Every day in the media we see once-unthinkable science headlines. More than seven hundred cases of measles across 22 states in the U.S., largely due to vaccine deniers. Climate change legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate—due mainly to partisan politicians who routinely confuse climate and weather—even as scientists tell us that we have only until 2030 to cut worldwide carbon emissions by half, then drop them to zero by 2050. And, in one of the most incredible developments of my lifetime, the Flat Earth movement is on the rise.
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To make matters worse, scientists (and others who care about it) have not really found an effective way of fighting back against science denial. In this "post-truth" era—with headlines like "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds"—it is an open question how to convince people who reject evidence, not just in science, but also on a host of other factual matters. In the empirical realm, scientists often choose to respond by presenting their evidence, then get upset and refuse to engage more when their data aren't accepted or their integrity is questioned. Perhaps this is understandable, but I also believe it is dangerous just to walk away and dismiss science deniers as irrational (even if they are.) Even worse is to react to their hectoring on the question of whether there is "100 percent consensus" on global warming, or whether we're "certain" that vaccines don't cause autism, by blustering about "proof," which only gives aid and comfort to one of the most damaging myths about science.
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But we really can't afford to do this anymore, nor can we afford to defend science simply by talking about its successes. Climate change "skeptics" already know about the marvels of chemotherapy...but what does that have to do with the spike in global temperatures in 1998? And philosophers of science have spent the last hundred years looking in vain for some definitive logical "criterion of demarcation" between science and non-science.
A better way to respond is to stop talking about proof, certainty, and logic, and start talking more about scientific "values." In my book The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science From Denial, Fraud, And Pseudosience, I defend the idea that what is most distinctive about science is not its method but its "attitude": the idea that scientists care about evidence and are willing to change their views based on new evidence. This is what truly separates scientists from their deniers and imitators.
I had a chance to test this theory in person recently when I attended the Flat Earth International Conference (FEIC) in Denver, Colorado, in November 2018. There I found myself among six hundred cheering, clapping Flat Earth advocates in the main ballroom of the Crowne Royal Hotel and Convention Center, who were taking part in a two-day extravaganza of presentations, multimedia performances, and "evidence" that the "globalists" have been pulling the wool over our eyes for millennia.
Credit: MSN News
First, let’s deal with the threshold question: yes, these people were serious. Believing the Earth is flat is not something one would come to lightly, for they are routinely persecuted for their views. Everyone I spoke to said that they used to believe in the global Earth but one day "woke up" and realized that there was a worldwide conspiracy of people who had been lying to them. "Trust your eyes," was their mantra. "Do your own experiments." "Water is level." "Space is fake." "A government that could lie to you about 9/11 and the Moon landing is one that could lie to you about Flat Earth."