The beauty of disagreement

If this skepticism lark has taught me anything, its that disagreeing is a beautiful thing. Disagreeing with someone is a hard thing to do, in any context. Yet as humans, health care professionals, and as skeptics, its one of our keenest tools. Its only by being able to step into disagreement that we can understand our topic, our audience, and hopefully steer hearts and minds away from those willing to mislead.

I recently attended a panel about daring to disagree, which mainly focused on religious debates over Twitter and the like. I'm guilty of wiling away hours of my life arguing with homeopaths over twitter, and I'm often asked why, as I'm never going to change their minds. The short, and most noble answer is that someone undecided might spectate, and I might be able to make some impact into how they think about the subject. The more self-serving version is that its good practice to hone my skills in identifying fallacies and flaws, finding workarounds and ways of wording things, and to understand an argument in advance of the next time. In these types of arguments, the people who you are speaking to are removed from yourself, perhaps not anonymous as such but they tend to be used to arguing. Their position is usually on the defensive in the first place because their chosen subject has usually been the butt of skeptical inquiry for years.

But what of those closer to home? Sticking out heads up above the parapet in other situations is one of the hardest things in life to do. Most of us instinctively see disagreement as a threat and a personal attack, and we react accordingly. Even now, despite all I've learnt about constructing arguments and debates, with all of this practice, I certainly still get physical reactions when someone disagrees with me. My heart will pound, my mouth with become dry, and I'll want to curl up in fear because my body and brain immediately leap to the conclusion that no one likes me, that I'm so insignificant that I must automatically be wrong. I'm thankful to skepticism in that I'm able to take a deep breath and overcome those initial few moments, then can try to reassess my position. Am I actually right, but there are some good points to take away from the other stance? Or actually, is my reasoning flawed? In which case, why? Where could I have found more information, what is the other person bringing to it? Whichever way it goes, I, and the other person, end up learning more. Ultimately, we're not here to be right or wrong- we're hear to learn more, and that's the important bit.

Problems arise though because often our instincts take hold. I can't describe the number of times its all gone tits up. I can spend ages agonising over whether or not to disagree. Once I've decided to do so, I write and rewrite my argument so that it is as objective as possible, structured clearly, evidence based etc., only to have the response be “Eurgh why are you being so mean?! I thought we were friends!” or similar. I've tried all sorts of ways to word things, and I haven't quite come up with an answer on how best to avoid this response. Its not just Facebook etc. where this is a problem- we all hear in the news about irrevocable breakdowns in the doctor-patient relationship (Ashya King, as an example). We've all encountered the patient at the pharmacy counter who believes a random person waiting in the queue over our own expert advice. No one learns anything from these sort of exchanges, and that's a real missed opportunity.

So the question is, how do we go about promoting disagreement as a positive thing that we all need in our lives? How do we turn the tables on the thousands of years of evolution that make us shut down arguments as soon as they begin? Well I think the answer has to initially come from example. I believe the skeptical movement is extremely well placed to start this tidal change in thought, but we all have to practise the heck out of it every single day if we're ever going to get anywhere. We have to start being known synonymously as folk who are really, really good at disagreeing respectfully, and that has to start from within. Its clear that the skeptical community in the UK and beyond occasionally falls short in this regard, and that's a real shame as it appears to be driving good people away.

We need to recognise that we might agree with someone on one thing, but not the other. We can't see a person as synonymous with one of their opinions, and put people in good or bad boxes based on that. We shouldn't be labelling people as anti-this, or anti-that, and then refusing to engage further. We should be experts at digging deeper than that, looking behind the headlines to search for shared humanity underneath. We need to lead the way in disagreeing without bullying, and we should never, ever let up on that. We put ourselves in a position that could so easily be mashed up together with bullying by the general population when we dare to disagree, and we need to be relentlessly exemplary in our behaviour to prove that we aren't. We need to be the type of people who, even if faced with a mutant hybrid of Nigel Farage and Piers Morgan, would manage to keep their cool and be polite.

But then again, feel free to disagree ;)

Hxxx