Today’s email comes from Mark in Colorado.
I work in a Defense firm where everybody is either a fundamentalist Christian or Mormon. I got into a discussion with a mormon guy who is always spouting some stupid shit. Anyway, I confronted him about his ideas and after a few minutes of discussion he realized I wasn’t a pushover, so he switched tactics and started bringing up quantum physics (he feels that proves everything), psuedo science, non sequiturs, real science mixed with nonsense — usually in the same sentence. Just for an example, he said he believed in evolution but described a cartoonish if not naive version. I tried to correct him and tell him he had it wrong, but he switched scripts and said loudly, “You don’t believe in evolution”! It went on with a lot of stuff like that to muddy the waters and it seemed to have impressed people in my group.
My question is, have you ever run across anyone like that and how did you handle it?
In a situation like that, my first rule is that it’s important to keep your cool. I understand that it’s difficult in this situation, but you should calmly step back and assess what you are getting out of the argument. There are, in my mind, three reasons that you would want to argue with somebody:
- You think you can change that person’s mind in some way.
- You think you can influence the opinion of people who are observing the discussion.
- You are genuinely interested in the other person’s arguments, or would like practice responding to them for your own education. Or it’s fun.
These three points boil down to a question of “Who’s your audience?” The answers are, respectively, 1. the Mormon; 2. somebody else; 3. Yourself. How you answer the audience question will have a lot of influence on how you should approach the discussion.
If the Mormon is your audience, you’ve already decided that he is kind of an idiot, so obviously you’re not going to make major gains with him. Your best bet is to find the areas where he’s most badly misunderstanding mainstream science, point out what is wrong in a straightforward way, and steer him toward credible literature on how it actually works. In order to do this, you’ll have to understand the real science well enough to break it down that way, so maybe some extra reading is in order.
If a third party is your audience, you can start out winning big just by keeping your cool. If the other guy is visibly upset, and you are not, then it’s hard to side with him. You said that his rant seemed to impress people in your group, so it’s possible that they were swayed by it. Maybe you’re having your discussion with the wrong person. If you think there is somebody a bit more reasonable who is on the fence and simply doesn’t understand the issues involved, I’d look for an opportunity to talk privately with that person (or people). By expanding your influence to other people and getting them on your side, you’re less likely to find yourself alone in future discussions.
If you are your own audience, then go ahead and argue to a frustrating standstill, then evaluate the specifics of the conversation later. Toss out the points which sounded like a stupid waste of time to you, but remember the points that left you struggling. Maybe the claims about quantum physics sounded like bunk to you, but you couldn’t express why they’re bunk. In that case, it’s time to educate yourself. Go find some real information about science, preferably from a good, well-spoken popular science writer. It won’t help in the current discussion, but it will improve your broad base of knowledge the next time the discussion comes up.
If none of the above are a good audience in this situation, maybe you should check your motives again and see if it’s really worth your time to be talking to this lunkhead. I wouldn’t pick an argument with a homeless guy in the street shouting at people, and you shouldn’t waste time in a situation where nobody has anything to learn.
Whatever the case, remember that a casual debate is a skirmish, not the war. You can lose a battle and it doesn’t ruin you as a human being. Just try to bear in mind your long term goals: becoming a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual; and helping good and correct memes to spread through the general population.