With the fallout of the election, a lot of us skeptics have been doing a bit of soul searching (for lack of a better term). Skeptics have been fighting the good fight before I was even in diapers, yet many humans seem impervious to pure, demonstrable facts, to the point where our president elect is a denier of clear unambiguous science. Donald Trump denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change as well as the efficacy of vaccines, and his followers are not far behind. Perhaps this is unsurprising, coming from a man who led a movement that literally thinks Obama is a Kenyan (the movement still isn’t dead, soon to be ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio tried to restore legitimacy to birther claims with an amateur investigator in mid-December). As a result of an apparent surge in terrible reasoning, the election has apparently lit a fire under our asses to bring critical thinking, skepticism, and reason to the forefront and redouble our efforts.
Unfortunately, even the cold hard facts are not enough to change the minds of humans, and, in fact, sharing facts can even make things worse. Science has shown us that the backfire effect contributes to our strongly-held beliefs, such that when we are presented information that contradicts what we already think, it can cause us to become even more certain in our poorly-held beliefs.
This means that if we share the cold hard facts and nothing else, this causes people to reject the facts even more? So we shouldn’t use facts to try and convince people?
That’s not necessarily the case. We should of course make sure that all of our arguments and positions are supported by the evidence and the facts. But the point is if we actually care about convincing people to a more evidence-based worldview, merely presenting the evidence alone won’t get the job done. Humans aren’t perfect logic machines; we can’t simply give everyone certain inputs and expect them to arrive at the same reasonable output. Our approach counts for a lot.
Along with other skeptics, I’ve been working on trying to reach out to “the other side” to find people who are reachable. While I’m hardly an expert in interpersonal conflict, psychology, or debate (mostly the opposite, I’m baffled every day at how humans function), there appear to be some approaches that have better efficacy than others. Nothing is a silver bullet, and we should never go into a disagreement expecting to change the minds of others, as that will lead to unnecessary disappointment more often than not. But if we want to set out to plant a few seeds and give the other side some food for thought, and perhaps reach the people on the fence, then it would behoove us to adjust our approach.
Image: Two people conversing
1. Humanize yourself to the opposition
This approach admittedly has a limited scope, and is mostly applicable to issues of bigotry and prejudice. But when it works, it works incredibly well. Often this is the case when people are biased against certain demographics, such as gender, sexuality, and race.
What does the evidence say? Even a very brief conversation with someone opposed to your nature can drastically change the way you are perceived. A study found in Science set out to find how voters react to meeting gay and transgender individuals. The abstract for their paper is as follows:
Existing research depicts intergroup prejudices as deeply ingrained, requiring intense intervention to lastingly reduce. Here, we show that a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months. We illustrate this potential with a door-to-door canvassing intervention in South Florida targeting antitransgender prejudice. Despite declines in homophobia, transphobia remains pervasive. For the intervention, 56 canvassers went door to door encouraging active perspective-taking with 501 voters at voters’ doorsteps. A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans’ average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012. These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.
When someone is convinced that we need to ban gay marriage because gay men are depraved perverts who walk around in leather and feathers all day to recruit children, introducing them to a gay person melts away these stereotypes. When someone thinks that trans women are really men in dresses trying to sneak into restrooms, introducing them to an actual trans woman will make them drastically rethink them. It turns out when you live within the bubble of how your go-to media outlet describes an issue, you thoroughly lack the full picture and the human aspect of why something is important.
It’s not hard to see real-world examples of this happening. It’s often most visible in politicians whose positions on certain issues are very public, and will occasionally change drastically. We’re familiar with cases like former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who supported the standard Republican position against gay marriage until his daughter came out as a lesbian, and since then has even lobbied for gay marriage. Tim Ryan, a previously “pro-life Democrat”, changed his mind on why people should have access to abortion after discussing with female constituents on why those issues affected them. It turns out that gay people aren’t trying to recruit all Americans into orgies, they just want the same access to society that everyone else has. It turns out that women aren’t just trying to get rid of a fetus because it’s inconvenient for their next vacation, they simply want bodily autonomy. As a straight male, no matter how good my arguments could possibly get against someone, I could never humanize their cause in the same way that a gay person or a woman could.
What does this mean for people who care about issues on prejudice? It means visibility is incredibly important. It means coming out en masse has worked wonders for the LGBTQ rights movement, and why the National Coming Out Day is more than a mere celebration of being one’s self. It’s the reason why the atheist movement has been pushing visibility, in efforts like the Out of the Closet Campaign or Openly Secular which are based of the successes of the LGBTQ rights movement. It looks like a black man joining the KKK to ease racial tensions. It looks like putting a trans person on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, or making sure there is more racial representation in our films and television shows. It could also mean someone showing that they need access to healthcare despite their pre-existing conditions, and that plans like the ACA are actually necessary for their well-being. This is more than simply making an appeal to giving everyone their fair share, this actively shifts the way we think.
To be clear, the only people who have the ability to use this technique are people affected by prejudice, bigotry, and misinformation. It’s not for me to tell any individual that they should put their self in a position that compromises their safety for the sake of changing minds. But it’d be a mistake to not show that this is a powerful tool. I’m happy to help put a friendly face on atheists, though.
2. Social pressure
Humans are social creatures, and if we’re going to try to influence the behavior of other humans we have to understand the mechanisms behind what causes people to change their mind. This is somewhat related to the first point, but more broad and large scale. This is not something we can accomplish overnight, and it’s not something that we can control directly, but this is something we can do in the spaces we have influence over.
We’ve known for over half a century that the opinions of those surrounding us influence us greatly. This has been known since the 50s when we started doing experiments on this. A good example is the Asch conformity experiments, which found that subjects were likely to give a clearly wrong answer when everyone around them gave a largely wrong answer. Subjects were given two cards, one with a single line, and one with three lines of varying lengths. While only one of the lines clearly matched the length of the other card, when a subject was surrounded by people who give the same wrong answer, the subject was far more likely to pick the same wrong answer. There are many of other examples and experiments that since then corroborate these findings (such as the humorous elevator example).
Cards used in the Asch experiment. On the left, a card has one line, and on the right a card has three lines of varying lengths, with the medium-length line matching the length of the line on the left. [Wikimedia Commons]
It’s important to note that this is simply an aspect of human behavior. I am not advocating groupthink or tribalism, but simply describing how humans act. As skeptics, we should be aware of the way this can harm people. It’s a contribution to the fact that many Trump voters on Twitter seemed to operate in a completely separate universe
from everybody else, likely along with conspiracy beliefs like Pizzagate and anti-vaccine theorists. As critical thinkers, we should be well aware of the effect this can have on our own beliefs, and we should try and ward off any effect this can have.
But we should also recognize the power this phenomenon comes with. Creating environments that allow certain ideas to flourish, while at the same time making it hostile for other ideas, is actually a good thing. This is why even though atheists don’t necessarily have to agree on almost anything, I make it a priority to make sure that the environments that I curate are welcoming to the marginalized and hostile to anti-racism (cue accusations that I’m forming a bubble here). The idea that people of different skin colors are substantially different or that women are weak are evidentially dead ideas, and they should be shunned in every way possible. As I mentioned before, merely showing someone the evidence that “no, their brains are not smaller than ours” may cause them to double down on their beliefs. Instead, once we have evidence that some ideas are bad, outdated, and harmful, we should make it clear that we have no need to revisit them.
We can see the effect this has on people around the globe and over time. We know, for example, that the religious belief you have as an adult is not so much a function of which religious belief makes the most sense to the person, but more of a product of the environment and culture you grow up in. We know that children born in the past couple of decades are far more accepting of LGBTQ people than people born eighty years ago, and that is a good thing. What if we were to create a culture where skepticism and critical thinking were the largest ideological motivators, instead of religion or conspiracy theories?
This also provides pushback against a few ideas that have been floating around since the election. It’s commonplace to make fun of “social media activists”, since speaking out on Facebook and Twitter appears to do nothing. But every time you speak out on a controversial position, or challenge a piece of bullshit on someone’s wall, you provide a small bit of more social pressure towards a certain position. Not only that, but you encourage others to do the same, helping push towards reason. It’s not a silver bullet and it’s not the majority of the work getting done, but it’s a step.
Furthermore, we’ve also been told that we shouldn’t be shaming people or “calling out” others for having bigoted or racist positions. To be clear, simply calling someone a bigot isn’t going to change their minds, but calling someone a racist or a xenophobe to their face directly isn’t what I’m advocating. When we shame someone’s positions, we also induce social pressure against them. When we shame someone for something that’s terrible, we are signaling to others that a certain position is unacceptable. While many positions are worth debating, some things are simply not worth discussing anymore. We’ve settled the fact that gay people aren’t pederasts, we know that homeopathy is a scam, and atheists aren’t evil. Anyone holding those positions should feel shamed. Perhaps we can reach certain people with cautious and respectful discussion, but for those we can’t, we should signal to others that this is an unreasonable position that deserves to be completely disregarded.
3. Appealing to their values, not yours
In keeping with the fact that we humans are not logic machines, we build our opinions and conclusions on a lot more than the mere facts. When we construct a moral and ethical framework, we must have a moral foundation upon which we build our most cherished and important tenets. As members of a social species we would assume that most of these foundations are mostly the same, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
According to research by Feinberg and Willer, people who tend to identify as either “liberal” or “conservative” tend to value the foundations of their moral systems differently. Those who identify towards the political left tend to value care and equality, while those on the right value things such as tradition and loyalty. Both groups value these things to a certain extent, but in different amounts. You can find a more in-depth discussion on this topic and even discover more about your moral foundations here.
The relevant research, though finds that we tend to make arguments in terms of our own values. For me, gay marriage absolutely makes sense based on the fact that all people should be treated equally, but apparently to someone with a more conservative mindset this argument doesn’t quite cut it. For someone who values tradition more than I do (which is not hard to do), gay marriage seems unprecedented and therefore is something to be wary of. However, according to this study, a good way of convincing a conservative that gay marriage is a good thing is to appeal to in-group identity as Americans.
They then conducted four studies testing the idea that moral arguments reframed to fit a target audience’s moral values could be persuasive on even deeply entrenched political issues. In one study, conservative participants recruited via the Internet were presented with passages that supported legalizing same-sex marriage.
Conservative participants were ultimately persuaded by a patriotism-based argument that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.”
On the other hand, they were significantly less persuaded by a passage that argued for legalized same-sex marriage in terms of fairness and equality.
To me, appealing to in-group identity seems dishonest and fallacious. However, the American identity is something that conservatives hold dear. And reframing my arguments to focus more on “tradition” and “purity” seem just as bad. In fact, we have named informal logical fallacies after appealing to those values. In that sense, if I reframe my arguments in terms of those values I feel like I am cheating. However, the facts are the facts and it appears to work. I have to consider the desired outcome of my discussion. If someone is not going to be compelled by facts and reason (at least within a reasonable timeframe) would I rather them believe bad things for bad reasons, or would I rather they believe good things for bad reasons? I’m leaning towards the latter. Perhaps, after they start to develop reasons for believing the “right” things, they also reframe their own morals and cognitive processes such that they eventually believe things for the right reasons anyway.
Hell, we know that we occasionally have trouble selling skepticism and critical thinking as a valid epistemology when talking to religious folk. Perhaps after we reframe why critical thinking and skepticism are important using their value system, they could eventually come to better conclusions based on those methodologies as a result.
It’s worth noting, again, that this is hardly a silver bullet. We should not expect to ever change someone’s mind during a single discussion, and even the results of the paper do not indicate that someone who responds favorably to this “reframing” is even likely to completely shift their position. Reframing arguments in terms of these moral foundations only has a small effect, albeit a significant one.
As a skeptic, I really enjoy arguing with other people (perhaps too much). With us going into a terrifying presidency, it will be important for us to establish a better way of helping people come to better positions. What people believe matters, as we all act on our beliefs. I look forward to finding better and better ways to convince people. These are the best I’ve found for now, and they all have their strengths and limitations. It’d be nice if skepticism and critical thinking could always win by default as a result of being stronger, but that’s simply not the case. We need to put in the work, and apparently the approach matters. So let’s care about that in the future.