number 1/137 might hold the clues to the Grand Unified Theory.
  • Relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics are unified by the number.
Keep reading Show less

Americans under 40 want major reforms, expanded Supreme Court

Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.

Credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Americans under 40 largely favor major political reforms, finds a new survey.
  • The poll revealed that most would want to expand the Supreme Court, impose terms limits, and make it easier to vote.
  • Millennials are more liberal and reform-centered than Generation Z.
Keep reading Show less