Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're back with The Takeaway.
Parent 1: Forcing 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9-year-old little children to cover their noses and their mouths, where they breathe for 7 hours a day every day for the last 9 months for a virus that you know doesn't affect them, that is not in their best interest. This has to stop. Defend our children.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These are the sounds of enraged parents at school board meetings in Utah, Georgia, and Tennessee reacting to their children needing to wear masks in school. As you heard there, at least one parent was spreading false information by claiming that coronavirus does not affect children. It does.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 4.8 million children in the US have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and because children under 12 are not eligible for vaccination, masking is their best protection. Instead of building a hedge of protection around our little people, we're driving a wedge of misinformation right through their schools like in this North Carolina School Board Meeting.
Parent 2: The pandemic is over. Teachers are vaccinated, so why are our children continuing to wear masks? These are communist tactics and it's not okay.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How do we react and respond to those in our families and in our communities who deny the science behind vaccines and COVID-19? With me now to discuss how to have a productive conversation with the science skeptics in our lives is Lee MacIntyre, author of the book, How to Talk to a Science Denier. Welcome to The Takeaway, Lee.
Lee McIntyre: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lee, I'm struck as we're listening to those parents, that these sound like folks who love their children, who want the best for them, and who just really genuinely, in their core, believe something different than what the science tells us. How do you begin to have a conversation across that difference?
Lee McIntyre: It's a great question. I think in listening to those clips you hear the rage, but you also hear the fear and it's important to remember where the fear comes from. They've been misinformed themselves. They're not only spreading misinformation, but in fact, they've been dis-informed. Somebody has been intentionally creating this false information and amplifying it out, pumping it out.
One way to begin to have a conversation with someone like that is simply to listen, to let them at first just get it out of their system because they're emotionally upset and they need to know that they've been heard. You just need some empathy with them because you have to remember that in some ways, they're victims, they're falling prey to this false information themselves.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the things that you talk about, and then maybe this is part of this empathy that you're offering us here is it's not necessarily an information deficit, but a trust deficit. What's the difference here? What do you mean?
Lee McIntyre: Well, if it were an information deficit, then all we'd have to do is share the facts and then people would say, "Oh, I guess you're right," and change their mind, but facts don't really have a chance to get through when somebody distrusts you. What I've been claiming in my work, what I've been seeing when I've been out there on the road talking to people, is that what we really have is a situation where it's not just that people don't have the correct information, they have been radicalized to think that people who disagree with them are the enemy.
You don't trust an enemy. You don't believe anything that's coming out of their mouth. One of the goals of having a conversation with somebody that you disagree with face-to-face is to build trust because interaction face-to-face human engagement is a way to overcome that distrust deficit. Then if you listen to them and you're patient and you're calm and you show respect, they might begin to listen to you, and then facts might make a difference.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if iteration is also a key aspect of this. It seems to me that the trust, especially if there's already a trust deficit or a deep abiding mistrust, that it probably can't be built in a single conversation or interaction.
Lee McIntyre: You're exactly right. Most people who end up changing their minds on any science denial topic, whether it's vaccines or COVID or climate change, end up doing so when they have an interaction with somebody that they already trust. If somebody doesn't already trust you, it takes time to build that. What you can't do is just come in with a hit and run, which is why cramming facts down somebody's throat doesn't work, because they need some time to build up that trust and just to hear what you're saying.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As much as there are concerted efforts, targeted efforts of disinformation, it also feels to me like part of what's going on here is there's been some learning in public that in fact we had one set of CDC recommendations around masks, and then those recommendations changed. That is consistent with how science operates, but it's often not how we talk about what learning is these days.
We talk about education like there are some set of things we will push them into your brain, then you will know the things and they will be true as opposed to like, we actually have to have an iteration to come to understand something new like COVID-19.
Lee McIntyre: You're correct. Science is not Euclidean geometry, it's not deductive logic. You can't just prove something and then it's proven for the rest of time. One of the strengths of science in fact is that it learns from new evidence over time. Scientists do change their mind when they get new evidence. What else would you want them to do? When that happens in public, especially amongst people who don't really understand how science works, it can be confusing.
Then think about this too in an environment of distrust. When someone changes their mind, it can sound like they're lying to you. It can sound like they're intentionally trying to mislead you. Once trust is broken in a situation like that, there's really no getting it back. I think that one thing that we do need more information on is not just facts about COVID or vaccines, but also about how science works. I think that a lot of people just expect scientists to be able to study a problem, make a pronouncement, have it true for all time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering how we can have these conversations with patience, with empathy, trying to cool our own emotions in a moment without seeming hottie and removed and arrogant and like, "Oh, I know the truth. You do not?"
Lee McIntyre: That's hard. Managing one's own emotions, going in with the appropriate attitude is difficult. I struggle with this, everyone struggles with this because it just, to us, seem so clear that if you just had the facts, you'd change your mind. Again, I think that the important thing is to make a human connection with the person that you're speaking with to see them as somebody who's a friend or family member or potentially so who is in those clips that you played, they love their children too.
They don't want to intentionally do anything that's going to harm their child. They're afraid. Maybe you can relate to a time in your life when you were afraid, when you were confused. Somebody who has-- It's important to remember that science denial was a spectrum. People are radicalized over time. One reason is because maybe they start off with questions, but then they're treated with hostility or insulted. Then they go on the internet or they go to some other unreliable source to try to gain information. Then they're told no, no, you're right, you belong, you've got all the right information. Then they can be radicalized into a community of other deniers.
I think that that's one thing that's going on with some of the misinformation and disinformation about the COVID vaccines and about masking, people are just getting their information from unreliable sources. Why? Because some of those unreliable sources are places that make them feel like they're smart, they belong, they are right to have questions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this. It's Hannah Arendt's insight that loneliness is the root of totalitarianism. Lee MacIntyre, author of How to Talk to a Science Denier. Thank you for joining us.
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