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.

A case study in conversation

Normally I don’t have much to say about climate change, because I don’t know anything about it. (Nevertheless I think it’s a real problem; here’s why.) This conversation interested me because it was a sidebar on a creationist blog, Uncommon Descent, which is virtually a laboratory for conversations with irrational people. One of the leading figures in the Intelligent Design movement started the blog years ago, but he long since turned it over to a lawyer named Barry Arrington. It’s still mostly about how evil and dumb and awful Darwin and his terrible theory are, but these days its various authors also weigh in on how scientists are dumb, gay marriage is unnatural, feminists and atheists are unethicalliberal judges are ruining America, and of course, climate change is a fascist lie.

Arrington, the host, sets the tone for the site with aggressive, mocking posts that insult and belittle people who disagree with his beliefs—conversations that are brittle as they are hostile, as he is known for banning commenters whose questions, good manners, or greater expertise reflect poorly on his own contributions. The result is sometimes hanging questions or one-sided dialogues, as no one realizes that the other side of the conversation has been silently silenced. This particular conversation was par for the course; long before it was over, the host banned me and some other commenters then retreated, apparently to wait for criticism to die down. If you page through the comments, you’ll see that they start with better-educated readers correcting his misuse of a scientific term. Almost immediately, he loses his cool and calls them turkeys, credulous, idiots, fascists, hypocrites, and liars. (Well, the last two were directed just at me. I’m not a liar, but am I a hypocrite? Keep reading.)

Why stick it out through an abusive conversation? I have a high tolerance for that sort of thing. I’ve been yelled at and even physically threatened by many more obnoxious people, and had long, friendly discussions with many others who had more irrational beliefs than Mr. Arrington’s. But more importantly, I’m interested in how and why people communicate and argue about irrational ideas. Much too often those conversations wind up looking like Uncommon Descent: drawing lines between us and them and then using the pretext of a conversation to beat them about the head and shoulders. That’s especially common when the argument is about the kind of science that most people feel they can understand pretty well, like evolution or vaccines. Both sides are inclined feel like the other just isn’t smart enough or honest enough to come to grips with the facts. And the result is a low-quality, hostile discussion that reads more like a high-school debate than an educated conversation. Finally, I honestly enjoyed pushing the host’s buttons. We can all do better.

 "Alu discovers her friend is fast"

bark bark liar bark hypocrite bark idiot!

 Remember who you’re talking to.

My day job is in the field of communication and negotiation. I often work with clients who are having trouble with bitter, difficult negotiations. Almost every time I ask them, “Do you trust the other side? If I asked them that question, what would they say?” Every time, they say “not always.”  When a conversation is divided into sides, like with a debate or negotiation, trust immediately starts to go out the window. That’s not always necessarily a problem, because negotiators need to be a little skeptical. Be trustworthy, but not necessarily trusting.

Even so, I tell my clients to make a crucial assumption: try to believe that the person you’re talking to is just as smart and just as honest as you are. It may not be true. You may feel like you know for a fact that it’s not true. But try to believe it. No, this doesn’t mean that you automatically believe everything that the other person says. Trust, but verify. Or don’t trust at all, if you know you can’t. But even then, even if you know you can’t believe what the other side has to say, it’s almost always asking for trouble to walk into any conversation believing that the other side is dumber, sleazier, crookeder or nastier than you are.

The problem is that by the time a conversation gets heated, or even if you’re just expecting it, you’ve lost your objectivity as a judge of character. It’s too tempting to believe that the only reason anyone could believe something so stupid is that they’re stupid. Or worse, maybe they don’t believe it at all. Maybe they’re only pretending to believe for some nefarious reason. Maybe, maybe those things are true—but it doesn’t really make a difference. After all, do you expect them to drop their argument and agree that you’re right just because you accused them of being a dummy or a hypocrite? This is especially a problem in arguments about science and other matters of fact, because many of us (ironically, usually those of us who aren’t scientists) start to think that we’ve been proven right, thus making the other guys a pack of mouth-breathing cretins.


The high ground is a narrow ledge.

Once people on either side get bogged like that, it’s not the same conversation anymore. Letting yourself assume the other side only disagrees because they’re stupid or dishonest personalizes the discussion. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s tempting to treat the conversation like a contest. You want to show the world how awful the other side of the conversation is, and you start to think of the conversation as a tool for doing that. You can see that happen in the Uncommon Descent thread, where people who want to have a conversation run up against someone who wants to win a conversation. One side keeps asking, “But why don’t you respond to these arguments? What’s wrong about this, and how do you think that works?” The other side arms itself with a few useful talking points it can fire like bullets, without regard for context or substance. When the clip is empty, they declare absolute victory—after all, didn’t you hear all those gunshots? We smoked ’em!

Which side is which? It doesn’t particularly matter. The end result of that mindset is that neither side listens to the other. You won’t listen to someone who’s so obviously stupid or dishonest, and they won’t listen to someone who’s attacking them. (Often both sides will feel like they’re under attack.) If no one is listening, then what’s the conversation really about? Any opportunity to persuade the other side goes out the window. And worse, you might entrench the other side in their beliefs and encourage others to join them.

Don’t turn your argument into a recruiting poster.

People love to fight, and we love to pick sides. When it comes to arguments about science, it would be nice if people picked their sides based on evidence or data. But we know that’s not what happens in the real world. The research shows that when it comes to questions like evolution and climate change, “religiosity and right-left political outlooks” are much better predictors of a person’s opinion than how well they understand the science. In other words, for those of us who aren’t bona fide experts on a subject, we can’t escape the fact that our social groups have a heavy influence on our opinions, even if we’re convinced we make our decisions based just on the facts.

That’s important in a conversation or debate, because you have to remember there are almost always onlookers. Someone is listening to or reading your conversation, whether it’s lurkers on the forum or someone literally sitting at the same table. And when they see someone being pressured or attacked, they want to take sides and join in. Consider the Uncommon Descent thread we’ve been talking about, or its follow-up, or one of any number of ill-informed and misleading anti-vaccine rants. The authors of these pieces didn’t sit down and carefully reason out a position—they reacted to another position they don’t like, such as that climate change is real or that measles can harm children.

That reactive instinct is strong, and one of the most powerful drivers in getting people involved in public debates. There’s nothing really wrong with it; we want people to get motivated by important issues and get involved in the discussion. But if your contribution is primarily to demonize the other side, you’re only recruiting for them without actually moving the ball yourself.


Bantams are fighting cocks.

 You can see this happen in comment threads and forums. Once someone starts an ugly conversation, others feel compelled to jump in and push back. If no one is willing to be the bigger person and return the conversation to a civilized footing, it’s a race to the bottom. That’s been the death of many otherwise interesting conversations.

It’s so easy to come up with a justification, and it’s going to feel like a good one–especially if you really want an excuse to open fire. This person really is that stupid, or I know for a fact this guy’s just pretending to believe this crap in order to start something, or What they believe is just too awful/dangerous/absurd/bigoted/immoral to take at face value. And that might be true–it would be a lot to ask of someone to have a straightforward, good-faith heart-to-heart chat with an actual Nazi. But how common are actual Nazis, compared to people who just get called Nazis to make them look bad?

Even if you really, truly feel you’re justified in treating the other side of the conversation like a moron, monster, or madman, remember that it’s not about you. A conversation has at least two parties, and no one is ever persuaded by being called an idiot. Nor are the people on your side of the table likely to be all that impressed. Thinking of the other person as a degenerate or idiot leads to your treating them that way, which will sink your chances of actually persuading them. (Persuading them doesn’t necessarily mean converting them to your opinion; you might also be interested in making them less certain of their own beliefs.) You might gratify the people on your side of the table, which might feel good, but it doesn’t actually accomplish very much. It’s a lot easier to feel like you won an argument than to actually change opinions.

Some people disagree, and treat the conversation just as way to amuse themselves, or make themselves feel good about supporting a cause they care about, or energize their side of the table like a cheerleader. If your goal is just to shine a light on yourself, without any regard for the other side, then it doesn’t seem as important to be charitable and assume they’re arguing in good faith. But even then, it pays to remember that you’re talking to decent, intelligent people–no one wins or feels good about a conversation with an idiot or a liar.

In it to win it.

Lots of people get into debates, especially online, to win them. Or show off how smart they are, or how clever and cutting they can be. I know I’ve done it, and it’s a fair bet you have too. Even then, it pays to remember that you’re talking to a human being—and to assume they’re as smart and as decent as you are. Even, especially, if you don’t want to believe that.

If all you want to do with a conversation is use it as a weapon, you’re not going to get very far by demonizing the other side. First, it’s not credible. People who already agree with you don’t need to see you denounce your opponent and won’t care all that much about it. The other side of the conversation certainly won’t be taking you seriously. And onlookers, the last people you might actually stand to influence, tend not to be all that impressed by hyper-aggressive rhetoric. A few may get energized and jump on board with you, but it’s just as likely they’ll sympathize with the people you’re attacking. Treating the other side like liars or fools pushes the people on the fence to choose sides, and you can’t control which side they pick.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that no one looks good throwing a temper tantrum. If you walk away from a conversation feeling proud that you called someone an “idiot,” you need better conversational skills. Far better to have the conversation and show that you’ve got something to say, rather than drenching your keyboard in spittle and frustration.


Staying positive.

None of this means that it’s wrong to argue, or even that it’s wrong to argue with a sharp tongue. In fact, there are good reasons for being a little aggressive now and then. For one thing, people tend to argue about the things they care about, like truth, science, religion, health, food, and sports. There’s nothing wrong with honest passion. It can even help an argument, as a sign of credibility and honest commitment to a position. And it’s silly to pretend we could exile passion from our conversations even if we wanted to.

"Alu makes peace"Passion can move minds, too. Actually changing someone’s opinion on a controversial topic with a clever argument is depressingly rare. Someone who’s committed themselves to a position, especially if they’ve done it publicly, is not going to reverse themselves on the spot just because you dragged up some piece of data that supports your contrary position. Instead, people change their minds (usually) slowly; we don’t always realize we’re doing it, but our beliefs shift over time. And they often wind up in sync with our community: the people we know, respect, and want to be like. Passion is an important part of that process. It’s easier to listen to someone who’s passionate about their position, easier to believe them, and easier to want to be like them, than someone who just dryly drones on about the facts. Passion is charisma, and charisma persuades.

Nor is it always wrong to call someone a liar. If you’ve caught them in a dishonest statement, go ahead and call them out on it. But be sure that you’re right, be sure that you’re thinking as objectively as possible, and remember that you’re taking the conversation in an aggressive direction that’s not likely to result in any serious agreements. That’s a move that’s far more likely to derail a conversation than begin one. The same thing is true of using words that may be objectively true, but also carry the weight of an insult, like hypocrite or ignorant or irrational. Are you saying it because you need to establish that it’s true, or because you want to swing the weight of that insult? See if from your side: do you want them to change their mind, or do you want them to feel bad about disagreeing with you? And see it from theirs: are they going to understand your meaning, or just take offense?

It’s hard to say where the line is. Sometimes there isn’t one. Most of the time it lies with how you treat the other side of the conversation. It can be the difference between arguing with them because you think their position is wrong, and attacking them because you want to shame them for being wrong. Could you sit down with them afterwards and have a civil conversation about something else? If not, someone may have crossed the line. Maybe it wasn’t you, but the only thing you can really control in the conversation is your side of the table. Even if the problem isn’t your fault, it’s your responsibility.


If you mean to walk away as friends, it’ll be a friendly argument.
If you mean to be the last one standing, it’s going to be a fight.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good place to draw that line. We’re all inclined to think that when we get heated it’s because we’re justifiably passionate, and when they do it they’re just being assholes. That distorted perspective doesn’t just make it hard to solve this problem, in a lot of ways it is the problem: not seeing the other side as someone who’s as human, as smart, as decent, and as emotional as you are.

What about me?

In a lot of ways, it was one specific exchange that spurred me to write this. The host at Uncommon Descent, after a few days of sparring on various subjects, told me that he thought I must “believe that only someone with a character flaw can possibly disagree with him.” I don’t think that’s right, and said so; he declared I must be “both a liar and a hypocrite.”

Is he right? The “liar” part is easy. I don’t think that people who disagree with me must have a character flaw. I think that some do, whether it’s because they’re dishonest or unhinged. But that’s a far cry from believing that disagreement is a character flaw. That would be a very difficult thing to believe for someone like me, who’s fascinated by debates and discussions out on the fringe with people whose ideas couldn’t be further from my own. (See, for example, Alfred Adask—I was a guest on his radio show for a friendly conversation, even though I think his ideas are about as wrong as it’s humanly possible to be.)

“Hypocrite” is a lot harder to nail down. I don’t think I’m a hypocrite, but then, how many hypocrites do? I’ve had my share of sharp conversations, especially online, where I lost sight of the human being on the other side of the screen. I’ve insulted people, explicitly and implicitly, for the crime of annoying me. I’m not proud of it, but neither am I alone. And I’m a human being, which means I’ll do it again.

brisket(Hell, I’ll do it right now: This is barbecue. It’s made in TEXAS. I’m very happy to be moving to Kansas, but all those people who keep telling me you’ll still have good barbecue because blah blah Kansas City blah blah—those people are vile and dumb and should feel bad about their stupid opinions. Also, the people whining about the Patriots are sore losers and bad Americans.)

Going back to the climate change conversation, though, I think what the host was getting at was that I was purposefully needling him. And that’s true, I was. He was behaving badly, and rather than letting it rest I kept reminding him of it and trying to shame him with it. I picked at the fact that he was insulting his commenters and berating them for correcting his mistaken use of terminology. My pressure was a kind of criticism of his character. Even if I didn’t say outright that he was being a jerk, my opinion was abundantly clear.

At the end of the day, I can’t say I honestly followed my own rule in that conversation, to remember that Barry Arrington—like everyone I argue with—is as honest and as smart as I am. I may have enjoyed needling him too much, and his aggressive style of insulting rather than engaging made it easy to keep doing it. But neither can I say that I completely forgot the rule. How could I? It’s something I think about constantly, at work and at home where I’m writing a book about these things. At any rate, even if I could remember my state of mind during that conversation, I don’t think I’d trust it. Remember, you’re least objective about yourself, whether you’re giving yourself too much leeway or too little.

That’s going to be true of almost any conversation. It’s not very often that you’ll be able to say for sure, “that guy went too far, he’s objectively mistreating the other side of the debate.” (You’ll have lots of examples of exactly that. But it’s not because that kind of misconduct is common, it’s because it’s memorable.) You don’t need have objective proof of where the line is or who’s crossed it; it’s enough to know that personalizing a conversation is going to kill it for most purposes. What matters is looking back to see what was right, and what was wrong, about that conversation. Not whether the arguments were right, but whether the conversation was right.

In our example, I can’t change how anyone else behaved, and I don’t think anything I said was wrong. But I can see that it was a pretty useless conversation. Everyone walked away pissed off, with no opinions having shifted and no one having  any better understanding or opinion of the other side of the table. Even if that wasn’t my fault, doing better is my responsibility. Just like it’s yours.

The best conversations come when both sides of the table see each other as real, live human beings: mostly honest, mostly reasonable, mostly decent, and pretty smart. You’re often going to feel like that isn’t true about the other side, just like they’re often going to feel it about you. You can’t control how they behave, but at the same time no one else is ever responsible for what you do. Don’t forget who you’re talking to.

Moving on

This was Part 1 of our series on The Good Fight. From here, we’ll talk about why we have these conversations in the first place, focusing on the debate with irrational ideologies: anti-vaxers, creationists, etc. We’ll also explore just what it means to be irrational, with a focus on how completely sane, intelligent people can come to hold seemingly bonkers beliefs. After that we’ll start talking tactics, and how to actually be more persuasive when arguing online (or elsewhere).

In the meantime, please do tell us what you think about this first part. It’s a little (a lot) more self-referential than I expected it to be, but it felt hollow to talk about this sort of thing without a little self-examination. If you think I’m off-base, I’d love to hear about it. We won’t call anyone an idiot or a turkey or a liar or a hypocrite.


44 thoughts on “The Good Fight Part 1: The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Are Wrong

  1. Philipw2 January 29, 2015 / 2:12 pm

    According to Vox, most of the measles vaccine objectors are in Ohio & Amish

    A very different discussion. Rather than confronting theoretical objections, maybe the discussion should move to where actual objectors are.

    • Colin January 29, 2015 / 2:35 pm

      Thanks for the link! I hadn’t seen that article, it’s very interesting.

      I agree, a serious, face-to-face talk with a vaccine refuser is the gold standard for this kind of conversation. It’s more important and more difficult. But there’s a lot of room to focus on less-immediate online and personal arguments, too. If nothing else, they’re ubiquitous!

  2. Benjamin January 29, 2015 / 2:21 pm

    Excited to continue following the project! Great material!

  3. Eric Fraser January 29, 2015 / 2:33 pm

    This was an enjoyable read. With the rise of microblogging, I have kind of developed a habit of filling my Twitter feed with bloggers from all sides on numerous topics. As a science teacher, most of them are about science and sports, because I coach three sports. But as a heteronormative white male, I’ve also made it a point to include feminist, trans, and POC bloggers. I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to engage in conversations about topics like intersectionality and race, as well as engage bloggers from my own areas of influence, but have been really afraid to based on previous discussions from someone’s timeline. I do appreciate this post very much and will dog best to include ideas from this into my classroom where hopefully we can rekindle the lost art of debate.

  4. Chris January 29, 2015 / 3:24 pm

    What a coincidence! I was just listening to the end of the recent Be Reasonable podcast. This is where a reasonable person tries to find out about persons whose views differs from his. Michael Marsh is an extremely patient person (especially the most recent one where the gentleman is quite shouty).

    • Chris January 29, 2015 / 3:25 pm

      Sorry, it should be Michael Marshal (he goes by Marsh).

    • Colin January 29, 2015 / 4:37 pm

      Thanks Chris! I hadn’t heard of the Be Reasonable podcast, and I really appreciate your mentioning it. It looks like it’s right up my alley. Downloading all the back episodes as we speak.

      • Chris January 29, 2015 / 4:59 pm

        You’re welcome. The Merseyside Skeptics have two other podcasts with lots more snark and swearing. Michael Marshall works for the Good Thinking Society, where Simon Singh is his boss (the science writer who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association).

        Have fun in Kansas. My memories of it are from when my dad was at the Command and General Staff College in Ft. Leavenworth over forty years ago. I remember rolling hills, bits of forests, playing in streams, my parents watching lightning storms approaching and tornado drills in school.

  5. Anonymous January 29, 2015 / 3:41 pm

    Really enjoyed this. Thanks! Reminds me a bit of that wonderful song by “Radiohead”: “you do it to yourself. And that’s what really hurts…”

  6. JerryA January 29, 2015 / 5:45 pm

    I think the topics you mention (vaccination, climate change, evolution, religion, etc.) arouse very strong emotions because of the threat involved, either the threat to ones’ view of the world or the threat to health, life, and liberty. As a scientist, I know many of the facts involved, but I often cannot get my ideas across to the other person in the discussion. A large part of the problem is the elevation of opinion as being equal to fact, and the idea that there must be two co-equal sides to any discussion.

    • JerryA January 29, 2015 / 5:48 pm

      P.S. I’ll talk about any of the other topics, but I won’t even touch the idea of barbecue. In some places, that’s more of a religion than, well, religion. JA

  7. James January 29, 2015 / 6:13 pm

    Fascinating article; thanks! It’s given me some things to consider, and I found the personal angle helpful. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

    (BTW, those first two dog pictures look to me like dogs playing. In both cases you can see from the relaxed facial features of the “victim” dog that it’s not at all concerned, which is characteristic of dog play but not of fighting. I scratched my head at first, then wondered if you intended this as a kind of segue into part 2, on why we have these conversations in the first place…)

    • Colin January 29, 2015 / 6:53 pm

      Good catch! They’re definitely just playing–those are shots of our puppy. I thought they illustrated the mostly-for-show arguments people have online.

      • James January 29, 2015 / 8:04 pm


  8. Maitreya Buddha January 29, 2015 / 7:08 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post.
    See your anger as a signal that you misundarstand something you thought you understood! be the devils advocate with your own frozen beliefs!
    Truth does not hurt, truth helps. Only resistance to truth hurts.
    If someone is provoking and you get provoked, what does that say about you? Why would you get angry if something said is not true? Find facts and present them!
    Do not debate with people who are not open for truth! Ignore foulness, if possible remove it, or enlighten people that it is unfriendly and you will ignore it until more friendly! Be mindful! Meditate! Soon with meditation you will better be able to follow your own directions mindfuly.
    Good luck, my friend.

  9. MBenson January 29, 2015 / 10:34 pm

    Emotions are not good companions to bring to a conversation. We practice emotions via self-talk constantly, we rehearse them over and over again in our minds in well-worn scenarios. This is not necessarily bad but when we let emotions into a conversation we drop into habit and try to shoehorn the present moment, and the other person(s), into our emotional routines, whatever they may be. That is to say, the practiced emotions are never appropriate in the present moment, and serve only to occlude the topic at hand (assuming there actually is one). The emotional state of mind is a non-thinking one and when multiple people engage in it simultaneously virtual emobots emerge that whirl about in their own universes, oblivious to others. Unfortunately, this happens all the time. Better to train yourself away from emotions when dealing with others in professional, or at least respectful, situations, in my opinion.

    I really like your blog, I only discovered it recently via a retweet by John Hawks.

  10. gentle simile January 29, 2015 / 11:50 pm

    Are you going to be summarizing the last decade of science regarding strategies to change someone’s mind and the backlash effect?

    The various blog posts on this site must be providing ample examples for your discussion. Except that I’m afraid not too many of the commenters on here have remained cognizant of the fact that the recipeint is a living, breathing person.

  11. Rich January 30, 2015 / 12:44 am

    Good post. The funniest part of the exchange was when Barry intimated he was the besest at lawyerin’ and we shouldn’t judge his legal nous based on the rubbish he writes for UD.

  12. Dr Dale Johnston, MB ChB FRACGP FRNZCGP January 30, 2015 / 2:49 am

    Thank you so much for all this diligent work.
    I work in family practice as a doctor, and Queensland and Northern NSW are a stronghold of the antivaccination brigade.

    So I have a LOT of worried mums.
    Our nurses think are inclined in their busy professional selves to think they are all stupid.

    Or worse, dangerous to be near, as one at least has children herself who are pre-schoolers. We recently had an epidemic of chickenpox slow to respond even when we [and lots of grandmas and grandads and other care givers all had boosters.]

    You website and this particular blog is a fabulous resource which I want them to look carefully at.
    And I want them to practice on their friends, and not dismiss all non vaccinators and not even attempt to persuade them

    Here there is legislation making these parents sign a declaration that they understand what they are doing to enable their unvaccinated child to access daycare, pre-school and school.
    So they have to be more fearful of the consequences of immunisation than they do of fronting us with their intention of not vaccinating.
    So I am sure we ‘coerce’ some who remains with their fears and increase our ‘reaction to immunisation’ rate.

    Coercion is NOT the way to go. The law is making things worse rather than better, as it draws battle lines and does not allow for different opinions or any sort of conversation.

    And I agree I am seen as the enemy. But I DO want them to still seek medical care, because that is the next step. A child dying of meningitis because “no doctor can be trusted.”
    They depend far more on their peer group and now I am ancient [grandmother age] I am from another world anyway.
    I tell them that I know their worries make them frightened, but there is no valid proof their fears are based on fact.
    And that at any stage, if there is an epidemic that immediate immunisation will offer some protection.
    They can look at the evidence and see what they think. And they can always change their mind.
    And I sign that the certificate that says have been “taught”..which is something like the law requirements.
    I refuse to browbeat them as the nurses feel I should.

    • JerryA January 30, 2015 / 8:21 am

      Your other patients and their family members who are immune-compromised or too young to be vaccinated are at risk of catching vaccine preventable diseases from your patients who are not vaccinated by choice rather than medical necessity. Your patients, you know about, but what about their family members? Are you also being similarly nice to them by warning them about their significantly increased risk of catching vaccine-preventable disease, spreading it, and dying by coming into contact with the vaccine refusers in your waiting area? A vaccine denier tenet includes the idea that you are improving people’s immune systems by spreading disease, so these parents may not think to warn you or others that their children have a highly contagious disease. On the one hand, you have parents who you do not want to offend. On the other hand, you have patients and their family members who do not want to die. I believe that your duty to ‘do no harm’ is being compromised by your desire to avoid confrontation. Given the number of initials after your name, I expect that you know this already, but I was curious about how you go about it.

      • gewisn January 30, 2015 / 9:41 am

        I suggest that we try to keep this thread (and the sequels) focused on the question of which techniques actually work in changing people’s minds, regardless of whether the topic is vaccines, global warming, flat earth, GMO’s, brain tumors from cell phones, chemtrails, illuminati, gluten sensitivity, breast vs bottle, coke vs pepsi, Dawn vs Palmolive (“You know you’re soaking in it.”).
        Almost everything I know as a physician is useless if I can’t get a patient to follow a treatment plan. I can be a brilliant diagnostician and very sophisticated prescriber, but it’s all pointless if the patient doesn’t follow-through.
        I’m convinced that half my job, or more, is sales – getting the patient (customer) to take action in a useful manner.
        I don’t generally have to get them to open a checkbook, the way a door-to-door saleman has to, but I do have to get them to take action in a way that I think will be helpful. And very commonly that requires some sales techniques of helping the patient see how my recommendation will be in his best interest, and even negotiation to establish an agreement with which we can both be happy.

        There are plenty of threads on this blog site in which to argue for/against vaccines, and even to argue whether unvaccinated should be permitted in schools or whether physicians can/should ban the unvaccinated from the clinic.

        Personally, I’d like to set all that aside and focus on a discussion of what we know about which techniques do or don’t work, in what situations.
        But that’s just me. This question is up to the author and moderators, so I’ll try my best to avoid commenting further on what this comment section should contain, since it’s not mine.

        • gewisn January 30, 2015 / 9:43 am

          And, of course, the moment I hit send with my comment above, I realized I sent it as a reply to Jerry, and not as a general comment to the blog. Oops. That was not meant to be directed at you, Jerry.

  13. where we are January 30, 2015 / 11:03 am

    I agree gewisn! I read the comments hoping to find a good discussion about debate/argument techniques not yet another round of arguments about vaccines. We will never convince anyone of anything if we are not actually listening to the people we are debating and are not open to learning something that we might not know. Really, a debate should be more of an information quest rather than a battle. Why does the other side think what they think? What is their experience? What have they read? We are all way to quick to assume that we already know all of the answers and that we are unequivocally correct about the issues, when really, most of us have only read the articles and facts that support what we already believe. If we really want to make progress as a society, we need to have open discussions, not throw down, belittling, nasty battles where both sides come away believing their own bullshit even more strongly.

  14. Randy Wright January 31, 2015 / 10:00 am

    Well Colin, I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s no way I’ll accept that Barry Arrington is as smart or as honest as you are, given what I know about the ID crowd and having seen their tactics firsthand. So I’ll stick with my own rule, which is to speak clearly and be willing to be a big p***k (if necessary). Of course I cheat and do my homework so I’ve also got extra facts at my disposal–easy in the Google Age– and I’m also blessed with the ability to swing a mean one-liner (I see you’re coming along with your own chapter in “The Codependent’s Manifesto”; I’ll let you guess whether that one has a smiley face appended to it or not, and I have sound reasons for that tactic). I’ve found it useful to keep a few extra zingers lying around, and as a “grown-up” I accept the consequences of my actions, even if someone whose nose I’ve put out of joint decides to give me the silent treatment after I’ve singed them with my light saber (they’re fair game if they decide to retaliate, and I’ll let them “lay the ground rules” as far as escalation goes).

    JMHO, but a lot of what’s behind what I see as “the dumbing down of America” (i.e. I see your “flags” include creationism, denialism, and pseudoscience, all of which I see as “symptoms” of the malady) comes from the “let’s make nice” crowd, and the “idiots” are adept at exploiting that reality. I don’t see that as shrewdness but rather they’ll simply take the path of least resistance, and I feel an obligation to give them some resistance as a well as something to think about occasionally. Even if it is only wondering what they did that left them clutching at their groins.

    Any gains from schmoozing are strictly short-term, and I’m in this for the long haul.

    • gewisn January 31, 2015 / 1:05 pm

      Randy Wright,
      What if the evidence shows that your approach is creating an effect opposite to the one you want?
      What if the most reasonable conclusion from all the evidence we have is that your approach actually causes both your target and others reading it to become even less convinced of your conclusion than before they read your writing?

      Would that cause you to change your tactics, or are you so convinced you are right that you would ignore such evidence?

      If you would consider changing your tactics in light of convincing evidence, please tell us what sort of evidence of better outcomes from a different approach you would find convincing. Then we can examine whether such evidence exists, or what sort of research would be necessary to get it.

      • Randy Wright January 31, 2015 / 2:48 pm

        Unfortunately, sir, any evidence in this area would be purely subjective and open to interpretation and probable/possible manipulation. But before I could get you to acknowledge that, I’d have to school you on your own use of dichotomous thinking and straw man tactics, and point out your own ego is involved. You’ve opted for some subtle “attack tactics” rather than attempt some actual consideration of the points I raised, and if you’ll pardon me and my choice of metaphors in setting some boundaries, I prefer to play in my own sandbox, thank you.

        I see, too, you’ve identified yourself as a physician; my own background is in education and counseling/behavioral therapy. If you want a broad spectrum view, compare the field of mental health where there’s a “revolving door” versus addictions treatment where people actually do recover–in spite of the dysfunctional environments they often return to (and yes, I know firsthand that actual recovery rates are still deplorably low). As I said, I’m far more interested in long-term versus short-term outcomes, and the unspoken “codependent element” is that there’s a huge element of “control” in any agendas, whether “blunt force” or “careful, considerate nurturing” is the M.O. Where that applies to, say, the “anti-vax” crowd (to use an area where I’m essentially a disinterested party; my children were all vaccinated, but as soon as I was aware of possible issues, I made sure their flu shots were thimerosal-free), is I suggest it’s impossible to sway the truly zealous and unproductive to attempt to. Rather it’s the reading audience that is amenable to influence, and while they might find the drama a bit revolting and decry the rudeness, they do pay attention.

        Just laying out some diagrams and defending the use of my own sandbox in order to prevent somebody kicking sand on them.

        Anyway, Colin, as a fellow button-pusher, I’d be interested in feedback and a critique of my “style.”

        • gewisn January 31, 2015 / 2:52 pm

          What sort of evidence would you find convincing?

        • Colin January 31, 2015 / 5:41 pm

          I can’t deny that I enjoy pushing buttons from time to time, but I don’t think it does any real good other than to amuse myself. To have a real benefit in the outside world, you’ve got to talk to people, rather than at them. And of course there are potential harms to being too confrontational. For example, you say that you want to put up some resistance to irrationality, but is it working? I think most people don’t see pushback from a stranger–especially one who comes across as hostile–as real resistance. They might even see it as validation.

          Do you think Arrington left that conversation wondering if he was right? I don’t. I think he left it feeling annoyed, but also with an extra layer of hostility that will prevent him from really listening to anything that was said. Listening to the people in that thread would imply that they could be right, which would imply that people he despises might know something he doesn’t. Playing into that warfare mentality just gives him a deeper incentive to get defensive, stop listening, and fight rather than talk.

          Having said all that, I really don’t think it’s the case that you should never be aggressive. UD is a fine example, sometimes, of conversations between people who want to have a fight and make something positive out of it. You’ll see lots of threads, for example some of the recent subjective/objective morality discussions, where people who will never agree with one another explain themselves over and over again, sharpening their own understanding of (at least) their own beliefs. Unfortunately, only one side seems at all interested in understanding the other</> side’s perspective, as illustrated by the stream of repetitive “How could subjectivists possibly believe this crazy straw man” articles… but again, there’s nothing you can really do about that. You can only control your own behavior.

          No one can tell you whether you’re doing the right thing or not. All I’d suggest is that you take as objective a look as you can at the costs and benefits of your approach. What does it do for you? What does it cost you? What does it do for them, or onlookers, and what are the potential harms?

          At the end of the day, while I have my preferred approach as outlined above, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. A diversity of styles, as long as they’re the product of a self-aware process, is probably best.

  15. Boris February 1, 2015 / 6:42 am

    You got me at the first paragraph. And to quote another movie reference, the rest of the text I just kept going: me, me, me, me, it’s all me. At the end I’m dying to know the rest. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m doing more harm than good by being aggressive in my arguments, mainly because I often end up having them with people I know and sometimes even family members. While I couldn’t care less about strangers on the other side of the conversation (your article IS making me reevaluate this stance as well) I do care quite a bit about family members. I have been playing the “present resistance” card that another commenter here talked about, but lately I’ve shifted to trying to introduce little shreds of doubt into the people that I’m discussing with in the hope that it will accumulate over time and eventually do the trick of getting the other side to reconsider their opinion. It’s a kind of a long run tactic and for this preliminary period I feel that it might work better. However I do have the problem of elevated passion when discussing and it’s making the conversation unpleasant for all parties involved. I’m looking to change that in me.
    To summarize again I’m dying to know your strategies of what to do as opposed to what not to do presented in this opening article on this hot subject.

  16. simon February 4, 2015 / 3:00 pm

    Just an annoying factoid. Bantems aren’t fighting cocks, the word Bantem refers to small chickens, like pygmy for other animals. There probably are fighting cocks that are Bantems, I don’t know.

    • Colin February 4, 2015 / 3:22 pm

      I was going for the double entendre. I think that’s right, some bantams are used as fighting birds.

  17. commonknowledgenola February 4, 2015 / 3:27 pm

    umm technically a bantum is a small chicken, like pygmy or midget or teacup variety of other things. I’m sure some bantum roosters are also used for fighting but the word bantum refers to their size, not fighting. 🙂

  18. Gordon (RoughTradeEditor) February 22, 2015 / 10:43 pm

    Wow. This is something I’ve been dealing with quite often recently. The fact that a section of the article is titled “Staying Positive” speaks volumes. Great work.

  19. shay April 15, 2015 / 10:33 pm

    You are obviously delusional. There is no barbecue west of Raleigh or north of Rocky Mount.

    And I have my doubts about south of Charleston.

    • Colin April 15, 2015 / 11:22 pm

      Vile calumny.

  20. Alan February 10, 2016 / 7:50 am

    I’ve tried to formulate a couple of rules for engaging in online debates, which occasionally I remember to stick to.

    Rule 1: Never use the words “you” or “your”.

    Ok, “never” is a bit strong, since the second person pronoun is a part of normal speech. But removing the second-person pronoun forces me to change my whole mindset about how I will approach my response, and present my case far more carefully than otherwise would be the case, especially when engaging with a stranger on the other side of the world. Once a civil basis for discussion is established, the conversation can become more personal.

    Rule 2: I could be wrong

    I am not an expert (unless the discussion is in my fairly narrow area of expertise), nor am I a dispassionate and purely rational observer of the true state of the world. I have biases, I cherry-pick evidence and I give more weight to arguments that support my beliefs. In other words, I am human, just like the other person.

    Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong and the other person is right, and I should listen to what they have to say. Even if I’m right and they’re wrong, they may lead me to points of view I hadn’t adequately considered.

    Of course, those rules are hard to follow in the heat of passion, but I’ve found that they help keep the conversation civil.

  21. Carlos Alejandro Rico Guevara May 31, 2016 / 8:15 pm

    It’s a great post, in both senses! haha
    Really, I shared it in my facebook timeline and I expect that the people read it, and not be frightened by the size, because it is worth reading in full.
    P.S. Sorry for my english, I’m not a native speaker. 🙂

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