Saturday, January 28, 2012

Skeptics: This is Why it is Pointless to Argue

The purpose of this blog is to examine some of the cultural issues surrounding paranormal, conspiracy theory, and related belief systems. But it has also increasingly had a skeptical bent, I will admit.

So I give this advice: Trying to argue with people who strongly disagree with scientific findings, facts about reality, and so on, really will do nothing other than wear you down. Address their claims, try to educate others who might be interested, and move on. Arguing with them is pointless.

And here is some experimental evidence to back up this hypothesis, from psychology researchers at the University of Kent. Conspiracy theory believers are more likely to believe other, completely contradictory conspiracy theories, than mainstream narratives.

"They also asked 102 students about the death of Osama bin Laden last year. The students rated how much they agreed with statements purporting that: bin Laden had died in the American raid; he is still alive; he was already dead when the raid took place; the Obama administration appears to be hiding information about the raid.

Once again, people who believed bin Laden was already dead before the raid were more likely to believe he is still alive. Using statistical analysis, the researchers determined that the link between the two was explained by a belief that the Obama administration was hiding something.

The central idea — that authorities are engaged in massive deceptions intended to further their malevolent goals — supports any individual theory, to the point that theorists can endorse contradictory ones, according to the team."

In other words, these theories are not driven by facts, or "questions" (as many conspiracy theorists will put it when they want to suggest an idea that is unpopular). They're driven by already existing emotions or opinions about the subject, generally animosity about some individual, group, institution, or possibly even society itself. And then any theories that come along which serve this emotion or opinion, are more likely to be accepted and touted.

I'm not saying it is impossible for someone to ultimately break out of this cycle. We can find ourselves in such a situation, believing things more out of emotion than anything else, but ultimately coming to our senses. I've been there. But if we are heavily emotionally invested in such a belief, it is going to be much harder, and rarely are we divested of this belief by being lectured from the outside. Finding those answers ourselves is more effective.

Openly fighting with believers in such ideas, with the goal of convincing them, I think is pointless if they really are committed to them, and is a waste of time, energy, and sanity. The true motivations for their beliefs likely have little to do with the arcana of the particular conspiracy theory in question.

Instead, focus on those willing to listen, and educate them before their curiosity takes them to places less interested in sticking to reality. I would once again laud the podcast Monster Talk for doing this very, very well, in my opinion.


Terry the Censor said...

My method is to fact-check fringers' assertions rather than present any argument of my own. Most of the time, the fringers' own sources do not state what is claimed. When this is demonstrated, the most common responses from fringers are 1) silence, 2) they banish me from their channel or site or 3) a restatement of the claim, as if I hadn't blown it to smithereens.
All this has shown me that facts don't matter to fringers. They already know the truth and that's that.

Perhaps, as I think you are suggesting, the problem is intense feeling interfering with reasoning skills. Unfortunately, these people are convinced they are the most clear-minded of us all.

ahtzib said...

My point was that it is pointless to get into back and forth engagements with most "alternative claimants." I suppose it is a field specific version of this

But it is something I see people do all the time. I think the bigger issue is to emphasize putting out better information and stories, rather than just slapping back all the time. This will not only be more productive in the way that I mention above (getting third parties to potentially listen to what you have to say), but might also be a long-term strategy for success by emphasizing productive ways of discourse and engagement, rather than highlighting combative people and discussions.