Convincing people by agreeing with them

Worrying that the theory of evolution can can undermine the idea of human equality, Rod Dreher wonders if we’d be better off not knowing some things:

Admittedly, this puts me in a tight spot. Am I saying that we should ignore reality?…Also, I wrote a while back about the importance of maintaining the concept of forbidden knowledge, that is, things that can be known but should not be known because of what we are likely to do with that knowledge.

Without delving into what TOE means for equality (not really my beat), I sympathize with Rod’s general goals. I think it would be great if society adopted a more critical view of science. The typical ‘more is better ‘ triumphalism is one reason why–to pick just one example–simplistic analyses of the science and engineering job market perpetuate.

Unfortunately, Rod’s strategy will never work. You’re never going to get traction by suggesting reality should be ignored. It’s a losing battle. From what little I’ve read about persuasion, you don’t win converts by attacking their basic world view. You should instead appeal to it. This approach won’t guarantee victory (whatever that means), but at the very least you won’t encounter up-front resistance. It’s the same mistake Ross Douthat committed with respect to fairness.

I’ve purposefully avoided saying science is not the best way to discover truth or that we should ignore facts. Rather, I’ve argued that there are many equally true facts to consider. These datasets are both relevant to how we think about TOE: 1) TOE is the scientific consensus; or 2) Rejecting TOE does not necessarily prevent someone from succeeding in science, engineering, or life. I’ve also argued that individuals who reject evolution deserve respect and tolerance, what I believe are widely shared values. For me at least, it’s not about denying reality or ignoring science. It’s about incorporating them within a moral framework, something we already do for topics like gender and science ability or race and crime.

Now of course I could be totally wrong. I surely have not fostered any meaningful change or (based on my blog commenters!) convinced many people I have a point about anything. Dreher and Douthat are much more successful writers than I can ever dream of becoming.  But I wonder if they would be more effective embracing rather than attacking the zeitgeist on these issues.


  1. Yes, TOE, according to some, does have implications on equality. However, even a hundred years before Wallace and Darwin published their theories, people used God, divine right, and creation as reasons for inequality as well. It seems if you really are pro-inequality, you can use whatever framework you have available and somehow justify it within that framework.

    I think what would be great would be to do a blogpost on the non-religious, non-creationists scientists that are not convinced by the theory of macro-evolution as compelling as it is, and though no other related theory has been put forth that brings forth such a consensus from the scientific community. There are people like this. And my guess is that the people you are talking about/to make generalisations about creation-believing people who reject evolution on the basis of such beliefs (perhaps?). However, I am uncertain of what these people think of people who reject macro-evolution from a purely scientific, intellectual viewpoint? What do they think of creation-non-believing scientists who don’t find the theory of macro-evolution compelling? And what do they think of creation-believing people who reject macro-evolutionary theory, not on the basis of moral or religious beliefs but scientific analysis and interpretation?

    It’s one thing I find really interesting not about science but the perception of science. No matter how many experiments we run, no matter how much data we collect, in the end (usually in the results or conclusions section) we still introduce a personal element, and this is what we call interpretation. Science is really good at telling you what; we struggle much more with why. Even in figuring out what, there are often sub-steps of why that direct us to more steps of how and what. In other words, with the same experiments and data and results, different scientists will come up with different interpretations. Often scientists know this and will offer up different potential interpretations in their conclusion sections. We always hope more work can help us eliminate interpretations and finally be sure of one. In the interim, we usually refer to our results or data as evidence instead of proof because . . . that’s what it is. Just in law, a rising amount of evidence allows us to be more confident to make a determination we can live. But a determination is not proof. And the same mounting evidenced, guided by different interpretations, can lead one to view it as evidence for something else. And this is all within science! Within the scientific community! Within non-creationist-believing science communities!

    Of course, such people are a minority, but it might be interesting to know what they think and what is said about them.

    1. Great point. You articulated something really well that has been gnawing at me. That is, rejecting TOE is almost always presented as irrational and stupid because the evidence for TOE is “obvious.” But I think most people who believe in TOE do so just because of authority and trust. The upshot is that people who take the time to study a topic and come to a different conclusion are branded not just as wrong (which may be fair), but as stupid and evil. That’s unfair.

      As for scientists who aren’t creationist and reject evolution…I know they’re out there as well. I can’t think of any off the top of my head? Do you know any? Maybe email me a list!

  2. Not sure where to pose the general question/analogy. Seeing as you keep bringing up theoretical and experimental physics, how would you respond/react/describe someone who does not believe in the Standard Model of particle physics? The Standard Model is an accepted theory by the vast majority of particle physics and explains almost all of the measurements taken. I see the situation very parallel to the TOE debate without the political/religious undertones. Would I car if my car mechanic didn’t believe in the Standard Model? No. Would I care if the Secretary of Energy didn’t believe it? Yes, it would be an issue for me as they (help) set policy that affects particle physics research.

    1. Great point Dan. Just FYI, I keep bringing up theoretical/experimental physics because my friends and I spent literally hours discussing it in the car on a trip to Tahoe. So I know I’ve thought about it a lot, I feel I have a good handle on the key differences between those two types of intelligence/skills/abilities, and I think it helps make my point. I may be wrong of course:-)

      I think we need to contextualize and particularize your question. What person and in what situation am I talking to about the Standard model? As you yourself noted, it doesn’t matter for a car mechanic. More strongly, belief in either TSM or TOE is probably irrelevant to being a great car mechanic. As for the energy secretary…sure he should probably believe in it. But I’m actually not sure how much it matters that much. In my experience, all incoming secretaries have some a priori beliefs and agendas. So they may want to emphasize (I don’t know) clean energy deployment over everything else. And in either case, they won’t completely upend existing funding streams. It will still be there, but somewhat de-emphasized. So in practice I’m not convinced his beliefs will have a meaningful impact on particle physics policy. But I see your point. And (as I’ve said before), if that’s important to you…go ahead and support whatever politician/secretary you want! It’s presumptuous of me to suggest otherwise.

      My bigger issue (as I’ve also alluded to before) is that I don’t think we should immediately jump to the secretary of energy as our unit of analysis. There are millions of people living out their lives, navigating their world, who don’t care for TOE and do just fine!. How do you react to the fact that there are practicing doctors, dentists, physicists, etc. who reject TOE and have no problem succeeding in their careers? Do those data points not matter to you?

      That’s enough for a very long comment. That’s what happens when you respond first thing in the morning before having coffee!

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