Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Public Opinions and Reasoned Arguments

If you've spent any time communicating online, it’s likely that you will have encountered one or two expressed opinions that led you to intervene with a contrasting view. You may even have been involved in a heated exchange or an outright argument. Such public disputes rarely end amicably and the chances that later discussions with the same person will be free of antipathy decrease in proportion to the level of derision and vitriol reached.

Human psychology is shaped by attitudes and dispositions that have evolved over millions of years, yet many modern forms of communication create new forms of interaction that demand new skills, new social norms and perhaps even new ethical standards. Adaptable as we are, it might be argued that of our social skills are much less informed by deliberative debate and rational analysis than they are by more direct forms of physical interaction. In a physical conflict for instance, it would almost never be wise to switch sides, especially in full view. Such a move would be practically suicidal. Perhaps this explains why online arguments so rarely result in anyone admitting they’re wrong. The impulse is always to defend your corner, to go on the offensive or to duck out altogether but almost never to say: "Oh, I see now that you're right and I have been wrong all along."

An important factor in many disagreements is known in psychology as the "Backfire Effect", which is what happens when people become entrenched in their position when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. If the theory is correct then the prognosis is pretty dismal. When we develop beliefs we often invest significant amounts of time, energy and, on occasion even lost friendships in the process. No wonder then that people are loath to renounce their hard-won beliefs. How often do politicians or philosophers radically change their minds and shift their views? Very rarely, yet they can't all be right in their adopted positions. On the contrary, most must be wrong in some very significant ways.

Only scientific evidence seems to exert any substantial force in overturning false assumptions and even here people show astonishing resilience in the face of the facts placed before them. Take climate change denialism or creationism for just two prominent examples.

Until very recently I assumed that it should be possible to change people's minds through reasoned argument. I was under this misconception because it seemed to me that I had experienced several instances, even very recently, where my own opinions were radically altered by the force of reason. It strikes me now though, that this wasn't quite what happened at all. I was receptive to new ideas because my thinking wasn't yet settled on these issues. I was conducting my thoughts on certain subjects in a kind of hazy but workable uncertainty that was probably relatively easy to overturn, even though the reconfiguration was far from easy on my part. Now that my mind is made up, a much greater investment of evidence and argument would be required to persuade me that my thinking needs to change once again on these issues.

But what about the many experts whose theories are based upon false assumptions? What would it take to persuade them that there are better ways to explain the issues? As it turns out, trying to persuade experts is nothing more than a vain and hopeless fantasy. Expert beliefs are simply too entrenched, and confronting people with their errors, no matter how subtly or politely, is rarely, if ever, effective and never endearing. The more successful approach is to cultivate experts by other more ingratiating means, essentially by befriending them, in the hope that that they might at least acknowledge your alternative theory and perhaps discuss it with others or cite it in their own work. But getting them to change their mind, especially in a public context, will almost never occur by force of reason alone.

If however, an expert were to encounter a well reasoned theory in private, where the stakes are significantly lower, then perhaps there is a chance that this might find them receptive enough to begin the journey of reconstituting their ideas. But, of course, they would first need to be exposed to this well reasoned theory and to recognise that it's worthy of their close attention. The likelihood of such an eventuality is actually pretty slim.

So, if I am right in this analysis, and I should say that I'm not yet entirely certain, then the only reliably fruitful application of reasoned argument in a public context is in helping people to see the flaws in other theories before they commit themselves to them, before they make their minds up. Perhaps reasoned argument has its most important place, not in changing minds but in keeping minds open long enough that they might have an opportunity to recognise the most coherent ideas available.

As far as your own beliefs go, all you can hope is that none of your mistaken assumptions are so strongly held that you can never be persuaded to change them.


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