Can We Mock and/or Threaten People Into Changing Their Beliefs?

"Accept these facts as true, or prepare to eat shit."

Imagine you're at a bar, sipping a Song of Ice and Fire Cocktail and conversing with a stranger. 

Stranger: "You know, studies have shown that vodka prevents cancer."

You: "Are you sure? That doesn't sound right."

Stranger: "Listen, fucko. You either accept that vodka prevents cancer, or I'm going to smash this glass and grind the shards into your genitals."

At that point, you'd assume that guy is either deranged or that you're being filmed for some kind of TikTok prank. But he's really doing nothing more than demonstrating the single most popular method by which humans spread information: "Accept this as true, or we will inflict harm on you."

I think this is weird and kind of sucks, so let’s talk about it:

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5. Nothing has fucked up the advancement of human knowledge as hard as this

True story: Until I was in my 20s, I believed that evolution was a fringe theory that scientists secretly knew was a lie but perpetuated out of a Satanic desire to undermine Christianity. "How is that even possible?" you might ask. "Didn't you learn about Darwin in elementary school? Have you secretly been a dumbass this whole time?"

The answer is that I was raised in a Pentecostal "speaking in tongues" church and, as such, was taught that by far the most important virtue was not heroism or generosity, but belief. I was told that the most grievous sin was to fail to believe certain facts about God and Jesus and that I could thus either believe them, or be punished forever. That was their version of "having faith."

That the church's defense against science-based doubters was threats instead of proof should have told me everything I needed to know about the strength of their case.

And yet...

Today, I’m surrounded by smart people promoting sound, fact-based positions using essentially the same method as the church. If you see some guy on social media espousing something deeply unscientific (that vaccines are mutating your genes or whatever the bullshit is this week) I see far more heapings of scorn than links to studies. The message we're sending isn’t, "You should change this belief because it is incorrect" but rather, "You should change this belief because otherwise you will face punishment in the form of insults and mass shaming."

This is not about rudeness or even compassion. It’s about the simple question of, "Is there any value in spreading information this way?" Because…

4. This can set you on a course that is hard as hell to reverse

"But it doesn’t matter if we’re jerks about it, we have the science on our side!" you say, and you're absolutely right about that second part. On vaccines, at least.

We did not have the science on our side when governments were closing parks and beaches in the name of COVID prevention. We've known for over a year that both present very low transmission risk and, more importantly, allow people to avoid far more dangerous indoor gatherings. And yet, we acted the exact same way toward doubters. It wasn't, "You have bad information," but rather, "You are a selfish asshole for thinking this virus is not highly transmissible in loose outdoor gatherings."

Even when the science that proved us wrong became readily available, it was hard for us to update our priors because the "believe or be tarred as a sinner" method doesn't really allow it. If you’ve already acted like a dick toward pandemic beachgoers, you now have motivation to cling to that position regardless of whether or not it’s supported by data.

I think this is a problem. Like, the kind of problem that undermines civilizations.

Think about it: If it's true that the only way to convince the unvaccinated (or anyone else) is via insults and shaming, then that means the supporting data is irrelevant. The truths that we as a society will adopt will instead be based entirely on which group is the most effective at mass coordinated bullying.

3. Yes, I Know Misinformation is Spread by Malicious Assholes

Look, this isn't my first day on the planet. I'm fully aware of why progressives treat wrong information as a moral failure, which is that we assume it's offered in bad faith. That's often a safe assumption; "Mexico is sending rapists across the border" isn't just incorrect, it's a malicious falsehood born from a preexisting prejudice. You're under no obligation to engage in a good-faith debate with every infographic "proving" that we're in the middle of a white genocide or whatever.

The problem is that this can ease us right into an assumption that all data that counters our priors is offered in bad faith. And guess what, kids: That’s the exact rationale by which the church resisted science. "They don't really care about whether or not the sun revolves around the earth," they said, "they just want to undermine our way of life so that they can sin with impunity!"

Bad faith sucks. The pervasive assumption of bad faith is worse. It’s catastrophic to the pursuit of the truth and the advancement of human progress.

If we're wrong about some position we’ve previously bitterly defended (say, if it turns out the harm of learning loss is greater than the harm of reopening in-person classrooms) then we should be eager to find out so we can course correct. If you instead take a defensive stance out of an unspoken belief that your side is 100% correct on every factual issue and that the opposing side is 100% wrong, well, let’s just say you’re triggering flashbacks to my evangelical youth.


2. And please note that persuasion-via-threat only works up to a point

I said in the intro that the broken-glass-to-the-genitals method of persuasion works and it does, in the sense that 40% of Americans still don't believe in evolution. But note that it only worked for me while I was inside the evangelical bubble - as soon as I went to college (and later, joined the Internet) many of my beliefs collapsed faster than a beaver dam. And note that I’m using that term to refer to a giant dam made of live, annoyed beavers.

That means that if your goal is to convert people to your side, threat of collective punishment from the group (in the form of mass shaming/mockery) is pointless. Why would someone from outside the tribe see that as anything but a badge of honor? Go to a flat earther message board and watch them taunt you as a "glober." Not only does it not convince you, it doesn’t even hurt your feelings.

And then there's the virtue signaling aspect. Note that my church's threat was twofold: Eternal damnation in the next world and being shunned by my peer support group in this one. But if you don't really think God would send you to Hell for believing Darwin, then avoiding the latter punishment doesn't require you to believe in Adam and Eve at all; it only requires you to say you do.

We see this play out in the real world all the time. COVID vaccines still poll very poorly among Republicans but lots of those very Republicans are quietly getting the shot anyway with the Delta Variant running wild. So there’s yet another reason why beliefs professed only to avoid backlash from peers can topple in the face of a strong breeze.

1. So what the fuck do we do about this?

There are two points I'd like you to take from this post:

A) Be very careful of mixing statements of fact with statements of moral belief.

And here I mean, be careful of mixing them up in your head. "We should do everything we can to help the poor" is a statement of morals. "Globalism has made the developing world poorer" is a statement of fact and one that, to my knowledge, is about as well-supported by the data as a flat earth

There are actually lots of positions with no clear consensus among experts that my political bubble treats as holy writ. The data does not, in fact, conclusively show that communities do better with fewer police or that there is no point at which government spending/debt becomes a problem, or that fixing public schools is as simple as increasing funding.

There are certain well-meaning people out there who are almost viscerally disgusted by me even sharing those links, believing that platforming such data can only be motivated by evil (or, as they would call it, "neoliberalism"). But I’d be careful of this raw emotional response; it’s usually due to that ingroup superstition that certain facts aren’t incorrect, necessarily, but tainted. "I have seen impure outsiders cite these facts! Put them away and ask for forgiveness."

B) You shouldn't be mystified when people believe vaccines are a government conspiracy or that Qanon is true, etc.

They believe their nonsense for the same reason I thought my textbooks were lying about the origin of the species: They are surrounded by friends, co-workers and a support group that will punish them if they believe otherwise.

We exist in a world in which every social media user feels obligated to hold forceful opinions on even highly technical issues that stymie experts (Can climate change be mitigated without nuclear power? Exactly what minimum wage would maximize quality of life for the poor? Are international humanitarian crises ever improved by military intervention?). Because no normal person can fully research all of these, we are usually just going to go with the herd.

You can call it irrational, but it really isn't. Humans need a social support group to survive both on a practical and emotional level. If believing in a flat earth grants you access to support you'd otherwise lack, then baby, let’s take the globe out the driveway and flatten that shit!

So, knowing this is the case, how would you change your approach when confronted by the misinformed? Knowing that scorn from our bubble might give them more credibility and support within theirs, is there a better way to change their minds?

Considering that no big problems can be solved unless a certain percentage of voter minds are changed, I suspect that figuring this out will decide the future of the species. Or maybe I just need to get off Twitter, idk.