Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it would take for someone of one political persuasion to "switch sides." There’s a lot of merit to the idea that we, especially at Penn, restrict ourselves to "echo chambers" where our communities and groups are just reflections of our own backgrounds and beliefs. I think it’s a good exercise to find someone of an opposing viewpoint, and convince them that they are wrong — or be convinced that you yourself are wrong in the process.
Things were a lot easier when I was a debater in high school. In organized debate, you have a set resolution, an affirmative side and a negative side, and a neutral (as neutral as someone can be) arbiter of arguments who decides the winner of the debate. The name of the game is to appeal to the sensibilities of the judges, whatever they may be, when constructing your arguments.
But it’s very different from the real world. When you argue with someone to convince them of something, they are both your opponent and the judge — they actively disagree with you and ultimately decide the merit of any arguments you present.
The content of political and economic beliefs is too closely tied to the daily lives of people to allow for neutral evaluation. When debates center around feelings and not facts, you reach an epistemological impasse.
Ann Coulter might believe that . I disagree. I might be able to present an abundance of psychological, historical, biological and sociological evidence explaining why she’s wrong and how her belief is biased, but there is a high chance that she will remain unconvinced.
The issue is that debate requires points of stasis; which is to say, points of common ground and disagreement. The first step in convincing a rational person of something (and the first step for any sort of discussion at all) is a discussion of what counts as evidence and what doesn’t.
This should not be a controversial discussion. The most powerful evidence is data, coupled with people’s narratives and experiences. — but I think that if we couple reason and argument with intuition and experience, we can achieve a powerful method of convincing someone of something.
When people agree on what doesn’t and does count as evidence, they are, in some sense, creating an emulation of a neutral arbiter of debate. It is possible to manipulate and spin evidence in particular ways, but it is not possible to fake trends in data. The objectivity of raw data allows us the assurance of saying: “If the data is correct, then the argument is correct.” It’s analogous to saying that the conclusion naturally follows from the premises, if the premises are true.
A real agreement and commitment to appropriate standards for evidence means that stasis can be reached. Discussion becomes possible, because people stop talking past each other and start talking to each on the same points.
However, I think an important, non-trivial addition to establishing a commitment to evidence is a cohesive narrative. The academic literature can dryly make claims about poverty, but it is something else entirely to be experientially aware of what the stark conditions of the poor are. The latter kind of information develops empathy and intuition. This kind of thing, whenever possible, is absolutely essential.
It is quite easy to generalize and say poor people are where they are because of laziness. But it becomes very, very difficult to say that when you are actually exposed to impoverished communities. Abstraction and distanced analysis can be important academic tools, but sometimes they can result in the loss of valuable context-dependent information. Omitted variable bias can occur this way.
Convincing someone of something will always be a localized interaction, dependent on the ‘someone’ and the ‘something.’ Most people will find narratives, stories, pictures and emotions more convincing than facts, studies and data. But there are some who will attempt to stay away from narratives and pictures and will claim to want hard data. Whether, as a matter of epistemic normativity, one method is preferable is irrelevant. A framework for persuasion will blend the two, in a never-ending process of calibration to find the optimal melangé.
VINAYAK KUMAR is a rising sophomore from Parsippany, N.J., studying finance, physics and philosophy.
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