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Monday, 7 December 2015

Persuasion : A User's Guide To Manipulating Rhys

I forget the original reference, but someone pointed out recently that while people like to extol the virtues of changing opinions and being open-minded, they seldom actually are. And I'll admit there are some issues about which it's likely I'll never change my mind. But I think it's only fair to keep a list of major issues about which I have done a volte-face, or at least sort of swivelled around and fallen over in an ungainly heap.

These are mostly very complicated topics. Here I'm just giving very brief overviews of why I changed my mind on each one, otherwise this post would be so long it would be classed as obscene. Some of them do have more detailed links, so if you want to discuss the issues in detail then please read those links first.

But that's not really the aim here. The goal is to look at persuasion and try to explore what works and what doesn't. Halfway through writing this, I realised I was being very selective in figuring out the reasons why I'd changed stance. So I forced myself to ask the question : what irrational factors were at work ? That turned it from a merely interesting exercise into something genuinely fascinating. It's not a perfect way to guarantee objectivity, but it was a rewarding process nonetheless and I encourage everyone to try it for themselves.

Nuclear Power

Until I started my degree, I believed more or less without question that nuclear power was a wholly bad thing. Obviously, Chernobyl is just proof enough, right ? Then I started researching Project Orion and I came across people who disagreed. I started learning about how numbers could be manipulated to mean whatever you wanted them to mean, particularly with regards to risk. I learned about how different reactor designs are so vastly different to Chernobyl that the comparison just doesn't make any sense. I also found that many numbers presented by the greens and the pro-nuclears were simply at odds, making it very difficult for me as a non-expert to judge who was right.

It took a long time and a lot of reading but I eventually switched from being staunchly anti-nuclear to moderately pro-nuclear. I still reserve the right that better power generation techniques might obviate the need for nuclear energy, but I am not convinced that time has yet come. There wasn't any one factor that persuaded me in this case, it was more a steady attrition. E.g., France doesn't seem to have had any major problems yet it relies on nuclear power, the actual number of casualties from Chernobyl seems to be way lower than is commonly popularised, nuclear is a reliable low-carbon energy source, it is indefinitely renewable with breeder reactors, the waste is a problem but the actual amount of waste generated is very low and can be re-used in some reactor designs, noted uber-environmentalist James Lovelock supports nuclear power, etc.

I must also admit to having a certain anti-Greenpeace bias. Not because I don't think their hearts are in the right place, but because their self-assured certainty irritates me. I see their affirmative action tactics (shutting down power plants, burning genetically modified crops) as pandering to fear and a sign of extreme arrogance, not a sensible way to behave in a democracy. They were dealing with complex issues with unwarranted decisiveness, in my view - choosing to act on everyone's behalf without first asking if that was what everyone actually wanted. And so because the tree-hugging arrogant loony hippies don't like nuclear power, that probably made me more willing to hear the nuclear cause, not less.

I agree with Greenpeace on whaling, mind you.

And I also have to state that I justified my change of stance by reasoning that while I'd been rejecting nuclear power out of an irrational, unwarranted fear, I'd now become more rational. Whether you agree with this or not is unimportant. The point is that while I'd been at fault before, at least I could claim an improvement. While I'd like to think that a willingness to admit mistakes was important, I tended to brush that bit under the carpet and focused on the notion that I was improving my own position.

Global Warming

An issue on which I will admit to an amount of flip-flopping. I grew up believing that global warming was real, definitely human induced, and a very dangerous thing indeed - mostly because that was the only point of view I heard in the media. Then at some point towards the end of high school I listened to a lecture in Cardiff University which explained how collecting the data was far more complex than what the news reports suggested. I remained much more skeptical for many years. I have to admit that Greenpeace probably played a role in this as well, as with nuclear power - in precisely the opposite way to what they were trying to achieve.

I must also confess that there are still many aspects about which I'm very uncertain. I am not at all convinced that we're all doomed or that we have anything like a full enough understanding of the climate. I do sense a certain media bias towards promoting the overly-simplistic case that we definitely know everything that's going on. On the other hand, having experienced life in academia, I now completely reject notions of a conspiracy (that's one of my more under-rated articles in my opinion) or false consensus on the part of climate scientists. Knowing how the scientific method works leads me to trust the major result - we should reduce carbon emissions soon - but I'm very wary of doom-mongering, no matter who's selling it.

In this case, I wasn't so emotionally wedded to the notion of humans causing climate change as I was that nuclear power was bad. So rather than saying, "I was wrong before, but I'm improving myself by changing my view", it was more of a focus on, "I was misinformed before, so I couldn't have believed anything else." In other words it let me off the emotional hook by blaming everyone else. In fairness I was really simply too young and too inexperienced to think statistically about every issue.


I've always been an agnostic but there was a time when I had stronger sympathies for the atheist movement. It seemed to me that religion was a very effective means of controlling stupid people, and that it didn't permit questioning in the same way that science does. Organized religion, if not personal faith, struck me as a means of simply enforcing dogma. Which didn't stop me from being friends with several religious people, though I'm not sure I could manage that with a Six-Day Creationist.

While I do still think that organized religion has a lot to answer for, I am now fully convinced that religion is not the root of all the world's problems, or more specifically that a belief in supernatural deities does not makes people evil. It seems to me that the worst sort of atheists (if you want to discuss this issue then I insist you read that link in its entirety first) are happy to pick out examples of religious people doing bad things and say, "they did this because of religion" whilst refusing to acknowledge that religion can make people do good things as well - or, if it does, "they could have done this without religion" which is an argument which is frankly just silly. You can't have it both ways.

Three major factors persuaded me out of my anti-religious beliefs : 1) Richard Dawkins behaves as the High Priest of atheism, rather than truly lacking belief he seems to fervently believe that God doesn't exist and wants to convert people; 2) Dawkins and other antitheists continually act like utter jerks, and behaving with hatred doesn't help the idea that lacking religion will make you better; 3) Continual life experience of those who are religious (including fellow scientists) for whom religion doesn't seem to affect their rational judgement in the slightest. In my view, people behaving more or less irrationally must be due to more complex factors than their belief or otherwise in a deity, and I suspect extremist loonies would always find something to believe in.

I'm struggling to say whether I changed my opinions for rational reasons or not. I certainly saw evidence against the antitheist position, but the fact is, I like that evidence. There is an emotional appeal in blaming people. Maybe I'm making Dawkins into the very same scapegoat I think he makes of religious people*. I don't know. Honestly I've become so convinced of my current position (which is rather complex, again I urge readers not to respond without consulting the links) that it would probably be very difficult to shift my stance on this one.

* The similarity to Greenpeace is fairly obvious : I see them as so biased against anything humans do I can't take them seriously, and similarly for Dawkins and religion.

Dark Matter

Years ago I did think that dark matter was the modern equivalent of the aether, a placeholder statement that we'd eventually find a better explanation for. All it seemed to be good for was making galaxies spin faster, and that felt very suspicious to me.

Having studied this issue in detail, professionally, for nearly ten years, I'm still not certain it exists, but I do think it's the best, simplest explanation. I won't dwell on this one since you can read about this in exhausting detail here, here, here and here, and of course also here. What's persuaded me on this one was a mixture of a lot of small pieces of evidence, a gradual accumulation of possible solutions to problems with the dark matter model... and, unfortunately, that anti-dark matter theorists seem far more biased against it than the evidence warrants (they seem to think it's just a daft idea, for no good reason that I can tell). That may not be a rational justification but I'd be lying if I said it didn't play a part.

This is probably the issue on which I'm behaving most rationally. I don't have a vested interest in proving dark matter - my Master's thesis was all about examining the case against dark matter, and I was keen to show that it was valid. That would have been much more exciting than the actual result, which was that my simulations found that dark matter was more important than I'd supposed. My PhD, on the other hand, was all about looking for dark matter galaxies - and I didn't find any.

Military Policy

I am naturally disinclined towards the use of military force. It always seemed to me that the doctrine, "If you want peace you must prepare for war" was completely wrong-headed. Were I given the choice, I'd far rather spent the money on spaceships than aircraft carriers and submarines. And I'm on record as stating that I think Britain's military policy is totally wrong.

Unusually, in this case the reason I've changed my mind can be largely attributed to a single cause : the sudden political changes of the Arab Spring and Ukraine crisis. In a few months, countries which had seemed to be previously stable erupted in revolt - and the cause of this can be at least partially traced to an attempt at peaceful revolution. As to more specific cases (were we right to invade Iraq, should we bomb Syria) I make no comment, I only note here that I think reducing our military power would, at the current time, be a mistake.

The irony is that I'd read enough history books that I should have realised how fluid and uncertain the world is. With hindsight I don't know what I was thinking. A desire for a stable, peaceful world, certainly. But simply having military power in case you need to use it is very different to going around clobbering people all the time. It's complicated, which is why my stance hasn't really changed as dramatically as it might superficially appear.

I still want to eliminate the military forces of every nation on Earth, I just think that unilateral action is a mistake right now. See also my article on the nuclear deterrent. Still, it would be wrong of me to say that fear of other countries hasn't played an role in changing my mind. The old quote about controlling people by telling them they're being attacked is true. It's just that it looks to me that the threats are all too real*, which makes the point about control somewhat null and void.

* This is in stark contrast to my stance on terrorism, which by itself poses not the slightest threat to societies, whereas nation-nation conflicts are different by many orders of magnitude.

The Need for Employment

I confess to experiencing a certain level of indignation on first reading this famous Buckminster Fuller quote. Surely people who can work should work, right ? Why should anyone get to be lazy ?

I changed my mind on this quite gradually. However, I did have an existing sympathy for the other point of view. It's always seemed to me that the point of labour-saving devices should be to save labour : to stop people from doing things they don't want to do. That is manifestly not the case in modern society. I have no idea what the numbers are, but it seems to be that the majority of people are doing work for the sake of making money to stay alive, not because they want to. I am fortunate enough to enjoy my job but even then I have very serious issues with it as a career choice.

The more I read about the idea of a universal basic income - the state providing everyone's most basic needs - and the ever-increasing ability of technology to replace menial labour, the more it seems to me that a jobless economy may be simply inevitable. What this will mean in the long term I don't know, though I offer some speculation here and here. Fortunately, in the short term there appears to be some really excellent evidence that it just works. That's what really persuaded me - evidence.

If I had an irrational bias to this point of view, it probably comes from years of watching too much Star Trek, and reading The Time Machine at a young age (9 or 10 I think). What you think of the future scenarios proposed in those works of fiction is immaterial - the point is that works of fiction caused an emotional bias in favour of a real proposal.

The Supernatural

... and also lake monsters, ghosts, flying saucers, bigfoot, etc. I read about this stuff extensively. There wasn't any one thing that really convinced me that none of it's true, though I did have a predisposition against magic - it's always seemed to me that that's just not how the world works. Which I suppose is an irrational justification to disbelieve in the irrational. The irony is not lost on me.

As to the rest, the more I read the less sure I was about apparently credible evidence. I came across too many hoaxes, too many cases where it would have been far easier to fake the whole thing, and precisely zero cases where there was really good photographic evidence (especially aliens - plenty of flying saucers, but no occupants). There was often the claim that 95% of most reports are bogus, but that does not imply that some fraction, however small, must be anything extraordinary. As for aliens in particular, I just don't find it credible that any species would devote so much energy to getting here and then spend all their time conducting anal probing, mutilating cows, and revealing the secrets of the Universe to drunken farmers or posting them on websites written in bold blue comic sans - no matter how different their thinking is from ours.

I don't actually have a problem with people continuing to research this stuff, just in case something does turn up. But it's not for me, thanks.

Strictly speaking observational evidence is far more important than I how I think the world works, so it's irrational of me to say that these things definitely don't happen. In this case it's a matter of convenience, since it seems to me that so many cases of purported extraordinary events are just fabrications or based on highly dubious information. So now I actively believe these things aren't true, rather than lacking belief that they are true, though I will accept spaceship-on-the-lawn proof.


When I first started to read about the ancient Greeks, I, like most people, was rather taken with the notion of pure, direct democracy : rule by the people. Herodotus seemed thoroughly impressed with it, and if Plato was not keen on the execution of Socrates, well, that could plausibly be attributed to the flawed legal system as much as the government. Mob rule ? A rather strong conclusion, certainly something worth considering, but surely not actually what happened. Of course it would be foolish for everyone to vote on everything, but I was very surprised to hear Americans speaking out against the proposition systems. Surely, up to a point, more democracy is inherently good ?

It is of course true that Brexit has taken a hammer to that opinion rather than slowly chipping it away. And, undeniably, my opinion has been swayed by several votes I don't like the result of - but that is self-evident. If I thought it worked perfectly, then obviously I'd still be waving the "DEMOCRACY RULES !!!" flag* - but most of the time I've been willing to accept results I don't like as an unfortunate but absolutely necessary part of the system. Indeed, though I'm massively on the left of the political scale, I'm normally more than happy to defend the balance of the left and right in our political system. With some exceptions of ideas I simply cannot tolerate - like sacrificing kittens to Cthulhu - I'm normally more than happy to consider ideas I don't like; if you voted Tory that won't stop me buying you a beer. And as this very post attests to, I've been known to change my mind on many occasions. The worst part about Brexit for me personally is the way it has stretched my patience and tolerance levels far beyond breaking point. I do not like what the continual torrent of bullshitlies and bigotry is doing to me**, yet rational argument feels like trying to stop a hurricane by mooning it. It has made me wholly incapable of responding to irrational arguments with anything other than anger. I am, in short, not happy.

* Still, I don't think I can properly address the "most irrational reason" clause for this one yet, though I will try to address this in a few months when, perhaps, the blood has cooled and the dust has settled.
** And not just on Brexit, but elsewhere on the internet the tide of pseudoscientific junk appears to be as unstoppable as entropy. It's a purely anecdotal observation, but I can't ignore it. The two factors are not necessarily uncorrelated, since of course people will make less rational decisions if they've been taught that rational thought is somehow "elitist".

But I digress. Brexit wasn't the only factor anyway. I was already aware that historically some of the worst groups had at least partially risen to power through democracy, but I thought that these days we had a better-informed, more responsible electorate. The continuing, somewhat baffling success of the Daily Mail and Donald Drumpf shows that that is not true, some people can do nothing so outrageous that it can bring them down. And I've already written about ways we can prevent this (see same link and references therein). Additionally, the un-election of George Dubya Bush had me wondering if something more serious was wrong, as did the victory of Hamas. Outside the political sphere, twitter mobs and (irony of ironies) mostly left-wing attempts to suppress dissent (albeit - and this is tremendously important - largely as a response to the bigotry of the hard right) have further demonstrated that people are willing to jump to decisions without bothering to check the facts.

But far more damage was done back at home. The decision to devolve powers from Westminster seems now, to me, to have done more to stoke the fires of nationalism than actually in any way improving things for anyone, while in the Alternative Vote referendum it was widely perceived that many people were voting to give Nick Clegg a bloody nose rather than to actually change the electoral system. We might not be able to prove this is what happened, but even just the prospect was worrying. The hung parliament demonstrated a pretty serious flaw in our democratic system and yet proportional representation is not, in my opinion, all that brilliant an idea. Democracy is in no way a magic bullet.

And then Brexit took all this to a whole other level. A narrow majority is deemed (by some at least) to be sufficient to condemn us to accept that decision for decades despite the blatant, unequivocal, one-sided lying that permeated the campaign, and the non-binding nature of the poll. Many voters - perhaps enough to change the outcome, it's not yet clear - have changed their minds, thus making it potentially a thing of transient whimsy rather than a rational, informed choice - and it's pretty clear that many voters were indeed woefully ill-informed. Maybe ballot papers should include a short quiz of basic questions.

This is no way to run a country. If we had a rational, properly informed, responsible electorate, and a media that didn't pander to populist easy answers and sales figures, then perhaps we could indeed have more referendums and a stronger society. Alas, right now we have none of these things. I don't want to sign up to Plato's "let only the experts rule" Republic, but we cannot take the democratic process for granted. I used to think that it always gave you the decision you deserved, even if that was not an objectively good choice - but I was wrong. Although voter irresponsibility is partially a factor, you don't deserve to suffer because you've been lied to. I am still a democrat, but in our current situation I can no longer accept direct democracy as a sensible method of government.


Nope. That is at best a vast oversimplification. It might be true some of the time, but it certainly isn't true all of the time. Nevertheless, from an open-mindedness point of view, there's good news and bad. The good :
  • I've changed my mind on issues to which I was strongly opposed, especially nuclear power
  • I've mostly done so at least partly because of evidence
  • When I've changed my mind, I haven't become absolutely and fervently convinced of my new position, so being "converted" hasn't made me more closed-minded than before
The bad :
  • I haven't really changed my mind on anything to which I have a fundamentally opposed ideology
  • Emotional influence and irrational thinking has played at least as important a role in changing my mind as evidence, especially on religion and the military
  • There are many other issues not mentioned here on which it's near certain that I'll never change my mind about
The speed of change varies. I was pretty quick to change my opinion on global warming based on a single lecture, whereas it took years to alter my opinion on nuclear power. Yet I'd been subject to equal levels of indoctrination by the media on both issues. There are several possible reasons for this:
- The lecturer argued for uncertainty, rather than the extreme opposing viewpoint as the pro-nuclear campaigners did
- The lecturer was a qualified expert, not the proverbial someone from the internet
- The lecturer never used emotional rhetoric, just evidence

It's also possible of course that my natural wish that humans aren't causing global warming made me more predisposed to hear the alternatives.

One lesson I think it's safe to draw is that changing someone's ideology is damn near impossible, but changing their opinion on specific issues is easier. I don't want nuclear weapons or even a military, but I accept the need for both right now. Another is that although it can often seem like you're not getting through to someone (and I probably said some very stupid anti-nuclear things), you may be having more of an effect that you realised. Just don't expect to win them over in one argument. The trick is not be so insistent that you force people on the defensive.

"Argument" is another important word. I've often found that I stop listening when people start shouting angrily, and feel an intrinsic need to justify (and therefore solidify) my own existing belief. Anger may be a good way to inspire the troops, but it's perhaps not the best way to persuade others and may even be counter-productive. I'm not sure the black and white approach favoured by so many political activists is really the best one.

I've often noticed that both in and outside of academia, my opinion tends to change more readily if I'm given time to think about something by myself, even if I initially react badly to something. But that's been my style of learning in general : listen first, think later. I find that time is a very effective way at cooling off emotions if I don't like what someone has said, but it still requires a conscious effort on my part to avoid reinforcing my own existing conceptions.

People and personalities have played a role in changing my opinion. I noted that James Lovelock's opinion mattered to me about nuclear power. Was I guilty of using the "argument from authority" fallacy here ? I have to admit that is a distinct possibility. I certainly gave his opinion far more weight than that of any random scientist I'd never heard of, and though I did also listen to his actual arguments (and not just say, "he's an expert, he must be right") it's fair to say there was a degree of "appeal to celebrity" involved. It was, however, just one small part of a long process of persuasion. But the most interesting lesson from this instance is that he presented the pro-nuclear case in a way that was fully compatible with my existing, "save the planet" ideology, partly just by his established status.

Then again, Richard Dawkins (and various other celebrity scientists) have acted to persuade me against what they were arguing for (as have Greenpeace). Although I was persuaded that the supernatural is just not true, there were occasions when I saw scientists acting in way that I did not think was justified by the evidence - even if I thought their evidence was compelling. One notable example, "I hope she grows out of it" regarding a young Russian lady's claim to be able to see internal injuries. Yes, you just came up with a very good case that she's wrong, but then you shot yourself in the foot with the patronizing remark. Of course, just because someone's a jerk doesn't mean they're wrong, but it doesn't help their case. It makes me doubt that they are logical and objective, so I see them as biased even when their conclusion is objectively correct.

(This ties in quite nicely with what I've been saying repeatedly about why scientists are sometimes perceived as dogmatic despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Keep presenting a load of bollocks as though it was valid and you give scientists no choice but to keep shooting it down. It might be OK if this was just an occasional thing, but when you have to keep doing this, I can see why it may be hard to remain entirely civil. )

But, while this is just a self-examination and therefore massively biased, I do think that evidence has been an important persuasive tool. While there have certainly been times when I have not found the evidence convincing, I'm not sure there have been any cases where I've been convinced without any evidence at all. So, evidence is necessary but not sufficient. You have to have it, but it's not a guarantee.

Anyway, this was a very interesting exercise for me. For, as a certain renaissance thinker said :

This post may or may not have been interesting for everyone (or anyone) else, but it was useful for me to try and work out what my own biases were. Of course, I cannot possibly have got them all right, because I'm not a robot. But that's OK. The point is that it's worth making the attempt to try and look at why we believe what we believe, as honestly as we can, and why we used to think differently. We are none of us truly objective, but we can always try to be as objective as possible.

For me then, the methods of persuasion which worked were :
  • Evidence. Although I certainly do reject evidence, and sometimes for reasons of my own underlying bias, you can't form a sensible argument without evidence.
  • An incremental approach. Trying to tackle specific points, one at a time, has been far more successful at changing my mind that going for an entire issue at once.
  • Compatibility with ideology. Don't like violence ? Then argue that the military prevents violence rather than causing it.
  • Arguing towards a state of uncertainty rather than straight to the exact opposite of my existing position. I often revert to being defensive in the latter case.
  • Using emotions. I must admit that the fear of uncertainty has played a part in changing my opinions on military policy. And yet...
  • Being emotionless. I find people far more persuasive when they stay calm and sound rational. So maybe the killer combination is to present an argument which provokes emotions in others of their own accord, whilst you remain seemingly aloof and dispassionate.
  • Being an expert. Not exactly the same as an appeal to authority - the expert must exploit their knowledge (which they have, that's why they're called experts) to its full potential.
  • Being present personally. Being a dude on the internet lacks credibility. 
  • Time. Repeating the argument doesn't make any difference, I need time in which you just shut up and I go away and think. That's the best way for me to shut out the emotional aspect - but I am making a conscious effort to do this.
  • Give me an excuse. Once I could see changing my point of view as being an improvement, rather than an admission of stupidity, it became much easier. This is particularly difficult in modern politics, where admitting you made a mistake is basically to declare, "I am now going to bathe in the blood of a virgin and then swim with the piranhas."
  • Get me completely and utterly wasted. That usually works.
And what has not worked :
  • Not presenting evidence, or in a counter-argument, not presenting an argument that directly refutes what has been stated. This just annoys me.
  • Being diametrically opposed from the word go.
  • Being a loud angry shouty person making overly-DRAMATIC !!!! claims. This method only works if you're Brian Blessed. No-one else should ever try this.
  • Insults. If you have to resort to this, it doesn't really matter if you're right or wrong any more.
  • A bad attitude. Even if you're correct, it doesn't help to behave as though you've already won and only an idiot could disagree with you. It just makes me think you think I'm an idiot.
  • Humour. More accurately, inappropriate mockery - jokes need to contain a good argument. "Hah, aliens ! You've been watching too many movies" doesn't work. But, "Hah, as if aliens would come all this way to probe your sorry ass !" does.
  • Excessive insistence. Maybe you're right, but I need time to digest what you've said. I rarely change my mind on anything instantly - if nothing else, fact-checking is important, especially in the internet age.
In short, explanations do matter. If you're convinced you're right, then fight the good fight, stay the course, present your evidence well and maybe you'll win. But also consider - just consider - the possibility that you're wrong. And remember your Sun-Tzu : fight the battles you can win. If you have good evidence that dark matter doesn't exist, you might win that one. If you want to persuade me that eating live kittens is a good idea, you'll be better off getting into a fist fight with a glacier.


While all of the above conclusions still stand on a personal, individual level, recent events compel me to stress that this is not always true. This morning I witnessed on national television one politician proclaiming, with gleeful sincerity, that Britain was heading for the "sunny uplands" of Brexit, and another, with a straight face, that we was setting his personal ambitions aside in his bid to rule the country. This at a time when the economy is being clobbered, we look like a laughing stock even to our closest allies, and hate crime is rising. We have a still-wealthy, relatively powerful country and an extremely disenfranchised populace who seem to think that a xenophobic bigot is better than any mainstream politician. This is an extremely dangerous position, yet some people would still be singing and dancing even if they knowingly walked off the edge of a cliff.

Maybe Brexit is something I'm wrong about. Maybe Britain will somehow enter a magical golden age of pixies and leprechauns . It won't, but nothing would please me more than to be proved wrong about this and add it to the list. Whether or not rational thought will ultimately prevail, or my conclusions have to be significantly updated to account for bullshitting (or maybe the conclusions still hold true for me but aren't generally applicable), is something that only time will tell.

1 comment:

  1. An Interesting playlist on Climate Change, 200'000 Subscriber Channel.