On Outreach: Strategies to change people’s minds

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.

About idoubtit

Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news. Doubtfulnews.com SpookyGeology.com

3 thoughts on “On Outreach: Strategies to change people’s minds

  1. Dear Sharon,
    Thank you for your insights. It is sad that valid terms like skepticism have been misused and now have a completely different meaning due to ‘pop culture’ imprecision of language.

  2. Thanks Sharon,
    After following some great sceptical sites (including ‘Doubtful News’) which got me to include the scientific method into my conclusion-reaching process, I happily referred to myself as a skeptic and still do.
    As time has passed I have considered the subject of your post and evaluated my own behaviour in relation. I’ve found myself guilty of ranting my sceptical views, of not entirely appreciating the source of others’ views and of occasionally being a ‘grumpy old bastard’.
    From ideas like those given in this post and the very few similar expressions that i’ve seen, i’ve gained a lot and evolved even further as a thinker.
    While in the habit of replying to rude and what I saw as ignorant comments, i’ve been a little rude and ignorant myself.
    But I really learned something about me on an atheist blog (Atheist Nerd Girl).
    Another reader had obviously read a comment of mine and had replied, fairly questioning some of my expressed thoughts and explaining their own, being sure to tell me WHY they thought that I was wrong. They did this respectfully and gave credit to my views which they actually found valid and worthwhile.
    With no intention I found myself replying back politely, crediting their points which I found valid and telling them why I thought others of their views were not.
    After some back and forth we both seemed to leave the discussion with our basic views on the subject unchanged, yet we had, in that small piece of comment thread, agreed on things, politely disagreed on things, noted each other’s intelligence and even shared a digital laugh about a thing or two.
    What a satisfying experience, we both learned a thing or two, both enjoyed the exchange and now respect each other (although we’ve had little chance to exchange thoughts since then).

    I still use the word skeptic for myself. Labels tend to get people imagining a club-member, a guardian of a certain viewpoint, someone who has chosen a personal bias to use and always uses it.
    But as you know, a good skeptic uses no bias, no group-think, as such.
    I didn’t become what I call a skeptic just by reading sceptical material, liking it and deciding to tow that line at all costs. No , my learning was of reaction to incredible claims, how to evaluate evidence and perhaps most importantly, the many, many biases that can effect the thinking of all of us. About the use of logical fallacies, which I found myself also guilty of, helped me to see better the value of an argument.
    I found that good scepticism is formed by avoiding the logical errors and magical thinking that can reduce the validity of a view.

    While our path may seem the least rewarding in terms of wide acknowledgement and appropriate respect, it is the path i’ve found which is designed to avoid the common problems which usually plague rational analysis.

    All the best,
    Woody

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