Feb 07 2013

How To Talk to a Believer

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30 Responses to “How To Talk to a Believer”

  1. MKandeferon 07 Feb 2013 at 8:52 am

    Good post Steve. In my local LessWrong group we’ve been focusing on being effective arguers by avoiding our “combat reflexes”. We discussed trying not to be the “right” individual in the argument, but as using the argument as a mean of gaining understanding and sharing ideas; a collaborative effort. Even if the argument doesn’t end up leading to anyone adopting a differing view, at least we (may have) learned something from the exchange… This isn’t always easy to do, especially when your interlocutor doesn’t make the argument a pleasant experience (e.g., they are smug when making their good points, they are abrasive, etc.) Julia Galef had a good video on the topic:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fLG0kkgnRkc

    Something I’ve been musing about recently was the effectiveness of using the language of cognitive biases and logical fallacies in exchanges. On SGU you sometimes will point out the logical fallacies of positions, which I think is fine. I’m not so sure this is effective in an exchange with an individual. I think in people less willing to see arguments as a means of gaining understanding this language can ignite the debate, more than settle it. For example, I was recently having an exchange with another blogger and I really wanted to write “That’s a strawman”, but I paused, and thought that it would be better to say, “I agree that would be onerous, but that’s not what I was arguing for…” Thoughts?

  2. Allyon 07 Feb 2013 at 9:10 am

    An easy way to find common ground is to remember a time when you changed a deeply held belief, and the cognitive process that you want through, including the psychological discomfort. Also, really being present in the moment is important. By that I mean don’t think of all of the other times you have had to have this conversation, or the future consequences that may result if the person is not convinced. Thinking of the past or the future puts too much pressure on the conversation, and will make you frustrated or angry, or both.

  3. The Skeptical RNon 07 Feb 2013 at 9:29 am

    I would ask that person to share examples of how that diet was successful and inquire about their sources. Maybe if that individual heard themselves explaining their belief , perhaps it may not sound as persuasive. Presenting a argument towards a CAM believer whom is sick is even more problematic then a healthy person. Someone looking for hope is much different then the random person whom thinks shopping at the Whole Foods is the solution to everything. A gentle approach is needed and I think the points above are very good. It may also be helpful to have this person explain their disease process. If it is not well understood future choices can become unsound.

  4. Ori Vandewalleon 07 Feb 2013 at 9:53 am

    I don’t want to harp on the PZ kerfuffle, but I think this particular outlook is one of the reasons why I tend to gravitate toward the calmer side of the skeptical community. Ignorant believers in unscientific garbage probably make me just as angry as they make a person like PZ, but I (try to) understand that expressing my disagreement through anger doesn’t really accomplish much. More to the point, however, anger is a less rational response because it ignores the fact that humans are plagued by cognitive biases that make changing beliefs a difficult thing to do.

  5. Bronze Dogon 07 Feb 2013 at 9:53 am

    One other false dichotomy I’d like to add: The idea that there’s the evil “Big Pharma/Conventional Medicine” and the heroic “Alternative Medicine.” There are treatments that have been proven to work, treatments that have not yet been proven to work, and there’s treatments that have been proven not to work. The “Alternative Medicine” label was a marketing buzz phrase fabricated to try to make unproven treatments sound respectable.

    On the big organization level, there’s multiple pharma companies in competition with one another who want to make money by providing useful products, with some corrupt sectors that are antagonistic towards regulatory agencies because they won’t let them “cheat” worthless products into the market. Regulatory agencies are there to make sure treatments are proven to work before anyone gets to market it. We consider altie gurus to be quacks because they operate the same way the corrupt sectors of pharma companies do, and with less regulatory oversight.

  6. MikeBon 07 Feb 2013 at 9:59 am

    I encounter similar people at farmers markets where my pet peeve — “organic, natural is good” — reigns supreme. And you know what? I just ignore them. It’s none of my business if someone wants to try to eat organic or fight cancer with an alkaline diet.

    The advice you give is sound but very complicated and almost like you’d need to carry a set of directions around to talk to people. But guess what? Most of the time there is nothing you can do about people’s beliefs. I don’t try to convince people, or woo them over to my side, or “find common ground.” I just say, “I don’t believe that,” and clam up. If they want to talk more, fine. But usually they just go on with their lives.

  7. Didgyaon 07 Feb 2013 at 10:00 am

    Being empathetic will take you a long way. I have large Zodiak tattoo to remind me that I am just as fallible as anyone else (lucky it is on my back). I find it harder to discuss these items with close family members. Maybe it is the close emotional bong and my bias but in (illogically) my mind I think that they should know this stuff already.

  8. Steven Novellaon 07 Feb 2013 at 10:31 am

    Mike – remember the premise of the question – if you want to engage with someone or change their mind, what can you do.

    Sometimes, someone you care about is making horrific life decisions based upon pseudoscience or misinformation. How do you approach them?

    With strangers you always have the option of not engaging. My advice is to pick your battles and know your own goals.

    I sometimes have various goals
    - changing someone’s mind
    - examining an interesting issue (understanding what all sides believe)
    - examining my own beliefs and conclusions
    - exposing pseudoscience or poor logic for third-party onlookers (mostly what I do on this blog)
    - honing my arguing skills

    My approach varies depending on my goals.

  9. Steven Novellaon 07 Feb 2013 at 10:35 am

    RN – That seems reasonable, but the psychological evidence does not support that approach. If you ask someone to defend their position that will solidify their position. In psychological experiments if you assign a subject at random to defend a position, they will have increased belief in that position. So the evidence suggests you should try to avoid having someone defend their position.

    Rather, ask them more general questions about how we know anything is true, what kinds of evidence are best, how reliable are testimonials, etc. Nibble around the edges until they have a basis from which to reject the false idea themselves.

  10. ccbowerson 07 Feb 2013 at 10:58 am

    “The advice you give is sound but very complicated and almost like you’d need to carry a set of directions around to talk to people.”

    The objective here is not to go around hoping to convince everyone you meet, but we are not necessarily talking about strangers. They may be people we care about, and we would want to impact crucial decisions that make, especially if it is a matter of life and death.

    Although his radio show ended a couple years ago, Dr Dean Edell would tell a story of a close friend of his who had a highly curable form of cancer who initially avoided standard medical treatment for so-called alt med options. That person’s condition worsened, and he/she eventually tried evidence based medical care, but it was too late and the person died. (sounds a bit like the Steve Jobs story, but it is not)

    I cannot imagine witnessing such decisions, and feeling helpless in being able to steer a person in the right direction. Keep in mind that the person telling the story (Dean Edell) was a person who spent a living communicating a largely skeptical message about health to a large general audience, so we are talking about someone who is not lacking in communication skills. Like other skills, such communication skills are something that can be improved upon, and this is the topic of discussion.

    MikeB, you might be correct and they might just “just go on with their lives,” but I don’t think you would just assume that if it were someone you cared about. You might just help them make a better decision.

  11. ccbowerson 07 Feb 2013 at 11:13 am

    I just realized that the example I posted may be interpreted as supporting MikeB’s point, but my intention was to show that this can become more personal than simply letting everyone believe what they want. The fact that such stories are more common is that we can only know how things actually turn out, and the counterfactual stories are not as convincing because we simply don’t know what would have happened. But, for every story like that there are stories in which people did help a person make a good decision, and that person did not die, but there is just not a good way to know when this occurs.

  12. Chad Joneson 07 Feb 2013 at 11:51 am

    “Further, some people can be skeptical about certain topics and gullible about others.”

    Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that ALL people are skeptical about certain topics and gullible about others? One flaw in the skeptical movement is the belief that somehow we all think the same things, accept the same truths, and reject the same ideologies. Even the most skeptical mind must have an area of his/her life where some bias clouds their thinking. On the other end of the spectrum, even the most gullible draws the line of belief somewhere, right?

    This may actually be what you were saying, though, and I’m just being pendantic about the word “some”.

  13. MikeBon 07 Feb 2013 at 12:19 pm

    “MikeB, you might be correct and they might just “just go on with their lives,” but I don’t think you would just assume that if it were someone you cared about. You might just help them make a better decision.”

    Actually, cc, that is exactly what I assume about “someone I care about.” Many people I care about, in fact. One of my best friends, a musician, is suffering from Chronic Fatigue. She is convinced that her “naturopath” is right, that homeopathy is helping her, that a “Weston Price” diet is the way to go.

    Suffice it to say I talk about music with her.

    And for the record: My parents believe Jesus rose from the dead and that those who don’t believe are going to hell. A friend uses Tai Chi to fight cancer. Some dear friends of ours go regularly to a chiropractor. Another person I’ve known for decades spends thousands on “psychotherapies” that involve “Eye Movement” and also regular group sessions wherein effigies of dead parents are beaten with plastic ball bats. A neighbor and farmer colleague follows anthroposophy, sends her kids to Waldorf schools, and practices biodynamic farming.

    Yes, cc, I let them live their lives. Where would you have me begin?

  14. ccbowerson 07 Feb 2013 at 12:55 pm

    “Yes, cc, I let them live their lives. Where would you have me begin?”

    Of course you have to decide what will work in a given relationship, and it may be a choice of ‘picking your battles,” but the point is that there are circumstances in which a person would want to discuss such a topic. There are also instances, as you mentioned, in which you choose not to do so.

    Certainly, there are circumstances in which you feel your input may be helpful, right? Or else what are our relationships for, but to enjoy each other’s company and have positive influences on each other? This is what we are talking about: situations in which we want to open up productive dialogue, when it otherwise seems difficult. Why do you object that this could be the case?

  15. etatroon 07 Feb 2013 at 1:17 pm

    This post is timely for me. I just ended a facebook discussion by de-friending a friend-of-a-friend because of the frustration in talking to a believer. She’d posted a UTube link “University Law Professor Speaks on Chemtrails.” And it was a link to Ilya Sandra Perlingieri speaking these insane things about barium and aluminum and other chemicals being sprayed into the atmosphere by “commercial and governmental” aircraft. I just left a comment to the post and noted that Perlingieri was a fraud and doesn’t have a science degree and is not on any academic faculty that I could find. The response that I got was a gish gallop of conspiracies about chemtrails, fluoride, and eugenics. She included the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiments in her list. I noted that this was the only example of hers that resembles the truth — and how academic researchers acknowledge and learn about this event and how much we’ve advanced and it should really be an example of progress and self-correcting nature of science. Then she posted link after link after link, telling me to “educate myself.” At this point, I just said that she was gish-galloping and I couldn’t possible address all of the absurd claims in a limited facebook post, but the fact remains that the speaker was a fraud and there’s no evidence for “chemtrails.” I found it incredibly difficult to keep the discussion focused. Every time that I pointed out a flaw in one example or how the real history of a particular thing (say … forced sterilization for inmates in the early 20th Century as evidence for a massive government conspiracy to create a master race — my response is that these things did happen, but they were local entities acting on individuals and the federal government stepped in to assert a common set of rights across the country, that the facts go against a big government conspiracy and that this is an example of progress), the response was always list of links to conspiracy articles and a plea to get “educated.” I just could not waste the time to go to each article and explain the fallacies and historical & scientific inaccuracies of each one. Because of this, I was labeled a coward, apologest, and if I couldn’t even bother to “get educated,” then I am part of the problem. I don’t know why I felt the need to engage this particular person at that particular moment, but it was a frightening peak into the rabbit hole.

  16. chrisjon 07 Feb 2013 at 1:54 pm

    @Ori

    “I don’t want to harp on the PZ kerfuffle, but I think this particular outlook is one of the reasons why I tend to gravitate toward the calmer side of the skeptical community.”

    Exactly right.

  17. lans ellionon 07 Feb 2013 at 5:39 pm

    I wrote about this same issue a while back because I had this same problem of just making people angry when I debated CAM. I ended up changing my debate tactics and have had way more success. I learned that you can’t tell anyone to be skeptical, you can’t tell people that their beliefs are wrong and you can’t argue with them because they will never believe you. Instead, I learned that you have to let them find Skepticism, you can’t teach it to them. I realized that what happens when you try to debate CAM is that the other person takes it as a personal attack on their intelligence and credibility. No wonder everyone got mad at me.

    I kind of boil down the reasons you can’t win these arguments to four things. 1) most people don’t trust science because they don’t understand it. Thus, citing scientific evidence is unpersuasive. 2) Most people have a simplistic view of the world (i.e. the good vs. evil false dichotomy)and don’t understand the complexity that underlies even simple seeming issues. Thus, it is hard for them to understand the amount of analysis it takes to determine if a specific medical treatment actually works. 3) most people trust their perceptions and think their memory is like a video camera. Thus, any description of cognitive bias is taken as you calling them a liar. 4) If you criticize someone’s personal anecdotal evidence or their friends anecdotal evidence they assume you are calling them a liar or their friend a liar. (I don’t mean any of these things in a demeaning way or suggest that these people are stupid. There are many people who I would say are brilliant in their fields but when looking at some of their statements they clearly haven’t been trained in skepticism so they don’t understand it.)

    What I do now is exactly what Steve said. Find common ground. I use common ground to get them to think skeptically about issues we agree on then let them use their new learned skepticism on their own more dearly held views. It doesn’t always work but its far better than my old way.

  18. SARAon 07 Feb 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I’ve realized recently that I have to examine my own motives before I get involved in these sorts of conversation. I think I occasionally (maybe often) engage in these conversations both online and in real life to feel good about me.

    And I find that the “I’m a better person, smarter, more educated than you, and let me tell you how wrong you are”, is not really a good approach to the conversation.

    And what is frustrating about this attitude in me is that it’s not like I’m actually thinking that. I’m not. I’m probably feeling vaguely bad that day and this is a way to make me feel better about me. It’s entirely unconscious unless I think about it.

    When I enter a conversation and get loud and frustrated, I know I’m probably coming at this from somewhere in murky “I’m smarter than you are and this is how I’m proving it” region.

    If I’m hijacking a conversation about something else because they made a casual reference to some skeptical subject, I’m probably coming from the “I am better than you are, and now you will know it too” place.

    If I am facing a situation where someone is seriously worrying me with their CAM choice or a religious person I like who wants to have a genuine conversation, I am far less likely to just jump in. I’m more likely to consider and plan what to say and how to say it. I’m less committed to proving I’m right and more committed to sharing information.

  19. Bill Openthalton 08 Feb 2013 at 7:28 am

    @SARA:

    The question of motivation in social interactions is very interesting. Why do we participate in discussions (I used to be in my high school’s debating club)? Why do we want to chime in when someone says something we agree with, or rebuke those we don’t agree with?

    I thoroughly enjoy debating, even when I have to defend a position I do not agree with, as we did in the debating club. It was a (fairly) peaceful way to strutt my stuff, to show my competence and skills, to prove I was better than the others, something young males tend to do, like peacocks displaying their tail feathers.

    While proving oneself to be above the competition is a good motive, I think that ensuring our perceived community is coherent and cohesive is more important. A forum or blog on which we participate becomes one of the groups we belong to, and we want to make sure we can trust our fellow group members. If they express opinions too far removed from what we perceive to be the position of the group (i.e. a religious person expounding on an atheist board or vice versa), we leap to the defense of the group and attack the intruder. Humans use information (through language) the same way ants use pheromones, to advertise the group they belong to.

    Similarly, when we meet other people socially, we have to ascertain how trustworthy they are. When they voice opinions that place them in a different group, we feel complelled to challenge these opitions to guage the danger we’re in. If the person offers a compromise, we know they’re not dangerous; if they stick to their guns, we know we have to keep our distance.

  20. etatroon 08 Feb 2013 at 10:10 am

    My motivation for chiming in is not usually to change someone’s mind, but to try to prevent someone who is on the fence from believing them when they are speaking publicly (or on the internet). I work with young people who are 19-21 and I find that their minds are open to lots of things and they are inherently skeptical. Usually all it takes is to point them to different sources of information or how to find primary evidence, or to point out a conflict of interest or one fallacy, and they go off on their own missions of discovery. A few days later, they might report back. It’s the least recognized but most rewarding part of my job. Social media online is a whole other gamut, you can plant a seed here or there, but if the field isn’t fertile, it won’t take. I only intervene if someone is spreading misinformation and I don’t try change their mind, but maybe point out a few facts, fallacies, or sources of evidence for their audience.

    Bill – I also did speech/debate. I think it was an incredibly valuable growth experience, for people entering any profession. I agree it’s a place for a peacock to strut their stuff, but in my time, it was a female who won the state competition two years in a row (unheard of, not for a female to win, but two years in a row).

  21. Kevin Duganon 08 Feb 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I like to share excitement about what cognitive science shows us about how the brain works. This usually draws their attention in an uncritical way. Then I can talk about examples of hindsight or confirmation bias, about perception errors, about Type1 and Type2 errors and their evolutionary basis, about how the brain is all about the body and preserving it physically and socially.

    It’s also useful to share a story about how you’re perceptions have changed about an issue, or where you read this really neat study and what was discovered. In doing so, you encourage them to think of science and reason as obtainable by the average person, and how complexity underlies most subjects, and how you can trust things with error bars far more than things without.

    I’ve come to believe that most folks hold firm beliefs from fear rather than faith. They’re afraid of what it will mean if they don’t believe it. Talking to them about their fear stories and helping them see alternative endings to these stories can help ease them out of firmly held positions.

  22. SARAon 08 Feb 2013 at 3:56 pm

    @ Bill Openthalt
    Ensuring cohesion and coherence in the community is an interesting way to look at it. But the underlying assumption is that someone who is not necessarily in alignment with our group is somehow “other” and not be trusted.

    And that is troubling to me. While it may be true that we debate aggressively to protect that cohesion, it is not necessarily a good motivation.

    The tribal outlook doesn’t fit into the current world. It’s the source on a large scale of most of our societal conflicts.

    On a small scale, like the interactions we have with people about skeptical subjects, it creates the problem of communication walls rather than bridges.

    Even within the group, the assumption that someone whose opinion doesn’t jive with the majority is somehow not to be trusted seems like a fallacy. Trust implies a lack of threat. I can hold a belief different than the skeptical movement, and not threaten you or the movement in any real way.

    An action must be taken to create a threat. For example, attempts to create laws to teach creationism in schools is an action. A belief in creationism is not.

  23. tmac57on 08 Feb 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Lots of good comments on this thread. Much food for thought. Keep it coming.

  24. Bill Openthalton 08 Feb 2013 at 6:58 pm

    @SARA:

    The circuits that evaluate others operate outside of consciousness. The results of the evaluation are perceived as the desire to argue with them, the dislike of their point of view.

    It is true that because of our origins, these circuits assume we are living in small tribes, and that those who do not belong to the tribe are potentially dangerous. I agree they are not tuned for the much larger societies we live in. Unfortunately, the conscious mind cannot reprogram these unconscious modules, but has to re-target the feelings and impulses generated by them. This is difficult, slow, and quite unreliable.

    The hierarchy of the modules in the brain is based on the assumption that when it comes to safety, the conscious part of the mind cannot be relied upon. This means the conscious part cannot (easily) influence behaviour when the safety of the person is at stake. The only possibility is to try and influence the parameters used by the social evaluation circuits when the situation is safe.

    I don’t have a recipe for this, but I think the kind of reflections you posted do, albeit slowly, influence the outcome of the evaluation if they occur often enough. Once you know the impulse to react comes from this rather rigid social evaluation part of your mind, you can choose to reply “virtually” — write the reply but don’t send it off for a couple of hours, and re-read it before hitting “Submit”. When I do this, I notice that most of the time I decide it’s better not to reply at all.

    Unfortunately, the media we use today favour immediate reactions…

  25. Hamiltonon 08 Feb 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Albert Einstein said “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.”

    Talking to people about the beliefs they hold dear is like wrestling a bone from the mouth of a hungry dog, they’re never gonna let go. I always try to remember the above quote, and just leave them to it.

  26. tmac57on 08 Feb 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Bill Openthalt-

    write the reply but don’t send it off for a couple of hours, and re-read it before hitting “Submit”. When I do this, I notice that most of the time I decide it’s better not to reply at all.

    I laughed when I read this,as I have done this many times on Facebook.I type so slowly,and then second guess my source,and then re-edit,and by the time I get done,I just say “Aw screw it!” ,and delete the post before I submit it. It’s still a kind of catharsis though ;)

  27. Jared Olsenon 09 Feb 2013 at 2:17 am

    I wonder if the Believer’s have a similar blog somewhere titled “How To Talk To A Skeptic”?
    The biggest hurdle I find in these situations is convincing the other person of the fallibility of human perception and thought. In my experience, most people are totally unaware of how we can be fooled by our own hardware and software. If they give an anecdote as evidence (let’s face it, that’s how most ‘evidence’ is presented in everyday conversation), and you question, say, their memory of the event, then it’s perceived as a personal attack.
    Maybe I should carry around optical illusions…

  28. Greggoreyon 09 Feb 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Great post, Dr. Novella. I recently created a similar entry on my blog. I was wondering if my thoughts inspired you or if it was just a coincidence.

    http://scienceskepticism.blogspot.com/2013/01/how-to-argue-with-non-skeptice-without.html

    take care,

    Greg

  29. elmer mccurdyon 09 Feb 2013 at 9:08 pm

    You know, I’ve stated my disagreements with Dr. Novella a few times, and they’re few and I suppose mostly pretty minor, and they’re topics he touches on only very occasionally. I’ve reached a point where there doesn’t seem to be much point in trying to think of clever ways to restate them, aside from the fact that my interests have drifted elsewhere. And, of course, there’s a person – well, I recently did something in a fit of pique to piss him off, foolishly, as he has done so many times to me, but now I would just like to go back to avoiding him. It’s long been obvious that what is driving him is a general desire to show his superiority to me, and this is part of a pattern of behavior that I observed long before he became aware of my existence, and which I found amusing before I became his target, but now… ew. Unfortunately, it’s much harder on the internet to avoid unpleasant humans, just as it’s harder to have conversations without them becoming part of your permanent record. But I do what I can. Anyway, ta ta.

  30. PharmD28on 25 Feb 2013 at 10:59 am

    this continues to be a challenge for me within the ranks of our local meetups (“atheists”, or “evolutionists”) here that have some varying views on such topics, sometimes very much up the alt med road.

    My initial conversations with the believer, were nearly a total failure on my part (at least based on what I think my goals are). I was so originally surprised to meet the alt med folks in these ranks, that when I did, and we began to debate…my tone was too much for them…and I angered a couple of these folks….

    I had thought that people in such groups all enjoyed straight forward no nonsense debate…but you know what they say about assumptions…

    I still am feeling out when I should be more straight forward and pounce, when to just work a bit on the foundation, or just ignore….

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