|Well done, voters of Queensland (ABC)|
Most of the time, it is a pretty terrible exercise in inertia that gives Fairfax its main news stories for the next week. Sure, it's fun seeing Richard Dawkins and "Big" George Pell field incendiary questions about how evolution is just a "theory" or if an atheist can be a good person, but it's less a debate than a sideshow. There will never be a middle ground reached—there can't be—and the producers are perfectly happy to keep it that way.
Occasionally, however, the show can be revelatory. Duncan Storrar's questioning of a hapless Kelly O'Dwyer demonstrated how out of touch the Turnbull government was (and is), and how low the Murdoch papers will stoop with ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with their noxious world view.
Last night's National Science Week-themed Q&A also offered some gems, along with a great lessons in how to deal with the incurious, ignorant, chemtrail-addled obscurantist bore in your life (c'mon, we all have at least one).
Simple rule: don't argue with Professor Brian Cox unless you are discussing something which is impossible for him to have knowledge of, like the number of cracked Ikea coffee mugs in your cupboard (although he could probably give you a global mean) or on the finer points of Australian New Wave cinema.
One Nation lunatic-elect Malcolm Roberts gave a textbook performance as a conspiratorial nutjob. He challenged Professor Cox to present "empirical" evidence of climate change (it's almost like Malcolm knows what those words mean), and when presented with said evidence, claimed it was doctored. It's classic conspiracy believer stuff, with evidence against their tinfoil worldview appropriated as evidence for their conspiracy.
Think moon landing hoaxers: for them, the extensive photographic and data record of the Apollo program is fabricated, therefore this evidence the average person considers supports the moon landing is seen as evidence against the moon landings in the conspiratorial mind. Any evidence presented by authorities in inherently untrustworthy because it comes from Big Pharma, Big Farmer or the Guvment or Big Space (which is how I assume they refer to NASA).
Even though Brian Cox would have known he would be unlikely to alter Roberts's unfalsifiable position by presenting actual evidence, Cox's approach is a good one to keep in the critical thought toolbox when dealing with nutcases.
First off, Cox presented data. Now, presenting data almost never whips your a conspiracy-minded opponent into contrition, but it's worth a try. At least you know you have evidence to support your contention.
Secondly, when Roberts inevitably objected to the data, Cox asked specific questions as to why he objected. When Roberts claimed the data had been "corrupted" and "manipulated", Cox asked "by who?" By NASA, of course.
For many observers, this will be enough to demonstrate your opponent is a loon. Indeed it was enough for the residents of #QandAland to start laughing. Conspiracy theorists are, by and large, great at creating a compelling macro-scale worldview, but are woeful at detail. Once again, this doesn't change the mind of the conspiracy theorist, but it does deny them credibility among reasonable fence-sitting people.
For #QandAland, this is probably just the first appearance of many by this particular One Nation loon-elect. In an effort to concoct a sense of "balance", the ABC has gone out of their way to make sure fringe individuals like Pauline Hanson and Lyle Shelton get oxygen on programs like Q&A and The Drum. It is even less reason to engage in the alleged "debate" the show engenders.
I think Brian Cox said it best last night on the show when trying to communication the Australian Academy of Science's climate change report to Sovereign Idiot-elect Roberts: "...you can never get any sense on programs like this. They're adversarial things..."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Ultimately, you're unlikely to change the closed mind of a deliberately ignorant individual. As a rational being, you're already at a disadvantage compared to the science denying loon because you require evidence to support your claims—the denier does not adhere to such inconvenient niceties. No amount of peer-reviewed evidence is going lead someone like Roberts along the road to a Damascene conversion.
But not everybody out there is intentionally ignorant. Sometimes, people just receive bad information and carry it with them. So here's advice from UQ PhD student Diana Lucia, as offered on Radio National's Ockham's Razor:
...next time you’re at a dinner party and find yourself sitting next to a science denialist, return the favour, latch onto every illogical inconsistency they throw at you and force them to address it. Find out exactly what they object to and where they have been getting their information from. I doubt you’ll force them to have a sudden epiphany by the time dessert is served, but you can be part of the process that breaks down the barriers to begin to change people’s minds.
Until next dinner party...
How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic: Responses to the most common skeptical arguments on global warming, Grist.org
Science deniers use false equivalence to create fake debates, Skeptical Raptor
Don’t let denial get in the way of a good science story, The Conversation