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.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Confronting Friends and Family”

  1. sham says:

    Thank you for this very interesting post! I myself have similar issues with friends and most of the time with very close friends. In addition to the great strategies you suggest, I often also ask the one I’m arguing with what evidence will change his mind. What argument, proof, evidence, etc. would be enough to make him change his mind? I find It’s a good strategy to engage in such a path if you’re in a very strong opposition.

  2. etatro says:

    The additional strategy that Sham mentions is also good, but you have to be willing to do the same thing. The person you’re arguing with can answer your question, then ask you what evidence will change your mind. This is something you’d have to think about ahead of time. What evidence would convince you that evolution is wrong or that creationism is right? A few possible suggestions are mentioned in this blog …. DNA evidence that there is a species or genus on Earth with no possible ancestors and appears to have been magically placed here. A fossil of a species with no possible ancestors or prior mechanism on which evolution could have acted — like wings from shoulderblades in a vertebrate. A fossil that is in the wrong geological area. Or scientific documentation of a bona fide miracle. This also helps to point out the huge stretch in logic that is necessary to accept creationism.

  3. BillyJoe7 says:

    It can work the other way sometimes.

    You can be so careful not to upset the other person, and vice versa, that you both continually avoid certain subjects in case you risk ending up with an important area of disagreement in a hitherto friendly and agreeable relationship.

    So it was with one of my employees (I actually tell her she is the boss, because she has to feel that way in order to do her work properly). Whenever any topic with religious overtones came up, both of us would avoid saying anything specific about our views. Over time I suspected why and I just came right out and asked her, “Do you believe in god”. It turned out our views were identical, but we both thought the other was religious (strangely, I have found that most people I meet think I’m religious!)

    Since then our working relationship has been much more open, friendly, and relaxed.
    …until I discovered that she is a supporter of Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party!!!

  4. Jared Olsen says:

    TO BillyJoe7, so you two agree on religion and then
    “…until I discovered that she is a supporter of Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party!!!”

    ouch!! 🙂

  5. Jared Olsen says:

    Take Steve’s advice, don’t attack the person, attack the Party!!

  6. Mac says:

    I wish it were as easy as taking Steve’s advice. Anyone who has spoken with close family or friends on this subject knows very well that someone who is so uninformed that they believe in creationism, will not take your politeness in the spirit which you are giving it.

    If you would like to have an easy, stress free relationship with someone who believes the opposite of you, I would suggest just leaving topics like this alone, or even deflecting when the topic comes up.

    If you don’t mind having a strained relationship in order to continually pound your point home, then go ahead and make your arguments as polite as possible.

    But if these people don’t believe the “experts” speaking to them on TV about evolution, how much of a possibility do you think there is that they will believe you, someone they likely view as their intellectual equal?

    Just my .02.

  7. Eternally Learning says:

    I just had this happen to me the other week. It was right after my grandmother’s memorial service we were at home and a friend of the family I’d not seen since I was 6 or 7 was with us. Somehow he casually mentioned that “Darwinists” theory of evolution stems from certain philosophical underpinnings (can’t remember what exactly now, but something along the lines of social Darwinism) more than the actual scientific facts. He was basically saying that “Evolutionists” found so-called evidence to support their philosophy. He said this casually because he assumed I was still the devout Christian I was at 6 or 7 and like the rest of my family was.

    Being that this was the day of my Grandmother’s memorial service (who was quite religious herself), I didn’t think it was terribly appropriate to drop the A bomb on the get-together so I basically took the third person approach and didn’t assume a view myself and stuck to correcting his views of their views. I also took a page out of your book Steve, and directed him to Talk Origins. I happen to think that entrenched individuals tend to gain more from actually bothering to answer their own questions themselves anyway.

    Well, that’s just my story and another idea I suppose. Nothing says you have to make the debate a “me vs you” event and sometimes it’s better to refer a closed mind claiming openness to a comprehensive resource.

  8. expblast says:

    When I was a believer, I surrounded myself with a Christian world view that backed up everything I believed in. There was no listening to the other side, because in most Christian faiths it is a sin to listen to a non believer or read books that contradict the teachings of the bible. Pastors would always warn of “backsliding” or the evil in books or persons that were against god. You were discouraged from even considering another point of view for fear of hell or damnation. I know this doesn’t represent all Christian faiths, but how is it possible for a logical person to present evidence to a person who uses none? I argue with my Christian friends when the time is suitable, but I never expect to change their mind. Even armed with the most logical, evidence based facts – they simply will not consider anything but their “FAITH”. I am an atheist and skeptic now, with a particular knack for arguing against faith because I was in the faith. Plant the seeds definitely. But do not have “faith” that they will bare fruit. Getting everyone to a secular/humanist world view is going to be a long road. Faith is some powerful Malarkey.

  9. Diane says:

    I have only tried to argue with people a few times, mostly because I don’t like argument and offending people. In one case, an acquaintance whose son went to preschool with my son told me offhand that she had won a battle with the preschool to not vaccinate her children. I was taken by surprise, and stumbled around a bit, so I tried to bring it up again later. I’m actually a biomedical scientist and I work on vaccines, and I felt a certain professional responsibility to say something to her because she was clearly pretty confused about the biology of vaccination and neurological disease. I didn’t get anywhere the second time either because she really didn’t have clear arguments that I could refute. She cited a few studies but couldn’t remember enough about them for me to identify them or critique them intelligently, and a vague sense that vaccines were dangerous and it was better to be safe than sorry (and not vaccinating was being safe). Since then I have been wondering how you argue with people who don’t actually have much of an argument.

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