Arguing against a denier: How to convince a die-hard

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 19, 2011

What does Obama’s birth certificate have to do with science education? A lot, it turns out. Check out this awesome post by FastCompany. Apparently, despite the fact that the birth certificate has been revealed, a lot of die-hard skeptics are still arguing that Obama is not native to the U.S.

How can reasonable people firmly hold to their beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence?

How indeed.  This situation is probably pretty familiar to any science educator — skeptics of climate change or evolution steadfastly cling to their beliefs, arguing against the data or using questionable logic to support their points.

Cavemen and dinosaurs -- co-existed in creationist framework

From the FastCompany article:

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point,” wrote Psychology legend Leon Festinger, who popularized the study of rationalization.

After all, admitting that the other side has a point isn’t just about calmly weighing different pieces of data — such a turnabout often would require the person to overturn strongly held beliefs about how the world works (as well as a strongly held belief about one’s own infallibility).

This actually relates to this week’s earlier post about how physics education researchers should talk to faculty about changing their own instruction.  In that post, I argue that — instead of pointing to data on the effectiveness of a particular teaching technique — education researchers should instead find out what faculty think about teaching.  What are their beliefs and values and ideals?  That students don’t work hard enough?  That you need to learn something by doing it?  That lecture isn’t effective?   By finding out these mental models about teaching, education researchers can target their message to fit with these models and beliefs, rather than trying to push data on an unwilling mind.

The same is true of climate change communication, or convincing skeptics of Obama’s birth.  We process information not by facts, but by mental models.  And those mental models can trump experience and data.  Here is another quote from the FastCompany article, which made me laugh:

Festinger was among the first to prove that values and ego precede opinion by manipulating undergraduates into personally believing that they enjoyed playing a boring game after being tricked into lying to their peers about the game’s appeal for only $1. Undergraduates unwittingly rewrote their own memories of the experience rather than believe their integrity could be purchased for a buck.

The precursor to many of the most fascinating studies on the rationalization of evidence was based on basketball fans, not political ideologues. Students from rival colleges were shown a video of a recent contentious game and asked to count which team made more fouls. As predicted, both schools blamed the rival team, even though they were watching the exact same footage.

Wow.  People are strange.

So, what is the solution?

  • Frame a message so it supports the existing belief structure, or ideology (as described above)
  • This can give people an opportunity to save face (both to others and themselves) — to change their mind because the alternative that you’re offering is acceptable in the face of their beliefs and ideas.

Plus, it’s just nicer and less combative.  For skeptics of Obama’s birthplace, for example, the author suggests going with a message framed in terms of maintaining leadership in the face of war —  for example, “Obama’s absent birth certificate weakened his leadership in the eyes of doubtful soldiers. Now that the executive office has released the document, we can concentrate once again on defending our nation.”

What is a possible reframing of the message “You need to change your instruction because lecturing doesn’t help students learn”?


Matt May 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm

One thing to sometimes realize is that some folks cannot be converted by your words as they have invested too much emotionally into their belief. Don’t get drawn in. If your conversation is being viewed/read by others, make them the target audience to show that you are the one being sensible. Don’t be cruel and try to humiliate your opponent, though.

I would say the use of the term ‘skeptic’ is a bit off in the title. Much of what is happening is people hanging onto a belief, not facts. “Denier” is the more appropriate terminology.

Kimberly Chapman May 21, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Letting people save face always works better. Instead of focusing on what they’ve said/done that’s wrong in the past, present it as an opportunity to change going forward, especially if you have an inkling that they’re looking for a reason to change. This comes up a lot when people confess that they use the cell phone when driving, or park in disabled spots.

But I’m with Matt above: I’d call the sorts of folks you’re citing “deniers” more than “skeptics”. A skeptic questions things, and ought to question their own beliefs too. I figure I’m a skeptic mostly because I keep wondering if I really am or not. Denying climate change, Obama’s citizenship, etc. aren’t positions of questioning, they’re very hard lines drawn by people usually using those subject for other more nefarious purposes.

sciencegeekgirl May 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm

OK, ok, you’ve both convinced me. 🙂 I changed the title of the post. Thanks for your comments!

sibylle May 30, 2011 at 11:42 pm

I’ve often wondered about fanatics who persist in believing things that are incorrect despite any data they’re shown — this explains why. Great post!

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