Today I went to see Frank Swain talk at Westminister Skeptic. There were a few other faces I know from the blogosphere too, which was cool.
It was nice to meet a friendly bunch of people, it was nice to meet someone who shared my view on Richard Dawkins (Hi, Irene!) - which I'll save for another post - and it was an excellent talk on "The Problem With Skeptics".
In essence, Frank argued that the skeptic community were often perceived to be aggressive and arrogant and he finished by asking "How can we challenge these people?" (These people being those who believe that homoeopathy works, and such).
In the question and answer session I proposed that the best way of talking to believers was through Socratic Questioning. This is to challenge beliefs through asking questions, rather than stating facts. There are several reasons why this works well which I didn't really have time to go into in detail, so this is my soapbox.
The first benefit of this is that it is far less confrontational than the bare display of facts. Nobody likes to be told their wrong, and this way no one tells them outright they are wrong.
It is also more engaging. Everybody loves to talk about themselves and by asking questions you invite people to talk about themselves.
Some people will never be won around. Some people fundamentally believe, for example, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead. They will never be convinced otherwise. Instead of confronting them, the questioning will instead find this given straight away ("I have total faith in this belief" or something). At this point, change the subject to wiffleball, or something. You'll never convince them.
Where people can be won over, this method is far more effective than bare presentation of facts. For a start, bare presentation is, in some ways, just another argument from authority. By leading someone through the lines of reasoning by which we skeptics form our beliefs we not only lead them to what we consider to be the truth, but we also demonstrate the way of thinking that we employ which is - in my opinion - far more important.
Furthermore, it isn't patronising when done correctly. It shows confidence in the other person that are bright enough to understand our ideas. (A common criticism of skeptics is that we are arrogant by seeing to assume that non-believers won't understand it. A criticism that is not wholly unjustified.) Furthermore, by making them find the idea themselves they are more likely to understand and accept it.
A final point is that it is good for you as well. You may receive answers you were not expecting, which throws a different light on the subject you were discussing. It may challenge your views! If you are a true skeptic, you will welcome this. Furthermore, in order to convince anyone with this method you will have to be familiar with the subject matter. How many of you could convince me that the Earth orbits the Sun with nothing but a telescope and as much time as you wished?
But what is the best way to do this? It isn't particularly easy. Be careful not to simply veil criticism by phrasing as a question. Don't you think that would be most unwise? People will see straight through it.
The best way to go about this is to show an interest in someone's beliefs before asking any leading questions. This will help you establish a rapport and understand some of the nuances. Asking where a particular belief comes from, for example. You can quite often spot those who can't be won around here.
An example might go:
PERSON: I believe that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead.
YOU: That's interesting. Why do you believe that?
PERSON: Because the Bible tells me so, and is the divine word of God himself.
You'd be best here not to argue the point. However, if the same person argued that evolution was a myth, you could more easily lead them to the conclusion that evolution is an inevitable result from imperfect reproduction and natural selection, by asking the right questions.
This can be done with blog posts too, even though there isn't actually a dialogue happening. All it takes is a little more work. If you want to argue a case, present the opposing viewpoint. Present it fairly and without sarcasm - if you are actually right there is no need to distort or strawman the opposition (and if you are wrong then you'll learn something). Phrase headings as questions. Not "Homoeopathy is wrong" but "Is homoeopathy correct?" to be less confrontational. When making the opposition case link to their own sources, if possible. Doing this will allow those who disagree with you to agree up to a point. Even if they don't like your conclusions they are far more likely to actually read what you've written.
I hope this is helpful.