The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Distinguishing the Epistemic and the Persuasive

The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook is a guide to evidence-based activism for atheists, agnostics, Humanists, and all freethinkers, designed to help us communicate better. Current posts in the series include:

The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Evidence-Based Atheist Activism
Go for the Gut – On the role of emotion in persuasion

Framing for Freethinkers - Introducing Lakoff’s concept of “Framing”
Mr. Jefferson, Reframe that Wall! – Changing the language of secularism to win more to our cause
Know the Audience – The single most important element of any persuasive campaign
Steel, Velvet, and the Honorable Duelist – Questioning the “Accommodationist/Firebrand” dichotomy
Logos, Ethos, Pathos – Aristotle’s classic peruasive tripod

Effective Epistemic and Persuasive Techniques are Not the Same

Freethinkers who wish to communicate effectively with the public are confronted by a significant problem: the difference between the epistemic and the persuasive. Put simply, the problem is this: the methods which are effective when determining what is true (our epistemic tools) are not the same methods which are effective at convincing others that something is true (our persuasive tools).

An example: if we want to determine whether there is a link between MMR vaccines and autism (there is not), we have to engage in scientific studies, clinical trials, longitudinal analyses of people who have had the jab, etc. This is an epistemic process: our aim is to discover the truth, to determine if there is, in fact, a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The processes we use to do this generally come under the heading of “science”: experimental tests in controlled settings. They reveal that there is not a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

So now we want to convince other people of the truth. We want to convince them that, regardless of what they may have heard in the media or from their friends, they should not believe that there is a link. How do we do that? Not through science. While it may seem that simply presenting people with the results of scientific studies should convince them, the evidence from other studies (studies into what makes people change their minds) shows that, generally, it does not. Indeed, walking people through scientific studies and presenting them with evidence has remarkably little effect on people’s views, much of the time. Consider: we live in an age in which everyone with an internet connection has access to huge amounts of scientific information, and yet exposure to such information has not led to huge upsurges in the percentage of people who believe in evolution, for instance, nor did it prevent the scare over MMR.

This is, on reflection, unsurprising: there is no reason why the best methods for discovering the truth should necessarily be the best methods for persuading people that something is true. The techniques we have developed – painstakingly, over centuries – for determining the truth, while they are extensions of natural processes of thought, are not themselves easy for human beings to perform. We are notoriously intellectually fickle, beset by all sorts of biases and prejudices, and even the best scientists are sometimes unable to follow the evidence where it leads. Why should we expect people with no genuine scientific training to be particularly receptive to highly technical forms of evidence which are generated by processes they don’t understand?

And yet there is a tendency among freethought activists to assume or assert that, if you just present people with the evidence, the evidence should “speak for itself”. Good arguments and good evidence are strong enough to stand alone, many think. Not so. Evidence never speaks for itself, and good arguments do not stand alone. The best arguments – if they are to be convincing – must always be supplemented with an intelligent respect for the ways in which human beings process information, the way they assess the trustworthiness of a messenger, the way emotions play a role in our thinking. To ignore what we know about persuasion, and to equate persuasive with epistemic pursuits, is to misunderstand the purpose of persuasive communication, and to dull the potential of our persuasive efforts.

Thinking carefully about how we communicate the truth – once we have discovered it – and recognizing that the techniques we use to communicate the truth aren’t necessarily the same as those we use to discover it, does not imply that we do not care about the truth. On the contrary: it demonstrates we care enough about the truth that we are willing to learn how best to communicate it. That’s what these posts are about.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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