"The Earth Isn't Flat" and other tales of woe - how can I keep my peace?
September 5, 2022 2:52 PM   Subscribe

I get mysef very worked up when engaging in conversations with people who are very confident about things they (from my point of view) don't understand. I'd like to get to the bottom of why I get so angry about it, and how to keep my peace (and my friendships)

To be clear, I am not asking this question to figure out how to explain to people that

* Water does not care if you yell at it
* It's very hard to change the pH in your blood through your alkaline diet (and you probably wouldn't want to)
* or, as of yet, we have no actual evidence that quantum mechanics has much to with your meditation practice

Rather, I'd like to figure how to lessen my attachment to being Right about these things.
posted by jander03 to Human Relations (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Have you got anyone you really respect who has a set of beliefs like this? I had a friend back in law school who was super smart, super rational, and super into tarot and astrology. This did not make me think there was anything to tarot or astrology, but it did somehow make it easier to say “whatever” rather than wanting to convince her of anything — she was clearly sharp enough to follow anything I was going to say about her beliefs and obviously it wasn’t going to convince her, so I didn’t need to get into it.

This only works for harmlessly irrational stuff, of course. And I did need to have an individual I really respected to get into that headspace.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:59 PM on September 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this will help, but in the past I would use examples in discussions to explain that appearances can be deceiving. You know, like "mirrors don't reverse things left/right" and "hot air doesn't rise". But I have learned (painfully) that it just starts a new argument about how I'm wrong about those things, so I have stopped doing that.

Then my main tension with "common knowledge" was usually with technology/computers because even in the 21st century there's a lot of misinformation floating around. But I just ignored the folks who felt that keeping just a few simple passwords for their entire digital life was a great idea, and that backups are too much trouble, and plugging in USB drives from unknown sources or running exe's of unknown provenance is OK because Windows won't let anything happen.

And then 2020 came along and everyone was either an amateur epidemiologist, conspiracy theorist or a constitutional law expert. And that's when I learned there's no more safe basis for conversations. Like when I once mentioned to someone that by coincidence I just happened to go into semi-retirement only a month or two before the company sent everyone home for COVID, and the person replied that there was no COVID, it was a hoax. And that is when I officially gave up.
posted by forthright at 3:58 PM on September 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

Have you sat down and thought about what is driving you to have these arguments? What personal impact on your actual life and/or emotional reaction does this person being wrong cause?

I mean, maybe it really is just that you want everyone to agree that you're right / 'win' the argument. Maybe it's something else. But figuring out that emotional motivation is the first step in figuring out what to do about it.
posted by Ahniya at 5:13 PM on September 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

I can very much relate to this and am dealing with these kinds of feelings myself.

It sounds like your friends have seen the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know." Of course, there are real scientists who have addressed the false statements in that movie, but the people who've bought into it aren't interested in that. I note in your question, you're talking about when you engage in conversation about these things. I really find that the only thing I can do is just not have these sorts of conversations. If people say something absurd to me, of course, I want to give them a reasonable answer that will show how wrong they are, but the truth is there is nothing you can say to convince someone who believes there is scientific proof that water will become unhappy when if you are mean to it. Stepping away in the form of just not engaging is the only thing that works for me. If I have other things to talk about with the person, then we can still have a relationship.

I have a friend who gets in arguments with his right-wing friends, and I have asked him why he continues to argue with them, and he says he still believes that they will eventually see reason. I have given up on that, and I think that's been better for my peace of mind.

I think meditation can also be helpful just because over time it enables you to feel less attached to things that are going on and bothering you. I've been listening to the Buddhist podcast Urban Dharma, and that's helped me to put my irritation at people more in perspective. I still have ranty, one-sided arguments when I go for walks though.
posted by FencingGal at 5:17 PM on September 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't like. I have frankly told him that I will never agree with him but I value our friendship too much to argue or attempt to change his mind. Every time he starts with it I remind him that this is a topic that I cannot engage in and quickly change the subject to a topic we can discuss like music or art. It's gotten so that all I have to do is raise my open hand and say this is not something we can discuss and he drops it.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:48 PM on September 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: In general, we get unreasonably upset about things when they are connected to something else in our present or past that is emotionally difficult. The list from dancing leaves covers most of the common reasons, and figuring out why this makes you so upset is the first step to changing it. If the reasons aren't tied deeply into your identity or past then changing how you think about them could be enough to change the behavior. On the other hand if the topic something that is really hard to think or talk about then you might need to work with someone else to help you deal with any trauma-like symptoms. It doesn't sound like this is actually traumatic for you, but it is something that is actually worth trying to change. I've worked through several issues like this recently (plus some actual trauma), and here's my view:

The goal is to actually Accept that other people have false and possibly harmful beliefs and that is part of who they are. Acceptance is something that everyone says is really important, but they never really define it or explain how to achieve it. Given that you used the word attachment you've probably heard this before. So how do we actually accept things?

I think the key is to stop thinking about what the world would be like if the thing we want to accept was different. Whenever we actively contemplate "what if I could change their mind" or "the world is worse because they believe stupid things" we are mentally modeling/predicting a world which is different than reality, which means we are fighting against accepting reality. Instead, the goal is to integrate the reality of their current beliefs into how we think about our present and future. Yes, they believe stupid things and are unlikely to change, and now what should I do about it? Most of the time the answer is nothing because there's no real opportunity to change their mind.

This doesn't mean we need to give up on trying to change things for the better, because our previous thinking about other possibilities will prepare us for when we actually CAN make a difference and maybe change their mind. The first few times I think through an irritating and difficult situation, it's genuinely useful and helps me prepare. But the 20th time that I get mad at someone for being who they are, it's completely pointless and counterproductive. Instead of thinking about how to change them, I need to remind myself that the boring truth is that they are who they are. And once something is boring and taken for granted, I'm less likely to fixate on it and get upset.
posted by JZig at 6:03 PM on September 5, 2022 [9 favorites]

It seems from what you’ve said that you’re a very facts-oriented, logical thinker. Im wondering if it’s possible that the anger stems from frustration over viewpoints that feel so obviously illogical to you. Maybe it’s an attachment to being right, but maybe it’s just anger at how someone could possibly think/reason that way.

Or maybe, the anger stems from feeling like you won’t be heard for your own beliefs in the face of their certainty. Maybe the anger would lessen a great deal if the hypothetical friend who believes in crystals asks you what you think about them and shows genuine interest in your skepticism. Would you still feel angry? Or would you feel respected for getting to voice your skepticism?

Maybe try going into these conversations as if you know nothing about anything. Metaphysics, politics, spirituality. Not even water that’s been yelled at.

I tend to think everything’s a mystery and it makes me much less angry at people who believe seemingly illogical things. Reading up on opposing sides of an issue or belief helps keep me in that mindset.

To my mind, currently, everything is on the table. Crystals, frequencies, alkaline diets, singing to plants to make them grow, mediums, law of attraction. It’s all possible. Phds on both sides (maybe look up Dean Radin). Studies and statistics flying all over the place. Each proving their own side.

For every article written that debunks water molecules changing based on what you say to them, there’s another one from a respectable source saying we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it.

So, I come from the point of view that I know nothing and it leaves a lot of room for all the possibilities.

I do however know one person who is into so many of these things that it’s a little hard to hang out with them. And I do keep my distance. So i think there’s also room for honoring this part of you.
posted by ygmiaa at 6:06 PM on September 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you can't avoid these maddening conversations, a "what are they getting out of this belief" approach may be less stressful for you. That way you're not there to educate anyone but yourself, for your own purposes, at a slight remove from the anger/righteousness-inducing subject.
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:05 PM on September 5, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: For me, I have this because I am Autistic and “wrongess in the universe” is one of my Very Grand Emotions alongside justice and equality. (Googling Very Grand Emotions will bring up the article I am referencing.)

It was helpful for me to understand that I was having an emotional reaction and attempting to fix something through correcting people. I try to channel that impulse into changing the topic of conversation and reminding myself that someone *believing* a wrong thing about the universe doesn’t *change the nature of the universe* which I think on some emotional level it … sorta feels like it does? That my correction and big emotions about it are to keep the universe in balance. But I don’t have to do that. The universe will continue working correctly even if people believe wrong things about it. This is still very much an active struggle for me, but that’s what helps me not react outwardly while I contain it.
posted by Bottlecap at 7:39 PM on September 5, 2022 [16 favorites]

Best answer: If, like me, you believe that lack of critical thinking is not just innocuous but genuinely poses a threat to the safety and wellbeing of others (see: covid deniers, and even where another commenter referenced the ideas from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know - the guy who made that movie ended up high up in the NXIVM sex trafficking cult) I think it's important to let yourself have the time and space to have your feelings about how much it sucks that this sort of thing goes on. That way it goes less to the specific people doing it and more to like, feeling your feelings in general. It sucks that people are fallible! It sucks that we also absolutely believe some hokey stuff without realising it because of our own cognitive biases and lack of good media communication about scientific updates and how much time it would take to read every new paper that comes out. It sucks that the world is not as safe as it could be. It sucks that there are charlatans out there who know what they're selling is bogus and make their money preying on vulnerable people. I think it's important to just feel that.
posted by Chrysalis at 7:44 PM on September 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

I think you might try a different perspective - that you are not attached to being Right, you are attached to them _believing_ that you are Right. If you look at it that way, what you need to accept is that for some people it's not a matter of having correct facts, it's a matter of belief for them. And as with other belief systems, your belief system (objective, rational, fact-based) can be different but you can still be friends. Unless their views put themselves or others at risk of serious harm, for example if they believed in ritual human sacrifice :-) you can maybe just let it go.
posted by TimHare at 9:46 PM on September 5, 2022

Best answer: Simple test for anything that gets under your skin: what part of you does it correspond to?

Do you find yourself speaking authoritatively about things you really don’t know about, even just to yourself? In what ways does your internal voice indulge in this behavior that you hate?

People being annoying can be easily brushed off. The things that really torque us off are personal.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:03 PM on September 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

Personally, just walk away. It's NOT worth raising your blood pressure over bits of "woo-woo".

People who believe in crank are vulnerable to that sort of crank and tend to believe a couple more. A Holocaust denier will tend to believe in vaccine disinformation and 9/11 conspiracy as well. It's called "crank magnetism". You can't win them over because they will simply Gish Gallop to a different crank to drown you out. They aren't ready for the truth and never will be, esp. because they BELIEVE they have the truth (and you don't).

There's simply no reason to CARE what they believe unless they have power over YOUR life. And you have to CARE for them to have power over your life. Obviously, not all topics you can be "blase" about. Some topics, like COVID denial, are basically endangering the public, and indirectly, you. But usually, you can just mask up, and avoid them. (Though I privately would REALLY want to carry a bottle of spray disinfectant, and if one of those mask deniers come up to me while I wear one, and try to take my mask off, I'd spray the disinfectant in their face and claim self-defense, it'd be one of my fantasies).

There's really not even any point to questioning them, like "You really believe that woo-woo?" Because it puts them on the defensive. If you really want them to question their believe, lead them on questions, like "How did you come across that information?" "Interesting. Is there proof?" "But how does X explains Y and Z?" The idea is to have them examine their own beliefs by explaining them to you. If they can't, they would start to doubt themselves... If they care to. Many don't give a ****, and neither should you give a **** about them.
posted by kschang at 11:41 PM on September 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think the last few years in particular have demonstrated how misinformation, even relatively benign-seeming theories, can be successfully weaponized against people and the institutions that protect them. We can trace the heritage between dumb theories that we would write off as crank nonsense and policies that have contributed to mass loss of life in the US.

Given this, it's not wrong to feel anger and frustration at people who propagate ideas that are incrementally harmful to other people.
posted by itstheclamsname at 2:45 AM on September 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

Why are you so invested in "schooling" this person? It seems like everything kind of flows from this question because obviously you ARE invested in the enterprise. I would venture to guess that the answer is not so much that you are interested in changing their mind to help others but rather because you feel the need to prove your superiority by forcing your explanations on them.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 5:32 AM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm training a new neighbor not to talk politics. It goes something like this:
NN: [veering suddenly from pleasantries to politics] This administration's policies are driving inflation through the roof.
ME: [Turning and heading inside] Uh, I have to go.
NN: I mean, both sides do it...
ME: [No longer present]
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:41 AM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have found it useful to listen to the works of the following people:

Sean Carroll/Preposterous Universe is his website, and he has a YouTube channel called Mindscape. Sean is a professor of physics and philosophy at Johns Hopkins. He regularly talks with people about religious, philosophical and science based issues. Carroll has a really kind but pragmatic approach to discussing topics with his wider audience in a format called Ask Me Anything. He's a great role model for me to learn how to set boundaries, not coddle people with absurd beliefs, and still remain kind and progressive.

Dr. Rohin Francis is a UK based consult cardiologist who has a YouTube channel called MedLife Crisis. Dr. Francis has a really even keeled way of discussing medical information in response to fads and controversy over medical issues and accepting human fallibility. He's also caustic and playful for a bit of comic relief. Check out his rating of organs in the human body for some sly debunking of fad diets. He's great at parsing clinical trials.

You may find some useful approaches or responses by looking through their offerings on the internet. Your "yelling at water" example made me laugh out loud, so, thanks for that.
posted by effluvia at 6:14 AM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I used to get really angry at this stuff. I still do, but I used to, too.

However, I have managed to contain it somewhat by remembering that people who don't have critical thinking skills and can't differentiate fact from fiction / opinion have a really really hard time dealing with our information-overload culture, and grabbing on to conspiracy beliefs that make them feel like they are 'in the know', and part of a 'special elite group of informed people' helps them feel more in control.

It helped turn my annoyance and anger into something like pity. Which is maybe a bit condescending but sometimes you have to go with what works. After a while, I found that feeling pity really dialed down my immediate emotional reaction to their beliefs, and I started caring a whole lot less. Now I just think, 'Wow, people sure do belive some crazy stuff. Huh. Well, whatever.' Later I might indulge in some angry thoughts and imagined arguments, but I try to let them go as much as possible because realistically I am not going to be able to change their perspective.

So these days people can tell me all kinds of wild bs and I just nod and make non-committal noises because I don't feel that burning need to set them straight, and I can focus on moving the conversation to something more interesting or at least neutral.
posted by ananci at 7:41 AM on September 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: My gut feeling (and I apologize for making assumptions here) is that this could be making you angry because we’re currently in a time in which objective, provable truth is being treated as subjective and open to opinion by people in positions of power. And as a result of that, laws are being passed and political actions taken that are actively harming people. So when you have knowledge and are faced with someone treating their misrepresentations of facts as equal knowledge, it’s not about the conversation, or about your being right at all. It’s about being forced to witness, in real time, another crack in the wall of what we all assumed holds (held?) civilization together in a non-authoritarian country. And you shouldn’t have to choose between having friends and having a functioning non-authoritarian country, but suddenly it may seem like that’s the weight you’re dealing with. And it sucks even more, because chances are, your friend just wants to talk about whatever, completely oblivious to the idea that their opinions could have any larger repercussions.

Anyways, if that sounds like you, then if it helps any, here’s my solution: remember the plastic straw. For a while not that long ago we all realized they were emblematic of the totality of our destruction of the natural world and the onslaught of climate change, which is literally poised to destroy life as we know it. And for a few months everyone who cared about not helping destroy the planet stopped using plastic straws, and some companies switched to paper ones, and some people bought trendy expensive metal ones that used even more resources to make and wash regularly and are bound to add even more to the landfill - while disability advocates reminded us that plastic straws can serve a really valuable function. And meanwhile private plane users and cruise lines and other huge contributors to global warming probably had a nice giggle.

Your friends are plastic straws. You can choose to see them as emblematic of all the awfulness that being wrong represents right now, and how helpless you are to stop it whether you engage or not. Or you can try to find a way to take a deep breath and realize that unless your friends are politicians or journalists or huge political donors (or otherwise using those positions for large-scale harm), then it’s up to you on a case-by-case basis whether or not to engage with them. And if it makes you feel better, for every conversation you have with them on a topic that matters to you that they get wrong, give a donation to an organization that works to counter that misinformation- even if that’s just a teacher’s group or even the Girl Scouts. You do have the luxury to ignore your friends’ tiny individual opinions.

TL;DR - if your anger is coming from a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness, take a deep breath in the here and now, and try to refocus to fight the bigger picture.
posted by Mchelly at 10:14 AM on September 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

Reminder that you do not have to friends with people who believe the earth is flat or that yoga cures cancer. You can choose to step away and just continue to be acquaintances. If you can do that quietly, then it's a choice you're making about their beliefs. If you have to do it loudly, then it's a choice you're making about yours.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:08 PM on September 6, 2022

It sounds like you aren't enjoying these conversations.

Some people who like pseudoscience find it delightful and fun to argue about these topics, if you don't want to do that you need to make it less fun for them. This might be as simple as responding to these topics in a flat and bored sounding voice.
Them: blah blah water ph blood etc
You: Oh.
Them: more weird ph stuff
You: Hmmm, I guess I'm just not that interested in that sort of thing.

Then when they switch to the new topic look at them in a way that shows you find what they have to say interesting and want to listen to them. If these are relatives, asking about old family stories can be a good way to engage.

You might also find yourself less interested in asserting you are right if you avoid saying anything about these topics. You might find it useful to focus on looking at this in a more scientific way, keep a log book of how you respond when others introduce these topics, what you say, and how you feel about it later. Can you lessen the other person bringing up these topics over time if you are consistent in avoiding giving them positive reinforcement?

posted by yohko at 3:49 PM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a somewhat different take on your reaction than what I'm reading here. Many seem to be probing into a desire for control.

I think a better analogy might be to "gaslighting". Of course these people who have irrational beliefs are not holding those beliefs to make you question your grasp of reality. But those motives might not matter. The end result is that it feels like you are having your perceptions, your obvious reality, denied. That can feel very isolating and lead to a feeling of dissonance.

There's no sharp boundary between having a belief and having a perception. People's perceptions can be distorted in many ways, they can be influenced by what they WANT to perceive, or what they fear, or peer pressure, ideology, or something like optical illusions. If someone tells you "there are FIVE lights" and you clearly perceive there are FOUR, perhaps ESPECIALLY if they are sincere in that perception, it can feel like you're having the rug pulled out from under you, the foundations of contact with reality denied.

So maybe the psychological defenses against gaslighting could apply here too?
posted by Schmucko at 7:24 PM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Imagine for a moment they're your adversaries. Then when they demonstrate some piece of misinformation they believe, you can mentally steeple your fingers like a villain and think, muhahaha, excellent!
posted by ctmf at 12:23 AM on September 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a coping strategy, let me introduce you to R/ConfidentlyIncorrect. (Another favorite is R/BoneAppleTea, which is generally funnier.)

Wouldn’t it be a shame if someone happened to screencap your friends’ funny ideas and post them on Reddit…? I mean, it’s not the nicest solution, but as a coping strategy, solid gold.
posted by ec2y at 5:11 AM on September 8, 2022

Response by poster: This has been enlightening for me, thank you!

I can see now that it's not really about Being Right or Being Superior, because I'm finding so much resonance with some of the other ideas. Ideas like

"It’s about being forced to witness, in real time, another crack in the wall of what we all assumed holds (held?) civilization together"

And to resolve it:
What is it in ME that is being reflected back at me?
what part of you does it correspond to?

The goal is to actually Accept that other people have false and possibly harmful beliefs and that is part of who they are.

Thanks everyone - I think this has moved me to a more peaceful existence
posted by jander03 at 12:49 PM on September 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

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