This Sunday at 3pm Central I’m convening a small group of my Patreon patrons and FtB bloggers to have a science-based conversation about all the pseudo-scientific nonsense floating about.
What I’m hoping to do is much more than just sneer at stupid ideas, but to talk about how we can persuade and inform people about why some of their ideas are bad, and what are better approaches. Let’s put together some positive science communication!
The problem is paradigms. You approach this from an Empiricist paradigm while most people have a Rationalist paradigm. Fundamentally you believe that dogma must accord with sensory evidence, while Rationalists believe that evidence must accord with dogma. Rationalism arose at a time of magical thinking and thus evidence was considered to be unreliable and subject to fraud. For Rationalists it is dogma, which is the product of the brain that has superiority over evidence from the body. As has long been noted, when you argue with someone using another paradigm they will interpret what you say in accordance with their paradigm and dismiss the rest.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary* depends on his not understanding it.”
*(or identity, social acceptance, power, etc.)
Alas this will prove a Sisyphean task. Trump supporters, you know the anti science types,have been stuck at 40% give or take, since he was elected. This in spite of all that has been written to refute his bullshit. Positive science communication will unfortunately be unable to penetrate their thick craniums. Good luck though.
But,but pseudo science is easier to understand than real science ,i mean ,even i can understand it.HAHA .
Rule one is know your audience. Where a lot of these discussions fail is in trying to develop a one size fits all approach.
Prepare for a tough slog.
@ 1 zoniedude
For Rationalists it is dogma, which is the product of the brain that has superiority over evidence from the body..
So that is where orthodox economists come from!
Well, we have Trump science.
Alas, all we get with that is the Orange Phenomenal Bulk.
For, I’ve learned long ago, when arguing with a fool, they’ll simply drag you down to their level and defeat you with their superior experience in being a fool.
Is your claim that the majority of people are dogmatic an empirical claim, or dogma ?
Bob Seawright says
A caution from xkcd: https://xkcd.com/1901/
Science is the best tool we have for determining what is real and true. However, it is necessarily undertaken and implemented by people. Scientists are as prone to arrogance, overconfidence, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning as anybody else. See Semmelweis, Ignaz.
This is an excellent idea. It is easier to sit by and ridicule; much harder to effect change. But we have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any. Even if the effort fails, at least the effort was made.
John Morales says
OK, sneering is the baseline level, but even more can be done. Fair enough.
Speak for yourself; not everybody is as incompetent at it as you are.
William George says
Being a competent fool does give you a shot at being President.
John Morales says
William, “competent fool” is an oxymoron.
My preferred tactic for arguing with fanatics is to use their “facts” as a basis of argument. Start with “If ‘A’ is true, then…” and demonstrate the contradictions and impossibilities. The only way they can disagree is to admit they are gainsayers trying to rationalize a view and don’t actually have an argument.
I have come to believe that the way to get people to change their opinions in large numbers is not actually through argument.
Argument can be very useful at an individual level when both people come into it hoping to be persuaded (or at least being very open to it. And not the usual ‘I’m always open to changing my mind based on evidence’ fairytale most people spin after ignoring actual facts).
At a population level though it seems quite clear that argument and logic is not how most people come to hold beliefs or decide to act as if they hold certain beliefs.
This happens only at a larger cultural level and I believe that the modest boost skepticism saw in the couple of years either side of 2010 may have been more about how culture swayed to being more amenable to our affects and memes.
Currently the culture is preoccupied by dozens of other things and unless we can present leaders (be they celebrities or politicians or religious figures) who create a culture where deviation from scientific consensus is taboo then we are going to get nowhere.
The problems to solve with a class revolution are not individually tactical, they are structural. The same is true here in my opinion, we need to change the structures that shape peoples beliefs to have any meaningful effect.
That battle is political and starts with a total reform of how people access education and specifically prohibiting private education.
Science communication is far from futile though. It is a lifeline to people who want to learn and want to escape the culture of ignorance. It saved me and I think it will save other people here and there. Also, having a robust and ready made virtual society of science based communities will be a necessary part of structural and cultural change so I think spaces like this need to continue to exist and improve.
Bob Seawright says
“That battle is political and starts with a total reform of how people access education and specifically prohibiting private education.”
So the Cultural Revolution, then, but with the right people in charge?
Basically, science was designed specifically as a remedy to the sorts of fallacies, biases and conventions that cause humans to err in reasoning from evidence to understanding. And it works astoundingly well. It has allowed us to reach reliable understanding of nature from the scale of the Universe down to the structure of the nucleon.
The problem is that it is a new way of reasoning–about 400 years old–and it demands a discipline in our thinking that few of us–including scientists–can maintain in our daily lives. And it runs counter to the way humans have approached the mysteries of the Universe over 10s of thousands of years. And really until about 400 years ago, our ability to measure and analyze the physical world made the rational approach to the world at least as good as the empirical.
That is no longer the case, but most people–again, including scientists–really have no complete understanding of how science works. That is how you get physicists thinking they understand biology better than biologists–a fundamentally antiscientific attitude. Moreover, because the rationalist approach has decreased in importance, people have also forgotten how to do that. It used to be that a classical education included training in logic. Now most people regularly think in terms of logical fallacies.
I really think what we need to do is educate people how both the rationalist approach and the scientific approach work.
I’ve rarely persuaded anyone with an irrational belief to change it through rational argument. What works better is to address the underlying emotional significance of the belief. For instance, Trump’s fatuous belief system is driven by his narcissism and need to meet emotional deficits which probably originated in childhood. There’s probably little to be done about that. But it’s a truism in psychology to say that talking to people within a frame of reference that makes sense to them can be a way to effect change.
Trump seems to have a strong fear of contagion and to feel contaminated by association with lower status people. He talks about immigrants as if that status is synonymous with disease, and he repeatedly talks with contempt about “disgusting” poor and disempowered people, women and disabled people. This latest appeal to cure the virus with disinfectant injections or getting uv light “inside” is consistent with this.
So maybe for someone like him, a useful approach might be to the same language but attach it to reality, and understandings consistent with science and compassion. Ummm… maybe like describing the immune system as an inbuilt cleansing operation.
Just to add to the above: sometimes people just need you to acknowledge their fear, anxiety, or desire as a legitimate on. Once they feel you’ve appreciated that, they can be more open to discussion. Others need the full blown experience of an alternative worldview – like how the experience of a world war transformed the British popular sensibility so that it became “common sense” to establish a socialised National Health Service.
You can have a discussion about it, but don’t even think you’ll find a way to address it. Quackery exists for many reasons but simplistically, people don’t care about what’s right or true, but about what information fits their belief system. Almost no one will change their beliefs when confronted with facts that controvert their beliefs because they are emotionally tied to their beliefs. (And often tied along with their group, which makes it that much more difficult). No matter how right and brilliant and self-evident your argument may be, in fact perhaps because of it, they will entrench themselves that much more.
Snarki, child of Loki says
Humans are hyper-social, so if you want to persuade them into a more pro-science direction, consider the mantra “people like US do things like THIS”, and that the “US” isn’t you, it’s them.
So, try reaching out to some sports/music/acting personalities…I am certain that there are some that are interested and have positive attitudes towards science, and that with lots of time on their hands right now, they’d like to hear more about science and ask questions of actual scientists, which would result in a wider audience both paying attention and being persuaded.
Yes, you have to find the right people to make sure they aren’t raving loons. But, just as an example, do you think that Tom Hanks would be a good participant? My guess is yes.
I’ve had to deal with one common form of quackery for a long time.
HIV/AIDS denial, the (formerly) common belief the AIDS isn’t caused by the virus, HIV 1.
This denialism was deadly inasmuch as being HIV positive and not taking the HAART drugs was always fatal.
Fortunately, that particular brand of Flat Earthism has almost disappeared.
Why it disappeared was obvious.
.1. All the HIV/AIDS denialists that were HIV positive died. Of AIDS.
There were a lot of them and it is a long list.
.2. The anti-retroviral drugs became numerous and quite effective. HIV went from being fatal to being a manageable disease that allowed people to live a normal life.
The incentive to be a HIV denialist was gone.
Quackery has moved on to other conditions such as autism, Covid-19, and supply side economics.
The subject has been the object of some scrutiny and training, see
Ideally a lot of this bizarre crap should be prevented before it takes root. It would be nice if people graduating high school were required to be able to a) write connected arguments and demonstrate awareness of the pitfalls of anecdotal thinking, fallacies, and rhetorical black holes b) grasp basic statistics and probability, c) embrace and exercise the values required for reliable science and apply them to their lives, d) demonstrate sufficient metaliteracy to not sound like barroom butheads when spouting off about things they don’t understand — https://blog.chron.com/climateabyss/2013/02/scientific-meta-literacy/ and e) civics and lots of it. I mean seriously, how ignorant and complacent are people that we’ve come to the point where Donald Trump is in the WH — 4 years and counting!? Holy shite, what a mess!
It took centuries to build an enlightened view of the world and a store of scientific methods. I think we may be on the verge of finding out just how fragile that store is…
Most times, arguing with people about core beliefs only reinforces those beliefs.
@1 and others: I’d prefer to formulate the problem without using “rationalism” and “rationality”, because these words have ambiguous meanings. Instead I’d like to point out that the problem is a very old one – it goes back to both the Greek philosophers and the Hebrew authors of the OT. People have way too much confidence in the power of thinking. This is why discussions – of course especially on internet – are usually so fruitless, unless all parties agree that facts trump arguments. It’s typical for quacks and pseudoscientists (and indeed for scientists out of their field of expertise) that they don’t. Add to this that most people are emotionally attached to their assumptions (which all too often are not even explicit) and I predict that your little conversation will have little effect.
According to a study the most effective strategy to people who stick to quackery and pseudoscience is to have celebrities at your side. Go figure.
Peers and authority figures provide a heuristic we all use. Choose unwisely and you’re likely stuck, though.
It helps if you’re self aware enough to realize what you’re doing, and have the gumption and willingness to evaluate and rethink your assumptions. That takes some training and motivation.
One thing, with c-19 and the lock down, people might be in a situation where they’re open to reevaluating their positions. If so, it would certainly be a good time to work on changing minds and driving home the folly of evidence free machinations, in all their forms.
Does that apply to your belief that almost no-one will change their beliefs when confronted with facts that controvert their beliefs because they are emotionally tied to their beliefs? Because I’d say facts as simple as children changing their belief in Santa Claus, and as historically complex and important as the progress of science, controvert it.
Y’all need to understand that you are thinking about this all wrong.
You can’t argue these people out of what they believe. Because they don’t believe in their own ability to think in a way which reliably connects to the real world.
And because they do not believe in their own think-about-the-world-ability, they can’t believe in anyone else’s think-about-the-world-ability. Not that they think themselves smarter, but because they have no belief that the world is reliably think-aboutable.
This is the conundrum of modern science…. it takes a quarter lifetime to become a competent scientist … Scientists might just as well be soothsayers or priests who’ve commited their lives to the mysteries of some arcane religion. Most people can’t tell real science from History Channel or internet “science says” ads.
Me, I got that in seeing that my daughter was being taught algebra without learning how to do proofs. It was all by rote … and she jus couldn’t “get it” most of the time. When she came to me with a simple problem she couldn’t solve. Not possible. She’s my daughter. So I looked. I saw what was going on… I started showing her that she could figure this stuff out herself … and that that what algebra was all about. It took only a couple weeks with an hour or two a night showing her how to think math problems … by rethinking them two or three diffferent ways (that all had to agree in the end). Since then she’s had no problems with math …. nor otherwise in believing in her own ability to think the world in real and solvable terms ( and learning that sometime you don’t have the information you need … but if not, your priority is finding out that info).
So argument with the Trumpies by showing that their beliefs are either rationally or empirically flawed are hopeless. They simply do not believe in the efficacy of thought. They only believe in mythos as normatives.
While anathema to the cognitively competent, we need to write and mythologize scientificially coherent stories that are normative to the world…. At least until we can fix our educational system to teach enough people that they can learn to think the world successfully, and by extrapolation to trust (with filtering they can also learn to apply) those with greater knowledge and experience in particular fields than they themselves have or can take trouble to attain.
It’s a question of believing not in rationalism versus empiricism, but in the efficacy of rational cognition itself.
John Morales says
I see a number of comments to the effect that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, in response to the post about how to lead a horse to water.
(The horse will drink if it’s sufficiently thirsty, of course)
Although people don’t understand science, I think that they at least do have a limited understanding that science is powerful. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that anti-science efforts from creationists to anti-vaxers to climate denialists try to cloak their opposition in a pseudo-scientific guise. More concerning even than this is the recent approach adopted by the Rethugs of opposing the very idea of experts and expertise. But again, even this shows that they perceive science as a formidable threat to their grift.
to a.r.i.d.s #31: No those people (at least those I’m referring to) do not have “understanding that science is powerful”.
They have a recognition of science not qua science but as a “mythology” that many of us believe in. (in point of fact it is … but our “faith” in the mythology is that the roots are verifiable … which they usually are, but it can get sketchy towards the edges …. but again most of those I mention don’t understand that the reconciliation of fundamentally testable and demonstrable reality to the more comprehensive pronoucements are themselves subject to measurement and test)
As “mythology” to them, they give it less weight than a more convenient and comforting mythology. They only go out of their way to reframe their arguments into science mythos because they recognize that the science “mythology” is one that a significant portion of the world keeps at top shelf. They want – and succeed with depressing regularity – to pollute that top shelf with variants of their own stories (reference History Channel and internet ads …. not to mention President Lysol..