A Different Debate: What I Learned

While my Mom was here over the holiday, we got into a debate about belief and evidence. She ended up stooping to ad hominem and calling me an extremist because I base my beliefs on what can be proved by science. I was also being double-teamed.  My eldest thought it would be fun to play Devil’s Advocate even though he leans more towards critical thinking.

Here’s what I learned.  My family doesn’t know how to have a logical debate. They felt that they won because they made the point that I am “an extremist” in my views. I pointed out that I was willing to change my mind when presented with real, testable evidence and believers generally won’t. Somehow that didn’t seem to matter to them though. I never did get answer as to why they were not “extremists” for not changing their minds when confronted with evidence.

What I did about it: The next morning when Mom was alone I let her know I was still irked at being called an extremist. I asked her if she understood that she had committed a logical fallacy with that argument. She didn’t know because she had no idea what a logical fallacy was. So I handed her my new print copy of “The Skeptic’s Dictionary” that I got for Xmas. While she was thumbing through that, I went to the Skeptic’s Guide To The Universe website and printed out the Top 20 Logical Fallacies for her to read. She found all kinds of interesting info while thumbing through SkepDic and kept getting off track for what she originally started looking for. But that’s okay. She was learning to be open to new points of view.

Even though the original discussion didn’t go as well as I would have liked, the follow-up went spectacularly well. All in all, I’m happy that, in the end, I was able to help educate her. I’m also going to be sending her Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid books and probably a few other extra things from the site. I’m very proud of my Mom. Even though she got caught up in the passion that a good debate brings out, she is willing to look at things from a different perspective. And that’s what I try to do here: help people develop critical thinking skills through education.



  1. Panda said,

    December 29, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Oh…do we have so much in common! In fact, I used to end arguments with my family with the ironic phrase, “Only stupid people use ad hominems!” to which my family would stare at me blankly 🙂 It was my way of reassuring myself that the only reason I didn’t win the debate was that they didn’t understand what logical debate was!

    The most current debate for me revolves around the environmental decisions we are making as future parents. The whole fam seems to have jumped on the cloth diaper issue and are quick to call me a “hippy” or say things like “we’ll see…I give it two weeks!” About 10 minutes into the conversation we are suddenly talking about the organic revolution and any other hippy-type behaviors that have been stereotypically attached to our decisions. Sigh.

    One word: futile.

  2. latsot said,

    December 30, 2010 at 4:21 am

    In my parents’ day, formal logic wasn’t taught in schools and neither of my parents are educated beyond school level, other than vocationally. Without this background, it’s a little unfair for me to expect them to understand any fallacies they commit. I’ve explained several to them and they understand the concept of a fallacy perfectly well, but they don’t understand or don’t trust how they relate to real arguments in real life.

    So when I point out for instance that an argument is circular, they have two difficulties. First, it’s hard for them to tease out the circular logic simply because they don’t have any experience thinking about things in such abstract terms (arguments about arguments). Second, they might accept that in principle the argument is circular, but not trust that it means they’re wrong: it seems to them like a sort of trick. They think I’m trying to confuse them.

    This is compounded by the fact that they’re my parents. They remember me as a child, can’t help but think of me as a child, and when pressed tend to revert to a “because I say so” attitude. My telling them they’re wrong puts them into a defensive mode – especially if I’m right – because they can’t help but see me as a cheeky child.

    I deak with these issues by trying to keep the abstract out of arguments: to root them in examples and to bite my tongue when fallacies crop up. This is hard, of course, and sometimes not possible. For example, if the core of their entire position comes down to circular reasoning, I have to explain why.

    The outcome is usually unsatisfactory. They tend to concede that my arguments are correct, but that they’re still right anyway. Or they’re right in some fictional broader sense. Or that they’re morally right. In other words, they tend to justify their beliefs by redefining what ‘correct’ means in that case. And even then, the next time we encounter a circular argument, I have to explain it all over again, because they’re not used to this kind of abstract thought. It’s frustrating.

    If the argument is about religion (they are very religious) then they tend to get angry if I score a point, even if it’s not a very important one. Just the other day, my mother became angry when – as part of a conversation rather than an argument – I mentioned that Jesus – if he existed – almost certainly wasn’t born in December. Significantly, she said she knew it wasn’t the 25th but that it was definitely sometime around December. This suggests to me that the actual date isn’t important to her (and I wouldn’t expect it to be, she’s pretty sensible in most things) and what she was angry about was my contradicting with my damned evidence something she’d unquestioningly believed her whole life.

    And this was just part of a humourous anecdote!

  3. jwalker1960 said,

    December 30, 2010 at 11:38 am

    It is quite the experience learning just how incredibly prevalent credulous thinking is, even among those we know well. It is also interesting how some people can think rationally about some things, but not others. It just goes to show why what we do it so important. You are so right when you say that education is the key. You are managing to educate your mom, not to mention all those who read this blog and that is so important.

  4. Doctor Whom said,

    December 31, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Good for you, educating your mother like that. In my experience, many people have never learned how to have a logical debate simply because no one has bothered to tell them that such a thing exists. Sometimes, when you explain it to them, you can almost see the light bulbs switching on over their heads.

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