11.24.2015

The Monster At The Thanksgiving Table

A TurkeyYum. (Image by WikiCommons user Mtshad, made available under a CC-BY-SA license).

There are few holidays I love as much as Thanksgiving. If I go to someone else’s house and thus don’t have turkey and stuffing and pie leftovers, I’ll make my own the next day and keep the holiday going.

Traditionally, though, Thanksgiving is also a time to be thrust into the company of relative strangers, with whom one might disagree, and thus lose the thankful spirit. Your climate change denying uncle, the creationist neighbor, the vaccine-denying cousin.

I was thinking about this challenge, oddly enough, while reading Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid’s essay on ISIS and the aftermath of their attacks on Paris. Because in describing how ISIS recruits so successfully to their horrific ideology, and how Western governments’ attempts to divert potential recruits away from ISIS fail, I saw parallels to conflicts over vaccines, evolution, and climate change, and to the challenges that many of us of a skeptical bent feel at Thanksgiving dinners.

They write:

As our own research has shown—in interviews with youth in Paris, London, and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda) fighters from Syria—…[d]ismissing the group as “nihilistic” reflects a dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.

most Europeans who are drawn into jihad are “born again” into radical religion by their social peers. In France, and in Europe more generally, more than three of every four recruits join the Islamic State together with friends, while only one in five do so with family members and very few through direct recruitment by strangers. Many of these young people identify with neither the country their parents come from nor the country in which they live. Other identities are weak and non-motivating. One woman in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois described her conversion as being like that of a transgender person who opts out of the gender assigned at birth: “I was like a Muslim trapped in a Christian body,” she said. She believed she was only able to live fully as a Muslim with dignity in the Islamic State.

For others who have struggled to find meaning in their lives, ISIS is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that many of them will never live to enjoy.

To combat this profound (and, needless to say, profoundly misguided) sense of meaning and connection, the US State Department has tried a strategy of depersonalized social media outreach which reiterates all the horrific things ISIS does.

By contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustrated aspiration into moral outrage.

This, on a different scale and with far different consequences, is the same dynamic that drives the social movements fomenting science denial. A parent fearful of vaccines might raise a concern with her doctor, and be given a pamphlet or a canned lecture about how vaccines are safe. That same parent, when she asks a question on an anti-vaxx message board, will get support, identification, empathy, and personal stories of how other people with the same fears were able to channel their grievances with modern medicine into a strategy for resisting vaccination. Similarly, people come to associate climate change denial and creationism with the social groups that give them comfort and support (a church group, say, that helped them through hard times), and come to share the science-denying views of that group as part of the package.

That empathy gap can’t be overcome by more data, but it can be overcome (in part) over turkey. It won’t be overcome by fighting, it won’t be overcome by mockery, and it won’t be overcome by lecturing. But rather than being fearful of those sorts of disagreements around the Thanksgiving table, if we just take time to empathize and give others the opportunity to empathize with us, we might just change some minds.

Some quick tips for these conversations:

  1. Ask questions. Fear, frustration, grievances, and anger are the most common motivations that set people down a path to science denial (and probably the most common reasons people do almost anything). Find out what people fear, understand their grievances, and ask them to tell you more. Knowing that people like us will listen empathetically can undercut the appeal of denialist movements, and it’ll help you address concerns without heightening feelings of anger or fear.

  2. Be equally personal. In talking to an anti-vaxx parent, I’d start by explaining why I make sure my children are vaccinated. I’d empathize with their fears of hurting their children, I’d talk about the research I’ve done on vaccines, and I’d keep the focus on my decision for my children, and their decision for theirs. If you decide to debunk some claim, keep it on that personal level: “I worried about that, too, but then I learned that…”

  3. Come at the science sideways. If someone says, “would you like to hear an interesting scientific fact?” the answer is usually “no.” Instead, ask if people realize that the Thanksgiving dinner has a giant dinosaur at its core, then talk about how we know that birds (including turkeys) are dinosaurs. Point out that Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale, are all bred from a common ancestor within the last thousand years: if evolution can produce such diversity in that short time, is speciation really such a shocking concept? How many kingdoms, or phyla, are represented in your Thanksgiving dinner? If people take the bait, you’ve got a chance to talk about science. If not, don’t push it.

  4. Assume you won’t change someone’s mind. You won’t argue people out of a position they weren’t argued into, and you are unlikely to completely turn them around on something they’ve been thinking about for years. The goal is to make a crack in the wall: show that people like you are good people, show that people like you and people like them can talk, show that someone like them can reach different conclusions and discuss the differences reasonably, and give them some seeds of doubt about claims they’ve been hearing. The next time you two talk, or the next time your dinner companion talks about the issue, that crack will grow. You’ll have given them the tools to challenge the false claims they’re hearing. But what they do with those tools has to be their choice.

  5. Remember the rest of the table. Just because you don’t convince the person vociferously denying science doesn’t mean you won’t reach someone sitting quietly nearby. And you’re setting an example for other folks at the table who agree with you. Help steer those allies toward effective approaches, and steer the undecided toward good resources. If you get aggressive, or sneer, or just lecture, what impressions will that leave the rest of the folks at the table? If you’re empathetic, laugh off any abuse you receive, and come across as welcoming and helpful, what impressions will that leave? Which sort of person are the others at the table likely to want to continue the conversation with? Which sort of person will they be more thankful to have at the table with them?