I’ve been debating with people who hold irrational beliefs for my entire adult life. Long before Facebook created easily accessible young earth creationist groups, Christian apologist groups, agnostic atheist groups, or you-name-it whateverist groups to join. Long before YouTube gave us brilliant examples of intellectuals and polemicists – people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris – to study and emulate. Long before Twitter. Long before Reddit. Long before I had any idea that there were even others out there like me who were arguing against irrational ideas, as near as I could tell, there was just me in an office or at a restaurant table or in a living room, arguing.
Growing up where I did here in north Georgia, I more often than not found myself the sole representative of a particular position (imagine that), surrounded by a growing chorus of opponents in various states of distress and emotion. I loved it then and I love it today. Arguing from a position of fact tends to bolster one’s confidence even when it’s one against many. And as much as my exasperated opponents I’m sure felt as if I was simply arguing for argument’s sake, I was and am, always searching for and defending the truth. I only mention all of this to give myself an excuse, albeit a weak one. That is, old habits die hard. After that many years and that many confrontations, my style is my style.
Before I get too hard on myself for the confrontational style of debate that I’ve developed over the years, I should mention that no one really knows how well a particular technique works if one’s goal is to decouple the individual from the irrational or absurd beliefs they hold. And curing people of bad ideas is of course my goal. I loosely characterize my style as 85% countering with facts, 10% making jokes to inject levity, and 5% ruthlessly ridiculing my opponent whenever his or her jerk quotient hits that magic number (everyone has their own magic number).
Alas, there’s another technique that I’ve grown to love that I’m working hard to incorporate into my style.
I’ve written about it on the Street Epistemology blog and that post is also available on my blog to read so I won’t repeat the rationale I describe in those posts here. Suffice it say, I’ve seen it work for me as well as others. I’ll put a link to more information about Street Epistemology at the bottom of this post and I highly recommend watching my friend Anthony Magnabosco’s videos where he literally records conversations between himself and others while using these Socratic techniques. In a nutshell, Street Epistemology is the idea of using the Socratic Method to get to the reasonswhy a person believes what they do. In other words, rather than attack the beliefs of the individual and rather than counter his fictional claims with your facts, your goal is to encourage your interlocutor to examine the methods he is relying upon to arrive at what he believes to be true, and ultimately for him to question the reliability of his own methods. This technique is less confrontational (or at least should be) and it’s less likely to result in the backfire effect because it’s not a frontal assault on a cherished belief.
All that said, being people who value data, while we have some wonderful anecdotal evidence, we still don’t know how well a given style works at dislodging poorly reasoned ideas. As I admitted, I still fall back on the style I honed over the years.
However, I like to look at it through the lens of history. For centuries dogmatic beliefs were protected from the light of truth, literally by the threat (and act) of death and torture. The fact that dogmatic beliefs needed such extreme protections should give everyone something to contemplate if they are intellectually honest, but that’s a post for another day.
Now, as we prepare to enter the year 2018, we need to recognize the opportunities we have. We live in an amazing time where we can openly criticize any beliefs or ideas; so remain silent? Who are we not to criticize those beliefs which inspire bad behaviors? Who are we not to relentlessly defend reason and evidence and enlightenment values? And while you may not change the person’s mind with whom you’re engaged, there are others who are listening to what you’re saying. You may never hear from them, but they will be watching, reading, and quietly evaluating your positions. Your confident defense of the truth may inspire them to speak out the next time they are a witness to injustice.
So keep at it. Get your own style, stick to the truth, and have a wonderful 2018.
We have work to do.
For more information on Street Epistemology, the resources page on the Street Epistemology website has an impressive list: