It’s not a hopeless cause to engage with proponents of the irrational – but some ways of doing this are more effective than others. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.
There has never been a time in history when the public understanding of science and rational thinking has been so important. Science has revealed new challenges for humankind, such as climate change and depletion of resources, while new technologies are often accompanied by ethical and social implications that need to be carefully considered. In response to these challenges science communicators spend more time trying to carefully explain science and related issues to the public. However, these efforts to make science more understandable are being confounded by ‘wingnuts’ who use misinformation to confuse public understanding of science.
The term wingnuts has been used by a number of people to describe those who propagate misinformation for a variety of reasons. In his book Wingnuts’ how the lunatic fringe is hijacking America, John Avlon describes a wingnut as “someone on the far-right wing or far-left wing of the political spectrum – the professional partisans and the unhinged activists, the hardcore haters and the paranoid conspiracy theorists.” This is probably a fair summation of the groups that skeptics often confront. Specific examples include Jenny McCarthy for her misinformed and vehement opposition to vaccines, Suzanne Somers for her advocacy of dodgy and dangerous “natural” therapies, Peter Duesberg with his HIV denialism, and Christopher Monckton for his use of misinformation in opposing global warming.
With wingnuts attacking many areas of science and undermining attempts to educate the public, the question has to be asked – How should we deal with these purveyors of irrationality? Some skeptics advocate an aggressive counterattack – personally attacking the wingnuts, in the same way that they have attacked science and science communicators. Others suggest a purely educational and rational approach, relying on the ideal that the truth will win out in the end. For myself, I see the first approach as dangerous in that it muddies the waters – one only has to look at the mess that has resulted in the climate change debate. Personal attacks from both sides of the debate – accusations of conspiracy, impropriety, etc – have confused the public and risk having climate change dismissed as ‘too hard’ to deal with. On the other hand, taking a purely rational approach overlooks the fact that human behaviour is not always rational and prone to being swayed by emotive arguments.
In trying to sort out the best way for me to respond to wingnuts I have developed a list of 10 rules as a guide.
1) Know what you are talking about
Many wingnuts are well versed in their area of ‘expertise’. Debating them without adequate knowledge of the subject as well as an understanding of the typical wingnut ploys is risky. It is worth noting, however, that when exchanging views with a wingnut via blog comments this does give one the opportunity to do research between exchanges.
2) Use precise, simple and neutral language
It is easy to be misunderstood, especially via written language. So, one should keep the language as precise and simple as possible. A choice of neutral language helps maintain a calm exchange of ideas. Emotive language can readily escalate an exchange of ideas into an irrational argument. We have over 600,000 words in the English language to choose from, so why not take some care in deciding how we explain things to others.
3) Respond to rudeness in a calm manner
Some people, including skeptics, see debating ideas as an opportunity to insult others. In my opinion, snide remarks, personal attacks and swearing detract from any rational exchange and serve to both escalate any exchange of thoughts into irrationality as well as hardening the views on both sides of the debate.
When confronted with rudeness, I try to focus on repeating factual information. There is also value in pointing out the rude behaviour. This can be done in an assertive, non-threatening way by making comments about the wingnut’s behaviour and not about them personally. For example by saying “I find it offensive, when you claim that scientists are shills for big pharma” followed by a list of supporting facts, instead of “you are a rude and obnoxious #$@&”. Most people will accept criticism of their behaviour far more readily than what they feel is a personal attack, particularly when the person making the comment ‘owns’ the effect of the behaviour.
It is also worth remembering that it is difficult for someone to continue being rude if you do not reply in kind. If you can maintain being polite to someone who is being rude, in most cases the rudeness will dissipate and one can return to a calm exchange of ideas.
4) Remember – wingnuts are people too
No one is completely rational. We all have our own biases which may result in irrational behaviour. Whether it is a result of our environment or our biology, many of us engage in irrational behaviour without even recognising it. So while we may often assume that a wingnut is being purposely irrational, it is usually the case that they consider their actions to be completely rational. In his book Why we Believe, Michael Shermer describes such behaviour as “intellectual attribution bias” – where those with opposing views typically consider their own actions as being rationally motivated, whereas they see those of their opponents as more emotionally driven.
A simple rule to remember – challenge the ideas, not the person.
5) Ask questions … and listen to the answers
When someone appears to express a view counter to what we believe it is easy to respond by bombarding them with counter arguments. However, this will not only put them on the defensive, it also relies on the fact that you have understood their point of view correctly (see point 7, below). If one takes the time to explore their beliefs further by asking questions, it not only gives you time to assess the extent of their beliefs, if done in a friendly manner it helps establish rapport, allowing for a more rational exchange of ideas. If we leap into an argument with a limited understanding of the other person’s position we can find ourselves trying to convince them of something they already agree with.
6) Leave your ego at the door
In my experience once you start taking comments personally, rationality goes out the window. There are times when the comments of some wingnuts make me furious. At such times the best option is to take time to calm down before responding.
“Science is the search for truth – it is not a game in which one tries to beat his opponent, to do harm to others.” – Linus Pauling
7) Expect misunderstandings
No matter how carefully we think we have phrased something, those hearing or reading them will often misunderstand at least part of what we have said. So one always needs to be ready to rephrase. In order to clarify what we are saying a number of techniques can be used:
a) Counter anecdotes with anecdotes. Follow up by explaining this is why anecdotes are not particularly good as evidence.
b) Use analogies to explain difficult concepts.
c) Apologise when you make a mistake. While some may view apologising as a loss of face, it can actually establish a better rapport. It is far more honest and trust-inspiring than trying to cover up or justify a mistake you have made. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that we all make mistakes.
d) Acknowledge points of agreement. In any argument there are often points that both parties agree on. If we can identify these up front and acknowledge them, it not only makes it easier to explore the points of difference, it again establishes some rapport by saying “look, there are some points on which we can agree.”
8) Don’t make the same mistakes we criticise them for
There is nothing more frustrating than seeing other ‘skeptics’ debate a wingnut by erecting their own strawmen, using ad hominem attacks or other irrational arguments. An experienced wingnut will quickly turn these mistakes to his or her own advantage. It always pays to carefully think through all of your own arguments before using them.
9) Be persistent and don’t expect to change their views overnight
Most wingnuts have spent years developing and reinforcing their positions. Some probably have the psychological equivalent of Fort Knox built around their ideological positions.
So if we can’t easily change their minds, what is the point in debating with them?
Debates with wingnuts seldom take place in a vacuum. Whether they are arguing their point via a letter to the editor, on a blog or amongst a group of friends or workmates, there is always an audience. If their points go unchallenged some of the audience will be swayed by their arguments. So challenging the arguments of a wingnut is less about changing their point of view, and more about educating any audience they have about the flaws and fallacies of their argument. One should aim to win over any such audience with superior knowledge, civility and by pointing out how your position benefits them.
10) Learn more about persuasion
Many skeptics have a great respect for facts and rational debate. However, when it comes to making decisions human beings tend to be more readily swayed by their emotions. Psychologists have spent decades researching how people make decisions. Such research has been embraced and effectively used by marketers and salespeople to get us to buy things we don’t need or want. If the Journal of Marketing Research refer to books like Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion as “the most important book written in the last 10 years” then perhaps we should also be reading it, not only to help us work out appropriate ways to better present a skeptical viewpoint, but to also immunise us against some of the less scrupulous methods of persuasion.
Some persuasive techniques directly applicable to debating with wingnuts include”
a) Appealing to self interest. Everyone naturally looks at how anything benefits themselves. So when we advocate for vaccination use, rejection of dangerous or ineffective ‘alternative medicines’ and other wingnut ideas we need to focus on the benefits of our positions.
b) Creativity. In a world where we are bombarded with many demands for our attention, the creative ideas stand out. One only has to consider the incredible amounts of money companies spend on novel advertising campaigns to understand this.
c) Repetition. Many wingnuts rely on the idea that if you repeat a lie often enough it will be believed. If this is the case, then surely if you repeat the truth often enough it will also be believed.
d) Soundbites. Many science communicators are now recognising the value of sound bites – short memorable statements outlining key points. Most people are more likely to remember sound bites than the long and complex (albeit more accurate( explanations preferred by many scientists.
e) Be positive. It has been demonstrated that most people remember positive messages more accurately. Thus is it more effective to say that “vaccines save millions of lives each year” as opposed to “vaccines are not dangerous.” Over time, a negative message can become confused and may be remembered instead as “vaccines are dangerous.”
A good example of clever use of such techniques was the 10:23 campaign in January 2010 to educate the public about homeopathy. The public ‘overdose’ on homeopathic remedies by skeptics was a creative way to draw the attention of the media and the public to the irrationality of homeopathy. Clever sound bites such as :ten dollars for a teaspoon of water: were not only memorable but focused on financial self interest. The event also caused several homeopaths or homeopathic organisations to state outright that they don’t know how homeopathy works, a remarkable and useful soundbite (for skeptics( in itself.
This 10-point list outlines my own approach to wingnuts. Others may have different, possibly even contrary rules. I believe it is important that we, as skeptics, share and discuss these ideas rationally and with the view of what will best encourage better and more rational thinking by the general public.
Whether you agree with all of my rules or not, there is hopefully one thing we can agree on. We cannot afford to ignore the wingnuts.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
“We have to create the future or others will do it for us.” – Susan Ivanova, character, Babylon 5 TV series.