Arguing on the Internet

Remember this meme (now quite politically incorrect) from the early aughts?
Remember that time when you had a protracted debate with someone on the internet, and they thanked you for persuading them to change their views? No? Of course you don't, and there's a scientific reason why such debates — in which we comb through each other's arguments point by point and construct rigorous rebuttals and arguments — are not just unproductive, but counterproductive.
With all the news about anti-vaxxers, you've probably heard of the backfire effect. This means that when people are confronted with evidence that undermines their point of view, they actually get more entrenched in their opinion. And by "people", I mean you. And me. Everyone. Nobody is exempt from this phenomenon. Much as haughty thinkers and philosophers would like to think otherwise, humans are not particularly rational creatures; at least, not in the way that philosophers have traditionally believed — that rationality and emotion are separate and often antithetical. Cognitive science has shown that reason is inherently emotional, and indeed that the process of reasoning itself is emotionally guided and motivated [1].
The backfire effect has been thrust into the public eye on a number of science issues — vaccinations, climate change, evolution, GMOs — and in every case, the depressing truth is that once people are entrenched in a position, showing them evidence they are wrong not only doesn't persuade them, but it makes them even more certain that they were right. And if this happens with issues that are fairly cut and dry such as those above, it's only going to be worse on matters of religion and philosophy.

Consider for example the question of whether the gospels in the New Testament are reliable accounts of an historical figure. Since original manuscripts do not exist, and there are no contemporaneous accounts of Christ's life, it seems perfectly plausible that the story could have been heavily altered and saddled with myth in the approximately half-century between the purported events occurring and any documentation. This seems especially plausible given that even in our modern, scientific era, mystic con artists like Peter Popoff and the late Sathya Sai Baba amassed legions of devoted followers. An entire religion, Scientology, has been built on falsehoods and pseudoscience surrounding L. Ron Hubbard, who died only in 1986. Is there any reason to believe that people were any less gullible 2,000 years ago? But from the perspective of a Christian who is deeply invested both personally and socially in their religious beliefs, the inability of skeptics to offer direct, incontrovertible evidence that the gospels are false is viewed as a weakness. Remind them that even if the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony (a dubious claim in itself [2]) that a wealth of scientific research has shown eyewitness testimony to be notoriously unreliable, and they become even more determined to convince themselves that eyewitness testimony is reliable [3].

Or, take something like Scholasticism. You can't affirm the tenets of Scholasticism without concurrently taking the philosophy of Essentialism to be true. You cannot believe Essentialism to be true unless you also believe the Correspondence Theory of Truth to be true, and so on. It's my perspective that, based on what we've learned about the mind via cognitive neuroscience, there are a wealth of reasons to think that the Correspondence Theory of Truth and Essentialism are both false [4]. But if you're debating a Scholastic on the existence of God, cutting through so many layers of assumptions requires presenting a great deal of evidence that is not only terribly impractical to summarize in the various blog-comment formats, but based on what we know about the backfire effect is highly unlikely to persuade them anyway.


To be clear, the backfire effect isn't a problem that only affects religious people or science deniers; it affects all of us regardless of where we lie on various spectra of belief. I, too, am subconsciously motivated by a desire to retain a coherency to my beliefs and, when presented with arguments or evidence that may undermine it, comb through them with a degree of skepticism that is difficult to turn inward and apply to my own beliefs.


How do we break the cycle? I'm not sure if we can free ourselves entirely; human reason is inevitably tied to emotion, and the greatest mistake we can make is to think that our capability to think rationally, no matter how trained and refined, allows us to transcend that basic fact. I will say this, however: for me, losing my religion has made changing my position on other matters a fair bit easier. Some nine years after deconverting from Christianity, I changed from 'agnostic theist' to 'agnostic atheist', which I remain today. Neither shifts in perspective came quickly or easily, but with much self-reflection and study. Over the years I've changed my tune on matters like free will, morality, the value of philosophy, what it means to ask where the universe came from, and a variety of other issues. Once I was able to drastically shift perspective on something that was such a deeply rooted part of my identity and not lose any sense of self, it became easier to become more inwardly skeptical about some of my other beliefs. On the other hand, though, I've also become more deeply entrenched in other matters — my skepticism of "metaphysics" as a discipline, what we can know about the world and our own minds through self-reflection and pure reason (not much), the unreliability of 'miracle' claims, the foolishness of supply-side economics, and many other such issues. No doubt that protracted debates on these matters only served to solidify my biases.

I can't ever be fully untethered from emotionally motivated reasoning, but I do my best to view no idea as sacred and to view my own knowledge as contingent and fluid. When I've shifted my views in some way, whether subtly or starkly, I've always found that I'm no worse for the wear. I think we have to condition ourselves to be ready to change our minds, and to recognize that no matter how well-read and learned we think we are, our knowledge will always be eclipsed by the innumerable perspectives we've yet to consider. This is why I think it's more important to read widely than it is to debate with others on the internet; we don't like to be told we're wrong, but it might be easier to shift our views if we're intellectually curious. An inquisitive mind will always be more receptive to new evidence and argument than a defensive one.


This post was inspired by a terrific blog post by David McRaney on his site You Are Not So Smart, which offers a wealth of insight into how terrible we humans really are at being rational. Read his full post on the backfire effect here.

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