Wednesday, October 22, 2014

To Talk, Perchance to Understand

I  try to keep an open mind about things, try to keep the mindset that no matter how sure I might be about what I believe, there's always the possibility that I could be wrong. Maybe I misinterpreted something. Maybe I don't have enough evidence, yet, that I'm missing some key bit of data. Along with that, I try to be open to honest discussion, even if I don't necessarily agree with my interlocutor. In fact, that's something that people tend to remark about to me. I have the patience of a saint, they say, because I tend to stay engaged in dialogue well beyond the point that most people would just throw their hands in the air in frustration. It's really because I view those traits as ideals that I should live up to, if I want to be able to call myself a skeptic. Sometimes I'm more successful than at other times, but I try.

What got me thinking about this, about talking with others, and especially with those with whom you disagree, was a brief exchange I had on Twitter. While doing a quick perusal of blog mentions, I came across a comment made by an individual who claimed that Occam's razor says that vaccines cause autism, and any studies that say otherwise are flawed. I saw this as a great opportunity to engage this person in discussion about Occam's razor, what it is and how it applies to the vaccine-autism question. It struck me that perhaps this person did not really understand Occam's razor, viewing it more as a buzz word to prop up their argument than truly getting how it would apply. Here was an opportunity to talk about the issue, to try to share my thoughts with them and to learn why they thought Occam's razor supported their position.

My efforts weren't exactly fruitful.

I'll admit, I may not have started out with the best response. Like I said, sometimes I'm better at trying to engage people, and sometimes I make a bit of a misstep.

There are probably better, less dismissive, ways of handling this.
I probably should have opened with, "Why do you think that Occam's razor leads to that conclusion?" It's a bit less confrontational and invites explanation, which would have helped me figure out where this person was coming from. Instead, I had to back up a bit:

Funny, I didn't claim to have superior understanding.
My interlocutor seems to think that I was trying to dodge her question. I wasn't. I know this might come as a shocker, but generally when I ask someone a question, it's because I am trying to increase my understanding, especially when I ask what someone thinks or how they define something. When I suspect that there is some misunderstanding at play, I want to make sure that I'm using the same definition they they are using. If we can all agree on the basics, then there's a lower chance of miscommunication or confusion. We all need to start on the same page.

At this point, one of the other folks mention in the tweets, Doc Meehan, stepped in.

Honest discourse, shmonest discourse. Ignore and block!
Doc Meehan is telling her not to engage in conversation with me, but instead to just ignore me. He's shutting down the conversation. When I am asking questions, trying to develop an understanding, Meehan claims that I am not open to honest discourse. It isn't all that surprising coming from him, though. My experience with him is that when he encounters someone he disagrees with, he tends to jump to insults and aggressive language rather than be open to constructive dialogue.

At any rate, the Twitter exchange pretty much ended there. Ms. Briggs never responded. I can only assume that she followed Meehan's advice and close off discussion rather than seek to have an open mind. Although I am disappointed, I'm not terribly surprised.

I find the mindset rather fascinating. It isn't something that is unique to (nor necessarily universal among) anti-vaccine folks. Ignore and block. Shut down conversation. That seems to be a common trait among those who fervently believe in woo, pseudoscience, nonsense. Once they invest so much of themselves into their belief, it becomes easier to act as Doc Meehan did. Instead of listening to the questions and honestly thinking about them, just retreat into ignorance and the comfort of what you "know" to be true. When faced with a challenge to your beliefs, or even with the potential for a challenge should the conversation get that far, it's much easier to simply avoid the impending cognitive dissonance completely than to face it and think critically.

While it seems to be more common among believers in pseudoscience, I have seen it pop up among fellow skeptics from time to time (though usually skeptics give up after making at least an attempt at dialogue). And that is understandable. We don't like to have our beliefs questioned. It's uncomfortable. It can feel like we are being attacked or judged. We take it personally. The more invested we are in the beliefs, the more it can feel like someone that questions those beliefs is out to get us.

It's important to remember that maybe, just maybe, that person that is disagreeing with you is actually interested in talking, in understanding where you're coming from. Give it a chance. You might find that something you strongly believe is wrong. And then you'll have the opportunity to increase your understanding. That's why I do it, to test myself and expand my knowledge, to make myself better.

How about you? Have you ever found yourself in that situation, on either side of the conversation? What did you do? Why?


  1. I followed this live and found it fascinating. Thanks for the in depth analysis.

  2. What I don't get is, if the rising rates aren't solely due to better diagnosis and changes in classification, why it would HAVE to be the vaccines ?
    Why not air pollution, pesticides, sodium valproate or antidepressants while pregnant, etc. We seem to find more correlation for these than for vaccines, and even these correlations are disputed.


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