As someone who spent a lot of time in debate groups and debating others online, I often found myself asking if this was a fruitless endeavour. Am I wasting my time? I thought. Am I changing other minds? Are other minds changing mine? Am I learning? Am I growing?
In this article, I hope to describe (in general) the types of debate and some of their issues as well as address the topic of changing minds and what else one might gain from debate.
Types of Debate
The formal Debate (sometimes competitive debate) takes on a variety of forms but in general, it is a moderated debate with at least 2 parties with different views on a particular topic, each taking turns to introduce, defend and question. Speaking time is usually limited by time.
The debates are usually scored by judges and are based on the quality of the debate, one’s ability to rebuke challenges and so on.
Even in a formal setting, it is possible to be completely wrong and win a debate.
So the main issue with a formal debate is that it is not actually about the content itself but how good people are at debating. It’s scored by judges who are supposed to be impartial to the content and focus on this.
In general, a formal debate won’t change anyone’s mind – especially if the teams are arguing for what they believe in. The main area where a mind might be changed is where someone is undecided on an issue and one team is particularly charismatic in their presentation. Dry facts alone rarely change a mind – and we’ll come to this later.
The YouTube debate sometimes tries to replicate the formal debate, in so much that it is moderated and people are given timed speaking times, but it isn’t quite as regulated or formulaic as the different formal styles.
Quite often the debate is unmoderated and in either case can turn more into a fight than an actual debate. You might have heard the words “dumpster fire” regarding debates, and this is what they are talking about. People simply argue, making personal attacks and all sorts – and this is largely allowed to continue for the “entertainment” factor as drama sells more than a proper debate.
Scoring varies depending on the channel but is largely public opinion, and that is mostly a popularity contest among high-profile YouTubers.
Even then, after the fact, the loser of the debate can still think they won.
An example was a certain high-profile atheist who was debating TAP and he was clearly out of his depth, they ran circles around him and he looked quite foolish.
To be fair to him, it was a topic he knew nothing about, he shouldn’t have been there in that debate. Anyone in a situation where they are not only discussing but actively debating a topic they know nothing about would look silly.
I don’t know what led to that situation, it could have been arrogance about theists being “easy to defeat” or misunderstanding the topic proposed, but that’s beside the point.
He later spoke about how he had been contacted by many people (die-hard fans) who had told him he owned them in the debate, and therefore he concluded that they and the audience/commenters were haters. In his mind, he still won even though he was clearly out of his depth.
Another issue with YouTube debates is there is a lot of poisoning the well that goes on. People are already predisposed to one person or another based on the position they take, especially in something as controversial as atheism Vs theism, but during (and sometimes in the advertising) there can be a lot of additional statements made to make others think the opposition isn’t even worth listening to.
Again, very rarely will anyone’s mind be changed by a YouTube debate, much less the dumpster fires many debates become, but the same rings true about those who are uncertain or hold very tentative positions being swayed by the more charismatic arguments.
Social media debates
Whether in the comments on YouTube, in a debate group on Facebook or Reddit, or on an open platform like Twitter(X), these are generally little more than arguments where people just assert themselves repetitiously, meme bomb, and get their friends to gang up against someone.
Catchphrases are thrown around, often with little understanding, and people don’t stick to their ideals like “evidence will change my mind.”
The prime example of this is the story of someone being given evidence that evidence doesn’t change minds and then saying they still think it works, but from my personal experience, the most common example of this is discussions about the definition of atheism with those that claim there is only one definition or misuse of terms like null hypothesis.
With the definitional debate showing multiple sources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, philosophical papers and literature) my interlocutor generally ignores them, some even going so far as to invent conspiracies like all the dictionaries were bought by churches in the 80’s to change the definition.
These are people that claim to be rational and that evidence will change their mind. As is apparent, the evidence doesn’t change people’s minds – in fact, we had a discussion about evidence not changing people’s minds in our group the other day:
As you can see, Dave’s post isn’t overly negative, he’s just talking about the studies and mentioned behaviours we have all seen.
Even though our group is largely respectful and engages in decent conversations, many in the group happen to be atheists (like all of us are) and they instantly got defensive and combative.
Some asserted that he must mean the theists, certainly not the atheists. Some “othered” in the sense they assumed Dave was a theist and that “all we want is just evidence of god” and similar. Others reasserted the belief that “evidence changes rational people’s minds” and similar. A surprising number failed to actually engage with the topic and instead got defensive in one way or another.
One person took the post to mean that evidence never changes minds, which isn’t the case, it’s just rarely a major contributing factor. This person wanted to see the studies, and he was given those (at least the ones accessible for free).
They claimed to be evidence-based and that only evidence changed their minds. That all atheists were evidence-based. So, when we asked him about the studies showing that this generally wasn’t the case, even though it can be sometimes, if that had changed his mind – he stopped responding.
Some, when asked, couldn’t even define evidence or what sort of evidence we can trust. Some just described qualities they thought evidence should have. Many were just there to express their indignation at the idea that evidence isn’t a major factor in changing people’s minds, yet couldn’t really define evidence and didn’t accept the scientific studies that evidence this exact phenomenon.
- Free Paper – Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232482245_Perseverance_of_Social_Theories_The_Role_of_Explanation_in_the_Persistence_of_Discredited_Information?fbclid=IwAR23TTAba2uHjiVw64G78ksuTZH0bmkx3SOFqJEr16GxeAfBjuSSeHapEiE
- There’s another study referenced in Thinking Fast and Slow: https://amzn.to/47GfYFE
So, people demanding and providing evidence in these social media debates is pretty fruitless, even among those who think evidence changes their minds.
Debates on social media are the most fruitless of all debates, especially as they quite commonly end up with groups ganging up on individuals and “owning” with bad memes and the self-congratulatory circle-jerk joke.
The debates I mention largely go the way of being overly eristic fight-like dances filled with in-group bias, confirmation bias, defensiveness, fallacies, misunderstood fallacies and so on. People are looking to win battles rather than share ideas.
So what can we do to change people’s minds?
The first thing I want you to consider here is WHY you want to change minds. Why do you want people to agree with you? What benefits do you think will be brought around by something holding the same position as you?
Are you simply looking for a “win”? Do you think that if someone concedes and agrees with you that is some sort of triumph?
If your goal is simply to win battles, then I don’t really think there’s much point in what you do. You’ll likely alienate the person you are trying to convince and have people who already agree with you pat you on the back. Is that really all you are looking for?
If you’re genuinely looking to understand and explore ideas, and perhaps impart some wisdom or knowledge to someone else, then I can see it as a noble exercise but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re necessarily doing that.
I genuinely think people should not approach a conversation (at least in general) with the sole intention of trying to change a mind, but the below tips will at least improve your interactions and help build on
One of the key aspects of changing a mind is to build a rapport with someone. We are much more likely to listen to those whom we feel some sort of connection to than those we don’t. Building a rapport with someone online can be much harder than a face-to-face conversation, for a variety of reasons.
Consider how many take “ridiculous beliefs deserve ridicule” to a personal level and attack the person. Even ridiculing the belief itself without a direct attachment to the person will have a negative effect as our beliefs are tied to our egos, so it feels like we are being attacked.
But let’s consider this further – at any time on the internet has some random person joined a thread, made fun of you and you’ve gone “Oh my days, you’re so right, why didn’t I think of that?”
It’s far more likely that this caused you to double down. Yet – if you were with a group of friends and someone said that, it *could* get you to reconsider things because you have a rapport with them. You might even respect them.
Respect goes a long way too. If we respect someone, for whatever reason, we are far more likely to trust their opinions. Even in cases where someone seems so obviously wrong, those who are respected will often be believed.
To that end, we shouldn’t ridicule except in extreme circumstances where it might be the most effectual way of preventing harm, at least in the short term, but understand that not only can it cause people to double down, but it can also cause people to be less open and they’ll just keep that part of themselves for when they are not around you.
Respect goes both ways though. In a conversation, it’s good to give and receive respect. Not only does this help build rapport but it also helps avoid the conversation descending into battle. This can help facilitate understanding from both/all parties.
Taking the time to understand your interlocutor and allowing them the time to understand you is very important. You should ask questions and clarify regularly to make sure you understand each other.
In doing so, you show each other that you have an interest in what they have to say. You’re not just a contrarian, you’re taking the time to invest in them and their ideas. You want to make sure you haven’t misunderstood them and they haven’t misunderstood you. This again helps avoid fights, shows respect, and builds rapport.
What’s more, we should be understanding of human nature, how certain topics are more important or emotional to some over others, and that this can have an impact on how folks behave.
The principle of charity is a philosophical and rhetorical principle that guides the interpretation of the beliefs and utterances of others123. It requires assuming the most rational, coherent, and truthful meaning of what others think and say123. It also involves temporarily setting aside one’s own beliefs and considering the best possible version of the arguments of others43. The principle of charity can help to avoid straw man fallacies and foster critical thinking243.
What’s more, charity should be extended to accept others’ behaviours and experiences. Perhaps someone misunderstood you or was having a bad day. Maybe their outburst was related to something else in their life and you just happened to be a focal point. Maybe you were slightly ambiguous and they misinterpreted what you said due to the ambiguity, even though you thought you were pretty clear. There’s so much benefit to being charitable.
With everything though, exercise caution and be pragmatic in its use. There can come a point where someone persists in negative behaviours, lacks respect and is generally going to misrepresent you no matter what you do. At this time, it is best to engage.
Understand that your words, whether you intend it or not, might harm the other person.
For one, no one likes being wrong, and everyone likes being right. Admitting you are wrong can be a painful experience. It causes displeasure. Maintaining you are right feels good.
People often forget this, and others forget that even if they admit they are wrong now, changing their mind makes them right.
The thing to remember, though, is if one feels harm they are more likely to get defensive. Whether you meant what you said or they misunderstood it is almost irrelevant at this point. The best thing to do is acknowledge their experience and explain what you meant in the clearest way possible, making sure nothing was left open to interpretation. Hopefully, this can help get around the harm felt and get the conversation back on track.
Converse Instead of Debate
Honestly, stop thinking about the position you have to defend. Stop trying to attack theirs. Forget about trying to change a mind and accept that you’re probably not going to change a mind, at least in this conversation.
Just be 2 (or more) humans having a conversation about a topic they are passionate about.
More than anything, give people, including yourself, time. Time to breathe, time to reflect, time to calm down when things seem to be getting heated.
Most people will not change their minds in the moment. Sometimes conversations can span days or even weeks, and people will still not change their minds.
If the conversation was positive, people are more likely to reflect on it favourably. They might suddenly have things click or need to clarify something with you in the future, but this won’t happen if it’s been a fight. You’ll be remembered as an enemy.
Having My Mind Changed
I have never had my mind changed by some ass on the internet. Occasionally they might have said something that I have looked into more, but it wasn’t until I spent time talking to someone I know is knowledgeable on the topic, with whom I have respect, with whom I have a rapport, that has taken the time to calmly answers my questions and ask appropriate questions to get me thinking outside of the box I was in. More often than not, it wouldn’t even think twice about what some aggressive and arrogant knob has said on the internet.
But like I said above, without discussing with someone with whom I have a good rapport, respect, and calmly answer and ask questions, I wouldn’t have ever changed my mind on these things. In fact, even then I rarely change my mind in the moment, at least with ideas I have held for a long time. Quite often I require time to reflect, I might have the conversation over days and even then it’s not until I have had time to “defrag” that I change my mind.
From the perspective of trying to change minds, debate is largely pointless. It can be a good exercise, especially if you’re debating a position you don’t actually hold to show that you understand it, as well as testing your ability to debate. For those who like to battle there is a certain enjoyment from the process and a greater feeling in the “win”. But… in instances where you’re trying to change minds, or even have yours changed, debating online is almost completely pointless.
There are other issues with the online debate that I will come to in a future article. For now, I hope that some of what I say is given time to percolate and maybe even influence the way you think about online discourse.
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
This is one of many things I hope to do with Answers In Reason.
I run our Twitter and IG accounts, as well as share responsibility for our FB group and page, and maintain the site, whilst writing articles, DJing, Podcasting (and producing), keeping fit and more.
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