14. Ice rinks and climate denial
Looking back at those awkward holiday conversations
Cold weather has settled firmly in to the northern part of the northern hemisphere. For many families, it means it is time to install a backyard ice rink. A thick slab of ice, if only it would freeze. Today’s rainstorm doesn’t help.
To the skeptics out there, backyard ice rinks are a real thing - it just takes some plywood, a giant sheet of plastic, and many hours of filling with a garden hose. Where I’m from, it used to be a mid/late November tradition for many families. But even this seems to be sliding deeper in to the year when the really cold weather finally settles in.
This always makes me think about climate change.
I concede that slushy, un-skateable ice rinks are an insignificant climate-related impact and unworthy of much mention. But whoa is the hockey player who gets on that ice too early. Turns out most skates are not waterproof. (I may, or may not, have personal experience in this area).
As a scientist, I know climate change is real and driven mostly by human behavior. Pretty much all honest scientists agree. Inevitably, you’ll be faced with those who refuse to accept that climate change is real.
Today, I’m writing for those who want some strategies to deal with these refusers.
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As the new year gets going, perhaps we might reflect on our end-of-year family get-togethers, celebrations, holidays, and vacations. It’s no surprise that this forces us from our small bubble of like-minded friends and family members and colleagues. Who knew that great Uncle Ferd is a climate change denialist? Let’s talk about some strategies when you find yourself in a conversation with a denialist.
These strategies can be useful not just in climate change, but for people who refuse vaccines, or still think cigarettes aren’t harmful. Unfortunately, there is is no magic bullet here.
Know your audience
Start by recognizing that you may have an important relationship with this person. That person may be a close family member and you have an important relationship with this person, or a distant acquaintance with whom you rarely interact. Your response, and the forcefulness of that response, may need to be tempered based on the audience.
And you don’t want to jeopardize an important relationship. Be aware and mindful of your own relationship with this individual, and don’t say something you’d regret. “You’re an idiot” doesn’t work. Full stop.
Place yourself in their shoes
It is important to have empathy for their position, and try to find out why they think this way. They are entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, just as you are. And respect their position, even if you totally disagree with it. What is it that is driving these beliefs? Can you see their viewpoint?
Popping in to someone else’s viewpoint is an important step in debate and argumentation. It requires you to suspend your own understanding and beliefs to see things through someone else’s perspective. It’s hard and uncomfortable. No one said that would be easy.
If you can have better empathy (even if you disagree with their version of the facts), you’ll be better equipped to understand why they might think this way. And if you’re in a better position to understand their rationale, you are also more prepared to counter their beliefs.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
Correct patently false statements if you know they are false, but be sure not to blame the person or their sources (news media, Facebook feeds, whatever ridiculous thing some social media influencer said). For the most part, deniers choose situations and information sources where not all of the facts are shared. They only know half of the story, and it’s the narrow, and often biased version according to their favorite opinion columnist or media rabble-rouser.
You'll sometimes struggle to convince a non-scientist of a contrary scientific fact because doing so often requires a person to weigh evidence, which can sometimes be pretty complicated. And too often, this evidence is simply not available to people. That certainly doesn't mean this person is not intelligent and analytical, of course, but it’s important to support your own positions based on facts you know.
And when you are unsure of a fact, say so. That is okay and is not an admission of defeat. Recognize, and admit, your knowledge limits.
The media and interests groups have certainly capitalized on this vacuum of information, but a large part of the blame should also be pointed to scientists, who are not exactly known as good science communicators. I write this acknowledging that I am very much a part of this profession.
Lastly, recognize that acceptance of facts cannot be forced on someone. That person has to come to those facts through their own analysis and decision-making; it’s up to you to open the doors so they can do just that.
Finding common ground is really important
Try to find some common ground. If you notice that there is less snow now, or how rainfall has changed, than in the past - even 10-15 years ago - see if they remember it that way too. Try to show them, in personal ways, how you perceive the issues before you. Make a connection to their viewpoint.
And while you may not see eye to eye on the facts, the chances are, especially if is a family member, that you share some common values and personal attributes. These are things like values and ethics, interpretations of fairness, social expectations, religiosity, etc. Shared values can be used to define common ground - to make that connection to someone else. It’s much harder to convince someone of a fact when they don’t want their version of facts to change. And if you do share these common values, how do you each interpret the problems before you, and how can these interpretations be so different?
For example, if prioritizing caring for others is a shared value, how is it that a climate denialist might be so disinterested in climate changes the lead to droughts and famine and sea level rise, and inevitable suffering that comes with those things?
Find shared values. And press on them.
Identify their Drivers
Given divergent views, try to find out why their beliefs are so different from yours. They usually fall into one of a few misguided categories. For example:
“scientists aren't to be trusted - which is really just another version of ‘they've been wrong before’”
“we just can't be sure, and even scientists say there is uncertainty or unknowns”
“climate change is a natural phenomenon”
“we have bigger problems to deal with”
“this is caused by [insert nefarious country]”
These are the ones that I’ve encountered, and I’m sure there are others. For the most part, these are opinions and not facts.
Often, people place trust in untrustworthy facts because it fits their belief narrative, and, often by choice, they are isolated from dissenting opinions by tuning in to specific and narrow sources of information.
Understanding where and how this belief narrative drives someone is really important to changing minds on important topics.
Know when to stop
Lastly, it’s important to know when to stop pressing further.
People have a natural tendency to shut down their reasoning after exhausting a discussion - some are willing to persist for quite some time and others shut off pretty quick. One must use their own judgement to determine this point - everyone has a different setpoint where they disengage. Know when you’ve reached this point, and stop. Otherwise, you risk a relationship that you might want to keep.
You won’t convert everyone - in fact, you probably won’t be able to convince half of the people you might encounter. This is not a failure, nor a reflection on your knowledge or ability.
Making the Case
The world is complicated and polarized, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution when engaging someone who takes contrary points of views to broad scientific consensus. On issues in which you feel strongly, like the importance climate change or vaccinations, or less known topics like genetically-modified foods, you will surely encounter people with very different points of view.
Though they are awkward conversations, it’s important to be aware of your relationship, build a connection, lean on your knowledge, and recognize your limits. You won’t be able to convince everyone, but always remember that these are very important, and often quite complicated, scientific issues that can have profound public health impact.
No matter your viewpoint or understanding, we all have to do better. We just have to try.
Our future depends on it.
Did I miss something in this piece? Let me know in the comments.
I think there is a point to the comments that ‘there is uncertainty and we can’t be sure’. Decision rules are decision rules, not facts