Why We Often Defy Reason To Defend & Protect Our Identity

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others Who Defy Reason
Philosopher of science Lee McIntyre shares 5 key insights from his new book, How to Talk to a Science Denier.

Jonathan Swift once said that you cannot reason somebody out of something they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place. But if a denier’s belief is not based on evidence, then what is it based on? The answer is identity.

A denier will often tell you that they’re convinced by the evidence, but when you then ask them, “OK, so what evidence could convince you that you were wrong?” they have nothing to say. This precise thing happened to me when I visited the Flat Earth International Conference in Denver, Colorado in 2018. Although I didn’t convince any Flat Earthers to give up their views on the spot, I did learn that by letting them talk, then asking questions, I could get them to listen to what I had to say. I came away with the feeling that what they were missing was not a proper set of facts, but a sense of trust. They felt alienated and displaced from the larger culture, which was full of elites and experts who were condescending to them and always telling them what to do. In this environment, they felt justified in clinging to outlandish beliefs that defined an alternative community and identity. They thought that the experts and scientists were lying to them, and that the world was filled with either conspirators or sheep.

In some ways, they honestly believed that they were being more scientific than the scientists. That’s why you have to be careful not to shove facts down a science denier’s throat. If you want to convince them, you have to focus not just on what they believe, but why they believe it. Always remember that denialist views are not just what they believe—it’s who they are.

In trying to talk to people like this, I find I lose my patience almost immediately because more often than not, any “facts” they provide to try to refute my facts are often incorrect because they’re usually misinterpreting the meaning of what’s being said by the experts. Often it’s because they are just looking at one fact and base most of their argument on it, rather than looking at all of the facts all together and seeing the bigger picture (which is often highly complex).

What is evidently clear in discussions with them though is a repeated emphasis on wanting “freedom” and “choice”, as well as a disdain for an opposing force trying to “control” them. So I’m noticing the same thing as well. This has very little to do with facts and more to do with their sense of identity which is feeling jeopardized and lost by external forces beyond their control. And notice how closely this symbolically describes the pandemic overall which is why many deny the reality and severity of it.

In Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s book Immunity to Change, they talk about this exact very same thing. In a world which is rapidly changing, they talk about how we need to change with it, transitioning and transforming ourselves in the process. But often we can’t and the primary reason why is because our current sense of self-identity is actually impeding us from doing so (which is why creativity to me is the ability to “step out of your own way”).

But your identity, comprised of your current worldview, is not doing this to be malicious. It’s actually doing it as a built in defence mechanism. In effect, our identity’s “immunity system” is trying to protect and preserve itself and you along with it. Yet in doing so, it’s standing in the way of our own growth and development, even when we may have a strong desire to change (as I can attest to myself).

So the obstacles we often face to change aren’t fact-based but identity-based. So until we can go below the surface of ourselves and see how our patterns of belief are no longer helping us but hampering our growth, we won’t be able to course correct and navigate a new path for ourselves.

By Nollind Whachell

Questing to translate Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey into The Player’s Handbook for the roleplaying game called Life, thus making vertical (leadership) development an accessible, epic framework for everyone.

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