Oct 12 2012

Confronting Friends and Family

At the risk of turning my blog into a “Dear Skeptic” column, I would like to discuss an e-mail I received recently. I frequently receive some version of the following question:

So my question is; how far do you go to defend the science behind a theory – such as the theory of evolution- when you know full well that no amount of evidence is ever sufficient to ‘convince’ non-believers to change their outlook?! Sure, we must continue to profess the truth and what is fast becoming scientific fact, but when your relationships with those around you are at stake, where do you draw the line in such arguments?!  Afterall, you could end up alienating half the people you know, right??

I’m completely torn between keeping the peace with those around me, and calling them all freaking morons for believing something with no evidential underpinning.

Your thoughts on this would be much appreciated, I’m sure it’s something you’ve considered before and maybe it would make an interesting talking point for the show.

Love what you do, stumbling across you guys on iTunes 3 years ago has completely changed the way I think about science.

Kind regards


Nick detailed his confrontations with a friend who is a creationist and was spouting standard creationist misinformation and poor logic. It certainly is difficult to let such statements go without challenge, but the confrontation can also consume a relationship or a casual social event. There is no one answer for how to deal with such situations, because there are many relevant variables that can affect your decision. What is the nature of your relationship? What are your goals for that relationship and the current social situation? What is your reputation within that social group and your general personality? How much experience do you have confronting the topic at hand?

But here are some thoughts and things to consider.

First, I have to reject the false dichotomy of saying nothing in the face of misinformation, or being a “dick” and calling someone a “freaking moron.” There is vast territory in between these two extremes. You can certainly politely confront misinformation. Part of being polite is to confront the information and the beliefs themselves, without directing comments toward the person or the believer. If you want to be especially polite, you can even avoid saying the word “wrong” or any synonym. Don’t tell them they are wrong, just say the correct information and give your source, if possible. “I have read that there are many transitional fossils, for example…”

It takes conscious effort, but you can learn to titrate your level of confrontation. In a public debate you may want to portray your opponent as wrong, misinformed, inconsistent, and deceptive.  If someone is presenting themselves as an expert, even at a private BBQ, you may need to politely take them down a notch, for the sake of onlookers. But if someone is a friend or family member you care about, then you may wish to be minimally confrontational. This is usually a good default position in private settings.

Addressing the belief and not the believer is also an effective strategy (not just to avoid pissing people off). You don’t want to come off as having an ax to grind, being emotionally invested, or irrational. That is a common strategy of the pseudoscientist (whether conscious or not) – say things that are so outrageous that they get you upset and you rail against them in strong emotional terms. Then they portray you as the zealot. Keeping cool is a good strategy.

Another helpful strategy is to find common ground. This is effective from the point of view of logic and psychology – get the other person to agree to basic premises. “OK, we both agree that science works, right?” Then build from those premises. They will not want to seem inconsistent, and so you may be able to corner their logic. As part of this, really try to understand their position. Don’t come out swinging, but rather let them build their case, and ask them questions. You may find that you are in fact wrong on one or more points. This can also serve as “giving them rope” with which you will later hang them.

Another way to look at this is that you frame the exchange as both of you trying to figure out together what is really true, rather than a contest of who is right. You can say, for example, that the point they bring up is very interesting and important. You remember reading something very different. Agree that the point will largely determine which position is correct, and then discuss how the two of you together can investigate the information. Don’t try to win in one step.  For example, you can agree that the question of transitional fossils is important to the creation/evolution debate. Agree on a definition of “transitional.” Then agree to look for some reliable sources to find out if there are really transitional fossils. Get them to buy into the process, and then see where it leads.

Further, don’t expect to change anyone’s mind in the heat of debate. As we say, plant the seeds of doubt and knowledge and let them germinate when the person is not on stage or being confronted.

How far to push any one confrontation will require judgment. As long as everyone is friendly, interested, and entertained by the exchange, feel free to keep going. If everyone is becoming annoyed and even angry, you may want to find a way to pause the discussion without giving up or conceding anything. It’s easy to say, let’s continue this later, or to agree to exchange references to read and then resume the discussion later in private or over e-mail. E-mail is often a better venue for these discussion anyway, because there is a record of everything said, and you can easily exchange links and references. You can also take the time to compose your arguments, and check your language and tone.

None of this, of course, is a guarantee of any particular results. For me personally I have to stay true in every setting to my skeptical world view. I have a bit of an advantage in that I have built a reputation as a skeptic, so people know what they will get. But you can do this to – you can build a reputation within your social circle as someone who will reasonably discuss controversial topics, and who knows how to find reliable information.

Good luck, and thanks for the question, Nick.

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