How to Talk to Someone Who Is Believing Dangerous Misinformation
Science misinformation is now being spewed and shared at record rates. This is the 4th story in our 4-part Junk Science series, which gets to the root of why it’s happening and what you can do about it. To go deeper, check out Part 1: The Golden Age of Junk Science Is Killing Us; Part 2: 9 Ways to Know if Health Info Is Actually Junk Science; and Part 3: The Best (and Worst) Places to Find Reputable Health Information.
From your gym buddy to your otherwise-sensible mom, someone in your life is going to be stuck on the horns of junk science. They might be about to take an unproven or potentially dangerous treatment based on something they read about it on social media. A report published in 2021 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute saw that of the 200 most popular cancer treatment articles mentioned on social media, one third of them contained misinformation. And that misinformation? Seventy five percent of it was potentially harmful. That’s just one example.
It’s easy to see why: It can be really hard to know what’s supported by evidence and what’s just spin, especially in a world where science has become politicized. Yet it can also be really frustrating to talk to someone who’s vehemently headed down the path of hurting their own health—or the health of others—due to misinformation.
You might want to rant. Throw a mountain of evidence at them. Keep trying to convince them at every turn that they’re not seeing the truth.
Which pretty much, as you probably know by now, won’t work. The first step to having a conversation with someone about potentially dangerous misinformation is this: Don’t talk. Listen. And the second step is to force yourself to actually listen—which doesn’t mean watching your friend’s mouth move while waiting for your turn to talk.
I know this isn’t always easy, but it is essential to understanding their perspective and their specific concerns. Not everyone who is hesitant about vaccines, for example, is a hardcore conspiracy theorist. There is a vast range of viewpoints. Take the time to find out where someone is coming from before you start talking. (You may also find yourself with more compassion when you take a look at why we’re all so vulnerable to misinformation and how we got to this apex moment.)
Then you can use these strategies, too:
Don’t mock them, and don’t just throw a mountain of facts at them. Try to get a sense of what information would help them feel better about the issue. Ask where their sticking points are. And recognize that they may have legitimate reasons for mistrusting the relevant institutions. A little empathy can go a long way.
Try to find common ground
Perhaps it is mutual concern for the safety of family members or frustration about the uncertainty of emerging science. And use your own stories—such as a positive experience with vaccination—to support your perspective.
Don’t get bogged down in the details
Appeal to critical thinking and emphasize the big picture, sciencewise. Research has shown, for example, that providing credible information and highlighting the rhetorical tricks used to push misinformation can make a difference. (I even wrote a paper on it that you can see here).
Give them a path to good science
It is very rare for someone to change their mind right in front of you. (And be aware that it’s impossible to change some people’s minds.) Humans are pretty darn stubborn. But, over time, your discussion might have an impact. Be patient.