Vox.com has an article out today titled “How to fight ‘fake news’” but it’s not actually about that. It’s more about how people change their minds and it provides some effective approaches to changing individual views that people hold strongly but are unsupported by evidence. The article is a bit muddled in its goals and delivery but there are some gems in there that prompted me to think more about what I can do better in achieving positive outreach about the topics I’m passionate about.
The piece focuses on how Hilda Bastian, previously an advocate for Australian home births, eventually changed her views about the procedure and achieved something beyond this one issue. Her evolution in thinking took years spurred and nurtured by those who practices effective communication. That’s what I want to discuss here – what can work and what doesn’t work well.
I’ve had some decent success taking the position against popular paranormal conclusions, obtaining at least some degree of respect from a few who disagree with me about anomalies, cryptozoology, and ghosts. I’m a reasonable person and I aim to treat people reasonably instead of calling them stupid. You really can remain cordial with those you disagree with. It’s a skill we are quickly losing in the Internet age. One must establish respect in a number of ways besides eschewing ad hominem remarks.*
First, be very clear on why you hold the position you hold. Have plenty of sound evidence that people can check. Lay it out so they can access it and understand it. Do not use “scientese” or obscure references. Know the background thoroughly, and admit when you are not familiar with something.
Be a personable discussant, calm and fair, assuming that others do the same. Listen to them. Attempt to understand why they have the views that they do. Beliefs are tied to identity and elicit strong emotions when attacked. We must be aware of this and connect positively to the other person instead of as an adversary. Saying “You’re wrong and I’m right, get over it,” doesn’t work. Try to be compassionate towards others reasons for holding these views. That means seeing them in context. I’ve been to several paranormal events with the sole purpose of observing. I now see how deeply people are affected by these beliefs and what purpose they serve in their lives. You must do this or, to be frank, just shut up. Too many so called “Skeptics” are nasty and dismissive and fail to understand the subject at hand or the positions taken by the other side. You make yourself look foolish, propagating the stereotype of the mean and disparaging curmudgeon. Such behavior does a total disservice to the rest of us trying to make some positive progress.
One cringe-worthy detail I noticed: the author used the phrase “skeptical of scientific evidence”. Skeptical here means doubtful, not referring to those who use skepticism as a tool to assess questionable claims. I’ve had some private conversations with others about dissociating with the term “skeptic” entirely. It’s almost toxic to use it. The term is muddled and pejorative, laden with pop culture baggage. Efforts to reclaim it have so far failed. I’m trying to wean myself off the term because it is so generally misused and abused.
You don’t need to pin some label on yourself to do good work promoting sound information. It’s certainly fair to call out bad information and those who promote it, both the individuals and the outlets. The article cited how the spotlight was put on Dr. Oz for quack promotion. I regularly call out website sources for misleading content. It gets attention! However, I don’t necessarily agree that naming and shaming, proposed as a tool in this piece, is a good route for most people to take. If a credible authority does this with a degree of professionalism, it’s effective. But if an individual does it without thinking it through, it can backfire. It certainly has for me and I regret those occasions. I don’t wish to repeat those mistakes. Crafting a strong position takes more time but will be socially sturdier than a bitch-fest on Twitter or Facebook.
Finally, the article does mention the obvious strategy that is totally underutilized: focus on kids. I’ve also had great success with this, not only with my own kids but by just talking to school-age kids about stuff they are interested in. There is a serious lack of effort in this area. We need more quality content for this audience.
You can have a great discussion by talking face to face, smiling and using everyday language, with those who think differently than you. Walking through facets of these issues out loud moves gears in the mind that will also respond the next time they think about this topic or a similar questionable claim. And you will certainly come away wiser as well. These are the strategies we must work at if we are to be at all effective in communicating our science-based, evidence-supported, reasonable views to the public. There’s a lot of opportunities out there to practice.
*That said, don’t fall for trolling or debate cranks who just want attention and to throw you off track. Ignoring them is the best policy. Let them stew in their own juices and waste their own time, not yours.