"Science denial is about identity, not facts" - Lee McIntyre - Sentientism Episode 92

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism podcast.

Lee McIntyre is a Philosopher of Science. He is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy & History of Science at Boston University & an Instructor in Ethics at Harvard Extension School. Lee is the author of How to Talk to a Science Denier as well as many other books, essays & papers. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Scientific American, the Boston Globe, the New Statesman & the Humanist.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple and here elsewhere.

We discuss:
00:00 Welcome

01:30 Lee's Intro

  • Philosophy of science to public philosophy ("it's supposed to be about making life better")
  • "Science denial & misinformation are the scourges of our age… there's an epistemic crisis"
  • Clarity & 2-way public engagement "philosophers can't just be talking to each other"

06:00 What's Real?

  • Ontology (being) & epistemology (knowing)
  • "It's possible there are things that are real… that we cannot know"
  • Naturalistic ontology (only the natural exists) & epistemology (evidence & reason)
  • Growing up in Portland
  • Questioning: "My mom didn't treat me like a kid… That made me a philosopher early on"
  • Dad & grandmother kicked out of church
  • Raised non-religious
  • "It was good to wonder, but it wasn't good to pretend that you were certain of things that you couldn't know or that you didn't know"
  • Socrates: the real enemy isn't ignorance (because we can learn) it's false knowledge
  • "Don't let the charlatans take that sense of wonder away from you"
  • Norm MacDonald: Faith as a choice, a leap?
  • Experiencing cancer & considering mortality
  • How does Dawkins know there's nothing after death? Could there be a naturalistic afterlife?
  • "The fact that there are questions we can't answer is not an excuse for pretending we have an answer"
  • Faith is often a response to the discomfort of uncertainty
  • David Hume & empiricism
  • Skepticism, humility, hubris
  • Karl Popper, fallibilism
  • Pretend naturalism vs. good faith naturalism
  • Science denial/conspiracism: Gullibility about what you want to believe & extreme skepticism about any alternative
  • Arbitrariness
  • Hugh Mellor's "The warrant of induction" & bayesianism

38:00 What (& Who) Matters?

  • Teaching ethics for a decade but "I've never really made up my mind"
  • "A lot of people want there to be a science of ethics"
  • "It's irreducibly a question of values… they're not set on a naturalistic foundation" (Ought - Is)
  • Descriptive, evolutionary ethics vs. normative ethics
  • "I cannot help but believe there is such a thing as right & wrong… it's just wired in"
  • Bringing the family dog into ethics class. Do non-human animals have duties?
  • "What can you say to someone who just says 'I don't care?'"
  • Ayn Rand & egoism
  • Love & care "If we loved everyone we wouldn't need ethics"
  • Kant
  • Singer, animal ethics & moral "circle"
  • Sentientism granting moral consideration to all sentients, but neutral on ethical system
  • Demandingness, omission, commission. At least not needlessly causing suffering & death
  • Veganism, wild animal suffering
  • Moral agents & patients
  • A Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights?
  • Stocker: Love?
  • Science denial beliefs are not about facts & evidence, they're about identity. 1) Getting them to care more broadly & 2) Seeing the moral imperative to act
  • We need both naturalism & compassion

01:15:08 How Can we Make a Better World?

  • I started out thinking "If I could just get people to change their beliefs then things would get better (e.g. climate denial)." But that's not enough - it's more about caring & not caring
  • Performative belief
  • Institutional change, personal change, nudges
  • Cultural ways of extending our moral concern scope & embracing sentientism?
  • Caring through contact/communication
  • Showing it's possible, resisting peer pressure, changing norms
  • Thoreau: "It doesn't suit my imagination" to eat animals
  • "My Octopus Teacher", slaughterhouses with glass walls
  • Animal ethics as the "science denial" kryptonite for many humanists/skeptics
  • Latent sentientist ethics? (people already care about some non-human animals)
  • Making it easier to do the right thing (Impossible Whopper)
  • Win-wins from broader compassion
  • Be calm, respectful, patient. Listen, have empathy. "Someone will not change their beliefs if they don't trust you."

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

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Thanks Graham for the post-production.

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