I apologize in advance if this sounds more like an opinion piece than a question, but I think it might deserve some discussion here.

Learning about rationality, fallacies, psychology and argumentation is fun. At best, it makes you more humble by helping you find the gaps in your own thinking, and at worst, it is a form of entertainment: It helps you exercise your own mental muscles but it doesn't really lead to the accomplishment of any instrumental objectives.

All that is probably okay.

But does rational argument really help change someone's preconceived opinion?

As an example, let's take the subject of climate change. People who don't take climate change seriously usually fall into a couple of categories. Apologies if the categories are too arbitrary.

  1. People who have very little knowledge of the facts. For example, those who do not know that a 97% consensus exists, or have not learned simple facts like the increase in CO2 levels and temperature throughout recent history.

  2. People who have some knowledge of the facts, but end up making fallacious and/or irrelevant arguments.

  3. People whose arguments are somewhat logically sound, but rest on extreme global skepticism: for example, a fundamental distrust of all kinds of scientific expertise, a belief in conspiracy theories, or a belief that an extreme bias exists among the scientific community and that all the scientists are deluded. A recent blog post by Scott Adams is a good example of someone in this category.

If you put the facts in front of someone in the first category, it's possible that they will change their opinion. This is much more likely to happen when the argument is made in person.

However, it seems almost impossible to convince someone in the second or third category. By the time you have to go as far as explicitly point out to the person that his or her argument is fallacious, you've already lost. Doing this just makes the person angry, and at that point, the argument goes off into too many tangents to resolve itself properly.

So it's possible that learning about fallacies and the different aspects of rationality for the sole purpose of argumentation, is ultimately a form of mental masturbation and doesn't accomplish any instrumental objectives.

Am I right, or am I resorting to just another form of extreme skepticism?

  • "The voice of the reason is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but in itself it signifies not a little". Freud, The Future of an Illusion
    – Conifold
    Dec 9 '16 at 19:26
  • 1
    This is a psychology question. It requires an explicit theory of motivation to have any answer. But I think general experience says yes. Most of us have experience learning that we are wrong through logical dialog. (If you don't have this experience, then ever answering your questions could be quite ill-considered.)
    – user9166
    Dec 10 '16 at 18:35
  • I'd be happy to debate you on climate change (contact info in profile), and don't feel I fall into any of the 3 categories. However, I think choosing climate change as an example here was a bad idea. The general question answer is: since everyone literally lives entirely within their own mind, there is no guaranteed way to change someone's opinion.
    – user935
    Dec 18 '16 at 11:48
  • @barrycarter Thanks for the offer, but I believe there is simply no philosophical debate that can be had about climate change. The only debate that can be had about climate change is a scientific one. And the scientific debate is settled, and it's especially settled on the scale of the damage that will occur with near-certainty. Like all skepticism that arises outside of the scientific consensus (for example, the anti-vaxxer movement), climate change skepticism is based on an incomplete layman's understanding of the science.
    – Vikram
    Dec 31 '16 at 7:56
  • @Vikram I meant a scientific debate, not (just) a philosophical one. However, if you believe the debate is settled, I agree there's no point in discussing it. I'd also be willing to debate you on the vaccine issue if you wish.
    – user935
    Dec 31 '16 at 9:46

This question borders on psychology I think. I'll do my best to give it a philosophical approach. I'll try to use my personal experience as 'argument'.

First of all, a personal experience. I'd describe myself as a climate change sceptic. I hear there is consensus, but I've never spoken with a climate expert. I hear stuff on the news and on television, but this doesn't mean anything for all I care. I must admit I've never bothered to do research into what the claims are, by whom, how, and why. I think basically I just didn't take a position on this yet, which maybe should be a fourth category. It's just too big a thing to get all worked up about without knowing for sure it's not some scientific hobby, far fetched prediction or a by media blown out-of-proportion problem.

My position is that as far as I know, nothing is happening and with all the bad information I have around me about all sorts of things, I'm sorry, but it takes a bit more to get me into climate change. Maybe this makes me an ideal candidate to convince by rational argument. But only if:

  • I sincerely believe that there is a whole lot I don't know
  • I trust science is the actual truth-finding and that it's done rigorously
  • I don't think science is some mystical far-from-home show
  • I know what is science and what isn't
  • I haven't adopted conflicting ideas already which for some reason I can't let go
  • I have the courage to go with something I don't fully understand

If it is really your goal to convince a person, change his or her mind, often it simply takes more than reasoning. Many are not so familiar with reasoning and can easily get lost in true and untrue thinkings and sayings. Or people may have there own personal reasons to reject certain arguments, however 'unreasonable' this may be.

I don't think it's merely mental exercise. Your voice of reason, along with other voices of reason do have an impact in the bigger scheme, like for instance in the acceptance in climate change.

  • It may often take more than rational argument to change a person's mind but the question is whether rational argument alone can, at least sometimes, produce a mind change.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 5 '18 at 20:35

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