Why We Can’t Persuade Each Other

Many people insist that political discussions in the United States are ugly and pointless because we have a “cultural divide.” Supposedly the U.S. population is divided into warring tribes who will never get along. It’s the Jets versus the Sharks, and there’s bound to be a rumble:

But if that were really true, then the cultural divide would be between families. It wouldn’t be within families! What we’re seeing is more like the Generation Gap that arose in the 1960s and lingered in the 1970s:

The popular television show All in the Family reflected a lot of discussions that were going on back then. Archie and Meathead could never agree on anything, but that’s largely because they weren’t supposed to. No good dramatist ever writes any dialog in which the characters agree with each other! Who wants to watch people sitting around agreeing with each other?

Democratic societies can function only if people find ways to resolve conflicts through persuasion. The classic textbook on methods of persuasion is Aristotle’s Rhetoric. According to Aristotle, there are three basic ways to persuade someone. He called them ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos means character. It refers to the authority and popularity of the speaker. Pathos means suffering or experience. It refers to the emotions. Logos means word. It refers to logical arguments.

Propaganda campaigns rely heavily on ethos and pathos. In science, however, ethos and pathos aren’t supposed to carry any weight at all. All that is supposed to matter is logos. Unfortunately, logos is the hardest kind of appeal to make or to understand. If you deprive people of the kind of education they would need to evaluate logical arguments, you leave them much more susceptible to propaganda.

This problem becomes most obvious in debates about science. Science is all about logos, but most people can respond only to ethos and pathos. If you persist in trying to use logos, you will bore or offend your audience, who may feel that you are a snob. At the same time, you may feel frustrated because your audience disrespects you, doesn’t understand what you are saying, and doesn’t seem to care that they don’t understand. The usual result is ugly name-calling all around.

The best way to prepare people to understand logical arguments is to teach them the traditional liberal arts, starting with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These basic disciplines will help them understand science and will help them take a meaningful part in discussions about scientific topics.

Photo by Jules Minus

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