You can’t argue people out of their deeply held beliefs

The following post is a brief excerpt from Chapter 4, Why Do People Believe Unbelievable Things from my book, There Are No Such Things as Ghosts.

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One of my favorite questions to ask someone who is making a fantastical claim is, “why do you believe this to be true?”

Notice this question doesn’t directly assault their claim, rather it is an inquiry in to how that claim came to represent the truth in their mind.  In other words, I try not to challenge their claim with the more confrontational “that is false” or “you are wrong” although it is quite possible that I take these positions as well. Nor do I jump right to a personal attack – known as ad hominem – with something crass like “you’re just a moron” or “that’s just stupid.”

The reason I don’t confront the belief or the person directly is that either of those responses almost without exception, immediately places the claimant in the position of doggedly defending their claim. They become defensive. This is known as the backfire effect. I do not want to have an argument. I want a conversation. I want them to use their ability to reason, not their willingness to be entrenched and dogmatic.

By asking them to think about why they believe what they do, I move the claim out of the debater’s arena and on to the examination table. We are both doing analysis now, not argumentation. The claimant should now be thinking about how to justify their epistemology as opposed to how to defend the claim itself.

So rather than defending themselves, they are beginning the intellectual exercise of discovering why they believe the claim to be true in the first place.

This is a subtle but important difference. By asking the question, “Why do you believe it to be true,” we are essentially evaluating the support for the argument. We are looking for inconsistencies, holes, fallacies, irrational underpinnings, and mistakes in reasoning.

Pay close attention to the conversation you are having here. Listen to your interlocutor. Resist the temptation to focus only on your next retort.

  • Is your respondent silent?
  • Does she have any credible sources?
  • Is she mistakenly promoting her claim as the evidence for her claim as is often the case with holy texts? This is the old circular reasoning argument that goes, “my holy book is true because my holy book says my holy book is true.”
  • Is she offering no evidence?
  • Is she using purposefully vague, ambiguous, or confusing language (also a common practice in religious apologetics – remember the hoax language from “The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence” in Chapter 2)?
  • Is she just getting angry?
  • Is she saying her belief is based on a special feeling or an unverifiable miraculous experience?
  • In her attempt to explain why she believes as she does, does she admit that she believes the claim chiefly because she was raised to believe it, or told to believe it by someone else?
  • Does she smile and say, “I’ll pray for you” or “do your own research” as an attempt to discontinue the conversation?

The response you are really hoping for is the first one I mentioned. Silence. We are trying to get the interlocutor to evaluate why it is she believes what she believes. We are trying to effectively pry open the rusted door for our respondent to reexamine her own epistemic system.  Many of the canned responses she will give you are hollow. Moreover, at some point, the respondent must come to terms with the rationale that led her to her conclusion; however flimsy that rationale may be. She must reevaluate her own epistemic system. Her mind becomes slightly less rusted shut. And you are the WD-40®!

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