Why Can’t We Have a Discussion?
Of late, many people are beginning to discover they are having difficulty communicating with their friends and their families. Usually this difficulty arises because they are arguing over beliefs in science or politics, global affairs, and facts or opinion. In this article I will argue the last point, that facts or opinion are why we are all struggling so much right now.
Where do we begin? Well, recently I was reading Facebook when one of my connections made some very powerful points about the ineffectiveness of Hydroxychloriquine when treating Covid-19. Another person did not delay in their response, but they began by asking for credentials, implying that my contact was not qualified to draw such conclusions simply because they were not a Medical Doctor (M.D.). “You really want credentials on Facebook,” I thought? But my friend responded masterfully, even providing what was requested (totally qualifying him to evaluate methodology), and then following up with some more excellent points.
I see this sort of exchange on Facebook a lot, so it got me thinking. Why do people exalt their own opinions even in the face of factual counterpoints which should end the conversation, both people should depart as friends, and both agree that one person was right and the other should adapt their opinion. That is not happening, but why not? I think the answer lies in the request for credentials and everyone’s own thought that their opinion is just as valid as everyone else’s.
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
” — Dr. Isaac Asimov
Our inability to have a discussion is because one’s opinion is not as valid as another’s in every instance, but even those with unsubstantiated claims think their opinion is just as valid. If we are talking about religion, perhaps all opinions are equal. If we are talking about political policies we prefer, right or left, then those opinions are relatively equal too with some caveats. If we are discussing the best breed of dog, or if cats are better than dogs, or if we want to figure out the best vacation destination, then all opinions should be mostly equally weighted. But there are topics when that is simply not true.
Consider credentials as a starting point, but only in the early part of the discussion. A diploma, degree, or advanced degree in a specific topic is a great place to begin. I always say high school creates a foundation upon which to build. A 4-year degree is meant to teach one to learn how to learn quickly, where to find information, how to judge the credibility of sources, and how to discern facts from misinformation. A Master’s degree teaches methods, specialization, and the application of knowledge in a specific field. A Ph.D. teaches the holder how to conduct research, create new methods for applications and the development of new knowledge, and it is highly specialized. All of these degrees force the learner to gain new insights, and they all train the holder’s in using logic and inference. Credentials such as degrees are a signal of expertise — but that signal can be wrong.
The degree is not the end of the story. That credential is important, and certainly says the holder has (or has had) a more systematic view of the events of the world, but that can change. Research methodologies are not easily understood by all people, and the skills degrade in time. If a degree holder does not practice their methods, read the writings of others in their field, or apply and evaluate those methods regularly, their expertise atrophies. Worse, very few people really get into the math of methodologies, or understand the fundamentals of something like the Gauss-Markov assumptions which are a necessary building block for virtually all statistical models. Here is where our problem begins to be illuminated.
It does not matter if one is a Medical Doctor or a Physicist, an Economist or Political Scientist, a Psychologist or an Anthropologist, they are all scientists and the methods they use are similar and often shared. One does not need to understand how chemicals are mixed together to create a vaccine if they are only evaluating its efficacy. The scientist can read the paper, ask some basic questions to evaluate the validity of the statistical methods used, if it met the necessary assumptions to be a valid model, and then explore the paper’s conclusions before accepting or disputing that paper’s results. Still, if one has not practiced recently or if one does not regularly read and evaluate peer-reviewed articles, their skill to draw such conclusions disappears — it is a use it or lose it skill set. This is important because science is reported, often overturned, and better science replaces it through this process. Right now we are seeing it in real time — some studies have overturned other studies, thus invalidating earlier conclusions drawn from less reliable methods.
But I still have not answered why we cannot have discussions. It is often said that our opinions are all valid, but that is not necessarily true. When one is presented with evidence by someone with expertise, one should evaluate such evidence and accept it if it is convincing and ignore it if it is not. When person A is a scientist presenting factual evidence, and person B is a lay person arguing opinion, the discussion is not equal. Person B should not assume they both simply have a coequal opinion, when Person A probably is not even presenting an opinion at all — facts are not equal to opinion. That is not to argue that Person A is right simply because they are a scientist, but when there is disagreement or misunderstanding it is more probable the scientist is correct when compared to the layperson. The rational response is usually to defer to the expert unless one has convincing counter evidence to substantiate a stronger argument — if one does, scientists will listen.
How does the layperson distinguish between facts and opinion, and how does the scientist do it? First one must evaluate credibility. What does one know of the person with whom they are having the discussion or whose opinion they are reading? Is the person a scientist? Do they often have unfounded “opinions” or do they usually back their statements with strong evidence? Does one know the person to be currently practicing in their field, that they are well informed, and frequently reporting to the world what they read? Have they recently published in a peer-reviewed journal? If they do not regularly publish, do they attend conferences, speaking publicly with their peers, and are they widely respected to the best of your knowledge? How do their peers report their opinion of them? Are they a news anchor hosting a show (if so, this does NOT automatically grant them credibility)?
Only you can know this of your connections, but answering these questions can help you discern if they are presenting fact or opinion in most instances. Judge yourself and then measure the credibility of the people you trust — but avoid getting yourself into an echo chamber.
We are all frustrated right now, and that’s especially true for people of scientific backgrounds. There is too much misinformation being shared and propagated on social media, and it is maddening. Our friends, our families, people we respect are falling prey to bad research, poorly constructed arguments, unfounded optimism, and good old-fashioned misinformation and propaganda.
It is sad and disheartening, but let me give you my opinion — have more faith in the ones you know and love when they tell you they disagree and provide you valid evidence, arguments, and fact-based logic on why. Be willing to update your beliefs and hopes when you are presented with factual information, and do your best to recognize it when you see it. Stop resisting information from trusted sources just because you disagree with it, and begin re-evaluating why you think what you think when those you trust present you evidence that refutes what you thought was true. It is not about the credentials, it is about the practice, experience, knowledge, and your knowledge of them.
Here are some red flags to watch for, relating to Person B from before:
Do those disagreeing with you often resort to name-calling when someone disagrees? Do they argue in large, all-encompassing generalities without the ability to defend their position with specifics? Do they say, “well I don’t know all the facts like you, I just know what I know,” or do they say something similar? When facts are not present, do they present a conspiracy theory to justify their position or just say they are unsure? … Do you do these things?
If the answer to any or all of the above is yes, then that is a signal that one is seeking to confirm their own bias.
It is perfectly natural to seek positive information, hopeful results. Everyone wants the political system to stop being so terrible right now, and nobody wants the virus to continue. We all wish drugs like Hydroxychloriquine worked, but wishing won’t make it so. We can be hopeful without wasting time and resources on things which have been discredited by the scientific community.
Science updates, and many who are not scientists see the constant flow of information, updates being reported in real time, and are misunderstanding the updating process as bad science when it is not. All opinions are not equally founded, and often facts are being mistaken as opinion in this process. Scientists are notoriously harsh to each other, and that is why the peer review process is so important. When an article is discredited it does not mean it has been silenced; it means the scientific methodology may have had flaws and/or better science is replacing it.
Keep your head up and stay strong, but also be patient. We are all tired, and bored, and frustrated, and ready for this to all end so things can return to normal, but adopting disproven methods or believing misinformation will not bring a cure any quicker. Let the scientific method and process work. More importantly, allow science to update your opinion even when you want to be right but learn from a trusted friend you were wrong. Doing that will help you have discussions, and we will all be made better, happier, and less frustrated when you do.
Here are some great pointers for judging credibility, and credit to my highly respected colleague, Mr. Bill Manhire: