I was all set to write my own blog post, “How to Argue with a Scientist” today (after some unfortunate interactions with non-scientists last week), but Jacquelyn already beat me to it!

The one addition I would make to her article is that many of us in the behavioral and learning sciences conduct single-subject research. We, of course, use the scientific method, and the extreme rigor of our experimental methodology obviates the need for inferential statistics, thereby allowing us to use a much smaller sample size than Jacquelyn describes here. Have fun reading this! It rocks!

The Contemplative Mammoth

I notice it all the time– on Facebook, in the comments of a science blog, over family gatherings, or listening to a radio talk show. Someone, maybe you, is patiently trying to explain how vaccines cause autism, perhaps, or why so-called “anthropogenic” global warming is really just due to sunspots or some other natural cycle. Perhaps you are doing pretty well at first, making use of passionate, heart-felt rhetoric and well-timed anecdotes. People are nodding their heads in agreement, and perhaps you’re even changing someone’s mind.

And then a scientist joins the discussion.

The conversation tends to devolve from here, turning into a debate and (often) ultimately a debacle. Scientists are notoriously difficult to argue with– for one, they’re so sure they’re right! This is true of most people, though– and it’s probably true of you. What makes it especially frustrating to argue with a scientist is the jargon they use; if…

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About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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3 Responses to

  1. Alyssa says:

    I really enjoyed that post and found the comments that followed (I did not read all of them) very interesting. Obviously I enjoyed reading (and laughing) at the failed arguments within the comments, but I was especially struck by several comments that were far more personal to me.
    1. Paul made a comment:
    I stopped arguing with people about these sorts of things long ago. For an example as to why see Brett’s comment above. There is nothing I can say that’s going to change his mind. And if that’s the case then all the science in the world will not convince him. So . . . I don’t waste my time.
    Posted by Paul Cutlip
    And I read it and said, “Yes, that is how I feel!” I remembered thinking that when I was reading some posts you made last week on another blog. I thought to myself, “How does she keep doing this? Even reading this argument (such as it was from the other side!) makes me stressed out! I am not going to jump in and help her out because it will only infuriate me, this guy will never understand, it is a waste of time.” Then I read Jacquelyn’s response back and I understand that this is precisely why I need to help out (look for me in future arguments, though I know I won’t do you justice!).
    Then I kept reading the comments and Jacquelyn also said: “one is that people see scientists as stereotypes (egotistical, self-congratulatory, cold-hearted, calculating)”. This is something I hear all the time and it frankly hurts. It is also my secret other reason why I stopped “arguing” with people about these sorts of things.
    However, what I need to take away from this article, and my many other interactions in the past, is that while I am calculating and systematic (I take THAT as a compliment!) and can apparently appear to be cold-hearted, it is my responsibility to make sure that I am not appearing egotistical and self-congratulatory in my delivery of the evidence or while educating people. That is something that is difficult to do in person, let alone in writing, but I believe it is something many of us still need to continue to work on. It is hard when you know you are right and have the data to back you up 😉 Tee hee!
    Thanks for passing this on!

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, Alyssa, for chiming in. There is no question that these discussions can be exhausting and frustrating for scientists. And the more exhausted we get, the more difficult it is to work on coming across as empathetic and not “cold” (at least for me!). Even then, I have found that as much as I *try* to be sensitive to others’ feelings, my efforts therein still play as “arrogant” to them.

      Part of what astonishes me is that there are so many people who feel that their personal experience or opinion should be treated as equally valid to a body of scientific literature in peer-reviewed journals. There was one person, in particular, who I worked with in the past, who felt that because he personally “learned a lot” from lecture format in the classroom, lecture format was equally effective to individualized instruction. No amount of scientific data or articles in peer-reviewed journals could convince him otherwise. And this person had a master’s degree in computer science from MIT! Not a dummy by any stretch of the imagination and accustomed to thinking scientifically in his own field, to boot!

      So for me, even though I sometimes feel that I want to gouge my eyes out during these conversations, I don’t know what else to do but to keep trying. Science is my religion and I’m not ready to give up on saving the heathens. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Stirring the Pot in Education! | disrupt learning!

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