How to convince someone they really don't understand what they are talking about

Finally some time to do some general knowledge journal reading!  On my list was a fascinating paper (pdf of the free working paper version - the journal version is paywalled) by Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox and Steven A. Sloman that investigates how to convince people that they really do not understand a topic they think they understand.  It has been blogged about in the context of extreme political positions, but it seems to have even greater relevance to more technical science-based topics like tobacco harm reduction (though, of course, much of traditional political extremism involves a failure to understand science also -- e.g., IS/LM macroeconomic models).

The most promising approach to persuade someone that something they strongly believe is just not so is definitely not to present contrary evidence.  It has clearly been demonstrated, repeatedly, that for most people (the vast majority who do not think like scientists or philosophers, including most "scientists" in health, and presumably in lots of other fields), presenting contrary evidence leads to a non-intellectual gut-level defensive reaction which tends to just harden their belief.  Expecting to get a rational reaction to evidence is usually a nonstarter.  Sigh!  But it is not much more useful to simply ask people to explain the basis of their claims -- they will just do a biased search for confirmatory evidence (or, quite likely, mere assertions of others who agree with them) and, again, become more hardened in their position.  Rather, the solution is to ask them to explain the mechanism that supports their view of the world.

The abstract reads:
People often hold extreme political attitudes about complex policies. We hypothesized that people typically know less about such policies than they think they do (the illusion of explanatory depth; Rozenblit & Keil, 2002) and that polarized attitudes are enabled by simplistic causal models. We find that asking people to explain policies in detail both undermines the illusion of explanatory depth and leads to more moderate attitudes (Experiments 1 and 2). We also demonstrate that although these effects occur when people are asked to generate a mechanistic explanation, they do not occur when people are instead asked to enumerate reasons for their policy preferences (Experiment 2). Finally, we show that generating mechanistic explanations reduces donations to relevant political advocacy groups (Experiment 3). The evidence suggests that people’s mistaken sense that they understand the causal processes underlying policies contributes to polarization.
As motivating examples, the authors note that most people will express confidence that they understand how such familiar mechanisms as toilets and combination locks work, but when asked to explain the mechanism, they change their mind and recognize that they do not really understand after all.  To the extent that extreme political positions often result from similar overconfidence (as the authors claim), a similar tactic can be used to show someone his beliefs are based on overconfidence.  Causing a recognition, by asking for a mechanistic explanation, goes a long way to lowering misplaced confidence.  This then might(!) lead to a softening of malformed extreme positions (I am not so sure that the author's conclusions that this does happen, based on their artificial experiment, is completely convincing).  

In my mind, the more obvious uses of this observation do not relate to policies at the big picture level, but specific individual claims.

An obvious application is one I always thought was a good idea (and, indeed, embedded in some of my analysis on the topic):  "So you think that snus or e-cigarettes might be as harmful as smoking?  Can you tell me what particular diseases you think might be caused, and at what rates, that would add up to the total risk from smoking?"  Of course, someone can still retreat into a nihilistic "we just don't know, and therefore anything is possible", and those who are just generating rhetoric in support of some hidden financial or "moralizing" interest will not be persuaded because they never really cared whether it was true or not.  But those who actually believe the claim is true, and care whether that is really the case, tend to rapidly realize it is absolutely implausible.

A related example is the claim that low-risk tobacco/nicotine products are a "gateway" to smoking.  But just ask someone to explain the mechanism by which a consumer who would not otherwise choose to smoke would choose to smoke after learning about a low-risk alternative and trying it.  Among those who actually believe the myth and are motivated by (not those reciting it to support some hidden goal), lightbulbs appear over their heads.

Of course, sometimes this step alone gets you nowhere because someone is way too far from understanding for one question to get them there.  For example, if you ask someone who thinks that installing a lot of industrial wind turbines are a good idea to explain the mechanism by which benefit is created, he will probably assert that they reduce the awful pollution from coal burning and produce electricity with no emissions, and feel not the least bit less confident of their knowledge.  The naive belief is simply so far away from the actual mechanism in this case that the believer does not even understand that there is an ultimate mechanistic process.  The situation is unlike the case of "should we impose unilateral sanctions on Iran?" (one of the questions in the Fernbach study, which lends itself to simple "how might that accomplish what you think it accomplishes" thinking) and more like "should we be fighting a war in Afghanistan?" (which is several layers away from the goals someone might support).

This still might open the door for better conversation.  You could to explain why the electricity from IWTs displaces the relative benign burning of gas, not coal, and that the manufacture and installation of IWTs, and the extra gas burning that is needed to stabilize the power grid because of their intermittent performance, are obviously not emissions-free.  But at that point you are back to relying on someone being open to hearing evidence and actually learning something, because if you try to continue the proposed tactic, it will fail:  If you ask, "so how can IWTs substantially reduce coal burning or the installation of fossil fuel plants when they always need to be backed up by dispatchable [can be turned on immediately] gas-burning turbines", you are depending on them being willing to recognize the truths implicit in the question, not their mere inability to answer it.

But with such caveats in mind, this is still a very promising tactic.  I suppose I have always recognized that and used it, but this study is a great reminder to do it more, and that other approaches that seem similar really are not, and that they seldom work.

Desolation: Souvenir Reviewed

The following review by Robin Morrissey was just published in The Rumpus online at

Desolation: Souvenir by Paul Hoover

Reviewed By
Where is the emotion of language? It’s not always clear when and why words can carry the traction of loss to the heart. Many writers, many great writers, have lamented the shortcoming of language when faced with real, intense anguish. In some cases it is the fault of words. In others, the shortcoming might be the emotional and linguistic limitations of their speakers. Writers excavate, sort, defamiliarize, string and distill meanings that strike at once internally and externally. These are experiences of the imagination set to trigger the human, the real, the familiar and the imagined. Poetic language is that which wrests the heart from a daily currency of pith.

If pith is the mode of the automaton and the worker bee, then Desolation: Souvenir, Hoover’s latest work, puts smoke in the hive. His work is the interruption to the monotony of habituation, deadly as Schlovsky claims. It calls attention to the anemic patterns of habit, using pain and courage to carve through.

Though Hoover is relatively prolific, his writing is capable of traversing, if not discovering within itself, new measures of emotional depth and conceptual difficulty. The entire volume of his published work should be the call to invent new concepts in the prizing of poetic superheroes that acknowledges the sustained lift of a long-fighting heavy weight. Scars and blows all gorgeously legible.

Desolation: Souvenir starts at the point where language fails (as maybe it is supposed to if it is to show it is capable of meaning anything that would touch us): the death of a child. The brief poems piece aphorisms into elegy. The awkward junctures function as attempts at connection, solace, that instead show the gaps – of what is unknown, of what is suffering, of what’s been lost. In “the dream and now a field,” Hoover’s speaker identifies the “vain remedy” of language in the aftermath of emotional evacuation: “the consolations pour/ those unseen wither/ thinking’s like a wind/ tying knots in twine” (14).

These elegies are not only for the loss of a person, but address the sense of impermanence inherent in language in the moment it seeks to comfort, to close a gap or cover an open wound. Hoover writes in “and what is last in us”: “touch is a form of speech/close your eyes to imagine/open them to remember/forms are firm, shapes shift” (29). Where the contradictions do not result in a zero sum, instead verify the irrational logic of the heart suffering what is ultimately unthinkable, impossible.

Paul Hoover

The language is colloquial; occasionally literary references crop up, and then recede back into the subtle mixture of short lines, references to the personal and to cycles of earth, and transient, lithe meditations on the nature of words, and reality.

In a short section at the end of the book, called “The Windows (The Actual Acts)” Hoover spends twenty four pages on an exercise which seems to be for the purpose of trying to get language to be something real. They are propositions. If propositions are meant to illustrate the things of the world that are, and that can be said, all else is nonsense. In “The Windows” Hoover is carving even more depth to his unnamed speaker. In a move to fix language to say and to be what is, to imply permanence, and, therefore, the propositions function to claim the unchangeable immortal truths of the world. They are a gorgeous defense to the metaphysics and splayed logic of language when confronted by death.

Hoover’s propositions, however, shape what is with humor and a lush bleed of the illogical into what is: “A new species of clam being eaten by a new species of bird./ And there’s no new man to record it./ To imagine a world is to clean it./ Hard to conceive of a dirty new world.” And, here he leaves us, in a dirty new world – with perfect half-finished lives, sentences, thoughts, and sort of made beds. Where people and words suffer and die, or survive and maybe get shocked hard enough into having to be something new.

Robin Morrissey is currently working on a Master of Arts in Literature. She has an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has published poetry, essays and plays in Requited Journal, Caffeine Theatre, phoebe, Columbia Poetry Review, Berkeley Anthology Writers, and Chinquapuin, and poetry forthcoming in 3AM magazine. She lives in Chicago where, when not at her computer, she is editing an -anthology of the city's lost pet notices and wild animal sightings.