The Good Fight Part 1: The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Are Wrong

The good fight is that special argument where you know you’re right, and just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly disagree. But they do, even when the disagreement is about something fundamental and irreconcilable. Did we evolve? Is the climate changing? Are vaccines safe? Do I really have to pay my taxes? The answers matter, but so do the arguments. Let’s try to improve them.

This is Part I in a series about how and why we have those difficult conversations, online and in the real world. We’ll explore ways to make them more persuasive, more fun, and more rewarding. For a practical example of where we’re going with this, see my earlier pieceThe Most Important Playground Conversation: How to Persuade a Friend to Vaccinate.  Going forward we’ll focus particularly on arguments with people who have irrational ideas, like anti-vaxers or creationists, but some topics apply in every conversation. This is one of them, because in every conversation you have to remember: you are talking to a person. They are as real, as smart, and as decent as you are. You’re having a conversation, not a battle. That’s the hardest thing to remember for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.

I was going to start this series by writing about goals and strategies, but then I got bogged down in a conversation on global warming that reminded me of that more fundamental rule. It doesn’t matter what your goal is if you let yourself forget that you’re talking to a real person. Personalizing an argument, making it about the people instead of the issues, poisons conversations. Once you start to think of the conversation as just another blunt object to apply to the other person’s head, you’ve already lost. So what happened, and what can we do about it?

"Alu finds a friend"

Not a friendly conversation.

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We were wrong about Bill Nye

Nye and Ham

Many of us in the scientific community have a longstanding policy not to debate with creationists, in part because doing so gives an unwarranted credibility to their disingenuous arguments. So when Bill Nye chose to debate Ken Ham in the Creation Museum on whether creationism was a viable explanation for life, there was a lot of wincing and predictions that Nye would unintentionally do damage to public perception of evolution. I was also skeptical that this debate would do any good. But I think that most of us scientists had overlooked the fact that Nye is an experienced entertainer as well as science educator–a combination of traits that most of us don’t possess, and one perfect for this venue. Nye did an astounding job at calmly explaining the overwhelming evidence for why creationism (with special attention to Noah’s ark and the flood) simply couldn’t explain the origins and diversity of life on earth. Ham, on the other hand, seemed really flustered and didn’t even make an attempt (beyond trotting out token creation scientists in an attempt to give creationism some legitimacy) to address the questions at hand with evidence. He was completely out of his league, and it showed.

Ken Ham's explanation of evolution
Screenshot of one of Ken Ham’s slides explaining what a non-Young Earth Creationist Christian must believe about God’s plan.

One of the most telling parts of the debate was the question that was asked of both men: “What, if anything, would convince you to change your mind?”

Ham’s answer: “Nothing.”
Nye’s answer: “Evidence.”

I really encourage you to watch the entire debate here, but if you’re not up for three hours of viewing (and I don’t blame you), you can see shorter excerpts and an interview with Nye here.

And here are some other reactions to the debate:

Nye was right to do this debate. Not only did he win with excellent presentation and overwhelming evidence, he managed to convey to viewers the beauty and humility of the scientific process. Nye didn’t have any problem saying to some questions: “I don’t know–but I can’t wait to find out!!!”: the motivation that drives every single scientist when he or she goes to work in the morning. If nothing else but this gets conveyed to the people who watched the debate, I’d still be pretty happy. I don’t know if the people in the Creation auditorium had ever heard the evidence he presented before. (They seem to be proud of their lack of understanding of evolution). I doubt he changed any of their minds, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the people watching the stream went to bed last night with a slightly better understanding of the scientific process. I hope they did.

Is evolution in trouble?

According to a recent article in the Daily Beast by Dr. Karl Giberson, 2013 was a terrible year for evolution for several reasons:

“The year ended with the anti-evolution book Darwin’s Doubt as Amazon’s top seller in the “Paleontology” category. The state of Texas spent much of the year trying to keep the country’s most respected high school biology text out of its public schools. And leading anti-evolutionist and Creation Museum curator Ken Ham made his annual announcement that the “final nail” had been pounded into the coffin of poor Darwin’s beleaguered theory of evolution.
Americans entered 2013 more opposed to evolution than they have been for years, with an amazing 46 percent embracing the notion that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so.” This number was up a full 6 percent from the prior poll taken in 2010. According to a December 2013 Pew poll, among white evangelical Protestants, a demographic that includes many Republican members of Congress and governors, almost 64 percent reject the idea that humans have evolved.”

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Why does the media want you to believe that we are primate-pig hybrids?

I had a “driveway moment” last night listening to Alex Jones rant about science topics on his radio program. He was obsessed with the hypothesis that humans are the descendents of a primate-pig hybridization. I had heard of it as it first made the rounds back in July, but I assumed that no one would take it seriously and ignored it. But the Daily Mail recently has not only reported it uncritically, it also called Dr. Eugene McCarthy’s evidence for this hypothesis “compelling”. I guess I shouldn’t find that surprising, because the Daily Mail routinely presents quackery as mainstream scientific findings.

What really drew my interest in the subject was the way Alex Jones discussed the news article.

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Does aggression define manhood?

“You’re going against 40,000 years of evolution”

“This innate toughness that men have is crucial to our survival.”

These points, and many others along the same lines, were made by Mr. Gavin McInnes, author of “How To Be a Man” in a recent discussion of masculinity on the Huffington Post. His argument is based on a suite of assumptions common in our culture. It often forms the basis of misogynist arguments against feminism. Basically:

1. Evolution has made men naturally more “aggressive and tough”, and women naturally more “compassionate and domestic”.

2. Therefore in the modern world, as in past societies, men are the natural breadwinners, and women the natural caretakers of the home/children.

3. Going against these gender norms, as feminism has done in the last few decades, is going against nature, and disrespectful of the importance of childcare!

According to Mr. McInnes, women who work outside the home are “forced to pretend to be men. They’re feigning this toughness. They’re miserable.” You’ll hear a lot of people agreeing with this line of reasoning. But is it scientifically based? Continue reading

Adventures with the Texas State Board of Education

I’ve written before about the ongoing battle to maintain decent science standards in Texas schools, and why this is not just a regional issue, but important for science education in the United States as a whole.

Today I went before the Texas State Board of Education to testify in support of the science textbooks currently under review. They’re all quite good on the subject of evolution, but there’s a chance that the board may require the textbook companies to modify them based on the testimony of their so-called experts (whose anti-evolution opinions can be read here). The outcome is very much in doubt right now.

I came expecting this to be a largely symbolic (though important) gesture, but I was completely wrong. The pro-creationism/Intelligent Design crowd was present in force, and even though they were vastly outnumbered by the science advocates, they were given extra time and friendly questions by some SBOE members, which amplified their voices.
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Creationism and Answers in Science: One weekend in Texas (with fossil porn!)

This past week, Houston hosted several major players in both the anti- and pro- evolution camps. The Texas Home School coalition had their annual convention on Aug 1-3, and unfortunately chose to invite Ken Ham as a keynote speaker. Ham has a long history of anti-science, anti-evolution advocacy, including recently criticizing Bill Gates’ “Big History” curriculum for teaching evolution.

In response to Ham’s presence at the convention, several groups, including Houston Atheists, Humanists of Houston and Houston Oasis, organized an “Answers in Science” educational event at the Houston Museum of Natural History.
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