Note: This is the fourth installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.
In a recent video entitled Hedgemon I choose you, Michael Payton, a cognitive scientist formerly at York University, strongly suggests that the debating tactic of mockery and ridicule is not only contradicted by the scientific evidence, but is probably harmful in that it makes opponents even more entrenched and that it should really be cast upon the heap of pseudoscience that we should not take seriously, comparing it with homeopathy and creationism. Although this does not, perhaps, directly contradict the discussed thesis that mockery and satire may be useful for convincing the undecided public, it seems to show that it is a bad idea to use it as means of trying to convince opponents. Payton’s argument is, in my mind, persuasive and it has the evidence to back it up. I have complained earlier about the fact-free nature of the discussions on debate tactics, so this has some real promise. Therefore, I feel that it may be useful to expand the discussion and evidence presented by Payton and look at it in more detail.
Payton suggests that the so called backfire effect is relevant in this context. The backfire effect is when people subjected to a refutation of falsehoods believe the falsehood stronger than before. Simplified, when one acts like an arrogant prick, one make those who would benefit the most from the arguments one put forward more ingrained in their position.
Experiments carried out by Nyhan and Reifler (2008) showed some very troubling results. In one of them, subjects where asked to read a news paper article supporting the notion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the earlier segments, then correcting this falsehood in the later parts of the article. The correction did not reduce the misinterpretation. The correction fails the strongest on conservatives.
Granted, this data was specifically for political beliefs and for polite correction, but it seems reasonable to suppose that a similar result can be found when it comes to religious or anti-scientific beliefs. What the significance of these results have on promoting things like skepticism and science-based medicine, remains to be seen, but it is clear that we need evidence-based methods. Peyton’s conclusion is stronger, saying that “the cult of pwnage and in-your-face activism bears all of the earmarks of pseudoscientific fluff”.
References and Further Reading
Vedantam, Shankar. (2008). The Power of Political Misinformation. Washington Post. Accessed: 2011-08-19.
Nyhan, B. and Reifler, J. (2010) When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior. Accessed: 2011-08-19.
Talk Of the Nation. (2010). In Politics, Sometimes The Facts Don’t Matter. NPR. Accessed: 2011-08-19.
Peyton, M. (2011). Hegemon, I choose you. Youtube. Accessed: 2011-08-19.