It’s all about the source



Ever noticed how hard it is to convince a person of a new idea? Something such as one sports team being superior to another, that human activity influences global climate, or that religions aren’t actually true?

If you’re not reading Basic Instructions, you should be.

It turns out, it’s not so much the quality of the information you use, or what facts are presented.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.


It turns out, if a person has already decided on one side of an argument, presenting them with a well balanced argument of pro v. con is unlikely to persuade them. When people already have their mind made up, a presentation of both sides of an argument causes them to entrench further, not to update their ideas,

What explains this? The answer is called “biased assimilation,” which means that people assimilate new information in a selective fashion. When people get information that supports what they initially thought, they give it considerable weight. When they get information that undermines their initial beliefs, they tend to dismiss it.

“Seriously, we’re in black and white.”

What seems to matter the most? If it’s not the argument itself, if it’s not the facts alone, what does it?

People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss.


It’s people who they used to think they agreed with that are the most persuasive.

It follows that turncoats, real or apparent, can be immensely persuasive. If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.

GGG is very persuasive.

For example, on global warming: If Al Gore, Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” and Neil deGrasse Tyson came out in a joint press conference and said “Hey, I’m not sure this climate change thing is true,” that would make a really strong impression on most of us.

When Ken Ham announces that he’s got proof of god, nobody cares. If Richard Dawkins made the same announcement? Huge difference.

 What matters most may be not what is said, but who, exactly, is saying it.

What’s all this mean for you? In the most practical terms, if you’re still in the closet about your atheism, and you have people close to you that think negatively about anyone different from them….you’re the best person to help change that view point.



You can find me on twitter, @DrDavidBurger

I recruit in Kansas City,

About doctorburger
  • notachristian

    “…you have people close to you that think negatively about anyone different from them….you’re the best person to help change that view point…”
    You close a post with this just one post after making an entire post stating that anyone you you disagree with is an idiot. I fully support your right to have your beliefs, even if you think Astrologists are indeed idiots, but you should try to be consistent, if your going to blatantly hate everything you disagree with don’t extol upon others that they should feel differently about you. Why not just conglomerate into a giant hate fest of people who think everyone ‘else’ is an idiot, sounds like great fun. As an atheist myself who believes that only by letting people believe what they want to believe so long as it isn’t hurting anyone can we manage to coexist in this world without killing each other you have singly lowered my impression of my fellow atheists as a people whom I desire to communicate with.
    I’m sure you and your fellow commentators will have fun berating this comment and me for making it. So go at it – I will likely not return to read them.

    • Joe

      Well, seeing as different people wrote the two posts, I’d say that there is no inconsistancy here. Furthermore, reading though JT’s astrology post, the closest thing to calling people idiots he says is “I’m glad they acknowledge that the conversation can include requests for evidence and conclusions of “that’s bullshit” when the evidence either sucks or is non-existent.” You’ll note that he is calling the conclusions bullshit, not the people, so no blatant hate there. Yes, there is some mockery (especially in the comments), but silly beliefs (note that I’m talking about the beliefs, not the people) deserve to be mocked.
      Also, I think it is kind of rude to make (incorrect) assumptions about the commentors here, as well as some fairly hyperbolic claims about a “hate fest”, and then not stick around for us to prove you wrong.

  • DJJ

    Well, notachristian, you’ll note that he doesn’t actually call anyone an idiot. Not in this piece. His concluding point that a cloested atheist’s uncloseting might have a powerful effect upon others, with the goal of helping people drop what JT thinks are incorrect worldviews is not unreasonable or hateful.

    There is a difference between saying that someone is wrong and saying that they are an idiot. I think that wanting people who have issues with their faiths (such as having realized that significant parts of it make no goddamn sense whatsoever) to see that other people have also seen problems and have decided to go all non-theistic is a good thing. Let people see that it is safe to be an atheist, and they’ll take the option a lot more seriously. It’s not like the Catholic church can set us on fire for it anymore.

    Also, when two people disagree about something that is a matter of fact rather than opinion, a statement about the world rather than a matter of taste, at minimum one of them is wrong. Since people make better decisions when they have good information, testing ideas against each-other and seeing which, if any of them, withstand scrutiny is a good thing. Just letting people believe any old thing without questioning it for fear of being rude is unhelpful.

    It’s the difference between:

    “That’s dumb. You’re an idiot.”
    “I think you might be wrong there. Let’s investigate further.”

    Or at least that’s how I see it.

  • Lev Lafayette

    Interesting.. in a round about way, it argues the virtues of peer review. There’s one other quote which I think the article could have included.

    “To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth.” (Wittgenstein)