Taken from my blog

Ideally in a debate there are two sides, one makes a claim, the other tries to refute that claim. Both sides try to avoid logical fallacies and use objective, nonpartisan facts to determine in a claim is valid or not. If the evidence does not support the claim, then the side that made the claim admits they were wrong and everybody moves on. It would be wonderful if the world followed that model, but one look around the modern political/religious landscape will show you that this is not the case. No, today facts are growing increasingly more irrelevant to a debate. As much as we all like to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent adults, open to changing our views in light of evidence, research suggests that we are actually likely to become more strident about our beliefs when presented with contradicting facts.

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, two of the political scientists conducting the research, call this the "backfire effect", when a person strengthens their belief in a false claim when presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. It's unfortunate, but it makes sense. Nyhan points out that this is a defense mechanism people employ to avoid cognitive dissonance. There was a great conversation that aired today on NPR's Talk of the Nation which had Brendan Nyhan as a guest. Check it out

My question is this: If presenting a misinformed person with facts only strengthens their misinformed beliefs, then how can there be any discussion? How can you change their minds? Is there just no talking to them? If a person is going to believe what they want to believe, no matter how strongly the evidence might contradict them, then does it just boil down to who can get the most people to the polls on election day? How can we have a stable society if reality is no longer an issue in our decision making? I am reminded of the story of King Canute. He placed his throne on the beach and commanded the tide not to come in. Despite his royal edict it did, just as it always does. Moral of the story: reality doesn't give a damn what people say.

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Comment by Jeffrey P. Murphy on July 16, 2010 at 9:42am
I also second Dave: flipping the onus of proof back on them puts them in a place they usually never end up - the critical thinking zone.
Comment by Jeffrey P. Murphy on July 16, 2010 at 9:41am
I'll second Nelson. For a while, I didn't like having these talks when the parents kids are around, but then I realized what *THEY* were doing: demonstrating the strength of their convictions and the weakness of me to their kids. So, now, I participate. I refute and proclaim, ensuring their kids hearing, and when they eventually walk away frustrated, the kids are left wondering why these things their parents teach them don't make sense to someone else - and why what that someone else was making so much sense to the child.

I found that often I can reaffirm what their school is teaching them so it doesn't get shot down by their parents dogmas. This *WOULD* be a dangerous game to play if it weren't for two things:
1. they started it
2. all kids are born atheists anyway (or at least born mommy-worshippers - the daddy worship is religiously driven)
Comment by R. Ryan Nelson on July 13, 2010 at 5:12pm
To be honest the best way is to talk loudly about what you believe when their children are in the room. Get em young... it works for the other side and Truth is Truth. Don't be an evangelical about it, but never back away from your beliefs. But for the most part just insist that they stop talking about their shit. If you force them to talk about secular works and real world problems... you've already won.
Comment by Dustin Sanders on July 13, 2010 at 4:53pm
yes, but does that mean there is just no talking to those people who believe their perception is 100% true? How do you talk to them if correcting them only makes them believe a lie all the more strongly?
Comment by R. Ryan Nelson on July 13, 2010 at 4:06pm
There is perception and reality. Reality can never be wrong, perception can be. The problem is those people who think their perception of reality is the 100% truth, and not 99% certainty with the possibility we were sneezed from a turtle.



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