How do you tell someone they’re wrong? I’ve increasingly run into this situation both in the blogosphere and in real life. We’ve all heard the phrase, “learning to pick your battles,” and for the most part I think I do a fairly good job of that. I very rarely engage people in debates about religion or politics, because let’s face it–I’m not going to change their minds anytime soon. But more to the point, those are opinion based answers. There’s no right or wrong choice in those matters. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist–Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, whatever. There’s no way to prove whether or not an opinion about such matters is “right” or “wrong” so engaging in such a debate is usually pointless. You can debate the merits or the strengths and weakness about such positions all day, but in the end it usually comes out as a wash because, again, things like religious or political beliefs are grounded in “what feels right” to the individual, and not on any sort of tangible evidence.
However, (and this is where I start to have an issue) there are a lot of things that simply aren’t a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact. Take climate change, for instance. You can have an opinion about whether it’s real or a hoax or man-made or natural. But at the end of the day, there is ONE correct answer. Either the climate is changing or it isn’t, either it’s due to man or it’s not. In an argument on the subject, someone invariably is going to be wrong. I’ve had similar conversations about the Affordable Care Act. Now, once again, it’s not a discussion about socialized medicine–that would be a political conversation and a slippery one at that. But the actual law is a physical piece of legislation–it’s powers and limitations are clearly enumerated in a physical bill that anyone could read. Debates on economic theories, vaccinations, and tons of other topics follow a similar route. There are right and wrong, evidence based answers.
So what do you do when you bump into someone who is supporting the wrong answer? This aggravated me to no end initially. But over the years I’ve learned to temper that anger by first understanding why it is that people believe or support falsities. This is invariably due to one of the following reasons:
1) They’re simply misinformed. Somewhere along the way they got some bad or skewed data, and they’re basing their belief off it.
2) They’re using bad logic. They’ve got the correct information, all of the pieces to reach the correct conclusion, but just made an error when putting it all together and ended up drawing the wrong conclusion.
3) They simply aren’t capable of grasping the argument or the information. That’s not to say that they’re stupid, but maybe they just haven’t attained a level of understanding or a background sufficient enough to truly grapple with the evidence.
4) They’re simply trolling people, playing devil’s advocate, or whatever to get a rise out of people.
All you can do in the fourth case is roll your eyes and walk away. But what do you do in the first three cases? Any attempt to correct the person will result in you looking like a preachy, arrogant, elitist snob, and will usually put someone on the defensive. No matter how tactful you are about it, people usually don’t like being told that they’re wrong. Many people just say, “Hey, let bygones be bygones. They’ll arrive at the correct conclusion eventually.” And that may indeed by true. But what happens until then? What if it takes them a decade to finally come around? What if they never reach the correct conclusion? Do we intervene somehow, despite the risk of upsetting people? How far are we willing to let things go and for how long? How long are we willing to let people (who vote, nonetheless), believe that vaccines cause autism, to harken back to a previous example?