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How to Talk to Your Friends Who Deny Science

Can motivational interviewing be adapted for science denial?
March 16, 2017 | Comments

In recent years it has become ever clearer that engaging with people who doubt or deny scientific evidence will take more than mere recitation of facts. As we worked on Denying to the Grave, it became clearer and clearer that conversations that stressed empathy and arrival at common values would be central to combating science denial.

At the moment, such conversations seem overwhelmingly divisive and contentious. Have you ever had a discussion with a friend that went something like this?
Exhibit A: A Conversation About Owning a Gun

Joe: Hi Rob. Did you hear about that massacre yesterday at that nightclub? Twenty people were killed by some lunatic with a gun. I’m thinking about buying a gun myself and keeping it at home just in case.

Rob: Why would you do that?

Joe: There are so many nuts with guns around these days that no one is safe and the police can’t protect us from them. I am worried about my wife and my kids; what if they are alone and someone breaks into the house?

Rob: But every study ever done shows that if you own a gun you’re more likely to be the one shot with it that any bad guys.

Joe: Those studies are no good, I’ve read about them. They are done by guys who are biased against guns.  And those guys aren’t coming to my house to protect me when someone breaks in.

Rob: You’re wrong. Those studies are done by some of the top scientists in the field, including at Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Published in the top journals.  I’m telling you, having a gun at home is dangerous.

Joe: And I’m telling you that it won’t be in my house. I can tell my kids not to touch it and that’s that.

Rob: Everyone says that, but still kids get killed with guns they pick up all the time. And how do you know that someone who lives with you, or even you, won’t get desperate and shoot themselves?

Joe: The only thing I am getting desperate about is to end this conversation.  I am definitely getting a gun. I owe it to my family to make sure they are protected.

What went wrong here?

First, despite Rob’s warnings, Joe went from considering buying a gun to deciding to definitely buy one. Second, there is no discussion about facts, just one side reciting them and the other dismissing them. Third, the friendship between Rob and Joe is strained, as Joe becomes exasperated and breaks off the discussion.

How did things wind up going in exactly the opposite direction that Rob intended? Discussing a health or safety issue with someone who is ambivalent about what path to take, as Rob was initially, is a delicate task, one that facts alone are unlikely to make go in a desired direction.

Notice that Joe opens his part of the conversation with an emotional statement. He is “worried,” he tells Rob. Rob’s response is to talk about studies. Each time he tries to bring up the data, Joe counters with how he feels about things, about his own perceptions and beliefs. In essence, Rob does nothing to acknowledge that his friend (or former friend) has serious concerns based on fear. We all know that when we are afraid of something, merely being told the facts does not always change our behavior. In this case, it is as if Rob and Joe are talking to themselves.

We think there are better ways to pursue conversations like this in which important issues of health and safety are at stake. One model we hope to use is Motivational Interviewing (MI), a method developed to treat people with addictions. Rather than telling people what to do, MI attempts to understand an individual’s goals and values in order to develop a treatment approach with which they will be motivated to pursue.

So let’s see how the conversation about gun ownership might go a bit better if the approach focuses more on what the potential gun owner is thinking and feeling and less on telling him about the data.

Exhibit B: A Better Conversation About Gun Ownership

Tony: What leads you to think about getting a gun, Joe?

Joe [responding with the same answer as he did to Rob]: There are so many nuts with guns around these days that no one is safe and the police can’t protect us from them. I am worried about my wife and my kids; what if they are alone and someone breaks into the house?

Tony: You’re definitely afraid that a bad guy might break in a hurt your family.

Joe: I sure am! Could be a burglar or a terrorist or just some crazy mental patient.  They all have guns.

Tony: You’ve heard that a lot of people have guns that shouldn’t have them and you think that you should have one too.

Joe: That’s right. If they have a gun then I should have one.

Tony: You think it’s pretty likely someone will break in and try to shoot you or your family.

Joe: I don’t know how likely it is, but I’ve heard about that happening.

Tony: I’m curious, who told you about people breaking in and shooting families?

Joe: Well…I saw that in the paper a few times. It happens.

Tony: But you think it happens often enough to mean you should buy a gun. Have you given any thought to the risks of having a gun?

Joe: Of course I have, but if you lock it up and keep it unloaded then nothing bad can happen.  

Tony: But if you do that, how do you use it to protect yourself from a shooter?

Joe: That’s a good point. I think I’ll just keep it in a safe place and warn the kids not to go near it.

Tony: You trust your kids to obey that.

Joe: Yeah, I mean they usually listen to what I say.

Tony: So you think your kids are obedient enough that they would never want to show off to another kid or just check out the gun and get curious and get hurt.

Joe: You’re making it sound like it’s more risky than I thought.

Tony: Well, all I can tell you is that I’ve read about this and to me the studies show over and over again that home break-ins by armed robbers are much less common than people getting killed from guns in the house. I wouldn’t take the chance, but everyone sees the risk differently I guess.

Joe: I suppose so, but the most important thing is to keep the kids safe.  Maybe I am exaggerated the break-in thing. Can I see some of those studies you are talking about.

Tony: Sure. We can go over them together. Some of them are complicated, but I know where to ask to get the best information.  I try to go to sources that are scientific and unbiased.

Joe: Sounds good, let’s do that.

Much better, right? What Tony did differently was to start out acknowledging Joe’s fears. He used an important MI technique of making summary statements of what Joe says, further acknowledging that what Joe feels is important and has to be considered. Tony makes more of these summary statements than asks questions, and when he does ask questions they are respectful and again make it clear that Joe’s thoughts about things count. It is not until the very end of this dialogue that Tony brings up data, and he again does this while acknowledging that other people might see things differently than he does.

Finally, Tony invites Joe to look at the data together. He doesn’t instruct Joe or belittle him, but rather acknowledges that he is someone who cares about his family and is capable of understanding a complicated issue if it is important to him. We can see that Joe and Tony are still friends, will engage in an interesting task together, and may wind up with Joe deciding to follow the science and not buy a gun. At the very least, Tony has introduced Joe to a new way of looking at things: see what the studies actually say.

We will follow this description of two conversations about gun ownership, one unsuccessful and one promising, with a more in-depth discussion of MI and how it might be modified and adapted to conversations about difficult and contentious health issues. Stay tuned! 


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