Correcting v. convincing

Arthur@AmeriNZ noted his seventh Twitterversary this spring, which he Tweeted then posted it to Facebook and Google+. How terribly meta.

Then Facebook went and spoiled it all when someone said something stupid.

It was no one I knew—a friend of a friend—but it was such utter delusional nonsense that my jaw literally (yes, literally) dropped (remaining literally attached to my head, fortunately). It doesn’t matter who said what to whom about what; suffice it to say, the person’’s comment was factually wrong, silly, and… delusional.

It was an outrage! Errors needed to be corrected, truth and facts needed to be asserted! So, I did — nothing.

Time was, I would have jumped in to fight for truth and facts, but not today. Lately, I’ve had the strangest sense that I can’t tell who is a troll and who is expressing sincerely held… opinions. We all know there are some sick folks out there who get their jollies out of upsetting people on the Internet, and these days I can’t tell those people from real shockingly misinformed people.

So, these days, more often that not, I just say nothing. I’ll engage with people I actually know, whether I agree with them or not, because we can have a civil discussion…

I tend to agree. I’m not going to change the opinion of a troll, so what’s the point?

It reminded, actually, of this article on science literacy:

The other day I was standing around with a few friends arguing about ergonomics… At one point, my friend referenced a presentation that was chock full of the worst kinds of sensationalist science writing…

As a scientist and writer myself, I jumped all over the presentation, calling it sham science, and pointing out the many ways in which it was confusing or obscuring the truth. Expecting to be met with nodding approval, I instead faced several annoyed looks and the strong feeling that I was being wished out of the room. I didn’t understand what was wrong – they had presented a piece of evidence, and I had summarily shot it down. Isn’t that what arguing is all about? Instead of feeling right, I felt like a jerk.

And then I realized something: it didn’t matter whether I was right; nobody was listening to me anymore.

Many scientists run into this situation on a daily basis, but understanding this problem digs into one of the biggest crises facing scientific research today: there’s a difference between being right and being persuasive. The first entails having the facts straight, and the second means convincing someone else to believe them.

So even in person, the methodology of the presentation matters.

So if there are histomaps of 4,000 years of human civilization and 10,000 years of history, you may very well be taken by the presentation, even if the facts are, let us say, dubious.


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