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Conversational Fight Or Flight

A recent email from a listener had summed up what I think is a common situation that most of us have to deal with.

I have friends that I’ve known for twenty years. Those friends could be described as conspiracy theorists or denialists. They are not crazy, have jobs and many people who meet them find them personable and intelligent. They do not preach their message to unfamiliar people but are quite vocal about their beliefs when in the company of close friends (for example, me). Those beliefs start with the common “Bush did 9/11”, vaccine conspiracy, global warming scam and run all the way to the belief that the way we are taught to eat is wrong. In other words they resist everything and anything that “the establishment” tells us.

Before I started listening to your show I was indifferent towards their beliefs but since then their inconsistent reasoning and faulty logic has started increasingly to bother me. When we are together as a group and these subjects come up I either stay silent, which I mostly do, or challenge their methodology and poor reasoning causing conflict. We had previously agreed not to talk about 9/11 but it is close to impossible to completely avoid these issues as their beliefs cover a broad range of subjects. Either way the show has indirectly caused me to resent my childhood friends…

So…you have wisely chosen to be a skeptical advocate or activist.  You feel it is your duty to represent critical thinking, stand up vocally for logic and reason and not be the quiet one who lets ignorance win.  Have you also come to see how this can sometimes be a total pain in the arse?

At some point we flex our skeptical ideology in response to someone else’s non-skeptical beliefs.  I think of these moments as conversational fight or flight.  Do we jump in and give it our best or do we stay quiet and get frustrated or angry. Taking a strong intellectual or emotional stance on any belief has the potential to piss someone off.  In my experience it makes people on both sides of the discussion/ argument upset and quite often nothing is gained.

More times than I can remember I’ve actually been the asshole who makes people cry.  One time I was at a dinner with an extended group of friends and one of the girls there was telling a story about her grandmother.  She was telling all of us that her grandmother had the “Evil Eye.”  I asked her what that meant and she explained some nonsense about how she could curse people.  I defiantly told the girl “Maybe your grandmother was just fuc###g ugly.” My friends laughed and the girl got very upset.  At that time I thought I was clever and righteous.  Today I look back and think that I actually accomplished nothing.  I didn’t even try to have a reasonable discussion with her.  I possibly could have nudged that girl in the direction of critical thinking with a little patience and some smart questions.  Instead I took the easy way out of the conversation. Even after many lessons like this one, to this day I’m still tempted to argue and find it hard to hold myself back.  There’s still a sense of wanting to win.  I’ve learned to pick my fights better but my skeptical lion is always there and it wants blood..and 14 hours of sleep a day.

Being a critical thinker is definitely not the easiest way to live being that we are steeped in true believers.  Can we change the world?  Sure.  But it wont be sudden and it wont be easy.  Starting with our own circle of people, we need to represent the greater body of critical thinkers.  This means making smarter choices when we are faced with the above challenges.

What are the options?

Jump in and fight it out! I love a good fight..that’s why I’m addicted to Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 2 which I highly recommend.  Nothing is more fun than killing some 13 year old kid in Oaklahoma who’s callsign is LUVS2KILLU. Other than making your friends laugh whoever you are making a fool of, this wont get you anywhere.  It’s fun but no one walks away better off.
Decide not to engage. This may very well be the best option for most cases.  I try to determine if there’s a chance of having a legitimate conversation.  Will they listen?  Will I be able to listen to them?  Is this the right place to have this conversation?  Do I know enough on the topic to do this right?
Engage with patience and knowledge. The best case scenario is that you have a conversation where all those involved remain reasonable and are willing to listen.  As the skeptic, being armed with knowledge of the topic is also critical.

One thing to keep in mind.  Most of the time conversations we have are not in a bubble.  Other people are listening and their beliefs are being tested too. The other people may very well change their minds or be influenced even though they are not involved in the conversation.  If you come across as easy to talk to they might decide to have a conversation with you.  I bet that if I ran into the girl with the Evil Eye grandmother today she would not be interested in a nice chat.

8 comments to Conversational Fight Or Flight

  • Imperius Rex

    Her grandmother WAS ugly, though.

  • Donna Vinci

    For me, “Pick Your Battles” is the general rule of thumb. If I feel I can engage someone in an honest dialogue, then I try to engage “with patience and knowledge”. I agree that’s the best approach. But let’s face it — some people either don’t want to be challenged, or can’t have a rational discussion about their views. Sometimes it’s just the wrong place and time. And sometimes I just don’t want to put myself out there, either emotionally or intellectually, to someone who I know is not prepared to listen critically. It’s just too much work and ends up doing more harm than good.

  • skillydog

    Brian Dunning had a recent podcast on this very subject, and came to much of the same conclusions as Jay. I personally have a very hard time biting my tongue, especially when it comes to medical pseudo-science. I recently got into it with a neigbor and berated them for weakening the herd by not vaccinating their children from H1N1.
    Jay, by the way, I couldn’t agree more about Modern Warfare 2… great way to get the aggression out.. let me know when you want to start the SGU clan!

  • TheCad

    CBF reading the whole thing for now, but you spell arse the Aussie (and English I guess, but I’m sure we did it first) way. I’ve met plenty of people here who spell it the American way but I’ve never seen it done by a yank. Sorry, pointless observation, just curious is all.

  • It really depends on how good friends you are, I have always considered it one of the duties of friendship to tell the truth. I have a friend that likes to lean towards the conspiracy nut side of things and when he starts up I let him tell his side then I say “You’re a moron and here’s why…” He knows that I’m not going to let him slide and afterwards more often than not he’ll say something like “I never thought about it that way” and we’ll laugh and that will be that.

    Perhaps we’re just odd.

  • halincoh

    Risk -benefit.

    If the person is engaging in behavior that puts him/her or someone else at risk, then I intervene. The greater the benefit vs. risk, the intensely I will argue my point. As a physician, I counter-attack any and all anti vax arguments in great detail ( refering them to Paul Offit or Amy Wallace’s literature ) because I am the forefront of that battlefield. If I don’t do it, who should? Alternatively, if they are into herbs, then I want to know which herbs, and if there are no herb-drug interactions ( there are many ), as long as they are compliant with my regime I do not counter-attack aggressively. Instead I ask, “how much do you pay for that?” I then point out , if there is no sound evidence, that they are paying X dollars needlessly. I then play the IF YOU WANT TO KEEP PAYING FOR SOMETHING THAT ISN’T DOING ANYTHING it’s ok with me card, but if were me, I’d spend my money elsewhere. It’s a softer arguement because the stakes are less. Usually they ask questions. If so, I’ll review the evidence and most, not all, stop.

    In everyday life I also argue only if there is a significant risk-benefit ratio with which they need be concerned; otherwise, I use humor to gently poke fun of the scenario, but not offensive humor; meaning NEVER, EVER say to someone that “your grandmother is f’n ugly” … unless you have the evidence staring you in the face!!!

  • Brian the Coyote

    Jay, I’d add “Defer” to your list of options. You can always say, “I’d love to hear more of what you know about (instert woo here) some other time. Then you can talk it out at a differnt venue, maybe even with some time to prepare. That’s if you think this person can be reasoned with. There is no good reason to engage a true-believer. It just seems to reinforce their beliefs.

  • mordred

    So… was it a good idea for me to recommend The G Hunters to the founder of the Paranormal Club at my university? Really that could go either way.
    But really Jay, I struggle with this. Thanks for putting it down in words. Personally, I have always been a bit of a fighter and when I found out an ex was anti-vax I did have to rip him a new one (we don’t talk anymore). Although, I enjoyed that too much to say it was a mistake.
    Oh, and God of War is better! Best really.

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