Feb 07 2013

How To Talk to a Believer

This one is definitely a FAQ – how do I talk to someone who is a true believer in whatever? Here is the most recent version of this question I received:

I have looked through the site, and I’m pretty sure you haven’t posted anything on how to talk to a CAM believer. I work at a local (I’ll say it, natural) grocery store where many of my friends and co-workers believe strongly in detox, cleansing, herbs and special diets. This wouldn’t bother me so much but one friend in particular is using the alkaline diet to help push her cancer into remission. She is hoping to stop chemo all together, and just rely on the alkaline diet. It’s getting harder to bite my tongue.

My question is this, how do I talk to these people with out sounding like an a-hole? I feel like every time I try to have a conversation about these things I just get angrier and angrier with their lack of knowledge, and just plain ol’ distrust of medicine and science all together. What do you say to hopefully make someone listen? How do you talk to a CAM believer?

Perhaps the reason this is such a frequent question is because there really is no universal answer. The situational variables will tend to dominate – such as the relationship between you and the believer in question, the topic at hand, if there are any personal stakes involved, and your expertise and level of knowledge. There are, however, some useful rules of thumb.

Avoid the False Dichotomy

The first thing to realize is that “skeptic” and “believer” is a bit of a false dichotomy. Sure, there are people who are generally skeptical and others who are astoundingly gullible, but it is helpful to recognize that most people are somewhere along this spectrum. Further, some people can be skeptical about certain topics and gullible about others.

The real reason to avoid this dichotomy, however, is that it is not helpful. We are all humans, with the same basic cognitive biases and mental flaws. If you approach someone with the attitude that they are gullible and you have all the answers, you are not likely to get far.

If, rather, you take the approach that all humans are susceptible to deception, bias, and illusion but that there are methods for overcoming them, you put yourself in the same category as the person you wish to convince. You are then not criticizing them, you are just sharing some tools that you have found helpful in thinking more clearly and reliably.

In fact the first thing you have to consider when you have a disagreement with someone else is that you may be wrong. Be open to being convinced you are wrong, and try to honestly discover what the best answer actually is.

Find Common Ground

If your goal is to convince someone else to be a bit more skeptical, rather than to just debate them, then it is helpful to find common intellectual ground. This could be a respect for science, being skeptical about some other topic, a desire to be healthy, an agreement on some basic logical principles, or a desire to not be fooled or victimized by slick marketing. You may need to find common ground on some other topic, other than the one on which you disagree.

Often you can find skeptical common ground by simply asking someone if there is any claim that they do not believe or about which they are skeptical. You can then engage their skepticism, nurture it, and share some basic principles of critical thinking about a topic on which you agree.

When dealing with the topic of contention, see if there is anything on which you can agree, and then use that as a starting point. With CAM, for example, you may need to get very basic – such as the premise that some treatments are more effective than others. You may need to establish some other basic principles, like risk vs benefit, and some understanding of what is meant by placebo effects. Work on these principles before doing a full frontal assault on a specific belief.

Plant the Seed

People tend to defend beliefs they already hold, and we are generally very good at rationalizing logic and evidence to maintain preexisting beliefs. In fact, confronting someone’s belief directly is likely to reinforce that belief, as it forces the person to think of specific reasons to defend it.

There is a parable analogy of the sun and the cloud. They had a bet about who could make a person take off their coat. The cloud went first – it blew a strong wind at the person to try to blow off their coat, but the harder they blew the tighter the person gripped their coat. Then it was the sun’s turn – the sun simply radiated down on the person, making them hot so that they took off their coat.

Rather than trying to directly convince a believer to abandon their belief, it perhaps is better to come at it obliquely – try to get them to agree to some basic facts or principles of critical thinking (planting the seed) and then let them come to their own conclusions. This approach takes patience and the long view (how long will depend on your relationship with the person).

Focus on Method

Related to this is the approach of presenting the question on which you disagree as a joint exploration. Essentially you say – that is a very interesting claim or question. How could we investigate this together? We both just want to find out the truth, right? Then discuss what kind of information would help resolve the question – published studies, expert reviews. This gets you talking about method – what kind of information can we trust, anyway. What about testimonials, or claims made by companies selling products?

Keep the conversation on method until you can agree on what kind of information would be most useful in answering the question. Even though you might already have some strong suspicions about the answer, take a fresh and open-minded look at the question. Retrace your skeptical steps together, and then maybe you might arrive at the same answer.

Be Realistic

The above is not a recipe for guaranteed success. Some people are simply not prepared to engage in critical analysis, are too deeply invested in a particular belief, or have a world view so divergent from your own that you have a hard time finding any common ground.

It is critical that you don’t get angry or frustrated. Once you do, you probably will not achieve any goal (unless your goal is to simply vent). I personally never give up entirely; it does no harm to calmly state your position, correct factual errors, etc. But you do have to pick your battles.

30 responses so far