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Nov 10 2012

People change their minds

A bit of wisdom from Dan Fincke on Facebook.

Stop saying it’s pointless to debate. People change their minds. They just change them slowly, over time, and often imperceptibly.

It’s true you know. People do change their minds. They do; we do; you do; I do.

We all know this when we think about it, right? We can easily think of things we’ve changed our minds about. We do it multiple times every day. If we learn something new and it sticks, we’ve changed our mind. Debates can include information as well as argument, so it would be very odd if all debates were pointless. Even stubborn people with bad Dunning-Kruger effect can learn something sometimes.

That’s another reason for not letting stalkers and harassers and name-callers take over your blog, by the way. It’s easier to be optimistic about debate when it’s a good debate than when it’s a festival of shit-flinging.

27 comments

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  1. 1
    callistacat

    I used to belong to a Yahoo group and the moderator was completely anti-moderating in the name of free speech. It was a complete mess, mostly dominated by a paranoid guy who thought the government was using his microwave to control his thoughts. No one could have a normal conversation or debate about anything. It was draining and pointless. But no one could convince the moderator to do something about the trolls, he was so convinced it was some sacred duty to let people be free to spew whatever nonsense they wanted and constantly derail discussions.

  2. 2
    Sastra

    I like that quote by Finke. People do change their minds. That’s why atheists and rationalists and feminists have to fight to keep the issue in that territory.

    “For those who believe, no evidence is necessary; for those who don’t believe, no evidence is possible.”

    I hate that quote — or maybe I love it, because it’s so useful. That’s anti-humanism in a nutshell. It expresses the idea that people don’t change their minds — can’t change their minds — shouldn’t be expected or required or asked or even invited to change their minds — because we never believe for good reasons. We only follow some sort of guiding instinct. We make a commitment. We choose our “paradigm” or “world view” or “Master” … and then we follow our identity.

    It’s all faith. That’s what they want, because there’s no common ground. Don’t grant it to them.

    I think that when atheists sneer that debate and argument are pointless against believers, they’re being so sharp they cut themselves. On the one hand, they’ve got a keen understanding that faith undermines reason, so that when “changing your mind” turns into “losing your faith” you’ve lost not just the argument, but themselves and the whole world. People aren’t going to want to be reasonable.

    But, on the other hand, even the faithful think they have a “reasonable” faith — and they think they can make converts out of the reasonable nonbelievers. They can’t help but want to be reasonable, because they know what they admire. The religious live in two worlds. ‘They’ are also ‘We.’ It’s impractical to cut them off.

  3. 3
    davidhart

    When I was a teenager, I had a very puritanical attitude towards drugs – indeed, it was something of a baffling mystery to me why alcohol wasn’t on the list of prohibited substances. Now, a decade or so later, I am active in the campaign for drug policy reform – i.e. full decriminalization of personal use; legal regulation of production and sale, of all recreational drugs. What happened was I lived, and read stuff, got better informed, and over time found that I had done a complete mental u-turn, and cannot at all remember there ever being a single moment, a single book or article, that changed my mind; it was slow and imperceptible.

    So yeah; always worth debating.

  4. 4
    Sastra

    I used to moderate a couple IRC chartrooms and opinions on the value of my authority style were mixed. On the one hand, I let people get away with a heck of a lot as long as they kept on topic and generated conversations.

    On the other hand, I let people get away with a heck of a lot as long as they kept on topic and generated conversations.

    I always got rid of trolls, of course — but the definition of “troll” has a lot of latitude. I tended to err on the side of leniency.

    I probably wasn’t a very good AOP, on the whole. But personal insults, no. Not unless they were really well done, funny, and/or directed towards someone I knew from experience could and would give back as good as they got, and hoped for an opportunity to do so. Everybody happy.

  5. 5
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Well… not ALWAYS worth ME debating. Maybe somebody else can do the debating this time. It isn’t anyone’s job to change minds, but I’m glad there are people who enjoy dealing with that task.

    And yeah, it can be fulfilling to debate even if minds aren’t changed, if all sides are presenting a reasonable position in a rational and humane manner. Just slinging shit to run people off isn’t debate, it is a trip to the monkey house at the zoo.

  6. 6
    Neil Rickert

    It’s easier to be optimistic about debate when it’s a good debate than when it’s a festival of shit-flinging.

    That reminds. I really do owe you many thanks for your persistence in fighting these issues.

  7. 7
    brucegee1962

    There are plenty of times when I’ve walked away from an argument thinking I was completely unconvinced, then later realized I was using an argument that had been used against me and trying it out on someone else.

    I think everyone does this.

  8. 8
    see_the_galaxy

    not letting stalkers and harassers and name-callers take over your blog

    Debate is one thing, jackassery another. None of you owe these haters your time or your energy. For what it’s worth, I’m for banhammering all obnoxious troublemakers into the outer darkness once and for all. I say the first ad hominem argument does it. It’s not my blog but that’s what I’d do.

  9. 9
    emily isalwaysright

    I agree, people DO change their minds. It always astounds me when people say debate is pointless . . . not least because it’s like they’re saying “hey you need to change your mind about people changing their mind so that you can stop wasting your time trying to change people’s minds.”

    It’s especially frustrating when people not central to the debate derail what WAS a good discussion by saying debate is pointless.

    Imperceptible is a VERY good way of putting it. And the imperceptibility is often located not just in the interlocutor/s, but in the audience.

  10. 10
    chrislawson

    I’d have to see the full context to see if I agree with Fincke or not. I certainly agree that there are many opportunities to change people’s minds and one should not make blanket refusals to engage in conversation. But I also know that some “debates” are set up to promote lying and dissembling — e.g. most creationism-vs.-evolution debates — and even turning up for the “debate” only helps the liars (who will claim victory no matter how badly they are trounced, and will use the prestige of their opponent as leverage to make their imaginary victory even more impressive to their followers). It’s all about the origin story of the Playing Chess With Pigeons blog.

  11. 11
    emily isalwaysright

    But chrislawson, Fincke isn’t implying ALL debate is good: he’s saying debate is not necessarily pointless because people do change their minds, as a response to people who do say all debate is pointless.

  12. 12
    latsot

    Plus debate isn’t usually about convincing the debater, it can also be about convincing onlookers.

    I know people who were genuinely amazed that there was even the *possibility* of debate about some things.

    Sometimes this is because they just haven’t thought it through or haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to certain ideas. For example, I know people to whom it just hadn’t occurred that people might welcome a secular state. They were amazed that anyone had even thought about it, even more so that there were properly thought out arguments in favour of the idea. Some came – over time – to agree with the idea, some of those people came to abandon religious belief altogether. Some dug in further, of course. What can you do.

    I know otherwise well-educated people who were brought up in the UK believing that the theory of evolution was flawed in some way. That it couldn’t explain some things. They didn’t know *which* things or why, but they were entirely convinced that such things existed and that evolution was a sort of semi-fiction, not to be taken especially seriously. It was a *complete fucking revelation* to these people that there were good answers to those bullshit claims. Their belief was presumably a remnant of a religious and unskeptical upbringing, an apparent lack of curiosity and a misunderstanding of the power of skeptical thought.

    These three things can and have been addressed by the very existence of debate, even if the people involved in the actual debate didn’t convince each other of anything.

    Don’t ever tell me that debate with the blinkered is masturbation. It can *clearly* be worthwhile. The people who say it isn’t seem fixated on the idea of converting the not convertible but that isn’t usually the point, is it?

  13. 13
    Bjarte Foshaug

    I love how Greta Christina handles the argument unsubstantiated claim that “you cannot reason somebody out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place” (citation needed). She’ll ask a large group of atheists to hold up their hands if they were ever religious. She then asks those who have their hands raised to keep them up if they changed their minds at least in part because of arguments from non-believers. Point made. Point taken. End of argument.

    That said, I definitely think the kind of public debates favored by creationists and pseudo-intellectual sophists like William Lane Craig, Dinesh D’Souza (*giggle*) etc. are worse than worthless and do more harm than good. As I have previously written elsewhere, it’s a mistake to think that having facts and logic on your side automatically puts you at an advantage in the battle over public opinion. Even if you are right, this only makes a difference to those who have sufficient background knowledge/critical thinking skills to evaluate the evidence on its merits and respect logic and evidence enough to care. To the rest it’s all “He said, she said, and who knows?”. As any good skeptic will tell you, the strongest indicators of truth/falsehood – objectively speaking – rarely coincide with what seems most intuitively persuasive to lay people. Also, a clever sophist can issue more bogus “challenges” [2] and plant more misconceptions in five minutes than his/her opponent can hope to deconstruct in a year – by which time the sophist has issued a million new challenges and planted a million new misconceptions. You can’t win. Without the cognitive tools necessary, all the average lay person has to go on in such a situation is which side comes across as most confident, assertive and aggressive.

    And this is where playing by the rules of science and rational discourse is actually the mother of all handicaps. It’s like conscientiously following the rules of chess while your opponent is playing by the rules of calvinball (“Black queen from d8 to e1, checkmate!”). It always breaks my heart, how the very thing that makes science so great is used against it. Scientist tend to value intellectual honesty, which forces them to use conservative and tentative language, be open about any uncertainties associated with their research and never claim to know the absolute, final verdict. Lay people, on the other hand, tend to value confidence and assertiveness above all else, and interpret the honesty of scientists as signs of weakness. When scientist speak honestly about the uncertainty inherent in all research, what people tend to hear is that everything could just as easily be wrong, and there is no particular reason to believe any of it. Thus the biases of the masses tend to reward overconfidence and punish intellectual honesty.
    _____________________________________________________________
    1. To lay people a gripping anecdote, personal experience, intuitions and gut feelings often trump everything that resembles statistics and controlled experiments, though it ought to be the other way around if the goal is getting closer to the truth.
    2. The unstated premise being that the sophist is entitled to claim victory by default – without offering any positive evidence on his/her own – unless the opponent can overcome any arbitrary (and moving) goalpost set by the sophist.

  14. 14
    Emily Isalwaysright

    “Lay people, on the other hand, tend to value confidence and assertiveness above all else, and interpret the honesty of scientists as signs of weakness. When scientist speak honestly about the uncertainty inherent in all research, what people tend to hear is that everything could just as easily be wrong, and there is no particular reason to believe any of it. Thus the biases of the masses tend to reward overconfidence and punish intellectual honesty.”

    I think many science communicators of recent times have done exactly this: Krauss and Hawking for example are extremely confident. And perhaps this is also partly why the Four Horseman generated such huge followings in terms of their atheism – they are extremely certain about the non-existence of god (and evolution by natural selection at the level of the gene in Dawkins’ case). Science communicators like Sagan and Cox, however, seem to trade more in the emotions of wonderment and hope than certitude.

    Perhaps sophistry is unavoidable when it comes to the public. This is why I want to find a good ivory tower to hide in!

    PS. How do you blockquote properly? I thought it better to ask an honest question than look stupid doing it wrong.

  15. 15
    davidmc

    I was an onlooker, and I changed my mind. Or Ophelia changed it for me, gender slurs hardly ever pass my lips. Keep up the debate, it does work.

  16. 16
    Emily Isalwaysright

    Also – I think people are confusing Fincke’s use of the word “debate” with “formal debate”. I think he was referring more to informal discussions than anything else.

  17. 17
    Argle Bargle

    Bjarte Foshaug #13

    I definitely think the kind of public debates favored by creationists and pseudo-intellectual sophists like William Lane Craig, Dinesh D’Souza (*giggle*) etc. are worse than worthless and do more harm than good

    All those debates show is who is a better debater. Lane Craig happens to be a skillful debater who insists on certain “rules” in his debates. As a result, he often appears to have won debates.

  18. 18
    Argle Bargle

    Emily Isalwaysright #14

    How do you blockquote properly?

    <blockquote>What is to be quoted.</blockquote> will give:

    What is to be quoted.

    If you use Firefox there’s a handy Grease Monkey script called “bbcodeXtra” which can do a lot of formatting for you (despite the name it also handles html).

  19. 19
    julian

    Unoriginality means I have nothing to add. Just wanted to echo the sentiment that an unmoderated debate isn’t a debate. It’s a shouting match.

  20. 20
    latsot

    Do Americans know that the idea of ‘winning’ debates is a really American thing? Other places too, I expect, but in many places we just don’t have a concept of a debate having being won or lost.

    I wouldn’t have the slightest idea about how to decide a winner of a debate. I expect this is because we don’t have debating competitions. We Brits think of debates as just arguing and less formal. I think we place a lot less importance on the idea of an audience judging who has won or lost a debate.

  21. 21
    Bjarte Foshaug

    I think many science communicators of recent times have done exactly this: Krauss and Hawking for example are extremely confident. And perhaps this is also partly why the Four Horseman generated such huge followings in terms of their atheism – they are extremely certain about the non-existence of god (and evolution by natural selection at the level of the gene in Dawkins’ case).

    To be clear, I am not saying scientists should never express confidence in a conclusion no matter how strong the evidence. My point was only that they should not be punished for being honest about the uncertainties that do exist (of which there are plenty* ). Neither should anybody be given any extra points for being confident and assertive as a substitute for sound arguments and evidence.
    _________________________________________________
    * For example, there are still huge uncertainties about many details surrounding climate change (as global warming “skeptics” are only too eager to point out), but whether or not the planet is warming in the first place, as well as whether or not human carbon emissions are causing it, are not among them.

  22. 22
    Bjarte Foshaug

    All those debates show is who is a better debater. Lane Craig happens to be a skillful debater who insists on certain “rules” in his debates. As a result, he often appears to have won debates.

    “Skillful”, ok, but I definitely wouldn’t call him “good”, just like I wouldn’t call someone a good athlete for being skilled at getting away with cheating. Btw. I often get annoyed with “philosophically sophisticated” atheists for granting far too much validity to the sophistry of people like Craig, and then dissing other atheists for not paying sufficient attention to “the best that modern theology has to offer” when the “best” arguments are no better than the worst.

    For example, I happen to think the standard objections to the “first cause” argument that every atheist is familiar with [1] are entirely sufficient to blow every version of the argument out of the water, and there is no need to come up with a separate refutation of every piece of special pleading and circular reasoning (“Everything that falls into subset X [where X includes everything except God] needs a cause etc.”) when the whole argument is just rotten to the core (As I have previously stated elsewhere, the fatal problems inherent to every version of the first cause argument are not something trivial that can be fixed by some more tweaking of the wording). By insisting that no one is qualified to criticize religion unless they have dealt with every irrelevant counter-objection separately, “sophisticated” atheists are putting the burden of proof where it doesn’t belong and giving the arguments of people like Craig far more legitimacy than they deserve.

    But then again, I’m philosophically unsophisticated, so what do I know…
    __________________________________________
    1. If everything needs a cause to account for its existence, then the same must be true of God himself. If something can arise spontaneously or exist from eternity without being caused by anything else, then that “something” may as well be the universe itself (in some form) as God. Even if the Big Bang did have a cause, it doesn’t follow that the cause was a supernatural intelligence, let alone any of the personal gods we are familiar with from the world’s many competing, and mutually exclusive religions. If God himself is something rather than nothing, he cannot be the explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. If God himself is a living intelligent being, he cannot be the explanation for why there are living, intelligent beings. The laws of causality that apply to parts of the universe don’t necessarily apply to the universe as a whole. The closest thing we get to something beginning to exist within the universe (virtual particles etc.) doesn’t appear to have any obvious cause at all. As far as we can tell, the fundamental laws of physics are probabilistic in nature anyway etc… etc…

  23. 23
    Bjarte Foshaug

    …it’s like they’re saying “hey you need to change your mind about people changing their mind so that you can stop wasting your time trying to change people’s minds.”

    QFT

    By the way, when radical skeptics of all knowledge talk as if no conclusion is ever arrived at for rational reasons, or that reason itself is just a random post-hoc rationalization generator, wouldn’t that by necessity also implicate their own conclusions, including the one that says no conclusions are held for rational reasons? It’s like the relativists who insist that there are no objective truths, thus negating the objective truth of their own claim that there are no objective truths.

  24. 24
    carlie

    I used to be an anti-abortion evangelical fundamentalist.

    I got better.

    Change: it can happen.

  25. 25
    Emily Isalwaysright

    Thanks Rodney.

  26. 26
    Emily Isalwaysright

    Bjarte, unfortunately it’s not about being punished or rewarded. It’s just about psychological realities which have political import.

  27. 27
    Self Drilling Screw

    both inch See also washers all other seals work by creating positive pressure against a surface thereby preventing leaks and the contact stress rises with increasing pressure there are elastomers filled with nano-carbon During World War II polyurethane seals

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