Explain Yourself

Sloman and Fernbach report in a New York Times op-ed that people asked to defend their opinions tend to end a conversation close to where they started, but people asked to explain how their suggestions work become less strident compared to their prior position.

This suggests that a rheotrical stance toward a serious Dunning-Kruger Syndrome victim is not to challenge them, but to express interest and ask for elaboration.  Of course the problem is that to engage honestly, you have to leave room for your own doubts. This has to be a real stance, not just a posture.


  1. There have been many studies like this. I'm sure the point is valid as far as it goes. A complicating factor is the audience. Discussions online involve not only the two parties, but all the other people lurking, responding, or building off a given discussion.

    Perhaps I am rationalizing the delight I take in beating up a denier like a red-headed step-child, but I think the optimal approach has to consider the whole web of discourse, unless we're really talking about a argument over drinks with a friend.

  2. The question is, how often are you realistically looking to change someone's opinion and how often are you just looking to highlight the weaknesses in their argument to other readers? By showing interest and treating unreasonable arguments with respect will you be leaving a false impression? Particularly for readers with a short attention span. It depends very much, I would guess, on the forum. But I can't think of many places where constructive, open discussions are possible as the norm.

  3. This idea presumes a baseline of honesty somewhere in the history of the discourse. People accustomed to using reason and opening their minds have a hard time accepting the fundamental reasoning disability promoted by dishonest brokers.

    When I first entered this gallimaufry in the mid-oughts, I found it hard to believe what I found. Assigning honesty to the dishonest reasoning, no matter how honestly acquired at some remove the the source, is not going to work. Obama is a stellar example of giving credit where credit was not due.

  4. Well said, and agreed.

    A couple of caveats:

    In every communication you have to consider the purpose of the communication. In public communication, you also have to consider the responses of people not in your primary target. And very often, the person you are responding to is not the person you are trying to convince.

    Yes, it is absolutely stunning the first time you see how people "debate". The really sad thing is that this skill is actually taught in American high schools. One is taught to defend a pre-assigned position, not to examine and refine one's beliefs. It is my belief that this American tradition of "debate club" is profoundly pernicious, and is why science increasing looks like politics rather than the other way around as one might prefer.

    But I'm starting to see that there is no clear division between due skepticism, stubbornness, pigheaded stubbornness, rank dishonesty, and psychopathic cynicism. There's little basis of shared belief or knowledge anymore. It's quite likely that the person you perceive as lying actually perceives you as lying.

    It is crucial to know when you are wasting your breath (a complete waste of time), when you are expending your breath to protect innocent bystanders from an onslaught of fakery (a noble effort but not one where self-doubt is helpful) or actually discussing matters with well-meaning people.

    We should not live in a world where the last one is impossible. But that doesn't mean you should let yourself get tricked into a one-sidedly open conversation. It does no good.

  5. As best I can tell, what you refer to as "debate" (in case you don't already know) is how a lawyer is trained to argue. The lawyer is openly considered an advocate for a client in a dispute and the facts that must be determined so that a decision can be made will absolutely be determined by either a judge (bench trial) or jury. The side with the burden of proving the facts may lose if facts cannot be proven. Science it ain't and education it ain't. The idea is dispute resolution without bloodshed. How this approach would infect politics with elections between competing interests is pretty obvious, but if your interest is the public good and you do not see everything as a dispute that only one side (if anyone) can and should win, it's a lousy system. Plus I believe I read somewhere that the default tendency of the human brain is to take a position and defend it by cherry-picking facts, which is also what a lawyer does. If that understanding is correct, science and even-handed rational investigation is unnatural in a very real sense, and therefore difficult.

  6. > [E]xpress interest and ask for elaboration.

    I've heard that somewhere. But where?

    (Click sounds in the background.)

    Ah! Here:

    > That’s not the way to break the ice. A better way is to ask questions



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