This is the second in a series called “Argue Better 2021” exploring how we might engage better with each other. If you want to start at the beginning, check out this post.
In one of my college anthropology courses the class was presented with an unexpected question: What would convince you that the theory of evolution is wrong? Now, this class was all about evolution – we had learned the evidence for it, examples of it, and many different facets of it. We knew that getting a good grade was all about being able to explain evolution, not how to disprove it. But here we were, being asked to do just that. I’ll be honest, the question mostly stumped us. I remembered an answer from a science fiction novel: finding extraterrestrial life that was nearly identical to life on earth would be so statistically unlikely given our current understanding of evolution, it would call into question the entire theory. Another answer was that if the different lines of evidence – fossil record, biological evidence, genetic evidence – all told a different story, that would also poke holes in our current theory.
The point of the exercise was not to disprove evolution but to teach the class something basic about science: theories are based on evidence, and there is always some real amount or type of evidence that could challenge any theory. More than that, we should seek out such evidence. This is the scientific method and the null hypothesis. Of course, such evidence against evolution is lacking, so the exercise taught us to strengthen our confidence in this particular theory, while decreasing our overall certainty about our opinions in general. Even the most widely accepted theories have some finite chance of being wrong.
This is pretty different from how many of us work in everyday life. We are very certain in our beliefs, to the point where we often engage in what is called motivated reasoning: we know what we want to believe and we assess information with that bias. That could mean we only seek out only confirmatory evidence, or that we ignore contradictory evidence, or even that we rationalize away anything that might make us question our beliefs. We aren’t logically weighing all the evidence and then making a decision, we’re deciding first and then retro-fitting everything to justify what we want to believe.
What if we balanced this tendency by asking ourselves: what would it take to change my mind?
By asking this question, we create the possibility of being wrong. Maybe practicing the feeling of that thought will decrease our emotional response to challenging information. Maybe, if we hear enough contradictory information, we will be able to admit that we were mistaken. It also tells us what kind of evidence we should seek out – if we don’t find it, then our initial thought is strengthened, and if we do find it, we’ve saved ourselves from believing a falsehood. But either way, we’ve created an opening – the same opening we want others to have when we talk to them.
So that’s the idea – set a threshold for you to change your mind. How might this work in practice?
The first thing to do is to try testing your own assumptions. Pick a topic you feel strongly about and ask yourself what evidence you’d have to see to change your mind. It doesn’t matter what the topic is – whether it’s your trust in a politician, your belief or disbelief in a conspiracy theory, or the “fact” that real chili never has beans. What would it take to change your mind? Ask yourself if you’ve been ignoring those arguments. Instead of feeding what you already believe, try actively looking for evidence that will bring your beliefs into question. Of course, when performing such a search, you still need to be cautious about untrustworthy sources.
Once we’ve practiced softening our own stances, we can see if others have done the same. Does it seem like the person you are talking to is open to changing their mind? What, specifically might it take to do that? You can ask them (if you feel comfortable), or you might just assess their position by how they talk about it. Do they leave any room for doubt? Is there any humility or questioning in their argument? If not, then you may want to consider whether it’s worth engaging at all. If they’ve decided that nothing can change their mind, then what’s the use of talking?
I know that I have been and probably will again be that guy who is so sure he’s right that he won’t listen to any other point of view. It’s easy to think that the problems in how we discuss things all stem from problems with other people. If only they would open their minds! To everyone else, though, we are “them.” Let’s open our own minds first.
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