The “Convince Your Colleagues They Are In Error” Challenge

There is no easy way to say “you’re wrong” or “you’re mistaken”. In my experience, it isn’t the best approach to convincing you work colleague that taking homoeopathic potions is as likely to clear up your minor ailment as is smothering it with Vegemite (actually, Vegemite has more chance of clearing it up because it has active ingredients in it).

Besides, telling people they are wrong just serves to piss them off and serves to harden their attitudes towards whatever you think they are wrong about. Furthermore, it probably will reinforce their opinion that skeptics are naysayers and fun police whose sirens go off at the mere mention of an outlandish, half-baked, nothing but wishful thinking idea.

So what to do? Your work colleague (insert acquaintance if applicable) wants to have some options other than the medical remedies prescribed by their doctor. That itch really isn’t going away and besides, work colleague #2 has just recommended a really good naturopath.

It is the case that you as the skeptic probably know more about “alternative” medicine than they do and you also know there is no alternative to effective, conventional medicine (anything that is alternative and can be demonstrated to be safe and efficacious will be accepted as proper medicine). So you are the expert in this case and imparting your knowledge would likely help the other person make better informed decisions, so… Should you pipe up or just bite your lip?

The answer I have found is: It depends.

First of all, it should be noted that there are degrees of harm that saying nothing could cause. If your colleague is just choosing to taking homoepathic pills for sleep deprivation, then probably there is no reason to go into a lengthy exposé about how homoepoathy is pre-scientific speculation, has been repeatedly proven to be no better than a placebo and its proposed mechanism violates well established laws of physics.

If, however, your colleague is replacing proper medical treatment for a more severe ailment – say, a eczema or the extreme – cancer – then it is probably a good time to provide some cautionary warning about the bogus treatment.

There are good and bad ways of approaching talking with colleagues as you can come across as a know-it-all nuisance. The idea is to promote the evidence – not try and win the argument so you can feel good about being right. Admittedly, this is tough to do sometimes and it is the difference between a mature skeptic who cares about the other person’s wellbeing, rather than the git who just wants to stroke his own ego. Let’s face it, nobody likes those guys and all too often skeptics do themselves, their arguments and reason in general, a disservice by alienating others.

This is the second post on communication approaches to teaching and promoting science and skepticism. It is a tough call, because we are by nature attached to our beliefs, emotional in nature as they are, and nobody enjoys being told they are in error. To be effective as a skeptic, you must be able to avoid personalising the issue and making them feel as if they are wrong – in all likelihood, they weren’t aware of the vast body of evidence for or against a certain claim. If they continue to go against the information you dispense (which should be what the evidence says) then that is their choice. The more dire the situation the more adamant you can be but beginning in this vain is not a way to win friends.

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