- We're living in the post-truth era where belief in truth is no longer essential.
- Building trust is the most successful method of encouraging critical thinking.
- Technique rebuttal prioritises focus on method and value over truth and fact, and is therefore more effective.
- Trust in publicly available materials is falling, providing scope for alternative facts to gain traction.
Most have been there. Having an impassioned debate at a dinner party, with a colleague, or possibly even on social media, arguing unceasingly about a subject on which we feel we are definitely right, and on which someone else thinks we are undeniably wrong. Debate is a healthy conduit for challenging our set beliefs, but what happens when those beliefs hinge on a statement that is undeniably false? Or when an individual is hellbent on retaining their beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary?
Hoaxes and conspiracy theories are nothing new, but the acceleration of the internet, and particularly the maturing of social media platforms, have fuelled a new era of questioning of public truth. In 2016, Oxford English Dictionaries declared post-truth its international word of the year, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” More straightforward definitions highlight the era of post-truth as a time when facts are considered somewhat irrelevant; the belief that truth is no longer essential, or is potentially even obsolete; or a time when alternative facts replace actual facts in importance. How that manifests is in an individual or group’s commitment to what is plausible, instead of what is factual, with less concern for fact-checking and more on an unflinching drive for action. Indeed, many would argue the Capitol Hill Riots are an example of this post-truth reality, where followers were incited to violence on an easily debunked premise.
How can you reason with a staunch believer, and encourage critical thinking when they’re set in their own understanding of the truth? Success appears to hinge on the development of trust, as an alternative to a fact-based approach to debunking. In fact, while many of us default to fact-sharing to debunk a believer, evidence shows that direct conflict, however well-intentioned, will serve to simply drive further zeal, encouraging an individual to stick more assertively to their beliefs. Instead, leading academics such as Lee McIntyre, highlight it is relationships, rapport, and trust that will ultimately help us to win the hearts and minds of deniers.
Here’s the expert guide to encouraging critical thinking in others:
- Focus on trust, relationship, and rapport. Whether you are seeking to debunk a fanatic, or want to offer an alternative viewpoint to a staunchly held view, having a relationship is a must. This approach helps to build trust, and in doing so, provides scope for your rebuttal, without the traditional inflammatory response. It makes sense that people trust their friends and acquaintances more than a stranger.
- Prioritise face-to-face. Much of conversation is conveyed through body language, facial expressions, and the things left unsaid, so having face-to-face interactions will improve the quality of the conversation. It should also reduce the likelihood of an inflammatory response, particularly if you have established the aforementioned relationship.
- Opt for Technique Rebuttal as outlined by Hoofnagle, and by Schmid, and Betsch. Technique rebuttal focuses on using logic to identify flaws in a person's argument, asking them to explain how they reached their conclusions, and presenting a considered alternative viewpoint. This approach is a lot less combative and helps individuals to perceive an alternative viewpoint, or an argument that they may have missed. The additional benefit is that it doesn’t require you to be an expert in a specific subject but merely to have a good grasp of the issue, and an understanding of how to apply the rebuttal technique. What's more, you aren't questioning their belief - which creates a feedback loop - you are simply encouraging them to think about it in a different, new, or more complete way.
One of the key challenges we face, and a driver of the post-truth reality, is the loss of trust in traditional forms of communication. According to research by the Pew Research Centre:
- Trust in social media platforms is growing with more than half of US adults under 30 trusting information from social media, as much as they do the national news outlets
- The US public is concerned with “both-sideism” where both sides of an argument are given equal weighting, but 55 percent of US journalists disagree, arguing that not every side deserves the same exposure
- In White US adults, those with confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public have declined from 43 percent to 29 percent over the past year.
What this indicates is that trust in publicly available materials is falling, and through that loss of trust, comes concern about the validity of all information we consume. This provides scope for alternative facts to gain traction, relying on plausibility to gain credibility. What’s more, debunking these facts can have the unintended consequence of fuelling further support, represented as censorship and preventing individuals from accessing the truth. The issue is further muddied by the generative AI and disinformation campaigns that seek to deliberately sow doubt, as well as a level of skepticism without skill, which sees individuals concerned about fake news, but ill-equipped to accurately identify it.
Schmid, P., Betsch, C. Effective strategies for rebutting science denialism in public discussions. Nat Hum Behav 3, 931–939 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0632-4 available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0632-4
U.S. adults under 30 now trust information from social media almost as much as from national news outlets, Pew Research Centre. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/10/27/u-s-adults-under-30-now-trust-information-from-social-media-almost-as-much-as-from-national-news-outlets/
U.S. journalists differ from the public in their views of ‘bothsidesism’ in journalism, Pew Research Centre. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/07/13/u-s-journalists-differ-from-the-public-in-their-views-of-bothsidesism-in-journalism/
Americans’ Trust in Scientists, Other Groups Declines, Pew Research Centre. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2022/02/15/americans-trust-in-scientists-other-groups-declines/
McIntyre, Lee, How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason (2021). Published by MIT Press. Available at: https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780262545051/