Promoting science and logic? Look to the non-logical

Aug 22, 2013

Most of the time, those of us who want to promote a science- and logic-based view of the world have a straightforward method for doing so. We use science and logic.

And, why wouldn’t we? If our goal is, for example, to show climate change deniers they are wrong, the best way to do so is pointing out the abundant scientific evidence that global temperatures are creeping upward. If our goal is get people to stop believing in a god, the best way to do so is with logical arguments and rigorous reasoning. Flying spaghetti monster, anyone?

It seems obvious that science- and logic-based arguments should be not only the most natural tools for promoting a scientific and logical worldview, but also the most effective ones. But guess what? They’re not.


In carrying out our secular advocacy work, most of us are guilty of the same mistake we commonly criticize others for:  we’ve never bothered to look to the science, never investigated what really works and what doesn’t for persuading people to change their attitudes and behaviors. Instead, we’ve relied on assumptions or – more frequently – have never even considered the question at all.


The science is out there. Academic journals in fields like psychology, sociology, communication studies, behavioral economics, and so on are packed with study after peer-reviewed study showing that our assumptions about what drives attitude and behavior change are often incorrect. As I wrote about in my book, Change of Heart:  What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social, this has profound implications for how non-profits and activists carry out their work.


Simple things such as appealing to social norms, getting a commitment, looking attractive, getting your foot in the door with a small initial request, and so forth can make a huge difference in getting people to change their beliefs and behaviors. So some of the most powerful tools that secular advocates have for promoting a logical worldview are – at least on the surface – profoundly non-logical.


Ironically, one of the best ways to advance logic is by putting logical arguments in the back seat, giving them only a minor, support role in our advocacy work. And the secular movement isn’t the only movement for which the desired outcome and the best approach are two very different things.


After years of being pummeled in state ballot initiatives that enshrined “marriage protection” laws into state constitutions, in 2009 a few marriage equality activists decided to question the messaging they had been using to promote their cause. As The Atlantic reported, they conducted polling and focus groups to see what they were doing wrong. They found – among other things – that speaking about “rights” was not very effective for getting the fence-sitting public to support marriage equality. Painting marriage as an act of love and commitment between two people was much more effective at winning votes.


Using this new research-based approach in their communications, marriage equality activists stepped back in the ring in 2012 and won every single state-level ballot initiative on marriage equality. Of course, shifting public opinion played a big role in this abrupt turn-around as well. But given the narrow margins of victory, the shift in messaging likely played a deciding role in at least some of these state contests.


Environmental activists face the same reality. For example, countless studies have found that social norms messages – messages which basically say “lots of other people are doing this” – are often more effective than environmental messages at getting people to engage in environmentally-friendly behaviors.


Want homeowners to reduce their energy usage? One study found that promoting the environmental reasons to conserve did no good, but pointing out that neighbors were already reducing their consumption caused energy use to drop. Another study found hotel guests were more likely to re-use bath towels (and thereby reduce the amount of water and electricity needed to wash and dry them) if they saw signs that said “Most guests in this hotel re-use their bath towels” as opposed to signs that said “In order to help us protect the environment, we encourage you to please re-use your bath towels.”


While I am a longtime atheist and fan of Richard Dawkins’ writing, professionally I work in the field of farm animal advocacy. A lot of the work I do revolves around promoting a pretty simple proposition. Chickens, fish, pigs, and other animals are intelligent individuals who feel pleasure and pain. They suffer miserably on today’s farms. Meanwhile, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (not to mention several large longitudinal studies), a healthy meat-free diet extends lifespan and reduces the risk of certain diseases.


Clearly, the small benefits of eating meat (our taste buds enjoy it; it is convenient) are not worth the pain inflicted on other individuals. Ethically, and behaviorally, it should be an open and shut case. (Dawkins himself, along with other prominent atheist scholars such as Sam Harris, has publically stated that eating meat is unethical – even if he himself isn’t strong-willed enough to always avoid it.)


Yet here too, those in my field have found that focusing on logic, philosophy, and “animal rights” are not very effective at getting people to change their diet. Much more effective are pointing out the quickly growing number of vegans, vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians (U.S. meat consumption has dropped 10% in the last six years); showing how to find the many delicious meat-free options now available at grocery stores, restaurants, and fast food chains; and sharing a couple simple health tips.


The bottom line for secular advocates is this. We humans – including each of us reading this article – are not machines who base our decisions on pure logic and reason. We are driven mainly by emotions, by habit, and by other seemingly non-logical factors that are essentially mental rules of thumb that over our evolutionary history tended to benefit our survival.


This means – and the research suggests – that dispassionate logic and reasoning is not the best approach for persuading the public to live a reasoned, logical life.


Instead of just pointing for the 1,000th time to the science on climate change, we need to also look for the emotional levers that keep people clinging to denial. Instead of just pointing out the logical inconsistencies and negative consequences of religion, we need to also look for the emotional levers that lead people to release religious beliefs in favor of a more rational worldview.


What are the emotional levers to focus on in trying to move people toward atheism, science, and reason? On a general level, we know what approaches are usually helpful for getting people to change their beliefs. I discuss this at length in Change Of Heart, and sum up some of the key tools of persuasion in this video powerpoint. As you’ll see, on the surface they are decidedly non-logical.


But when it comes to the specific nuances of promoting secularism, we don’t know what works best. It doesn’t appear that much research has been done on what messages and approaches are most likely to get people to embrace, say, atheism. Here, the secular movement could really benefit from taking a page out of the playbook of the marriage equality movement. There are countless ways to point out the problems and falsity of religion, as well as the benefits of embracing a scientific worldview. Testing needs to be done to figure out which messages and what approach make people most likely to shift their beliefs.


Similarly, the rapid growth of atheism and agnosticism is very heartening – but why is it happening? Which demographic groups are most likely to go atheist or agnostic, what is causing them to change, and what are the main barriers people face in changing? Once we answer these questions, we can target our advocacy toward the audiences most likely to change, with the approaches most likely to work.


In other words, if we want to promote science and logic, we need to start doing some scientific research of our own. We need to figure out what actually works and what doesn’t for inspiring people to let go of religion and other illogical beliefs. And one thing the current research makes clear is that in our advocacy work we need to put logic in the back seat. Because when it comes to inspiring people to live logically, it is non-logical factors and non-logical arguments that are most likely to get them there.


Nick Cooney is the founder and director of The Humane League, an animal advocacy organization based in Philadelphia, PA and author of Change of Heart:  What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. Nick has written for publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer and Z Magazine, and his advocacy work has been featured in hundreds of media outlets including Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio. He holds a degree in Non-Violence Studies from Hofstra University and formerly worked conducting nutrition education programs with the University of Pennsylvania's Urban Nutrition Initiative.

Written By: Nick Cooney
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10 comments on “Promoting science and logic? Look to the non-logical

  • 1
    DG Thompson says:

    The author raises a great point here and in his “Change of Heart” presentation: other approaches may be more effective than pure logic-based arguments. The examples used in the presentation provide excellent and entertaining illustrations of various approaches!

    We should also consider inclusion of the use of comedy or satire.

    From Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to virtually anything by the creators of “South Park,” satirical works help people laugh at their own illogical views. This is an important first step in getting them to question those views.

    On the topic of atheism/theism, I wrote a short satirical novella called “Holy Wars!” It’s the first in a series that asks: What if in the future, a cult movie’s mythological philosophy (like, say, “The Force” in Star Wars) gets mistaken for an ancient religion. My goal is to show in a comical way how falsehoods or errors can lead the masses to the same faulty religious views we see today.

    Of course, this approach has its limitations. People self-select what they choose to read or watch. So the people whose views you wish to change may never be exposed to a message presented satirically. Also, those who wish to bring about change may not be skilled at comedy or satire. So they may feel unable to do anything more than encourage their friends to read or watch it.

    But I think it’s still worthy of consideration as a viable approach to changing people’s hearts.

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  • 2
    phil rimmer says:

    I long ago lost interest in persuading people of the logic of my atheist position. Those susceptible to logic will fix things for themselves in this intellectual resource rich world.

    Against religious leaders and political leaders using religion, the answer is political action, ridicule, and the law.

    My personal interest is in selling the godless position as the more moral position. Whether you think she exists or not, given 30,000 conflicting Christian sects and countless non Christian religions, you are always pretending to know the better moral path by your faith. Your job, in my vision of a better world, is to set your faith aside, look into people’s eyes and make your own moral decision, every day and under every circumstance. Your actions are only your own.

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  • Those arguing on the side of religion always do so from an emotional base. They try to dress it up so that it sounds analytical but it’s not. They use supernatural reasoning and make ludicrous claims. I’ve seen it time and again and it’s like trying to talk Shakespeare to a two year old. The message simply doesn’t get through. Any debating tools that could be used to counter their emotional logic would be more than welcome.

    Social events such as the Reason Rally must score a few points. They look like fun and that makes a contrast to deadly earnest debates. Americans are adept at the means of persuasion…look at the civil rights movement, affirmative action and Gay Marriage. Once the momentum starts to swing in the direction of sense and reason I predict the change of heart will be swift.

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  • 4
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #3 by Nitya:

    Those arguing on the side of religion always do so from an emotional base. They try to dress it up so that it sounds analytical but it’s not.

    My son observed of the USA (rather shrewdly I thought) that, “It is a country that manufactures narratives on an industrial scale. It both makes them and is made by them.”

    I think you are right on both counts. There will be a new narrative soon. The change, when it comes will be swift.

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  • In reply to #4 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #3 by Nitya:

    Those arguing on the side of religion always do so from an emotional base. They try to dress it up so that it sounds analytical but it’s not.

    My son observed of the USA (rather shrewdly I thought) that, “It is a country that manufactures narratives on an industrial scale….

    Indeed. I like to contrast the approach in the US, to that in other parts of the world. Whereas they started from a position of almost universal belief, they have swung into action with tv shows devoted to the atheist viewpoint, numerous events , personalities and a rich groundswell of atheist opinion. Far more than our feeble attempts to change hearts and minds. For the rest of the developed world it seems to have simply slipped into irrelevance. I think the observation made by your son is valid. I expect the film industry will take up the challenge and begin to promote the change in thinking in the same way that it did in regard to Gay rights.

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  • 6
    Stuart M. says:

    I watched the presentation video and it was interesting. It suggests giving people reasonable arguments to do as you wish is ineffective. Effective techniques are telling them “Everyone is doing it,” getting them to reconfirm their commitment, asking them to make just a small change before following up with a request for a big change, narrowing their options for change, telling stories instead of giving them statistics and ignoring countervailing information. Okay, these might be the findings of psychology as the most effective ways to get people to change. However, I think religions use precisely these techniques to recruit members. “We’re the fastest growing church,” “Can we send someone to visit you?”, “Here, take this bible, it’s free,” “You will only get salvation through the one true church,” “I have witnessed god acting in my life and the lives of my friends,” and “(big silence on pedophilia, mansions and private jets, wife beating, jihad, etc.)” I guess the message is you have to stoop to the same tactics as the religionists because those are the only tactics that will work. Using logical arguments and statistics are ineffective. I don’t know if I can stoop that low. I’m depressed.

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  • 7
    arpitchauhan says:

    In reply to #1 by DG Thompson:

    The author raises a great point here and in his “Change of Heart” presentation: other approaches may be more effective than pure logic-based arguments. The examples used in the presentation provide excellent and entertaining illustrations of various approaches!

    We should also consider inclusion of…

    How can one read your novella?

    And the author raises crucially important points about animal rights too.

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  • When reading your proposed tactics to stoop using, basically, the same kind of arguments them religious people use in order to keep their flocks of sheep under their control… gets me a little depressed, as says Prletenul.

    Besides, your proposal seems to skirt and sidestep a rather important point : it’s almost never a “one-way” game !

    What I mean by that, is that you seem to only approach this matter as if it would go ‘naturally’ from picking up one theist in his or her faith, and bringing things quietly toward atheism (or agnosticism). You don’t take into account that this person isn’t necessarily socially isolated ! On the antagonistic side,, he or she has friends and family strongly attached —more often than not— to the very religion you wish to undermine. And, as also mentioned in Prletenul’s post, these relatives will use precisely the same techniques to counteract your influence (emotional talk, sentimental or even intimate arguments, etc…).

    Thus, I’m afraid that that kind of ‘de-conversion’, if based on such a weak grounding, stands little chance of resisting such strong “counter-attacks”, above all when coming from folks that are closer to him or her than you are…..

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  • 9
    Richard01 says:

    The point on sticking to correct information in a discussion rather than also mentioning non correct stuff is a very important one as the non correct stuff is often remembered as being correct by association. It is a major weakness of journalism education that journalists (especially TV and radio) think they are providing balance to a discussion by including people who do not give factually correct information in a discussion with people who do provide the latest available facts. An example would be putting an astrology on the same platform as an astronomer or a medical doctor with a homeopath. The ‘alternative’ anecdotal type speaker gains huge credibilty by association and as Nick points out, some of it becomes remembered as being correct! One ‘trusts’ journalists to assess who they are letting loose on the public and they should be encouraged to verfiy the facts and evidence for those facts beforehand. Unfortunately that trust is often misplaced.

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