OTHERS AND US: You can't persuade the Others with facts!


Drum says the same thing about Us: Over the course of the past ten years, Pamela Paul served as the editor of The New York Times Book Review.

She's now a regular opinion columnist. Yesterday, she offered a somewhat fuzzy column touching on an important topic. 

Her column appeared beneath a pair of somewhat fuzzy headlines. In print editions, the headline said this:

Is There Room for Debate in Real Life?

Online, the headline is simpler and more direct: "How to Argue Well."

What sorts of debates and arguments is Paul talking about? In our view, that isn't always especially clear, but her column starts like this:

PAUL (9/12/22): School’s in session. Workers have been summoned back. Campuses are open for protests and counterprotests, invitations and disinvitations. And a nasty round of midterms is upon us.

That’s plenty of fodder for argument, and that’s leaving out perennial sources of conflict like who was supposed to load the dishwasher. Who wants to pick a fight first?

Because fight it out we will. In a country riven by discord, the extent of disagreement among people, their political representatives and their media outlets feels simultaneously intransigent, untenable and entirely inevitable. Not only are we bad at agreeing with one another; we’re also terrible at arguing with one another.

In much of the column, Paul seems to be discussing the ways people debate such questions as who should load the dishwasher. But in that opening, we the larger topic at hand:

Our public discourse is "riven by discord," Paul correctly says. 

"We’re terrible at arguing with one another," she says. According to Paul, we don't know how to reduce "the extent of disagreement" found in our public debates.  

We’re terrible at arguing with one another? At this highly polarized time, this is an excellent topic for discussion and/or debate. 

In our view, Paul's column doesn't get especially far in search of a solution to this obvious problem. We were more interested in the way her column struck Kevin Drum.

In this post about Paul's column, Drum focused on the idea that we should be careful to stick to the facts when we engage in our public debates. 

That certainly sounds like a good idea. But in his penultimate paragraph, he glumly offers this:

DRUM (9/12/22):  Sadly, people are not persuaded by facts. They are persuaded by emotions. They are persuaded only when they're listening to someone who shares their worldview. They are persuaded by "arguments" that are beneficial to them—perhaps monetarily, perhaps in conferring status, perhaps in vilifying people they already didn't like. This is how you win in real life.

It sounds like Drum has been speaking with the same anthropologists who have been consulting us over the past five years.

We aren't "the rational animal" after all, Drum seems to say in that passage.  We're only persuaded when we listen to people who state our pre-existing viewpoint—and in such cases, we of course aren't being persuaded of anything at all.

(Kevin even refers to "people" as "they!" That's how gloomy his portrait is!)

Compared to the "rational animal" framework, Drum is offering a somewhat gloomy point of view. But as he ends his post, matters get decidedly worse—and we members of the blue tribe are confronted with a challenge:

DRUM (continuing directly): And don't make the mistake of thinking that you're the exception. Oh, you might be. The odds are a thousand to one against, but there are a few of you. The other 999, however, from PhDs down to ninth-grade dropouts, have no interest in dull facts and have no way of evaluating them anyway. They just want their biases confirmed and their status in the world elevated. Do that, and you too can win the presidency.

There are almost no exceptions, Drum says. Even among us blue tribe members, we "just want [our] biases confirmed" when we venture out into the world.

According to Drum, one person in a thousand is actually open to reason. The rest of us are not. 

Can Drum really believe what he says? Only one person in a thousand is open to attempts at persuasion? Everyone else is closed to reason?

We'll assume that Drum is exaggerating a bit for effect. Having stated that disclaimer, let's return to the matter at hand:

Is it true that this is the way we humans engage in public debate? Even here in our own blue tribe, can this possibly be the way our human minds actually work?

According to Drum's portrait, it isn't just the Others who "want their biases confirmed." According to Drum, those of Us in our liberal aeries function the same way too!

Drum seems to be denying what the French call la difference. The Others are impervious to reason, he says. But that's also true of Us!

We're not the exceptions, Drum declares. Is there any chance—any chance at all—that any such claim could be true?

Tomorrow: In comments to Paul and in comments to Drum, we noted some instant reactions


  1. Paul talks about who will load the dishwasher, then she says this:

    "Because fight it out we will. In a country riven by discord, the extent of disagreement among people, their political representatives and their media outlets feels simultaneously intransigent, untenable and entirely inevitable. Not only are we bad at agreeing with one another; we’re also terrible at arguing with one another."

    In her unfocused article, she conflates argument and debate as a search for truth with resolving conflicts in day to day life. These are entirely different processes. And she ignores scientific method, which is a technique for exploring what is true in the world and has nothing to do with deciding who loads any dishwasher.

    Politics is about compromise, resolving differences and making decisions about how our country will operate. It is not about deciding who is right about any factual matter, such as the impact of global climate change on the spruce bud worm. And formalized debate is a meaningless exercise about as relevant to politics or science as volleyball.

    Talk about muddled and fuzzy! Somerby ignores the problems with Paul's essay and uses it instead to advance his own argument that people are irrational, taking his lead from Kevin Drum, who chose to focus on persuasion and whether people are persuaded by facts. There is a large scientific literature on persuasion and how and when people change their minds, why we hold the beliefs we do and how such beliefs are sustained. It is in a field called social psychology. Neither Drum nor Somerby has done any reading in that field and they are both ignorant as fish.

    So we are left with two old guys trying to support their own "common sense" intuitions, which is like trying to predict weather using the Farmer's Almanac. The facts about persuasion collected by scientists are important and both bloggers would do better to consult them before blathering in self-serving ways about why readers don't always accept their wisdom (at least Drum reads his comments).

  2. Trump's Russia collusion's gotta be in this pile of donkey shit.

    1. Trump can shoot someone on 5th Avenue and still get elected because there are some people who just don't care what he does, as long as he seems to support their self-interest and gives them permission to kick down. That's why the Russia-collusion facts don't change right-wingers' minds about their Dear Leader.

    2. There was never any collusion established.by the two major investigations who looked into it.

    3. Holy Benghazi, Batman. Only two? Just kidding.

      Doesn't matter how many major investigations try to establish collusion, if you're going to let people get away with obstruction of justice.

    4. No one was charged with obstruction of justice.

    5. anon 10:28, obstruction of justice is not at all the same thing as collusion. My understanding is that the Mueller report stated evidence that Trump may have "obstructed justice" but I don't believe there was any evidence of "collusion" (or conspiracy) . You could argue that the "obstruction" prevented discovery of the collusion, but that's speculative, in and of itself not proof of collusion. Hypothetically, one may be investigated for a possible crime, and obstruct the investigation in some manner or other, but in fact not have committed the crime that is being investigated. I don't like Trump in the least, but I think the dems accusations that he colluded with Russia in 2016, and that led to his win, is partisan spin lacking in proof, and in large measure plausibility.

    6. 11:47,
      As mentioned.

      AC/ MA,
      The Russia collusion thing came from the corporate-owned Right-wing media (AKA the media), who spent years searching high and low for ANY reason other than the Right's love of Trump's bigotry for Trump's 2016 victory.
      Remember, the media even tried to make a bunch of economic illiterates out to be "economically anxious". When that got laughed out of the conversation, they tried Russiagate.
      The media is NEVER going to cop to the truth about Republican voters, because the media loves the tax breaks the Republican voters consistently deliver for them.

    7. You could argue that the "obstruction" prevented discovery of the collusion, but that's speculative, in and of itself not proof of collusion.

      No, it is proof that the investigation was a catastrophic abortion and therefore it is absurd to draw any definitive conclusions of the conspiracy.

      One thing we know for sure is that the Russian government went all out to help Donald J Chickenshit.

    8. This collusion story was a scapegoat that was invented to take attention away from the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign. The people that ran the campaign did not want their inept mistakes to get any attention. Like not having the candidate visit a swing state and not running ads in swing States until the last few weeks. Etc etc. The campaign decided the night of the election immediately after the loss to focus on Russia according to the book Shattered.

      In their defense, Trump's victory was a worldwide shock that very few people expected.

    9. 1:41,
      The Clinton campaign has zero sway in what the corporate-owned media says.
      If they had any, they would have had the press knock it off with the nonsense about pretending to care that Republicans were pretending to care about her email protocols.
      The media is in the bag for the Republican Party.

    10. One thing we know for CERTAIN is that the Russian government went all out to help Donald J Chickenshit win.

    11. If the right wing was inventing a reason from Trump's victory to hide their bigotry, why would they invent a potentially criminal one and not an innocent one?

    12. The idea of running stories about how it took a diabolical foreign power to get Republican voters amped-up by Trump's bigotry, should have been laughed-out of the editorial offices the moment someone thought it up.

    13. 2:08,
      Because all the other ones were even stupider.
      "economically anxious" About people who don't know the first thing about economics. I mean, seriously.
      The only trait that competes with the bigotry of the right-wing is their intellectual laziness.

    14. So who put forward the economically anxious idea then?

    15. "The only trait ... is their intellectual laziness"


    16. 2:24,
      Also the media.
      They're shameless.

    17. 2:36,
      You need to get out and speak with them. Believing Trump is a smart businessman is an actual thing on the Right.. They thought "The Apprentice" was a documentary, ferchrissakes.

    18. It's not projection, it's a honest confession, typical for the confessing dembot.

      Dembots are "the right-wing".

    19. I'm good. Thanks for the advice though brother.

    20. 2:38 I thought the media was controlled by the right wing? You're contradicting the shit out of yourself.

    21. 2:49,
      Corporate-owned media also told quite a tale about how shady it was that a Presidential candidate had connections to Wall Street.
      Don't tell me you got taken by the media on that one, too.

    22. You're not doing very well on your trolling comments today, are you?

  3. Here is some research that contradicts Drum/Somerby/Paul:

    "All of this would suggest that we hold our opinions dear. This is true, but it doesn’t mean those opinions are fixed forever. We are more fickle than we think.

    Kristin Laurin of the University of British Columbia examined people’s attitudes before plastic water bottles were prohibited in San Francisco. The ban wasn’t favoured by everyone, but was introduced nonetheless. Just one day later, her team again tested public attitudes. Already, views had changed: people were less opposed. There hadn’t been time for people to change their behaviour to adjust to the practicalities of the ban. So it seemed their mindset itself had changed.

    In other words, we rationalise the things we feel stuck with. It’s as though we free up brain space to get on with our lives by deciding it’s not so bad, after all. Laurin likens this to a “psychological immune system”. "


    There are many other situations in which people change their minds and positions on issues. This idea that Somerby and Drum are promoting is not true and the actual way people function cognitively to form and maintain beliefs is much more complicated than Somerby describes. If we were really as intransigent as Somerby says, we could not function in a changing environment. Inflexibility results in extinction, injury and death to actual organisms, as we saw with those who dug in on their opposition to wearing masks and getting vaccinated. If people were like that, our species would have died out long ago. So there must exist mechanisms for changing traditions, beliefs and attitudes, not just forming them in the first place.


    "In a recent experiment, we showed it is possible to trick people into changing their political views. In fact, we could get some people to adopt opinions that were directly opposite of their original ones. Our findings imply that we should rethink some of the ways we think about our own attitudes, and how they relate to the currently polarized political climate. When it comes to the actual political attitudes we hold, we are considerably more flexible than we think."

    1. The Right's only fixed beliefs are bigotry and white supremacy. Everything else is a red herring, designed to make you waste your time on something they don't care one iota about.

  4. Pamela Paul is as ignorant as Somerby when it comes to how people think. Why is the NY Times giving her space to blather about things she knows nothing about?


  5. "Sadly, people are not persuaded by facts."

    Right, only dembot Kevin is. Because he's getting fresh dembot talking point right from the DNC.

    Yes, dear Bob, people are persuaded by facts. No, not your liberal tribe; but normal ordinary people are.

    It's just that facts get censored and disappeared, by your dembot media, including your dembot "social" media. That's all.

    1. Trump loved the dembot media so much, he gave the corporations which own them a HUGE tax break.
      And then the dembot media disappeared the fact that Mao, and the rest of the rest of the Right, who pretend to hate the dembot media (but really love them with all of their heart), gave Trump a standing ovation and made sure that he was the 2020 republican Presidential nominee.
      Mao, we see you, and we note your deep, deep love for the dembot media.

    2. May as well note for the millionth time here, that Trump giving a HUGE tax break to the corporations and rich wasn't enough to upset the economically anxious Trump voter (who BTW, isn't at all a bigot), yet black people voting in the 2020 Presidential election spurred them to try to overthrow the United States Capitol.

  6. Somerby thinks his own folk wisdom and personal beliefs are facts, reality. He doesn't bother checking with the people who study such stuff as scientists. He just spouts his own "wisdom".

    Do birds of a feather flock together or do opposites attracts? Social psychologists know. If you rely on folk wisdom (aka your own opinion uninformed by research), you may say something people will agree with, but are you right?

    It suits Somerby to call us all incapable of changing our beliefs because he has been unsuccessful in changing other people's minds. His own attempt to convince liberals of different facts while pretending to be one of us, is based on a persuasion technique itself, which is why his lies about his own beliefs matter, but his assertion that people don't change belies the effort he invests in changing minds here every day. Why would he bother, if it never works? But notice that Somerby himself never uses facts. He uses social force, trying to embarrass people here into wanting to avoid being called unreasoning and tribal. I don't see that working, at least on anyone who writes comments here. He might be more effective at changing people's minds if he knew more about how persuasion works -- and yes, it does work. Look at the way our country changed the minds and behavior of those addicted to smoking, or seatbelt campaigns, or environmental conservation efforts. But Somerby doesn't believe in expertise, so he is doomed to waste his time.

  7. “don't make the mistake of thinking that you're the exception. “

    I‘ll remember that the next time Somerby makes an argument and then says that if his readers object, that is their “lizard” brain talking.

    1. No kidding. Bob did once, long ago, try to analyze
      the press without invective or ascribing motives.
      But THAT was when he was looking at the press
      gang ups on Clinton and Gore. Once that looked
      he was honestly trying to be fair. Now it looks like
      he had his thumb on the scale all the time.

  8. "You can't persuade the Others with facts!"

    I don't want to persuade the Others. I want to stop them from destroying our democracy. All that is required is for our law enforcement system to do its job and prosecute the illegal acts being committed on the right.

  9. The delusion held by Somerby and Drum is that they are using reason. Browbeating people, as Somerby does, isn't using reason. Presenting charts and graphs that tend to demonstrate no change, as Drum does, is not using reason either, since those graphs are dependent on technical aspects of presentation.

    Calling someone unreasonable because they don't agree with your opinions, isn't an example of using reason either.

  10. Here we have a pattern of Somerby approvingly quoting centrists (at best) and criticizing Democratic opinion columnists (Blow and Bouie).

  11. Probably no reasoning with this guy and he is definitely a threat to our democracy. This is also an example of the stochastic terrorism being fomented by Fox News and Republican candidates -- they provide the target and MAGA hate does the rest of the job:

    "TribLive reports that 61-year-old Jan Stawovy of Hempfield, Pennsylvania this week walked into a local Dairy Queen carrying a loaded handgun and started raving about his "undercover" work to "to restore Trump to President King of the United States."

    Police say that he also said he would "kill Democrats and liberals," while also claiming that he needed to be in possession of guns to protect himself from drug traffickers.

    Local police officers were alerted to Stawovy's presence after a tipster called 911 and told them they'd just seen a man wearing a rainbow clown wig and a yellow safety vest walking into the Dairy Queen with a gun."

    You might be tempted to laugh at this situation, but I'll bet the staff were not amused. This is scary shit.

    1. The guy who killed people at a movie theatre in CO also wore a clown outfit, patterned after The Joker.

    2. Michigan man fatally shot by police after he killed his wife; his daughter blames incident on QAnon conspiracy theory

      Rebecca Lanis, 21, told the Detroit News on Sunday that after Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, her father began consuming “crazy ideas” online, including conspiracy theories about vaccines and Trump.

      “Nobody could talk him out of them,” she told the outlet.

  12. From Political Wire:

    "“Russia has covertly transferred over $300 million to foreign political parties around the globe since 2014, a senior Biden administration official said Tuesday, citing a review by the US intelligence community,” CNN reports.

    Washington Post: “Moscow planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more as part of its covert campaign to weaken democratic systems and promote global political forces seen as aligned with Kremlin interests, according to the review, which the Biden administration commissioned this summer.”

  13. "ProPublica: “For all of the recent uproar over voting rights, little attention has been paid to one of the most sustained and brazen suppression campaigns in America: the effort to block help at the voting booth for people who struggle to read — a group that amounts to about 48 million Americans.

    “Time and again, federal courts have struck down such restrictions as illegal and unconstitutional. Inevitably, states just create more.”

    The report makes this attempt sound bipartisan but it is not. This is something Republicans do because more people who need assistance are Democrats than Republicans. This kind of thing is part of the assault on democracy, because our constitution gives the vote to all citizens.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. When has Bob made an argument on how to fix this or to improve any other area of public life? All I see here is him wallowing in extreme cynicism, passivity, and choosing to remain frozen in inaction, which exactly what our rulers want.

  16. If you're noticing people walking around with a little more spring in their step today, it's because Ken Starr died.

    1. He must have given his food taster and body guard the night off.

    2. Not very funny Cecelia.

    3. Not just any death.
      The death of a man who worked tirelessly to leave the world a worse place than he found it.

    4. Starr Jim Jordaning sexual assaults at Baylor is a classic Republican move.

    5. There’s nothing to say to your sort of thinking and that would be true if the sentiments were expressed of anyone short of serial child molester or serial killer.

      Anonymices are not liberals.

    6. Having no respect for what a recently deceased man did during his lifetime is not equivalent to suggesting that Dems may have killed him using poison (or any other method). We are not Putin and we do not advocate violence to resolve political grievances as the Republicans do, so your supposed joke is not funny to us. In the past, Republicans have accused Democrats of murdering people for political (the Clinton murders come to mind). Your so-called joke is just another political attack and another reason why you do not belong here.

    7. No, it was a joke. Unlike being quite serious about rejoicing in the deaths of your political pariahs.

      It occurs to me that Jeffrey Epstein was a serial pedophile. I am wrong in what I said.

      I still don’t delight in his death.

    8. Cecelia,
      That’s serial pedophile, who had his case smothered by a Republican operative, to you.

    9. Anonymouse 11:16am, I don’t know who you’re referring to, but this is a sterling example of anonymouse concrete and rigid thinking and the quasi-religion you’ve made of politics.

      Virginia Giuffre, of Lolita Island, implicated renown Democrat, George Mitchell. SENATE leader and later special envoy, etc..

      There isn’t a politician or “high-flyer” of any political party…or religion…who wanted or want anything about Jeffrey Epstein to come out.

    10. Cecelia is correct, for once.
      Don't dance on Ken Starr's grave in glee. Piss on it in disgust, instead..

  17. You can't debate people who don't believe in facts.

  18. Emotions and fantasy prevail. Showing a fanatic a "fact" that contradicts could cost you your life.

    1. Usually it sends the media and the FBI to your home or office, and in the case of blog owners, trolls excoriating their blog and their character.

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