Against Those Who Cannot be Turned…

Note: This is the second installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

In response to my previous post on The Challenge of Pseudoskepticism, the commentator Wonderist made the following poignant remark that I feel requires additional discussion. I have chopped up the comment a bit for brevity

[…] I think that if you’re dealing with an entrenched pseudo-skeptic, you have to realize that you will inevitably have much more success if you focus on how your argument sounds to the *audience* that is listening (or on the web, lurking), rather than trying to convince the pseudo-skeptic directly. […] A good dose of humour or mockery can put the debate in the right context: This is not a debate between equal positions. […] When one side continues to present fact after fact, and debunking one claim after another, and referring constantly to evidence that can be checked, all the while making fun of the fact that the other side’s argument is totally empty, it doesn’t take long before the non-entrenched audience starts to see the pattern and shift their position to be a little more wary of the pseudo-skeptic’s arguments.

I think there are many benefits to this perspective but also a few pitfalls that may merit discussion. The overarching question is regarding what sort of debate tactics proponents of scientific skepticism should take against a person who is highly intellectual, but deeply entrenched and committed to his or her viewpoint.

Now, there is probably the case that nothing you say can or will convince this person. He or she is plagued by confirmation bias and the sophistication effect to such a degree that arguments against his or her position will be subjected to much stronger criticisms than arguments that the individual puts forward to support his or her position. He or she will also be highly trained in rationalizing his or her position that he or she ultimately has come to for non-rational reasons. Perhaps an analogy can make this issue clearer.

Would you ever try to have a debate with a jukebox? To be sure, you can make it play another song by pressing some buttons, but there is fundamentally nothing you can say or do to make the jukebox “change his opinion”. In fact, it would be positively foolish to try and do so and people around you may start to glance at you like there is something wrong with your head. This analogy is not perfect and it limps a bit, but hopefully the message is clear: there are times when it is useless to try and convince someone, because no matter what, he or she will not listen. Or at least not change his or her position in real-time, although possible at a later date when it has all sunk in.

Now, if you like to debate for the sake of debate, then that is absolutely fine. Who knows, maybe it gives you additional practice with presenting your arguments as clearly as possible or learning how to reply with informative one-liners. Perhaps you are just addicted to the thrill of the debate? But entering a debate or discussion with such an entrenched pseudoskeptic with the explicit intent to try and change your his or her mind does not seem very reasonable. So why do it in the first place?

Wonderist offers one clear and important rationale: this type of debate is not about trying to convince your opponent, but to convince those in the audience that have not yet decided firmly on the issue yet. This shifts the focus somewhat, making things like satire and comedy effective tools toward this end. Whereas your opponent probably won’t appreciate the mockery, the audience probably will. As Wonderist points out, it is still vital to present rational arguments backed up by evidence, because mockery without substance would be lowering yourself to the level of pseudoscience. The bottom line is: if your goal is to spread rationality, why not focus on those that can be turned away from a rotten position?

It is possible to envision a couple of counter-arguments to position I described above, namely (1) making your opponent a martyr, (2) resorting to what strictly speaking may at the end of the day be argumentatively invalid methods, (3) the question of empirical evidence. Let us look at this in turn, starting with the martyr argument.

What if using satire and mockery puts your opponent in the position of a martyr, awarding him or her sympathy for being “harassed”? This feeds nicely into the classic debate tactic that pseudoscientists often use of being “censured” by the “dogmatic establishment”, further reinforcing the opponents belief. Perhaps it is possible to emphasize that one is ready to change one’s mind should the weight of the evidence suggest it, thereby hopefully disabling the portrayal of oneself as dogmatic? Maybe the satire should not be over-the-top, but carefully fine-tuned to the situation? Take those two things into account, makes this retort seems less persuasive. What about the supposed deviation from proper debating methods?

At a first analysis, this seems to be a conflict between principle and pragmatism. That is, should you go with principle and be cold and unemotional without satire (although this may be a too incisive wording) or go with pragmatism and do whatever it takes, within reason, to convince the audience? Now, it is strictly not the case that making claims about your opponents character is a logical fallacy per se, it only because one when you use this fact to argue that your opponent is mistaken, so pragmatism seems to win this crossing of swords as well. Perhaps there is a weaker claim that can stand against its torrents? Does the usage of satire and mockery violate proper debate etiquette? Now, this may have something to it, because it is actually something that occurs, but the value of adhering to debate etiquette (divorced from the issue of fallacies) must be balanced against the pragmatic outcomes of the method. It is not clear that debate etiquette is universal so the evaluation probably has to be done on a case-by-case basis. Overall though, this argument lacks persuasion. What about empirical evidence?

Although I know of no research on the effects of mockery and satire with regards to persuasion per se and most of the debate on accommodation is usually carried out without reference to studies but mostly on a “surely, it seems that…” basis. Now there is nothing wrong with appealing to theoretical models per se, but it is often useful to strike a good balance between theory and data.

Despite this it seems to me that the usage of satire holds up well to the counter-arguments I have discussed above and may be worth using more frequently, although with utmost care to avoid the problems of martyrdom and the accusation of deviating from proper debate etiquette.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

9 thoughts on “Against Those Who Cannot be Turned…

  • July 2, 2011 at 23:04

    Hi Emil. I’m glad to have made your acquaintance, as this discussion is very interesting to me, and you bring up questions I’ve not encountered before.

    For example: “Although I know of no research on the effects of mockery and satire with regards to persuasion per se and most of the debate on accommodation is usually carried out without reference to studies but mostly on a “surely, it seems that…” basis.”

    I had never thought to look for such research before. Perhaps I never considered that anyone would ever have studied that–though honestly, it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to study now that I think of it. While I don’t have time to look into it now (going to a movie soon), I’m going to see what I can dig up. I recall reading Cialdini’s book ‘Influence’, but I don’t think he had anything about satire or mockery.

    Many Approaches
    One thing I would like to clarify a bit: On re-reading my comment, perhaps I came across as advocating a single approach of ridicule, but I did not intend do so if I did. Actually, I believe that it is very important to long-term strategy to foster and advocate the use of many different approaches from many different people and perspectives. The ridicule approach is just one approach, and is not universally effective; it depends both on the skill with which the ridicule is pulled off, and also on the audience itself, which may not appreciate even mild-mannered satire.

    In fact, I would take it a few steps further and argue (answering your previous post’s general question of how to handle sophisticated pseudo-skepticism) that the long-term viability of the defense of science and reason is to specifically encourage and experiment with different approaches. This may sound like I’m repeating myself (from previous paragraph), but it’s actually a slightly more direct argument.

    Diversity of tactical approaches is not just a “let’s all join together to fight the common enemy” call to solidarity. It also has some merit as a kind of ‘evolutionary’ meta-strategy. In biology/ecology, the healthiest (most robust and resilient) ecosystems tend to be the ones with the most bio-diversity. However, I think a clearer example can be made if we look at immunology.

    Consider the analogy of the immune system of the body. When a pathogen infects the body, it has the potential to reproduce out of control and ultimately cause harm. The body fights these infections off in an ingenious way that strangely co-opts or appropriates standard biological evolution.

    Because pathogens typically have very fast reproduction cycles, on the order of hours versus the typical human generation of 20-30 years, they have a distinct evolutionary advantage in their spread through the body. The faster-spreading bacteria/virii will tend to spread faster, evolving as they go to take over the host’s whole body.

    But the immune cells of the body have a special trick. They somehow modify certain regions of DNA replication to vastly speed up the mutation rate, so that they will produce offspring with different chemical receptors and antigens, rather than producing mostly-perfect clones of themselves. When a white blood cell encounters a new pathogen and is able to detect it, it basically (I’m skipping some details) starts undergoing rapid replication and mutation of itself, so that a wide variety of new ‘approaches’ (chemical detectors and antigens) are produced.

    When one of these new white blood cells encounters another pathogen of the same type, it may be detected better or worse than the original parent white blood cell. If it detects it better, then zoom, that WBC undergoes rapid replication and mutation, until pretty soon there are a whole bunch of WBCs that are really good at detecting and defeating the antigen causing the infection.

    The analogy works like this: Pseudo-scientific and pseudo-skeptical arguments are the pathogens, which–unlike the publishing of scientific research–can replicate very rapidly. We are like the white blood cells which are floating around on the lookout for suspicious pathogens. When we find a pseudo-skeptical argument, we try using our own arguments and tactics against it. Sometimes we fail, but sometimes we hit on a really effective argument/technique. When we do, we need to try variations on that successful method, but most importantly we need to encourage other skeptics to try using variations of our successful methods.

    When skeptics form communities (such as we’re doing on the internet) and start sharing different arguments and approaches, trying new ones out here and there, we will inevitably end up with a much more robust and resilient skeptical movement, than if we all tried to stick to one single ‘play-book’ of ‘best arguments’.

    Science evolves, but relatively slowly over the course of months and years. Pseudo-skepticism also evolves, quickly, but with little regard to truth and much more emphasis on ‘truthiness’.

    As skeptics defending science and reason, we need to stay on the side of science (and not turn into harmful cancer like leukemia), but at the same time, we need to evolve even faster than pseudo-skepticism does. I propose that we do this by *consciously* using a basic evidence-based pragmatic skepticism and pragmatic use of various forms of rhetorical devices based on experiment, trial, error, and natural selection of the best arguments and techniques that work.

    That’s my perspective and what I try to do, and perhaps that’s why discussions such as your post here are so interesting to me, as they are the ‘sharing’ part of the meta-strategy of the ‘many approaches’ approach.

    Look forward to hearing more from you. Thanks a bunch! Off to the movies!…

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  • July 17, 2014 at 19:15

    There could be another reason to debate such a person. If you yourself aren’t entirely sure they’re completely wrong often the most convincing evidence is not the arguments that you can think of against their position, but instead is the very poor quality of their responses. If you give them every chance to strut their stuff they’ll eventually paint a picture of a person standing up to their armpits in a pond of water who is proclaiming they are walking on water.

    • July 17, 2014 at 20:11

      Fair enough, although I can imagine that they can deploy a particular rationalization that I first came across from Christian apologist William Lane Craig: “it is only my arguments that failed to convince you, but my position is still, in fact, true.”

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