The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

When Facts Backfire

published January 2017
Why worldview threats undermine evidence
magazine cover

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Anti-vaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud. The 9/11 truthers focus on minutiae like the melting point of steel in the World Trade Center buildings that caused their collapse because they think the government lies and conducts “false flag” operations to create a New World Order. Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the PPM of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations. Obama birthers desperately dissected the president’s long-form birth certificate in search of fraud because they believe that the nation’s first African- American president is a socialist bent on destroying the country.

In these examples, proponents’ deepest held worldviews were perceived to be threatened by skeptics, making facts the enemy to be slayed. This power of belief over evidence is the result of two factors: cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect. In the classic 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger and his co-authors described what happened to a UFO cult when the mother ship failed to arrive at the appointed time. Instead of admitting error, “members of the group sought frantically to convince the world of their beliefs,” and they made “a series of desperate attempts to erase their rankling dissonance by making prediction after prediction in the hope that one would come true.” Festinger called this cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously. Two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (a former student of Festinger), in their 2007 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) document thousands of experiments demonstrating how people spin-doctor facts to fit preconceived beliefs to reduce dissonance. Their metaphor of the “pyramid of choice” places two individuals side by side at the apex of the pyramid and shows how quickly they diverge and end up at the bottom opposite corners of the base as they each stake out a position to defend.

In a series of experiments by Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan and University of Exeter professor Jason Reifler, the researchers identify a related factor they call the backfire effect “in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.” Why? “Because it threatens their worldview or self-concept.” For example, subjects were given fake newspaper articles that confirmed widespread misconceptions, such as that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When subjects were then given a corrective article that WMD were never found, liberals who opposed the war accepted the new article and rejected the old, whereas conservatives who supported the war did the opposite … and more: they reported being even more convinced there were WMD after the correction, arguing that this only proved that Saddam Hussein hid or destroyed them. In fact, Nyhan and Reifler note, among many conservatives “the belief that Iraq possessed WMD immediately before the U.S. invasion persisted long after the Bush administration itself concluded otherwise.”

If corrective facts only make matters worse, what can we do to convince people of the error of their beliefs? From my experience:

  1. keep emotions out of the exchange,
  2. discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum),
  3. listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately,
  4. show respect,
  5. acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and
  6. try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

These may not always work to change people’s minds, but now that the nation has just been put through a political fact-check wringer, they may help reduce unnecessary divisiveness.

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42 Comments to “When Facts Backfire”

  1. Cronin B. Vining Says:

    Good advice, no doubt, and much appreciated. But is there actual evidence that it works? Sometimes, it seems to me, passion and direct confrontation are actually required carry the day. I mean, which was more effective? Chamberlain’s appeasement? Or the more confrontational “When in the course of human events” approach? I honestly don’t know. But the path were on these days seems quite a dangerous one, so discussion of strategic and tactical efficacy, such as yours here, seems absolutely appropo.

  2. Russell Willmoth Says:

    I note the following about those that believe in conpiracy theories – they really believe in one or two conspiracies but go for them all.
    I read the following some years ago, and have found it to be predictive of conspiracy belief. Ask which numbers are most likely to win the national lottery next week:
    a) the same numbers as last week;
    b) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
    c) 6 random numbers.

    Conspiracy believers always go for option c). The reason is a lack of understanding of stats contributing to a tendency to see patterns in data which aren’t there.

    My observation is that belief in conspiracy seems more common in the USA, possibly caused perhaps by poor science education and widespread religious belief?

  3. Mike Colyar Says:

    Ah, Mr. Shemer you are operating a false belief yourself. That belief being that the country does NOT need to be torn apart.

    Please go and re-read the dialog on the movie Blazing Saddles where Gene Wilder says, “You’ve got to remember that these people are simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know . . . morons”.

  4. Paul Braterman Says:

    When dealing with creationists, I emphasise the role of churchmen in establishing the geological column, and prominent believers such as Henry Drummond, Charles Kingsley, and Asas Gray in promoting Darwin’s ideas, as well as using people like Dennis Venema and Ken Miller as sources, while identifying them as believers.

    Suggestions for similar tactics when dealing with climate change deniers?

  5. Tony cusano Says:

    Perhaps the title of this essay should be, “everyone has cognitive dissonance l, except me”.

    For example: how do skeptics reconciile their emotional lament over the election of Donald Trump with their firm belief that the election was predetermined by the initial conditions of the Big Bang? Seems to me the skeptics don’t even listen to their own facts.

    How can skeptics claim that meaning does not come from outside of nature, but rather that humans can only forge their own meaning, when humans are merely puppets of natural forces whose inexorable actions began with a massive release of concentrated entropy 13.8 billion years ago?

    Skeptics, just like their religious brethren, arrange the facts to fit their own world view.

    If skeptics want to eliminate divisiveness perhaps the first step should be to stop believing that they have all the answers that others don’t. Why not accept the simple fact that science helps all of us live better lives, but it cannot tell us how to conduct them. That requires finding goals and values that ALL can share, and nurturing the connections that allow us to work toward sustaining them.

  6. Terry Says:

    ” Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the PPM of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations.”

    No. AGW is wrong because the models and predictions of temp increase, massive storms, ice free Arctic, famines, extinct liar bears, and biblical droughts have not been observed. The scientific method – observe, hypothesize, test, observe – has proven it wrong.

  7. peter Says:

    When you use the false and insulting term “climate deniers” you violate your own rules of engagement. Many people are skeptical of apocalyptic global warming predicions and take a more moderate position. They deeply resent emotionally inflammatory comparisons to holocaust deniers.

  8. al finnell Says:

    Global warming: Let us solve the ‘problem’ Here is the ONLY solution.
    Science requires release of data for other Scientists to duplicate and validate. Science needs no ‘consensus’.
    “Art’ requires no stinking validation. “Art’ just requires a bunch of fools following one after the other in a daisy chain of failure and failed follow the herd theories.
    Who is promoting ‘global warming’? Why are they promoting ‘global warming’? What is causing ‘global warming’? We must get to the root cause!
    The Vatican oppressors and their ilk are promoting the ‘global warming’.
    YES, we must assume that the Vatican oppressors are correct!
    If there is ‘global warming’ as is stated by all the ‘undeveloped’ (CATHOLIC AND MUSLIM_) countries, then what is the reason they are stating there is ‘global warming’ when they do not have the scientific knowledge to prove these claims?
    Vote for ANY Catholic and science is denied.
    Now, it is time to get to the root cause, and the ONLY means of correcting ‘ global warming’. This is to make fewer CATHOLICS! Birth control is the ONLY means of doing any meaningful control of ‘global warming’!
    Poopie, get out the education, have ALL the CATHOLICS do birth control! Hey, Muslims are reproducing their own version of brain ded so all the Muslims must practice birth control also!

  9. Sarp Kaya Says:

    How ironic that you claim :

    “The 9/11 truthers focus on minutiae like the melting point of steel in the World Trade Center buildings that caused their collapse because they think the government lies and conducts “false flag” operations to create a New World Order.”

    and then proceed to give Bush’s Iraqi WMD invasion as an example further down.
    Are you claiming that the Bush administration, as well as all the other leaders of the “Western” world, (Blair, etc) were duped in to seeing WMD’s in Iraq ? Modern spy satellites can read the fine print on a matchbox.
    9/11 is not just about minutiae. I personally have read and watched many hours of evidence that can not be ignored and which have been blatantly covered up by authorities.
    False flag operations have always been a part of the US’s modus operandi. Claiming otherwise is naive to say the least.

  10. R. Romanuk Says:

    Returning to the subject, “When Facts Backfire,” eSkeptic has a unique opportunity in the months ahead to dissect the mushrooming phenomenon of fake news. One obstacle may be selecting examples which do not rankle sentiments of any readers.

    It is interesting to note that some consider it may be time to actually “blow up” the country, not unlike the current situation in Western Europe. The out going President will be remembered for saying, “We are stronger together,” yet many do not subscribe to this sentiment. Following two world wars in Europe, the constitutional crisis in Canada almost 40 years ago (Quebec separation) and the US civil war, many places in the world learned that sharing common interests leads to increased prosperity. It is sad to think the lessons learned are so easily discarded.

  11. Pete Says:

    Thanks, Michael. Your level-headed good sense stands in sharp contrast to your critics. Who could be more science-averse than climate change deniers? I wonder if they visited 97 out of 100 doctors who urged them to take serious action to avert catastrophic health consequences, if they would be equally in denial. (Can’t trust those experts!) I agree with R. Romanuk on the dangers of fake news.

  12. kennwrite Says:

    I wonder if people who comment read everything you’re saying. The key point is that to understand what your opposition is saying … listen, respect, consider the other side, differentiate between fact and two opposing opinions.

    This is a brilliant article.

    I find it disturbing that ‘fact-checkers’ in the media generally have no concept of what fact is. Fact is limited to the laws of physics (including physics, chemistry and electronics), reported dates, e.g., I was born on February 29, and a smattering of other indicators. Most arguments are one opinion pitted against another where each side falls into the trap of argumentum ad verecundiam, an appeal to a reverence for an authority, i.e., it must be true because Harvard said so, without examination of the actual blind test data.

    Mr. Shermer, I don’t know how I could survive and maintain my sanity if your voice did not exist.

    Brilliant article !

  13. Thomas Says:

    The claim that 97% of climate scientists believe in global warming is bogus. I believe that the earth has warmed and that human CO2 emissions have had some effect so I would land in the 97%. But I’m highly skeptical of claims of dangerous climate change. Earth would provably be devoid of life if not for the effect. We know that CO2 is a mild greenhouse gas but we have no credible evidence to suggest that future warming will be different from the warming earth experienced in the past one hundred years; i.e. so mild as to be detectable only with sensitive instruments and all most certainly beneficial for humans and the biosphere that we are inexorably linked too. There are some climate models that predict increased warming but they are not accurate. When run with initial conditions set to the past, the models predict much more warming than has actually occurred. Media hype to the contrary, there has been no global increase in drought or flooding or destructive storms. CO2 is plant food and a mild greenhouse gas. Mild warming and increased atmospheric fertilization will almost certainly be beneficial to us and our biosphere. Predictions of pending doom are based on unverified assumptions of large positive feedbacks to the small effect of adding CO2 and predictive models that have no predictive skill. If all the global warming that occurred over the lifetime of anyone reading this comment were to occur all at once, over the time it takes to read this sentence, the average reader would not be able to detect the change. People who call people like me “deniers” are uninformed fools who have allowed themselves to be misled by a movement that lacks credible evidence to support it’s most fundamental claims.

  14. Johnny Mac Says:

    In response to Sarp Kaya:

    You say, “I personally have read and watched many hours of evidence that can not be ignored and which have been blatantly covered up by authorities.”

    My question for you: What hypothesis does the evidence you have read and watched support?

    I agree that many governments have a demonstrated history of underhanded behavior, but it would be helpful to those of us who accept the FEMA version of events (which are based on a very clear hypothesis) to understand exactly what those who reject the FEMA version are claiming happened that day.

  15. Luciano Guerin Says:

    Where to begin, I see how a lot of people are entitled and they’re usually the skeptical liberal or the stone cold conservative. I’ve noticed how some people think they’re right and everyone else is wrong and they say this because they have some supportive evidence that points to the direction that fits their agenda. Ive been following Shermer for a while and I would say that a true sign of intelligence is when a person can see both sides of a position without having any biases, emotional attachment or internal conflict. The problem is most people feel they are entitled no matter what side of the fence they’re on. The reality is no one is entitled to anything only what you have earned. It’s a dog eat dog world, not my rules but if I want to survive I must learn the ways. If I put my energy into things that don’t matter than I’m a fool for waisting what little time we all have on this planet. we can focus on things that matter and will bring positivity to our community,our families and ourselves. Not things that distract us from bettering our lives.There is no difference between the skeptics and conspirators, they both want to be the middle man between you and the truth.

  16. Carol Samuelson Says:

    You’d be more convincing if your examples of flawed world view did not all 100% feature right-wing. This demonstrates to me that your own world-view just possibly skewed also. “A man can be a woman” !!?? No argument or else fines or jail! What about view that Hillary/Dems/Left equal “compassion”? Have you read those famous emails? That Democrats “care.” “If you like your doctor?” “Russians hacked the election.” “They want to put you back in chains.” MacArthy, turns out, according to released Soviet docs, was right. You are too blinded by your far-Left worldview to take seriously on topic of “science.”

  17. Peter Gowdy Says:

    In response to: Johnny Mac

    I am pretty sure it was NIST and not FEMA who documented and tried to scientifically explain how the twin towers fell that day. I don’t think one needs a hypothesis to investigate how things happened. There is plenty of credible experts who claim there is no way that physics or chemistry can explain how the twin towers were pulverized and fell directly into their own footprints. Such experts can be found at the group ‘Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth’. These are the people who design and build these skyscrapers. No one is more qualified to speak on this than this group of experts. There are many theories about what did bring them down, and many of them frankly sound outrageous. But if these architects and engineers have a hypothesis, I bet it is that there is no way that burning jet fuel could have taken down those buildings the way they did. I really don’t know what did bring those buildings down, especially building 7. Most of us ‘truthers’ aren’t trying to blame Bush & Cheney for all of this. They do not know. What they do believe though, is that the planes and their fuel could not have caused the towers to fall. And building 7 fell without a plane flying into it.
    I too find the author to be a little arrogant in his implication that everyone else has cognitive dissonance except me (good one Tony Cusano, above). There certainly have been conspiracies in the past, and there will very likely be conspiracies in the future. To deny that conspiracies exist is folly. When someone suspects a conspiracy, they are immediately labelled as a ‘crazy conspiracy theorist’. This is exactly what the conspirators would want the rest of us to do: ridicule these crazy people. Sure some of these theories are not believably true, but it is very likely, because conspiracies do exist, that some of these crazy conspiracy theories are true. So please stop Mr. Shermer with your own bias. Also, Darwinism isn’t the opposite of creationism. Evolution is the opposite of creationism. Darwinism is simply a theory that tries to explain how evolution happens. I happen to think it is crazy. But evolution exists whether or not Darwin was right.

  18. BillG Says:

    My skepticism tends to kicks in when studies conducted on “subjects” who are then grouped/labeled as “liberal” or “conservative”.

    This is not always quantifiable and can lead to poor conclusions. Though, perhaps my view is naive or too skeptical.

    Going off subject, is it coincidental that we are 2-days away from Trump’s inauguration and “Barnum $ Bailey” is closing after 100+ years? Perhaps the circus business became too competitive.

  19. Martin Kentish Says:

    I was encouraged, then saddened by the article.

    “In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them.”

    These were the encouraging words, let down by the clear dismissal of anything other than Darwinian naturalism. Of course, how you interpret any evidence (particularly that cannot be reproduced in the lab) will hinge on your particular worldview.

    I think most people are seeking truth. It’s a far more rewarding and intellectually honest pursuit to endeavour to understand each worldview at a mature level, interpret the same evidence through them, then make the best inference.

    Does examination of any genome show that mutations are increasingly breaking stuff? Can you interpret the fossil record show life coming into existence suddenly, not changing much whilst adapting broadly (cats remaining cats for example)?

    In my experience anyone who questions a naturalistic worldview for example, will be met with emotional reactions and derision. I am sure there are creationists that sadly react in the same way.

    So although I welcome the article, thankyou Michael for writing it, it would be good to acknowledge that you too are subject to the topic of your article with your own particular worldview.

  20. Randall Jay Says:

    “Climate deniers study tree rings, ice cores and the PPM of greenhouse gases because they are passionate about freedom, especially that of markets and industries to operate unencumbered by restrictive government regulations”

    The “climate deniers” (your pejorative) I personally know, don’t study anything. They just believe the reports they wish to.

    The skeptics I know, carefully review the evidence, supportive or not, and keep an open mind regarding the likelihood of possible outcomes of projected from the data.

    The political activists I know like to take a position, and get the masses all worked up with partial truths and dismissive pejoratives.

    Maybe this last group is the place to start a discourse.

  21. Johnny Mac Says:

    In response to Peter Gowdy:

    NIST. Of course. Thanks for the correction.

    I think my point is that while questioning the official version of the events of 9/11 is natural and warranted, I am troubled by the apparent inability of “truthers” to explain to me what these inconsistencies and differences in opinion mean. You are correct when you say that no hypothesis is needed to investigate how things happened. However, the conclusion, or at very least the implication of what is being put forth by the truther movement is that we are being lied to. This conclusion begs a whole host of very legitimate questions, for which there are no apparent answers. It seems to me that untill a working hypothesis is put forward by the movement, much of the scientific community, skeptics (like me), the media and the public at large will not take truthers seriously.

  22. Michael J. Welch, Ph.D. Says:

    I think the divisions of “left” and “right” or “liberal” and “conservative” are not accurate ways to attempt to categorize the population.

    A more accurate way would be to use “dogmatic” and “pragmatic.” Of course, no one person is all dogmatic, or all pragmatic: we each have varying degrees of dogmatic and pragmatic beliefs. However, people tend to lean more to one than the other.

    For example, religious believers lean heavily to the dogmatic side, and scientists lean heavily to the pragmatic side. But to understand this better, we need to understand what dogmatism and pragmatism is.

    Pragmatic thinkers approach problems from a practical and logical point of view. They consider evidence, test hypothesis, and evaluate results, rather than depending on established thinking alone. They weigh heavily that which can be observed, measured, and experienced. Pragmatic thinkers are always asking questions and seeking answers, only to discover new questions. Pragmatic thinkers try to convey their ideas by reason and knowledge and evidence.

    Dogma is a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted; it is a code of beliefs for which there is no empirical evidence; it is fixed, never changing, all knowing and powerful; it demands obedience and is uncompromising; it is authoritative. Dogmatic thinkers try to convey their ideas by ridicule and derision of their opponent’s beliefs.

    Dogmatic thinkers are people who guide their lives by dogma, and who put forward those ideas (inappropriately) as if they were hard facts that should be accepted as absolute truths without evidence. When they encounter people with differing beliefs, they display an attitude of condescension. Carl Sagan liked to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” but for dogma, there is no evidence to consider. Dogmatic beliefs are authoritarian, which means they require their believers to obey the rules of the dogma, and eschew personal freedom. This always requires a blind submission to authority.

    Authority is the concentration of power in a leader who is not directly responsible to his followers. Every dogmatic movement has an authoritarian leader, whether dead or alive: religions are the most common example of these, but political movements are also built around authoritarian leaders.

    Dogmatic political movements lead to authoritarian regimes and dictators.

    Pragmatic political movements lead to democratic regimes and elected leaders.

    Mike Colyar’s dialog from “Blazing Saddles” expresses the opinion that common people are “morons.” While I disagree with that opinion, it is true that dogmatics eschew real facts which disagree with their dogma and substitute their own “facts” which are unsupported by any evidence, but support their dogma. Hence, to some, they appear to be “morons.”

    To me, real facts can’t backfire; they can only be rejected and exchanged for fictitious facts because real facts don’t support dogma.

  23. Phillip I Gold Says:

    Dr. Shermer, isn’t it about time that progressives stop bringing boxing gloves and the Marquis of Queensbury rule book to a knife fight? Polite engagement, Where has it gotten us?

  24. Michael J. Welch, Ph.D. Says:

    Phillip, I agree with you that this idea that Democrats are more civil and inclusive is an illusion. President Obama picked James B. Comey (a Republican) to show that he was “inclusive.” At the time, I was asking myself, “Why is he picking so many Republicans? You mean to tell me there are no Democrats that qualify?”

    His show of inclusiveness with the Republicans in that case lost Hillary the election.

    I’m glad I’m an independent.

  25. Roy Niles Says:

    The problem is, how does anyone convince Shermer of the error of his beliefs as a neo-Darwinist?

  26. Ron Smith Says:

    Tony Cusano states
    “For example: how do skeptics reconcile their emotional lament over the election of Donald Trump with their firm belief that the election was predetermined by the initial conditions of the Big Bang? Seems to me the skeptics don’t even listen to their own facts.” ETC

    Does anyone else wonder what he is talking about? I don’t.

  27. Ron Smith Says:

    Sorry typo , I meant does anyone understand what he is talking about.

  28. Yahzi Says:

    The fact is that race is a social construct, with no meaningful scientific validity.

    Therefore a lot of facts must go; indeed, the entire body of science.

    If scientists could just prove that white men are physically, intellectually, and morally superior to everyone else, regardless of circumstances; then they would love science! Until then, though, it’s the enemy.

  29. Stuart Mathieson Says:

    Very informative and stimulating account. I’ve known about the cognitive dissonance explanation for some time. In fact it’s closely linked to the motivation that makes moral rules work. Our basic values, disregarding for the moment psychopathology, motivate because they are in a sense our “self”. Denying the self appears on the surface to be conceptually impossible. Something would have to give.
    Michael’s account though assumes deniers are sincere. I’m sure this is not always the case. There are psychopaths for example who understand the rules of intellectual and scientific integrity but choose not to abserve them.
    There is another group who out of a misplaced sense of intellectual superiority, think there is no harm in game playing to demonstrate their superior ability at articulating complex detailed arguments. They treat encounters, particularly on line encounters as a sort of chess game that they are particularly good at. Often these people appear to win the day in public debates because the earnest scientist finds it difficult to anticipate the arguments these people marshal. In any event they are more practised at sophistic arguments.

  30. Roy Niles Says:

    What Shermer and many others don’t seem to know is that we all use a trial and error predictive process to think at all, and there is no such thing as cognitive decision making without the probability of mistakes. He also doesn’t seem to realize that it’s our own mistakes rather than someone else’s that we must. for survival purposes, learn the most from.
    Much or most of this learning is done within our “subconsious” thinking systems, where we seem more able to consider our mistakes than to consciously admit that we have made them. Shermer’s set of rules leave that self correcting learning necessity out completely.

  31. Joe Says:

    “…demonstrating how people spin-doctor facts to fit preconceived beliefs to reduce dissonance.”

    shermer frequently exhibits his own preconceived belief that conspiracies don’t occur or, at very least, occur but rarely. he then spin-doctors various facts to fit that particular preconceived belief of his. he does this by narrowly focusing on one or two minor facts of a conspiracy, ignoring many major facts, in order to support his preconceived belief and dismiss the conspiracy theory.

    some years back he dismissed the ongoing belief that john kennedy was assassinated by conspiracy by stating his fact that he’d been to dealy plaza, went to the 6th floor of the school book depository, and proclaimed the shots as easy; therefore no conspiracy. above he does the same with 9/11 “truthers” by citing only the melting point of steel argument and failing to acknowledge the many peculiar anomalies that occurred around that event. and he does the same with anti-vaxxers by claiming they all believe that vaccinations cause autism when many questioning the efficacy of vaccinations have several concerns having nothing to do with autism.

    the sad fact is that shermer’s preconceived beliefs about conspiracy all too often lead him to ignore, misstate, or spin facts that run counter to his bias.

  32. MeowCat Says:

    I rarely read the comments section of these articles so I must ask if detractors typically respond this way? It seems like many of the critics are more interested in the chance to attack Shermer or to display what they think is a superior understanding. No doubt that can happen but it’s not happening here.

    The following statement is a good example: “There is no difference between the skeptics and conspirators, they both want to be the middle man between you and the truth.” This false equivalency is an admission they don’t know what a skeptic is and why conspiracy theories are often problematic especially with regard to evidence vs. belief.

    Someone states they are “highly skeptical of claims of dangerous climate change” being supported by 97% of climate scientists without addressing it. Instead, they chuck out a couple piece of unsupported information that does not address the consensus and walk away from the actual literature.

    Claiming that Dems are less civil because of Hilary’s personality or a handful of cherry-picked unmet promises (ever add up the Rep’s unmet promises not to mention deadly wars?) completely ignores the larger policy and historical evidence. Dems are not the paragon of civility but there is no comparison between the two groups…unless its approached in this way.

    Thankfully, there are many good comments and criticisms. For example, that our conceptions of left and right are too convenient. Maybe I will read another comments section but this is a bit discouraging.

  33. Pete Says:

    Mr. Capital Letters says “I’m the only difference between “helping Jack off a horse” and helping jack off a horse. Therefore, please use me when you should.

  34. Kim Says:

    Thanks Dr Shermer for your explication of a real source of misunderstanding among us. Our personalities are precious possessions built carefully of bits and pieces of experiences unique to each of us. There is no blame; we meet who and what we are at the same time. Then it is a process of putting ourselves to the world. Our belief systems must be strong to face the day. A skeptic philosophy has to be learned. It is a hard curriculum that requires giving up your juvenile personality to the prospect of an open-ended pursuit of truth- with no guarantee of success.

  35. Pete Says:

    Thomas, where do you get your flawed information? Instead, read Michael Mann’s The Madhouse Effect, James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren, or visit This would rebut all your claims and provide you some insight from actual climate scientists. The Skeptic Society’s “Skeptics Guide to Global Climate Change” would also prove useful for you…easy to order off the website you are already on.

  36. OldNassau Says:

    Do not try to change a denier’s (of evolution, vaccination, Obama’s Hawaiian birth, climate change)opinion: Ask him to please change yours. Creationists, birthers, UFO’s are as impervious to facts as they are impelled to preach.

  37. Roy Niles Says:

    I still believe that it’s our own mistakes rather than someone else’s that we must. for survival purposes, learn the most from.

  38. Antoine A H Wonders Says:

    From my personal experience, I like to think that Michael is right: don’t try to convince by aggressively presenting facts, but rather politely plant the seed of doubt. I started doubting my traditional RC faith when I was 13, which caused me great discomfort. Gradually, I found more and more evidence that my doubts were justified. I then accepted all proven scientific facts and put faith on ice, i.e. I became an agnostic. The discomfort evaporated, and I progressed from there. It could have gone the other way, but it didn’t. And I think I am on the right side.

  39. Nate Says:

    I’m having a bit of trouble with the “acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion” part. I’m finding the choices being made by a lot of people lately completely baffling, and I really don’t understand how they could possibly have made them. Their train of thought is so alien to my own that they may as well be a different species.

    I’m also a bit worried that learning the reasons behind those choices would make me unable to follow the “show respect” part, no matter how much I tried. I want to be a cool-headed, fair, rational person, but in my opinion some beliefs genuinely aren’t deserving of respect, and I don’t think I could live with myself if I pretended they were. I realize that’s a bit subjective, but I don’t think I could open my mind enough to tolerate beliefs that have caused and continue to cause endless suffering and injustice.

  40. Pete Says:

    Well said, Nate. There is one fact that I learned recently which may explain a lot. The PBS Newshour was doing a segment on lead in water. They now place little factoids on the screen after many of the segments. This one stated that there are about three thousand water districts in our country with lead levels higher than Flint, mostly in small town and rural America. We know what lead levels do to the brain. Combine that with all the other “dumbing down” factors, such as poor pre- and post-natal diet, lousy education system, parents forced to work longer hours than in earlier generations, video games instead of books, media that emphasizes entertainment over real news, and on and on and it is not hard to connect the dots.

  41. Nate Says:

    I have, no exaggeration, seriously considered whether there’s some environmental factors like lead poisoning that are at least partially to blame for the past couple decades’ events. I’m dubious, though, since similar things seem to be happening in a lot of other countries that got their lead poisoning issues under control long before the United States even started to remove lead from paint and gasoline.

    I think it’s probably more likely that there is no easy answer, unfortunately.

  42. Pete Says:

    Agreed, Nate. There are clearly a number of factors, as I mentioned. But whenever Trump people are interviewed, including the ones at the top, I can’t help but wonder what their IQ’s are. Besides having values diametrically opposed to my own, and apparently yours, they usually come across as not very intelligent, in sharp contrast to most previous administrations (an exception would be Bush) and most Obama supporters I know. The inability to think for oneself enough that one would follow such a hate-filled charlatan is probably evidence enough. If lead levels in much of rural and small town America have been high for generations, that could be a contributing factor.

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