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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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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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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