The Scientific Indian

How does one deal with those who do not understand the rational way of living, those who follow unreasonable dogma like religion and give in to superstitions?

There are two different approaches marked by the diametric positions that they take. One is to shame the irrational person so that they are persuaded or forced to go into hiding. They other is to engage with them in conversations about agreements and disagreements and try to win them over to the side of rationality. There are other approaches besides these two, most are usually a varying mix of these two contrasting approaches. (We will ignore the non-approach called ‘ignore them’. )

There are merits to the shaming someone into submission (needless to say, you can never win someone over by shaming them). Shame is a universally detested experience for all. It is built into our biology to cringe and hide away when in shame. When using shame one has a fair chance of being effective in controlling irrationality. Indeed, it is necessary to reduce and remove some of the venomous kinds of irrationality like astrology. But, what gives efficacy to shame contains the seeds for its own eventual ineffectiveness. Shame drives people underground. Contrary to what we may expect, when things go underground they get more sinister. Exploitation of the vulnerable by quacks and charlatans is one of the consequences. Shaming is the ‘hammer’ solution. It’s drives the nail in, however, not everything is a nail.

‘Try and win them over’ needs none of my amateur philosophies to stand its ground. Ultimately, after all points and counterpoints have been made, this is the only enlightened choice left. Like all such choices, this is hard to make and harder to live with, for it requires love and compassion, besides enormous personal effort. Nevertheless, in the long run – if one is lucky, in the short run as well-, compassion trumps all other approaches.

To my regret, I have most often gone the ‘shame them’ way. Still, one goes on in the hope that reason would see us through and prepare us to be more compassionate.

Compassion and Science: this thought is at its infancy in my mind. I have just begun to explore it. What would you do, what have you done, when faced with irrationality?


  1. #1 Stephanie C.
    August 19, 2008

    I have been to several workshops and talks that at least address the idea of how to approach those who are skeptical (at best) or hostile (at worst) towards a particular scientific position — especially climate change. But whenever I’m faced with someone — in person — with some such belief, my first reaction is… embarrassment.

    I feel very uncomfortable. I have all this information that I would like to share with the person in a way that is convincing, but I have this feeling that rational argument is not going to win the day, *and* I don’t want to seem condescending or rude. I don’t even consider that it might trigger the “shame” response, but rather the “f* you” response.

    So I usually casually toss off a few words that give a clue to my position, while paying undue amounts of lip-service to the uncertainty of knowing the truth of the world or bending over backwards to say things that indicate that even if I don’t agree with them I don’t blame them (for instance, launching on a long diatribe about how the media has downplayed the latest IPCC report).

    I would love to go to a workshop on communicating effectively with people who have different opinions (often poorly informed, factually, or based on strong emotional reactions) than I do.

  2. #2 Stephen Downes
    August 19, 2008

    If you are engaged in a discourse, trying to win them over is obviously the better strategy.

    But many interactions are not discourses. They are contacts of only a second or two, of only a sentence or less.

    In such a case, shaming them is the appropriate response, because the time available is insufficient for discourse, and because failing to shame them results in them coming to believe that their act was not, in fact, wrong.

    Shaming is to civil discourse what the vote is to political discourse – not an attempt to persuade, but the expression of a preference.

    And just as political discourse is empty without the vote, civil discourse is empty without the shame.

  3. #3 Jason Failes
    August 19, 2008

    We aren’t talking about children here, people too young and/or too inexperienced to know any better.

    We are talking about fully-functioning adults, who have presumably had every chance to learn that we have, and have chosen instead to reject infinitely interesting and inspiring reality for a limited, and limitedly comforting, child-like mindset.

    They should be ashamed, and it can be fun to shame them.

    However, the next generation, those who do not merely think like children, but actually are children, can be won over.

    Let’s push, as persistently as creationists do, to get mandatory critical thinking, formal logic, and scientific methodology courses into state standards for public schools.

    Let’s see how well “teach the controversy” fares when even young children start approaching all truth-claims with a “prove it or lose it” attitude.

  4. #4 Deacon Duncan
    August 19, 2008

    If someone comes up to you with rational reasons for why it is better to be rational, the rational thing to do is change your mind and abandon irrationality. So the “try and win them over” approach should work well on people who are already rational and do not need to be won over. The people who do need to be won over, though, are unlikely to respond rationally to your attempts to win them over, since they’re in the irrational group by definition.

    Now what?

  5. #5 Deacon Duncan
    August 19, 2008

    By the way, not to be misunderstood–I didn’t mean the above as a flip comment. This is an issue I’m wrestling with myself, and I don’t have a good answer. Granted that it’s better to win them over, how do you do it, given that they have already demonstrated a preference for basing their behavior and conclusions on non-rational inputs?

  6. #6 Dinesh
    August 19, 2008

    Shame may lead to anger and the person who is ashamed might seek revenge on you. If you want to bring in someone to the rational side, I would first look into yourself and find out if you were a born rationalist or if you were someone who became a rationalist in due course of your life. If you are the latter, you should pick the things and aspects that made you rational. You should then educate the irrational with your knowledge and show them what you learnt one by one slowly. I cannot agree that you can win over an irrationalist with a 1 hour argument, when you might have taken about 20 or 25 years of your life to become the rationalist that you are now. The irrational party might take his/her own time before becoming rational but needs all the fundamental ground work that you went through.
    If you were a born rationalist, chances are your parents are rationalists too. This is IMHO.

  7. #7 js
    August 19, 2008

    “…to argue with a man who has renounced his reason is like giving medicine to the dead.”

    I vote for shame. The credulous will only confuse your compassion/understanding as acceptance/approval of their beliefs. People of faith, generally speaking, appear to respond best to extremes; all or nothing. Shame them and you’ll lose the fight, no doubt, but you may make grounds in winning the battle. I suspect most people prefer to appear intelligent as opposed to foolish, shame may motivate the credulous to avoid a repeat performance or at least propel them into middle ground thinking (dare I say critical thinking).

  8. #8 Warren
    August 19, 2008

    On individuals, discussion is worth pursuing; for populations, shame and mockery makes more sense.

    That way, the individual doesn’t want to be grouped in with the clade of damnfools.

  9. #9 RNB
    August 19, 2008

    Laugh at them. The irrational cannot be argued against. Ridicule them, or more precisely, ridicule their beliefs.

  10. #10 Punditus Maximus
    August 22, 2008

    Arguing with the rational is simple — you spar until you find either the base assumption which is different between you or until you find the nonprovable judgment call which is different between you. Then you shake hands and move forward to ponder the other’s position in that light.

    Arguing with the irrational is more interesting; the irrational make decisions for reasons which are personal, rather than objective. We generally cannot know these reasons. So yes, they must be shamed, but what they must also be is relentlessly shown correctness. That is, they cannot be driven underground; instead, they must be repeatedly and uncompromisingly shown how good and right decisions and beliefs are created.

    This is how we change minds.

  11. #11 eddie
    August 24, 2008

    I think it’s important to make the distinction between leaders and followers of a particular irrational notion. Shaming, and where necessary punishing the leaders of irrationality is a central part of winning over the followers.
    With the followers we should, as mentioned in earlier posts, be relentlessly rational and polite.

  12. #12 gillto
    August 31, 2008

    At least in my experience, it’s often the irrational who draw first blood. They proselytize, and consider their irrational beliefs a virtue and a source of pride. This leads them to disparaging comments such as you can’t have a morality without belief in god. They don’t, I think, realize what an insult that is.

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