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View Full Version : The art of persuasion - I do not think facts are enough...


JonIrenicus
01-31-2009, 06:48 AM
It is a fascinating thing to me how so many people can look at exactly the same thing and situation and come away with such vastly different takes. We see it in the comments section, and in the logs themselves.

And what are we to do when people look at the same facts and situations and come away with such different takes?

Take the Israel Palestinian arguments. There seemed to be mutual disregard from the opposing sides claims. If this is sustained it is not surprising that such impasses persist. If I did not believe much of what Israel said, or that the media was in their pockets I would have a hard time believing anything in their favor. And vice versa, I happen to place the word of groups like HAMAS on a much lower tier than many opponents do.

In extreme cases like arguing with 911 truthers, the arguments for a demolition seem to shift and twist, take one idea out several more take its place, kind of like the person starts FIRST with the belief, and collects facts that support the belief and place those ideas on a strong footing, and brush aside facts that contradict their world view. This is another issue that creeps up in us all to varying degrees.

Take an episode from people like Spike Lee on the Bill Maher show where he gives voice to the idea that the government could have blown up the levees in New Orleans.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7j0SqSn14A&feature=related

To my mind the lady in the center was crystal clear and sensible, and yet Spike sees the same situation as an explicit attack by the government.

Do you see what I mean? Are facts enough here? There seems to be far more. The perspectives are so discordant that before any consensus can be reached they must first deal with the gulf of trust. Spike seemed to have infinitesimal trust in the government, reasonable or not, it is a layer of perspective that must be addressed before any consensus can be gained.


You see the problem? This is but a sliver of the potential discord, people have innumerable perspectives, layers upon layers of baggage beyond the bare facts that lead them to trust some sources more or less, be more sympathetic to some groups as opposed to others (the RICH !!!!!! or the underclass !!!).

I try to muddle my way through some of it by trying to tease out certain perspectives, analyze them, and pass judgment on whether such perspectives are reasonable or not, but it is hard grueling work as far as I can see. Perhaps a greater mind would have an easier time. So how do we go about persuading people when there is often so much baggage to be dealt with?



Conversely, how can we convey our own points for maximum persuasive power? Do we simply explain clearly where we are coming from? Where our ideas rest? The pillars that form the foundations of those ideas, point out our weak points and proclaim loudly the pressure points where if THOSE points fell, so too would my belief in issue X?

I think that is probably the most honest approach, but it seems like fighting a guy unarmed while giving him a claymore.

Something I often notice from people making arguments is the opposite of the above. Imagine a persons arguments against issue X were contained in a handful of darts. To make it clearer say issue X was support for the Iraq war.

A person against the war usually throws FAR more than their own darts that pertain to THEIR opposition, they take an entire bucket full of the darts and throw out as many arguments as possible, good, bad, indifferent, anything and everything hoping something sticks.

Seems less honest to me, but people do it all the time. One example is people who bring up the total number of US deaths as a reason the war is not worth fighting. Now for some people this is an ACTUAL determinative issue, but for others, it has NO bearing on their support or lack thereof of the war. Ask such a person if they would be more likely to support the war if only 1000 service members died? 500? 10? 0? still no? If so, it seems to me that this "dart" is simply a decoy of sorts thrown out there to attempt to score a hit.

The thing I despise about "decoys" the most is that it wastes time, if a person cares little about such an issue, than arguing against that point does NOTHING to advance ones argument, because it is an issue that has little weight with the person who used it to begin with. This dishonestly is part of the problem with effective argument. Better to lay out what you believe, WHY you believe it, and make the claims falsifiable in a way, such that IF the foundations of my take were mistaken or in error, then I would change my mind. The core darts that actually matter instead of the entire bucket thrown to score cheap points.

I am rambling, anyway, I do not have any answers, just jotting down thoughts on the problems of persuasion and the daunting task.

Maybe it is not so hard at all and I am simply too dull to divine it, if so, clear it up for me!

bjkeefe
01-31-2009, 10:46 AM
Some interesting thoughts, Jon.

I'd say about "facts" that they're like statistics -- they don't lie, but even liars know how to use them.

Less glibly, I'd say that it's just a fact of life (oops) that people come to conclusions by lots of different routes, often beginning from bases and biases that are installed before our brains are anywhere near fully formed, and that we have a strong tendency once having arrived at a conclusion to look for ways to reinforce our belief in that conclusion. When an issue is sufficiently complex, one characteristic of the murkiness is that there are plenty of facts that can be selected to support a point of view already decided upon.

Another characteristic is that there may be too many facts to hold in one's mind at one time, or at least, so many that it takes more work than most people are prepared to do to understand the issue completely.

A third problem is that it is awfully hard to decide upon relevance and proper weighting of the facts related to an issue. In the I/P situation, it is unarguable that once upon a time, there was no country of Israel, and now there is. But how should that signify, sixty years after the formation of the nation? Hell if I know.

A fourth problem is that in many, if not most, complex situations, there may well be no indisputably correct final answer, at least not in the clean sense of, say, finding the roots of an algebraic equation.

As far as how hard it is to persuade people using "just the facts," the hard truth is that people are persuadable by lots of other things, too. In-group identification can often go a long way to deciding one's stance on an issue all by itself. Emotional appeals often carry disproportionate weight -- a story about one person's tragedy is likely to be more persuasive for a lot of people than a description of the same sort of events involving a large number of people. There is even the documented phenomenon that people have a tendency to believe the first thing they hear about a particular subject that is so strong that later information presented that contradicts the first story serves only to reinforce the original belief. And so on.

I guess I'm not saying anything you haven't already thought of yourself, so I'll just address one more thing.

Conversely, how can we convey our own points for maximum persuasive power? Do we simply explain clearly where we are coming from? Where our ideas rest? The pillars that form the foundations of those ideas, point out our weak points and proclaim loudly the pressure points where if THOSE points fell, so too would my belief in issue X?

I think that is probably the most honest approach, but it seems like fighting a guy unarmed while giving him a claymore.

The approach you outline is an admirable one, and sadly, you're right, it would be counterproductive to a goal of persuading others in too many cases.

I have read several different accounts of Richard Feynman's Ph.D. dissertation, which had a section doing exactly this -- listing the weakest parts of his arguments, and outlining how to use them to bring the whole edifice down. This is held up as a marvel by those who tell it, and certainly, it's part of what went into my viewing Feynman as a hero.

On the other hand, this is a physics paper -- an argument in a field that is about as amenable as any you could name to dealing with uncertainties objectively, of being free from biases and emotions and all other human messiness. And still, what Feynman did is viewed as nearly sui generis.

I guess all I'm really saying is try not to get too frustrated, and realize that persuasion is usually a long-term process, inevitably doomed to failure for a large number of people. But, like water dripping on a rock, it is possible to sculpt something new eventually.