Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to argue with a non-skeptic without going crazy

One of the attributes that most skeptics share is a burning desire to discuss critical thinking and science with non-skeptics. While such passion is admirable, many skeptics have a warped idea of what is actually going to happen in these discussions. Without warrant, they assume that they are going to go in and say something like "you believe in magic and faeries" and the other person is going to roll over and become a science lover.

Guess again. Discussing and debating with non-skeptics in one of the most irritating and non-progressive things you can possibly do in your spare time. This is because many believers in pseudoscience and the paranormal have a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy invested into their beliefs. Like anyone else, these people find it uncomfortable and distressing to have their cherished beliefs challenged and they will likely put on their cognitive blinders or get really angry with you if you push too hard.

Despite these odds, however, you should not not despair. Almost all skeptics started off as believers who believed in at least some nutty ideology. This means that even people from the most rigid backgrounds are occasionally talked into leaving dogmatism behind for rationality (If you do not believe me, Google "Nate Phelps" and "Marjoe Gortner"). You should also be optimistic about how many people there are out there who are are simply ignorant of science and critical thinking.

These people, due to their pursuits in other areas, have thought little about the big bang, evolution, cognitive biases, or decision making. Its not that they are dogmatically opposed to these things, they simply do not know any better and reject these ideas due to anti-scientific arguments that float around in the popular imagination (for example, "if evolution is real, then why aren't apes turning into people?"). I, like many other skeptics, believe that changing this group's mind is much easier because they do not have the same level of commitments as a true believer.

Thankfully, I am at a part in my life that I enjoy discussing these topics with both the fence sitter and the most stubborn believers in bunk (trust me, I know some nutty ones too). This is because I have a set of rules of thumb that I follow during discussions that keep me level headed. To help you do the same, I decided to post some of these rules in the form of advice.
  1. Be kind and respectful. Remember that the person you are talking to also has hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Like you, they care about living a fulfilling life and probably want to spend it with their loved ones. By keeping this in mind, I find it much more difficult to get mad with someone for not agreeing with me. Being civil will also allow you to accomplish the major goal of shattering stereotypes about skeptics. For whatever reason, we are believed to be a bunch of inhumane bullies who are just out to offend people. If you imprint on a believer your own kindness, they can no longer think these things without remembering how they once met a kind and polite skeptic.
  2. Lower your expectations. As I said earlier, you are going to get very frustrated if you think that you are going to go in like John Rambo and make someone change their entire worldview. I never expect to make such progress in a single sitting and you shouldn't either. Instead of converting someone outright, you should aim to sow the seeds of doubt and explain skepticism by applying critical thinking skills to ideas that will likely not offend the person. These same reasons for doubting the effectiveness of magnetic wristbands or the existence of planet Nibiru may later pop back up later when they consider whether or not homeopathy and astrology actually work. 
  3. Enjoy the conversation. Even though you may not learn something about biology or physics from your conversation, engaging believers can still teach many fascinating lessons in sociology and psychology. Like an anthropologist studying apes in the woods, I am often blown away by the actual motivations and reactions of believers. Since many people use the exact same arguments, conversing with one believer can help you cut your skeptical teeth and refine your arguments and counter-arguments for your next encounter with proponents of the same variety of woo. Whenever I look at an exchange as a chance to learn something, it is very hard for me to get frustrated.
  4. Channel Socrates. The philosopher Socrates had an excellent debate methodology. Rather than viewing an exchange as a competition where there is only one winner, he thought of them as a cooperative effort between two teammates. Socrates thought the goal of this dialogue was for both participants to sharpen their reasoning skills and come to more nuanced views about reality. Rather than accusing his partner of being an idiot, he would ask them questions like "why do you believe x?" or "have you considered how fact y would effect your belief in x?" By making the exchange out to be mutually beneficial, you will strip it of most of the frustration you usually feel.

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