Somewhere in the technological belt of California, where the only thing more precisely engineered than the software is the people – or maybe the people’s teeth – lives an organisation called the Center for Applied Rationality. For the low price of US$3900 the Center will sell you a four-day workshop on reasoning during which participants eat, sleep, and do nine hours of back-to-back activities together daily under one (presumably rationally designed) roof. This year, just like every other year, the Center will receive hundreds of applications from people who want to attend because, as they put it, ‘Everyone I know is irrational, and I want to fix them.’
Easy punchline. Good group to laugh at. But it turns out many of us make a version of the same mistake when we think about persuasion. We think we know what it is to change our minds rationally, and the only question is why other people don’t do it more often. The ideal mind-change is calm. It reacts to reasoned argument. It responds to facts, not to our sense of self or the people around us. It resists the siren song of emotion. People like to talk about the ‘public sphere’ – if there is such a thing then its convex edge reflects this idealised image back at us. Think of the number of programs dedicated to the mind-changing magic of two sides saying opposite things. ‘Topical Debate,’ promises the BBC’s Question Time. ‘Big Ideas,’ offers the ABC. ‘Adventures in democracy,’ proclaims the Q&A program. The branding of these things even bakes in a little reward: how brave I am, for attending the Festival of Dangerous Ideas; how clever, for my subscription to the Intelligence Squared debates. The proper way to reason, at least according to our present ideal, is to discard ego and emotion and step into a kind of disinfected argumentative operating theatre where the sealed air-conditioning vents stop any everyday fluff floating down and infecting the sterilised truth.
We think we know what it is to change our minds rationally, and the only question is why other people don’t do it more often.
Years ago I used to share this view. I’ll tell you why, even though it will rightly make you want to take my lunch money: when I was at school I was a champion debater, which is another way of saying I spent my weekends wearing a blazer and telling people in precisely timed intervals exactly how wrong they were. My teammates and I constructed arguments for twenty hours a week, putting premises in the crosshairs with the unblinking accuracy of people whose whole egos were on the line. We weren’t bad, either. Eventually we made it to the world championships in Qatar where we wore blazers embroidered with the Australian coat of arms in gold and competed in what looked, in hindsight, like a scene in an apocalypse movie just before the purge begins: all of us in matching uniforms on fleets of white buses being shepherded through the desert haze to auditoriums where we would sit locked up together for an hour surrounded by stopwatch-wielding officials. Debating left me with an attitude to persuasion that was as precise as Euclidean geometry: find the foundation, show why it’s wrong. Buttress analysis with evidence. Emotion is for decorative flourishes only – do not expect it to be load-bearing. Of course I knew you could change minds by appealing to things like emotion or your opponents’ sense of self, but doing that seemed kind of base. It felt nobly sportsmanlike to arm yourself with argument alone. It was the intellectual equivalent of turning up at dawn for your duel: it was how you were meant to fight.
I began changing my mind about this picture after I made a piece for US radio program This American Life in 2016. The project had seemed simple: turn around to my own catcallers – men who had wolf-whistled or made sexual comments on the street – and try to reason them out of doing it again. I spent hours giving these men all the evidence, all the reasoning, all the fancy footwork with premises. But in dozens of conversations I walked away defeated. Over and over again they walked away from our conversations as sure as they’d ever been that it was okay to grab, yell at or follow women on the street.
Of course I knew you could change minds by appealing to things like emotion, but it felt nobly sportsmanlike to arm yourself with argument alone.
These men didn’t seem fundamentally irrational, or unstuck from reality – in a funny sort of way I quite liked a few of them. One told me he modelled his courtship rituals on the animal kingdom: ‘I’m just another paradise bird, flaunting my shit,’ he said triumphantly, as though this explained everything that needed to be explained. That’s a good line. He made me laugh. But I couldn’t change their minds. The experience deflated me not just as a person and as a woman but as someone who had always been optimistic about our ability to talk each other into better beliefs. We finished recording in November 2016, right after the US general election, and it was not a good moment to be suddenly pessimistic about rational debate and persuasion.
But when the piece aired, a strange thing happened. I was inundated with interview requests. Could I write a ten-step guide to changing minds? Would I accept an award for the successful use of rational persuasion in public? What advice did I have for talking people out of workplace harassment? I was astonished. Large numbers of people had apparently listened to the conversations that I had walked away from feeling dejected and defeated, and heard instead instances of persuasive success. I think the explanation is that these conversations bore a sort of waxwork like resemblance to what we think good mind-changes look like. I said one thing, my catcallers said the opposite thing, and each of us tried to explain why we were right. I had stayed calm, they had been prepared to hear me out. I had used statistics. It looked for all the world like a rational debate, and the fact that I had failed to achieve anything with this approach to changing minds disappeared under the shadow of the unquestioned assumption that I deserved congratulations for even trying. I started to smell a rat – a big one that lives in the sewers and never takes a shower.
Everywhere we look we see the gospel that reasoned argument is the currency of persuasion, and that the ‘right’ way to change our minds is by entering a sort of gladiatorial contest of ideas where we leave the personal behind. But what if our eagerness to congratulate each other for employing that ideal stops us asking whether it is worth aspiring to at all?
The other part of why I changed my mind about this picture of persuasion is that I started working in academic philosophy, where it takes about two minutes to realise how many unanswered questions there are about what reason actually is or what it asks of us. You can’t stay wedded to the importance of reasoned debate when you don’t even know what it is to be reasonable in the first place. Maybe you think it’s simple, that being reasonable just means believing things in proportion to the evidence, but if that was your first thought then please accept my condolences as you plummet backwards down the rabbit hole.
What if our eagerness to congratulate each other for leaving the personal behind stops us asking whether it is worth aspiring to at all?
What counts as evidence? Are sensory perceptions evidence? Or feelings, like empathy? If not, what licenses your belief that other people’s suffering matters? When is there enough evidence to believe something? Do different beliefs require different amounts of evidence and, if so, what sets them? Could anything else have a bearing on what we should believe, like the costs of error? And what sort of ‘should’ are we using when we ask, ‘What should we believe?’ Are we aiming at truth, or at morality, or are they in some way the same goal? Are the standards for believing mathematical or scientific truths different from moral or interpersonal ones, or is there no distinction? What’s the responsible way to respond to the news that someone as intelligent as you, in possession of as much evidence as you, believes a different conclusion? Should you downgrade your confidence in your own view? If so, why?
There is a bigger question underneath it all: when is it ever possible to know anything? Thousands of years before Descartes wondered what it was possible to know, Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus had already fathered scepticism by answering, ‘Nothing.’ This is a possibility so genuinely frightening that people prefer to parse it as a silly thought experiment about whether we’re in The Matrix than to engage with the awful spectre it raises. One philosopher who took that spectre seriously was Stanley Cavell, who spent years trying to answer the sceptic’s challenge, and whose work is so captivating to a certain sort of reader that for years two big East Coast university libraries in the United States refused to restock his books. There was no point – students just did not bring them back. ‘How do we stop?’ Cavell wrote. ‘How do we learn that what we need is not more knowledge but the willingness to forgo knowing?’
Over millennia these questions about what to believe, when, and why, have pinballed back and forth between the most blisteringly intelligent people of their day, and still nobody has the settled answers. And now those of us who felt like we should have been the most useful warriors for persuasion sit suspended, alone, on syllogistic crags far above a world where Nazis are back, so is polio, it’s prohibitively expensive to fight either, and the oceans are rising while we tell each other to be reasonable.
Is it just me or do we need to get a lot better at changing minds – very fucking quickly?
This is an edited extract from Eleanor Gordon-Smith’s Stop Being Reasonable (NewSouth Books), our KYD First Book Club pick for May. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, Eleanor Gordon-Smith’s Shelf Reflection column, and stay tuned to the KYD Podcast for a recording of our live in-conversation event coming soon.