The Mistakes We Make During Arguments

Whether you’re arguing with theists (or even other atheists), you’re going to see the same kind of logical fallacies used time and time again. Cracked has a list of five of them that people all too often:

#5. We’re Not Programmed to Seek “Truth,” We’re Programmed to “Win”

#4. Our Brains Don’t Understand Probability

#3. We Think Everyone’s Out to Get Us

#2. We’re Hard-Wired to Have a Double Standard

#1. Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

Here’s how things would work in a perfect world: You and your friend are on opposing sides of an issue. After reaching an impasse, you pull out a piece of information so precise, so compelling, so perfect, that your buddy does a 180 and completely changes his mind. You high five and skip off into the distance.

And this probably has happened … as long as it was a subject that neither of you particularly cared about. But if it was some emotionally charged issue, like abortion? God help you.

In addition to examples of each, there’s also the science behind what’s going on in your mind and what to remember the next time you’re in an argument.

I know it’s easy to believe no one ever changes their minds about opinions they hold so tightly, but — as many, many, many atheists can attest to — it happens all the time. You just need enough of a nudge to get you thinking a little more critically about your position. Once that first brick comes down, it’s not very long before the whole house tumbles.

That’s why we have to keep making our case, even when it doesn’t seem like it’s getting through to religious people.

(Thanks to Darrell for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • gski

    So many times I’ve had to say “No, that’s not what I said.”  I wish they taught listening as a subject in school.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000019835554 Patrina Chamney

    The Cracked article is great; well worth reading in full.

  • Mattincinci

    best line …we have the evidence evolution is true end of argument we win! lol

  • Ronlawhouston

    Wait – aren’t those pretty compelling arguments that you’re wasting your time and your breath on the religious?

  • deityfree

    Analizing the premise of each argument saves me a lot of grief. Assume very little.

  • Jim Howard

    The religious aren’t the only ones. My wife, a dyed-in-the-wool anti-vaxer, has declared her unwillingness to allow me to “keep making my case” (Don’t confuse me with the facts!).  So, to preserve the peace vaccinations are now a taboo subject.  Sad, so sad.  At least she is no longer a Christian.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      Ever since my ex-wife read one of Jenny McCarthy’s books, she’s been the same way. Ohhh, the arguments that have ensued, and the impasses at which we have found ourselves…

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    that was a good article. Read it a couple days ago. I like that they point out that we all do these things, and we do. Even us atheists often believe that those we oppose are being intentionally dishonest and lying.

    It’s impossible to learn anything from a conversation with someone who you think is lying to you. The more arguments you get into with those lying extremists from the other side of the aisle, the more you learn about how they lie, the faster your brain turns off after they start talking

    No matter what side you’re on, you’ve played that game, and all it does is give you an excuse to ignore everything the other person says. You’re dismissing their points as lies, they’re doing the same to you, so why are you even having the conversation? Because you like making everyone else at the dinner table feel tense and awkward?

    Either admit that maybe this person honestly thinks what they’re saying is true, or just talk about sports.

    I know we don’t all do this, but I’ve talked to many of us that do.

    And winning shouldn’t be the goal of the conversation, but it’s like our brains are genetically programmed to think of it as a win or lose contest.

  • Rick Evans

    #1 came up a lot during my Aikido training only couched differently: “Do you want to achieve balance, or do you want to win?”. If you win, your opponent loses and will want to win next time and fight harder. With arguments, the same thing is true.

    It’s that hardest part of ‘social Aikido’, even harder than physical. 

  • SJH

    Some corrections to the quotation above (in my opinion):
    Here’s how things would work in a perfect world: You and your friend are on opposing sides of an issue. You are open minded so you discuss this issue knowing that there is a good chance that you might be wrong. After reaching an impasse, you discover that your buddy has some element of truth in what he is saying. You realize that his ideas are flawed in some areas and valuable in others. You proceed to pull out a piece of information so precise, so compelling, that you and your buddy meet somewhere in the middle. You high five and skip off into the distance. 

  • Drew

    “That’s why we have to keep making our case, even when it doesn’t seem like it’s getting through to religious people.”

    whew….glad the flaws of human argument only apply to our conversational adversaries. we really dodged a bullet here.

  • Alla & Greg M

    In my opinion most bad stuff happens because of stupidity rather than malice.  It is difficult, but I try to make it my default reaction.

    ::::Jim::::

    Your wife seems to make some progress – she is no longer a Christian.  Give her some time.

  • Rich Wilson

    Here’s a fantastic TED with a similar theme.  What does it feel like to be wrong?

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html

  • Elan

    I can’t agree fully with the article. There are some elements of truth in it. The ideas are flawed in certain areas and valuable in others. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.j.jordan Scott James Jordan

    Here’s how things would work in a perfect world: You
    and your friend are on opposing sides of an issue. After reaching an
    impasse, you pull out a piece of information so precise, so compelling,
    so perfect, that your buddy does a 180 and completely changes his mind. You high five and skip off into the distance.And
    this probably has happened … as long as it was a subject that neither
    of you particularly cared about. But if it was some emotionally charged
    issue, like abortion? God help you.

    Ray “Bananabrain” Comfort would disagree with you…
    …but he’s a lying manipulative puddle of slime, so I guess he doesn’t count.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

    I am guilty of all of them. I argue very passionately and I will seek information to try to get my side to win. My ability to give in is somewhat dependent on how irritating my opponent is. If they are super nice, it’s easy. It’s when they are all vindictive that it’s hard. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Whether you’re arguing with theists (or even other atheists), you’re
    going to see the same kind of logical fallacies used time and time
    again.

    I don’t think you are seeing the point of the article. We all do these things. We may not do them all the time or every time towards certain issues or people, but at some point more or less, we all do these things. Even I do it sometimes, and it’s important to recognize that.

  • Charles Black

    I have to admit that the article really does open my eyes concerning my prejudices.
    After all isn’t to err human?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Mistake #6: Turning to Cracked.com as a source of reliable information
     

    • BinaryStar

      Actually, quite a few of their articles are both well-written and well-researched. Just overlook the sometimes juvenile humor.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2TWGMADC2XB6MTVXYH4METVWSY Joe Ann

    I tend not to “argue” anymore rather I interject small comments that hopefully promote the other person to think about their stance.  I have actually noticed a shift in one of my employees  who was a closet racist/homophobic, who now seems to see others as people rather than their skin color or sexual preferences first.  But this shift took over 3 years. Maybe I am just deluding myself, but one small comment at a time at the right moment seems to have a much more beneficial response, than an in your face debate in my experience.

  • Rich Wilson

    We really can’t handle the idea that someone else would have a different opinion.  We often attribute it to a) they’re evil, b) they’re stupid or c) they just don’t understand us.

    So we invoke Godwin, or call them stupid, or explain it- again.  Or some combination.


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