Last week Brian Dunning wrote a great little guide for “dealing with” a loved one or friend that believes in some kind of non-sense. I suggest read it (or listen to it as a podcast) and then come back here if you haven’t yet. Dunning offers a few simple strategies for influencing people around you to be more skeptical. It was a bit of a surprise to me that his first recommended tactic is to “do nothing”. It was a bit surprising to me since “do nothing” sounds a bit counter-intuitive but Dunning provides a convincing argument. I would add to it that the key is just to not be a jerk.
It is all too common that when one discovers the world of scientific skepticism they want to run out and correct everyone’s pseudoscientific/paranormal beliefs. Skeptics tend to be science nerds, and consequently, tend to be a bit socially inept. We have a tough time figuring out when to “lay off” on an issue. All too often I have to get a hold of myself (or my wife has to intervene) when I go too far. So, how does one avoid being the jerk? I thought I would impart some techniques that I have found to be successful. For this article I’m imagining myself at a family dinner where a family member makes some kind of outrageous claim. Of course, no single person or situation is the same so your personal judgement will be needed (i.e. don’t sue me if these don’t work for you).
Pick your battles
This is pretty much what Dunning covered. Usually it just isn’t worth it to get into a spat. Is the issue at stake really worth jeopardizing your relationship? There’s more important things in life than being right.
On the other hand, if there are other people around and you don’t want 3-5 more people walking away with a misconception, you may need to act.
Also, correcting someone isn’t just to make yourself look smart, it’s for their benefit too. Skepticism is largely consumer advocacy and we don’t want people to be swindled, or mislead into bad health advice. Sometimes it is worth risking a relationship with confrontation.
If you decide to confront (and this will happen), there are some ways that are better than others.
Do not tell someone they are wrong (even if they are!)
The easiest way to not get your point accepted, and to get people to dislike you, is to tell someone they are wrong. Telling someone they’re wrong is a bit like a slap to the face. Most people don’t expect it, and it stings. Sure, in some situations it’s necessary, but usually there’s a better way to get your point across.
Think for a second what telling someone they’re wrong implies. You are implying that they are stupid, misinformed, gullible or have any number of negative attributes. It’s like the old cilche your mom kept telling you: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Yes, telling someone they are wrong is not a nice thing to say.
It’s especially not a good idea to do this when there are other people around. Do not embarrass people. This just amplifies their defensiveness.
Now this does not mean you should just let a claim go unchallenged.
While it is not good to make someone else appear stupid by thumping your chest and calling them out, it’s totally ok to make yourself seem simple. Try to ask innocent child-like questions that challenge the claim in question. This comes across as slightly less confrontational, although, it still is a bit confrontational so use wisely.
When presenting an opposing viewpoint, it can come off a bit softer if you just present your argument as a bit of second-hand information. While it is a form of weasle word, it can take the edge off by not making it a case of “them vs you”.
Do not point out logical fallacies
If in conversation someone were to use a logical fallacy (such as an appeal to popularity) don’t yell out “appeal ad populatum” or some other made up latin term. You can still correct someone by posing a counter example that uses the same fallacy that they would agree with. For example: If someone uses an appeal to popularity, point out that millions of people bought pet rocks. It’s tempting to show off your latin, but realize that the language is dead for a reason.
Be a role model
Let it be known that you’re a skeptic. You’ve probably already done this, or it’s been done to you. You can just simply state that you disagree with a claim or are skeptical. If people respect you, that may be enough to get other people skeptical. How do you get people to respect you? Do nice things for them (i.e. don’t be a jerk).
Let other people do the debunking
Instead of arguing with someone, lend them a book that will do it for you. Present it as a book that you think they would find interesting (since it covers something they are interested in). This lets them read full length, and authoritative, arguments over a long period of time. They will have many opportunities to “sleep on” arguments they read.
You will not change someone’s mind on the spot (or even overnight). Be patient. Don’t present every argument you know for why someone is wrong all at once. Give one or two little tidbits to chew on. If this person matters to you, you’ll have plenty of opportunity in the future to influence them more.
When having a debate with a fellow self identified skeptic, you can of course throw as much mud as you’d like. I see it as two professional boxers throwing punches in a ring. Both people know the rules of the game, and know not to take anything personally. Unfortunately, most people take almost any disagreement personally. When countering a claim, try as hard as you can to avoid making the disagreement personal. Be humble, admit that you can be wrong too, but most importantly: don’t be a jerk.
Update: Commenter Mike suggested the podcast Actually Speaking. I haven’t heard it yet, but it looks like they talk about exactly what I was talking about. Check them out!