Learning to let go…

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?


7 thoughts on “Learning to let go…

  1. I’m not sure it’s this black-and-white, though. For example, since you commented on my post that mentioned climate change earlier today, I’ll use that area as an example:

    “Either the climate is changing or it isn’t” – Sort of. The climate is always changing, but I think the answer you’re more interested in is whether the global temperature is warming or not. That said, even if the global temperature is warming, there are still questions about the rise in temperature that are unresolved. For example – how much hotter is the Earth getting? How much hotter does it need to become before we see the effects that some scientists predict will happen? Those are not easily resolvable questions, in my mind.

    “either it’s due to man or it’s not” – I guess I just once again think it’s more nuanced than that. I’m sure some amount of climate variance is because of human activities, but how much? I think asking “how much of global warming is human-caused?” is a better question than “is some warming human-caused?” And then, even if we alter or remove our contribution to the temperature rise, will the rest of the equation remain so static that the climate will stop changing? For example, if I wrote it like an equation (this obviously isn’t the real equation, but it’s here for convenience’s sake):

    Global warming = human-caused CO2 emissions + solar variance + water vapor + animal-caused methane emissions + oscillation back from the Little Ice Age

    If humans remove the CO2 part of the equation, do we know whether all other parts of the equation will remain so static that the climate will no longer change?

    Like I said on my blog, I guess I think we just need to be asking nuanced questions instead of believing that they are black-and-white. Thanks for opening up a space for discussion.

    1. I guess my intent with this post wasn’t to imply that people don’t need to ask nuanced questions. Indeed, all of the questions you posed are completely valid and logical.

      Unfortunately, though, most people do not ask nuanced questions, but blindly make unfounded and unscientific claims, which is the crux of what I was trying to get at here.

      In the case of climate change, I don’t challenge skepticism. What I do challenge is the assertion that it is a hoax, a conspiracy, or anything along those lines. I guess I was a little black and white in my examples only to make a rhetorical point, not a scientific one.

  2. I am inclined to agree with you. I, too, have learned to reign in my temper and “pick my battles”. With regards to reasons 1-4, my actions are usually dependent upon the person and the medium in which I am using. If they seem receptive to dialogue and learning then I go full steam ahead. Otherwise I get flippant, sarcastic or try and trip them up in their own logic. It’s pretty amusing.

  3. People tell me I’m wrong all the time, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m used to it due to the nature of the controversial subjects I typically write about. I just try to respectfully show them where I think they’re wrong, even though I know I’m not going to change anyone’s mind. I figure if I can provide enough facts and evidence, then I’ve succeeded. I don’t need to have anyone concede anything to me. Of course, like naduni7 said, the way I respond also depends on the person and how receptive they are.

  4. I think you have to decide what you want to get out of the debate. If your intention is to present the facts, you present them as clearly as possible, including your sources. People will either accept the facts or not. If you’re trying to persuade or get them to change their actions, good luck. I think you’re right that little is gained, unless you just want to be on the record for some reason of your own. (Two people listen to the same debate. The ‘winner’ is the one who agrees with you and articulates it well.) Agreeing on the facts is only the first part. What to do about the facts brings opinions; and thus, intense debates. Airing of facts is always good, in my opinion. Being able to handle the results of airing the facts is sometimes questionable.

    1. Excellent points. I guess no matter how you approach the facts, human beings are subjective creatures, and opinions will probably always seep in to some degree. I suppose we need more practice compartmentalizing our feelings from facts. Thank you for the response! 🙂

      1. Personally, it matters with whom I’m speaking. If I care about them, I want to be sure they know the facts and then HOPE they absorb them and really think about how they’ll use them. If I’m writing, I’m just saying what I think and hoping it resonates. You wrote a good piece, Ryan.

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