For one reason or another, the year 2014 saw the series of tubes known as “the internet” confront me with numerous articles questioning the efficacy of persuading people by facts and rational arguments. For example, a left-wing columnist for a major German online publication claimed (based on personal experience, without empirical evidence) that “perhaps two percent of humanity can recognize the limits of their own mental capacities” and thus be convinced by somebody else’s points to change their mind on something. And blogger David Friedman linked to a paper that asserted (with empirical evidence) that if you separate people on the basis of political (or religious) views, people whose political (or religious) views predispose them to believe in a scientific claim will be more likely to do so the more scientifically educated they are. At the same time, people whose views predispose them to disbelieve that claim will be more likely to reject it the more knowledgable they are. Regardless of where you stand on some specific debate (the examples given are creationism and global warming), the most obvious – and depressing – explanation would be that people do not use their increased knowledge of a subject to find out the truth, but rather to come up with better justifications for what they wanted to be true in the first place. My third example is a widely reported study that “anti-vaxxers”, wo spread the (false) claim that vaccines cause autism in children and seek “natural” alternatives, can become more convinced of their position after being confronted with evidence to the contrary.
This would seem to imply that it is a waste of time to try and argue a point to people who are already convinced of the opposite. Instead, like a savvy politician, someone who wants to convince others of his or her ideas should exclusively appeal to undecideds and their own “base”. Some people may also take it to confirm their longstanding suspicion that their opponents are fools and fanatics, while, of course, their side of an argument is so hard to convince because they are, in fact, right. The consequence that might lead some of them (or judging by the current state of the internet: a great many of them) to is to abandon rational discourse entirely and see public debate as a struggle for power, where discrediting opponents and generating outrage are the winning strategies. This would also mean that if a majority of society are wrong about something, and perhaps deeply convinced of that wrong something, it is close to impossible for them to recognize it.
While that kind of cynicism is certainly true to a degree, I still don’t quite buy it. My beliefs (which I currently hold without empirical evidence, so I am just mouthing of wild conjectures here) are that a) the people who are reluctant to engage with facts contradicting their views (i.e., most of us) may be irrational, but not quite as irrational as it seems, b) rational argument may not be able to convince someone of the wrongness of their entire worldview within a week, but it may reach more modest goals, provided it addresses the reasons people are so unwilling to change their minds. Let me work through both of these points in turn:Read More »