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Instructors of writing are usually omnivorous readers. After all, we enjoy sentences, don’t we? As summer break inches nearer, my stack of “reward” books beckons. After hearing philosopher of science Lee McIntyre speak in an NPR interview, I couldn’t wait to dive into his engagingly written book, How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who D.... The radio interview offers a galloping overview of his approach to persuasion — Rogerian in nature — based on the psychology of belief, and the intention to reduce a sense of threat. McIntyre says,
I’ve been having these conversations with science deniers and with others around these topics [to understand] how to assess what it is that people care about. I think that that’s actually the route to changing people’s mind.
McIntyre opens his book with his remarkable experiences at a Flat Earth Convention, where he challenges himself, with self-deprecating humor, to practice respectful engagement with science-deniers. His tips? “Remain calm. Be respectful. Engage them in conversation. Try to build some trust” (28). McIntyre offers evidence of this approach’s efficacy in his radio interview:
There are well-known cases, [like] Jim Bridenstine, who President Trump appointed to be the chief administrator at NASA. Bridenstine was a climate change denier when he was in Congress. He was only in NASA for I think a few weeks before he changed his mind on climate change, which was amazing. It was based on his conversations with NASA scientists. He knew the evidence, but it was when he met the people, he got to know them, he got to trust them. That’s when he changed his mind.
I’ll invite students to read McIntosh’s radio interview transcript next time I teach Andrew J. Hoffman’s essay, “The Full Scope,” included in the “Sustainability and Environmental Studies” readings in From Inquiry to Academic Writing, co-authored with Stuart Greene. Like McIntyre, Hoffman understands that throwing facts at a skeptic is a tactic destined to fail. Hoffman notes, “We cannot scold, lecture, or treat people with disrespect if we are to gain their trust; and trust is at the center of an effective theory of change” (743). Both authors acknowledge the stakes of these conversations are high — think climate crisis, vaccine skepticism, and threats to public health departments nationally. And yet, these conversations are necessary if we are to survive this moment in history.
Lee McIntyre and Andrew Hoffman acknowledge that they are calling us into challenging rhetorical spaces, and that we might fail occasionally. I’m glad I have a (slightly) slower season ahead to practice these rhetorical tactics. After all, being calm, respectful, and engaging people in trust-building conversations is the rhetorician’s take on The Golden Rule. It’s as simple — and difficult — as that. Happy reading!
Photo by April Lidinsky (2023).
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