Thursday, January 05, 2012

Rationally Speaking encore: Why bother?
[Originally published on October 31, 2005]

by Massimo Pigliucci

A recent comment on this blog asked the question of why bother having a discourse with people who disagree with you ideologically. This question often comes up as a result of frustration at interacting with people who apparently aren't interested in a dialog, but simply in shouting their opinions past others. Of course, to some extent we are all guilty of this, but the extent does matter, and the intentions with which one enters a public forum (be that a blog, a radio show, or simply a conversation at dinner) matters too.

I have actually written about this before (for example, here), arguing that there are different time-horizons and goals that need to be considered. In the short-term, it is simply not true that our opinions do not influence others, and sometimes even change minds. We rarely get to know this, because the process doesn't have an instantaneous feedback, and the most vocal people in any particular forum tend to be those who are most set in their ideas (which isn't to say that they are necessarily wrong, of course!). But since I began doing my part as what in Europe would be considered a "public intellectual" (i.e., not somebody who stays way up there in the ivory tower, engaging in continuous mental masturbation), about ten years ago, I have gotten plenty of letters and emails from people thanking me for having pointed out things they hadn't thought before, in the process adding to their daily dose of food for thought. That was precisely the point.

In the long run, things do change too, and often dramatically. It may be disheartening to see the rise of the intolerant religious right in the United States during the past few years, but take the really long historical view and you'll immediately appreciate the enormous advances made during the last century (think of the right of women to vote, civil rights legislation, etc.), and beyond (not long ago I would have been burned as an heretic for what I'm writing on this blog).

Where, then does the frustration come from? I suggested in the past that this is the result of what I called the "rationalistic fallacy." This isn't a formal logical fallacy, but rather an assumption -- particularly common among, but not limited to, academics, that all one needs to do to convince other people is to present a cogent argument backed up by evidence. Alas, it isn't that simple, partly because the human brain seems to be hard-wired to jump to conclusions based on little evidence, not to mention of course because of the emotional component attached to much of what is being discussed here (religion, rights, philosophical positions, etc.).

Nonetheless, there is equally good evidence from the cognitive sciences that people do change their minds (I highly recommend a little booklet entitled "Teaching with the Brain in Mind"). How this happens is interesting, and worth learning. For example, people tend to be more responsive to repeated exposure to new ideas, preferably in a variety of settings (lectures, readings) and sources (i.e., various authors, colleagues, friends). Few of us change our minds on the spot or in response to a single well-crafted argument presented by one person. We need to see things from different angles, hear or read them repeated with different flavors, and to give time to our left brain (what neuroscientists call the "interpreter" of our worldview) to digest whatever dissonant information is being presented.

There is one more reason to engage in open discussion: one exposes one's own arguments to the sometime penetrating "peer review" of other people, who may start with different assumptions, reason in a different fashion, and hold onto different sets of priorities. That can do miracles to sharpen our own thinking and make us grow as individuals.

The bottom line is that discussions aren't a waste of time, as frustrating as they sometimes may be. They are an essential component of an open, democratic society, and they beat the crap out of watching mindless tv all night...


  1. Incidentally only a few days back I was discussing this (with some difficulty) with a friend; so it's great to see the issue coming from you in a much more clear form, Massimo!

    Yes, everyone who has something worthwhile and meaningful so say should say it. It is NOT going to go waste. And the crucial understanding is, exactly as you pointed out, that quite often the positive effect isn't seen happening instantaneously, but people at apt moment do recall things they had heard someone say in the past which they had disagreed with then, and find themselves agreeing with those same things. Happens when the "time is right" -- but only if they had heard those ideas to begin with! I myself have felt this.

  2. Good post.
    I find useful to reverse the question, addressing not the problem of speaking to others that are possessed by some ideology, but asking whether I am not in the same predicament in the eyes of others, especially others that have a more or less rational mindset. Is there anything in my mind pushing me towards accepting (more or less uncritically) an argument agreeing with my preconceptions? Can I make the effort to avoid such a tendency? Can I make the effort to give an impartial hearing to some view that radically conflicts with some heartfelt belief of mine? Or would I rather dismiss such effort as useless and counterproductive? My own beliefs I may deem to be not ideological but rational: of course the Earth is at the center of the universe, of course God exists, of course evolution is happening (or not happening), of course the planet is warming, of course democracy is better than dictatorship.

    Ideology is not something that only happens to others. After all, if ideology is so pervasive, it is probably within me as well. One should be always writing and rewriting one's own version of chapter six of "On the Origin of Species", i.e. "Difficulties with (my) theory".

  3. *One should be always writing and rewriting one's own version of chapter six of "On the Origin of Species", i.e. "Difficulties with (my) theory".*

    Adaptive mutation, adaptive mutation, etc.

  4. Jeremy, it may be interpreted in various ways, but what I meant is one should be doubting one's own theories all the time, pursue every objection with honesty, and not let one's own preference stand in the way.

    Example: if you are a scientists but you are also a social conservative, you may tend too easily to believe that some new scientific evidence shows some negative long-term consequences of, say, having had an abortion. You should not let your social conservatism stand in the view while you assess the evidence for such a claim.

    For an example on the opposite side: if you are a green enthusiast who believes in the prevailing theory of anthropogenic climate change, you should nonetheless avoid the temptation to dismiss every scientific hypothesis that tend to weaken that theory.

    One should actually fight against one's own demons, especially in this context one's own ideological commitments. If the case arrives, one should have the courage to proclaim the truth even if it goes against one's ideological beliefs.

  5. Doubt could and should be used for positive purposes, no? Like doubting that giraffes grew longer necks by lucky accident.

  6. Religion and other ways of thinking ARE ACTUALLY AWARE of the importance of repetition, redundance etc

    They do not miss a chance to repeat their thoughts

  7. Thank you for the encouragement!

    I struggle often with feeling shouted down, ignored, or outright rejected for trying to bring a different argument to table. I've often questioned whether it was worth the bother.

    Turns out it is. Just slowly!


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