On the Tactics of the True Believer

You can see several comments on this blog by one True Believer.  You can go to any blog or forum that discusses almost anything and you will run into a True Believer.  I’ve seen them in everything from climate change, vaccinations and general medicine, animal testing, playground surface material, how often to do water changes in aquariums, and the best gun to use in Call of Duty.

All these True Believers (for lack of a better term) have a few things in common.  Once you realize that you are dealing with a True Believer, then you realize that nothing you say or do with ever change their mind.  For all intents and purposes you are talking to an irrational person.

A mind made up by an irrational argument cannot be changed by a rational argument.

I don’t know who said that, so if anyone has a link or a source, let me know.

The only reason to ‘discuss’ things with them is to show anyone watching that you know what you’re talking about and they probably don’t.

A discussion of this nature would be incomplete without a mention of the Krueger-Dunning effect. I encourage everyone read and deeply consider the import of this article.

Now, what are the characteristics of these True Believers?

Assertions with No Evidence

These True Believers will often start out ‘conversations’ with statements that are difficult to believe.  They will make these statements as though they are the highest truth and will vigorously defend them, often ‘going down with the ship’ doing so.

Occasionally, you’ll see the hat trick in which the True Believer states these assertions as truth, then uses those assertions as evidence for the same assertion as his/her conclusion.

Rarely, if ever, these assertions will be accompanied by what rational people would consider a legitimate source of information.  For example, peer reviewed, transparent research.  Instead you will often find…

Quotemining aka cherrypicking

A quotemine is simply taking a quote completely out of context and/or ignoring subsequent statements by the original author.  Cherry-picking is when only selected data is presented, not all of the data is presented.

These are often quotes from some nebulous ‘scientist’ with no reference.  The reason that there is no reference is often because the True Believer took the quote from a website that specializes in quotemining and simply doesn’t know who said it or where it was said.

It is relatively easy to dismantle these kinds of arguments.  Just type in the quote (in quotes) into google and you should get some results.  Many of the results will be websites that the quotemine came from, hopefully, you will be able to find the original quote.  Then read what comes before and after and see if what was quoted was really the intention of the author.

Cherry-picking comes from only using data that supports your position and ignoring the rest.  Most scientific papers will have a section that is error and results other than ones that support the conclusion of the paper.  Then they will explain what went on with those strange results.

True Believers rarely do this.  They will use only data that supports their position, while ignoring everything else.

A popular combination is to declare that a single quote taken out of context (for example, from Richard Dawkins’ book) and then ignore everything else that Dawkins’ has said or written and say that Dawkins is supporting the True Believers position.

Inconsistency

The True Believer, in almost every case, has not actually thought out his or her position very well at all.  So when presented with challenges, they will often make up something that seems to support what they want.

My current favorite example is a poster who is a militant animal rights activist, yet stated he once got into a fight because someone dissed his leather jacket.  Ummmm…

Also, because the True Believer is either making things up as he or she goes and/or taking bits and pieces from other websites and books, they will often state things that are inconsistent or even logically impossible.  Which brings us to…

Failure to Consider the Next Logical Step

The True Believer often has a very simple outlook on his or her position.  X is good, Y is bad.  This is a highly simplistic view of the world and is exhibited by persons that have not yet passed a 6th or 7th grade level understanding of reality or those that have led very sheltered lives (often religious home schooling).

Where as, people who understand things at a more mature level will often see nuances that the True Believer will miss.  Usually, this is the detriment to the True Believer’s position.  However, when pressed about this, the True Believer…

Fails to Answer Difficult Questions

In these internet ‘discussions’ and, very often, in FtF discussions, the True Believer will refuse to answer questions.  They will ignore questions and points that are against their core belief, whatever it is.

Questions can be asked for, literally, years before the True Believer will attempt to answer the question.  In many cases, this is because the True Believer really doesn’t understand what’s going on and is desperately trying to find an answer to questions.

This literally happened in one case I dealt with.  Over 10 months went by with me asking the same question to the same person.  Finally, I got an answer that showed a very different writing and thinking style than I was used to seeing from the other party.  I googled the statement and it had come word-for-word (without attribution, see below) from a recently published blog post.  Which brings up…

Failure to cite and properly attribute

The True Believer is so sure of the righteousness of their position, that they feel no compunction about blatantly stealing someone else’s work and claiming it (directly or indirectly) as there own.

Again, they will often ‘go down with the ship’ defending this, even when provided a word-for-word citation that shows they have stolen the material.  This is even funnier when the True Believer is a Christian fundamentalist.  Their ability to do whatever it takes to win, can range from humorous to dangerous (witness the recent animal rights groups threatening to begin terrorist attacks on researchers and their families).

Debating Tactics, Wordsmithing, and Word Salads

One thing that True Believers often want is a debate.  They truly fail to understand that debate is a game.  It is a contest that has nothing to do with reality.  When I was competing, I would often volunteer to take the position opposite of what I really thought just for the fun of it.  A skilled debater can win (by the rules of debate) no matter what’s going on.

Reality doesn’t care who wins the debate, who has more adherents, and who gets more points.  I could happily enter a debate that gravity doesn’t exist.  If I won, would it mean that gravity is wrong?  Of course not.

The True Believer doesn’t understand this. They are used to positions being fluid and debate being the only method of deciding between positions.  It also gives them a feeling of legitimacy that they otherwise lack.

Of course, that wrong belief leads them to wordsmithing and creating word salads (not to mention the Gish Gallop).  These are all fine debating techniques.  Twist the meanings of words to confuse the opponent and the audience.  Throw out highly complex words with confusing meanings and don’t define how you are using them.  Throw out as many unsupported statements, accusations, and issues (real or imagined) as you can in as short a time as possible.  The opponent has to sort out every little thing you said and in a formal debate, there is no way to do this.

The True Believer is always on the attack.  Using previously mentioned tactics, he will demand that his opponent deal with every bit of minutia while refusing to do so himself.  He will always turn around words and fain ignorance in order to make a telling point.

Only the True Believer and his/her supporters will think this is at all useful.  Anyone who understands what debate even is will not be impressed.

Logical Fallacies

The True Believer will often make many, many logical fallacies (including the ultimate appeal of authority to their personal deity).  For example, a pro-creationism organization has a “statement of dissent” from evolution signed by a couple hundred scientists (many of which are not scientists, but engineers, doctors, dentists, and computer experts).  These same True Believers will ignore any authority that doesn’t support their beliefs.  The counter example to the one above is Project Steve, by the NCSE, with several thousand scientists, all named Steve (and variations) that do support evolution.

The True Believer will ignore everything that disagrees with them.  This is true even when presented with material that they themselves have quoted from.  This is the ultimate in cherrypicking.

In fact, this is so common, if you can’t find a logical fallacy, then you are not dealing with a True Believer.  They may be confused or stupid, but they are not a True Believer.  It’s almost as though they get points (see debating) for using logical fallacies in conversation.

Both Sides of the Story

Rarely will you hear a True Believer give credit to both sides of the story.  For example, like I have in the Authority section.  It does happen, but it is usually in reference to an attack or even a quotemine.  (Yes, some True Believers are so stupidly over-confident that they will provide links to their own quotemine.  It’s truly hilarious when it happens.)

It is often telling about which side is most confident in their position.

So, those are the characters that I consider very telling when dealing with a True Believer.  Now, please keep in mind that this should only be applied in discussions.  Things like blog posts are usually meant to be informative or persuasive and may or may not include this kind of behavior.  I rarely read blogs from True Believers, so I don’t know.

There are several things to do when you find a True Believer.  You can attempt to educate him or her.  This just leads to frustration.  You can get in there and debate it out.  This just leads to the old saying about fighting a pig, “you’ll both get dirty and the pig will enjoy it”.  You can go on the offensive and point out every single one of these tactics and why they are incorrect.  That’s fun and often actually useful for those on both sides of the argument, but especially for the fence sitters.  You can laugh at them.  This is a common tactic and most of the time, because I give people the benefit of the doubt way too much, I am not a fan of it.  It takes a lot to convince me that laughter is the only correct solution.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration into the tactics and identification of the True Believer.  I’m almost sad that I have this much experience with the chronically deluded.  (I’ll note that there are True Believers on every side of an argument.  Just because you are right doesn’t mean you aren’t a True Believer.)

_____________________________________

Update… I forgot one that was pointed out to me a couple of times, but it’s a little trickier to interpret.

Projection

Projection is where the True Believer claims traits in another, but those traits primarily exist within himself.  Again, this is a pretty tricky thing to notice and usually takes some time before it can be said with confidence that the True Believer is projecting.

And just in case you ever are called out by a True Believer, you should really consider the source of the material in question.  If Neil Shubin or Richard Lenski e-mails me and says, “I don’t think you have this correct, have you considered …”, then I will take it quite seriously and investigate their claims.  If Don McLeory e-mails me and says that I have it wrong… well, I’ll probably be perfectly happy knowing that.

Is that an argument from authority?  No, it’s purely a credibility issue.  Shubin and Lenski are credible scientists whose work directly impacts biology and evolutionary theory.  McLeroy is a creationist dentist who wants Christian religion taught as science.  Which would you think is more likely to have correct information on the topic of evolution?

__________________________

And the suggestions just keep rolling in.

Specificity

Another trait that the True Believer often have is that they are highly specific to one topic or a very narrow range of topics.  Only in rare cases does a True Believer take a stand on more than one topic and those rare cases are almost invariably associated with politics. 

It is almost unheard of for a global warming denier to also argue for (or against) animal rights or evolution or playscape materials.

Each True Believer has their chosen topic and ignores most of the rest of the universe.

I will add this caveat however, because of the nature of the internet, one person can use many different names and it is a rare case indeed when one individual can be succesfully associated with multiple personas (under certain conditions, this is known as sock puppetry).

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3 Responses to On the Tactics of the True Believer

  1. Scott says:

    It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I will argue that to the death. <_<

    Yeah, it's usually not too hard to spot the True Believers, but goddamn they are frustrating. THE WORST is when they start making me doubt myself; they are so damned sure of themselves while being so obviously wrong, what if I'm the same way and don't realize it… That sentiment usually passes quickly, but it's a little disconcerting. =P

  2. ogremkv says:

    I totally agree and that confidence is a part of the debating tactics. Never, ever admit to anything you say is wrong… no matter how stupid it actually sounds.

    That confidence translates to the general public readily, even though it just masks Teh Stoopid.

  3. Pingback: On Mean and Snarky Websites | Cassandra's Tears

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