Changing people’s minds

The post dealing with starting the Year of Reason resulted in a very lively discussion, generating nearly forty comments. I took part in the discussion far more actively than I usually do.

While I often respond to comments, especially if there is a request for specific information or a clarification, I tend not to get into repeated exchanges because I do not think they serve much purpose. It is naïve to think that one can change other people’s minds immediately merely because one thinks one has a superior argument. So a commenter superlucky20 was right when he said that “if you come to message boards hoping to change the minds of other posters, prepare to be disappointed. It almost never happens.”

So why did I get so involved in this particular post? One reason was because the discussion neatly exemplified a point I had made in an earlier post about where the burden of proof lies in any argument.

But another reason is that such discussions can have value in that they can plant the seeds of change that show fruit only much later. What I mean is that when one is confronted with an opposing idea, while one tends to immediately reject it consciously because of the discomfort it causes (especially if you suspect that your opponent is right), it can work subconsciously so that much later one finds one has changed one’s mind and have forgotten where the initial impetus came from. I know that I have changed my own mind on many issues but would be hard pressed to point to a particular person or argument that was responsible for the change, though such an initial starting point for the process must surely exist.

So usually, after I have had my say in the post and perhaps clarified a point or answered a direct question in the comment section, I refrain from making any more comments, although I read every one written by others. Saying pretty much the same thing over and over again is usually a waste of time. This is my policy on web sites and in personal interactions.

Things are rarely so cut and dry, of course. Sometimes, as in that extended exchange, one gets into grey areas about what constitutes a counter example and whether seemingly blanket universal statements contain implicit caveats that limit their generality. For example, consider the universal statement that all human beings have two arms. Most people would confidently assert that this is true, using the same criteria to justify the statement that no dogs exist that can speak out of their rear end. But those who are old enough to remember the tragic cases of babies who were born with missing limbs because their mothers used the supposed pain-killing drug thalidomide during pregnancy (and I have personally seen those babies) will know that the statement that all humans have two arms is not strictly true, and that one has to add caveats. One can try to salvage the statement by saying that, under normal circumstances, human beings have two arms but then one gets into tricky questions of what constitutes ‘normal’.

Sometimes simply making a blanket statement can itself produce a counter-example. In one post, I gave two universal statements whose presumption to truth can be assumed in the absence of counter-examples. One was from John Allen Paulos that there are no dogs that spoke English out of their rear ends and the other was that there does not exist a cow with seven legs. Lo and behold, a commenter pointed to a news item showing that such a cow had indeed been born. This disproved my universal statement about the cow and I would not be justified in making that claim in the future. But the statement about the talking dog is still valid.

One commenter said that using this kind of argument, the universal statement “there is no evidence that god does not exist” would be justified until there was counter-evidence to disprove it. He is right. But atheists don’t challenge the validity of that statement. We all agree that we cannot disprove the existence of god, especially since believers in god reserve the right to ascribe any and all properties to god, including the ability to evade detection. There is no dispute there.

The problem is that religious believers use the agreement on that universal statement to then assert that god exists. But this is an existence statement, and then the burden of proof immediately shifts to them to provide evidence. As long as they refrain from making that inference and stick with the universal statement, then we are in agreement.

That is exactly how things should work and how we should treat arguments.

POST SCRIPT: Making dry data come alive

In this TED talk, Hans Rosling demonstrates two things: the widespread misconceptions about the developing world that many people have and also how to make data come alive.