There is no progress without persuasion, and there is no progress without active listening followed by compromise.Katharine Murphy, Guardian columnist
How should I persuade you?
I could present a powerful argument based on facts and evidence in a way that you understand, whether that be through words or mathematics or graphical presentations, perhaps even an animated video.
I can talk to you once, twice, five times about this topic presenting more and more facts each time, gently persuading you that the evidence is in favour of my argument.
Alternatively, I could lie.
I could present my argument in the same way through words or mathematics or various engaging graphics that are completely fabricated or bent a little to fit my purpose. I could fib or lie through my teeth and still persuade you that my argument was sound.
Sometimes we call this ‘spin’.
You, on the other hand, listen to my material and decide if I am serious, that I am worthy or just another snake-oil salesman.
This requires active listening because chances are something I said didn’t sound right. The hint of a porker requires that you understand when I am being truthful, pulling together evidence that exists, and where I’m fabricating everything for my advantage.
The onus of the persuasion is on me.
The onus of listening and whether or not you can be persuaded rests entirely on your shoulders.
If you are well-versed in the fine arts of scepticism, then my job will be tough.
Unless I have powerful evidence and excellent communication skills I could fall short. Any falsehoods and half-truths will be sniffed out and undermine all my efforts.
Even if I am convincing, you may not accept my argument.
Perhaps you have access to additional facts or an alternative interpretation that you believe fits the facts more precisely.
I may need to persuade more forcefully with my ninja-level spin. You will smile and tell me to take a hike.
Katharine Murphy’s quote embodies these two features of human interaction. Persuasion on behalf of the person interested in getting their opinion across and scepticism through active listening on the part of the recipient of the information. What Murphy calls progress is when those two things come together.
It seems that humans need advocacy as much as they need scepticism. The balance between the two has kept us more or less honest for centuries.
In modern times, however, persuasion has grown in power even without evidence.
All of us are accessible via any number of communication tools plus we remain vulnerable to emotional tugs and attention spans are short. Few have the time to pay all that much attention. Skilled persuaders can hoodwink and dupe easily because most people do not actively listen.
And when we do listen, many of us don’t have the skills to unpack the truth from the fiction, often believing in the character played by the actor and not the actor. Our scepticism skills fail us.
Persuasion is not progress
It is also true that the fine art of spin is in our DNA.
I can hear the first farmers peddling their bushels of ancient grains in the market place with claims of how their crop will store much better through the winter because of its lighter colour.
The modern version began in earnest in the 1950s with the arrival of advertising. Persuasion to purchase has been honed over the decades into something that is almost unassailable.
Fruit loops are good for you because they have fruit flavour.
But persuasion is not progress.
Scepticism is necessary
Scepticism appears throughout the history of philosophy as the thinker who decides that what he’s hearing is not actually how the universe operates.
A sceptic is not afraid of sacred cows or conventional wisdom but is always asking if the opinion presented fits the facts and looks for alternative views of the world that are more consistent with the evidence.
The sceptic can focus on the facts and place them into context. This is both a skill and a task.
Making decisions through a sceptical view of the evidence presented through persuasion is powerful. When the sceptic listens the evidence must be strong enough to both convince and not get corrupted by spin.
Compromise in this way will be as close to evidence-based decision support as we are going to get.
Progress through compromise
That progress comes from a compromise between persuasion and scepticism is an exciting idea. It is the pointy end of how evidence is used in society, where decisions are made.
It means that spin can be taken a little more seriously for what it hides than what it intends.
Suppose I want you to eat more sugar because I am growing it in abundance and the market price is tanking eating into my profits. You are sceptical because the evidence points to refined sugar as a major cause of obesity and related health issues.
You are forced to look closely at the medical evidence to evaluate my persuasive spin and reveal my motives.
The compromise is that you vote for the progressive party that will pay my ecosystem service payments to transition my production from sugar to regenerative agriculture with multiple crops.
In other words, spin can be useful. It can help the listener know when to be sceptical and when to gather or evaluate evidence.
It is not at all bad.
Reposting is fine by me.