by Judith Curry
“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” – Blaise Pascal
One of my favorite blogs is Brainpickings (it’s not on my blogroll since it is far afield from climate). After reading the discussion on climate communications from the Lewandowsky-Kahan debate, this Brainpickings essay is a breath of of fresh air – How to change minds: Blaise Pascal on the art of persuasion. Excerpts:
Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but
When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.
Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:
People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.
Pascal frames persuasion not as a factor of control but as something predicated first and foremost on empathy — on empathic insight into the context and concerns that animate the other person’s mind:
Eloquence … persuades by sweetness, not by authority… Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way — (1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.
We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender.
Ultimately, Pascal suggests, the art of persuasion by eloquence is not one that grants permission for prettifying falsehoods but one that invites the beauty of reality to reveal itself:
[Eloquence] requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.
The backfire effect
See also this previous Brainpickings essay The backfire effect: The psychology of why we have a hard time changing our minds. Excerpts:
That humbling human tendency is known as the backfire effect and is among the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself — a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why “self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes.” McRaney writes of this cognitive bug:
Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.
But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. This helps explain such gobsmacking statistics as the fact that, despite towering evidence proving otherwise, 40% of Americans don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old.
This also explains why Benjamin Franklin’s strategy for handling haters is particularly effective, and reminds us that this fantastic 1866 guide to the art of conversation still holds true in its counsel: “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”
On biased assimilation:
Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.
In other words, simply presenting people with information does nothing in the way of helping them internalize it and change their beliefs accordingly.
So where does this leave us? Perhaps a little humbled by our own fallible humanity, and a little more motivated to use tools like Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit as vital weapons of self-defense against the aggressive self-righteousness of our own minds. After all, Daniel Dennett was right in more ways than one when he wrote, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”
After reading these two Brainpickings essays, does calling your opposition ‘Deniers’ sound like a good persuasion strategy? Does defining natural climate variability out of existence seem likely to persuade anyone who knows better?
The emerging field of the science of science communication, where persuasion is the objective and policy action is the goal, seems more like propaganda to me. These words of wisdom from Blaise Pascal, Ben Franklin and others point a path for persuasion, rather than propaganda.
While I disagree with much of what Katherine Hayhoe has to say, I think she is an effective communicator/persuader by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs – particularly in communicating with evangelical Christians.