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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-Jul-18


Sunday 08-July-18

The Power of Doubt: How uncertainty undermines even strong arguments

Doubt is a powerful little tool if you are opposing something. It gives you an excuse not to agree. It also gives you a crack you can lever open as you polarize the argument.

Doubt says you are not convinced, that there is either insufficient evidence to persuade you or unexplained contradictory evidence. All you need is one exception to disprove the weight of data that the other side is wielding. It lets you say ?Ah, but what about' or simply 'I'm not sure.' It lets you introduce and extend delays. And, by showing that you are not certain, you put the onus on the other person to prove their case.

Doubt can be good and has many legitimate uses. In science, a healthy skepticism keeps a focus on proven facts and keeps the door open for new explanations. In law, a person is convicted only if evidence is 'beyond reasonable doubt'. And here lies the power of doubt. Lawyers are expert at sowing seeds of doubt and growing them until juries and even judges acquit the accused. When the law seeks to prove something 'beyond reasonable doubt', a lawyer only has to introduce doubt to get their client off the hook. The opposing lawyer in such situations may focus on what is reasonable or not. This principle is also seen in everyday conversations where doubt is used less rigorously but for the same purpose of discounting and rejecting a potentially strong opposing argument.

This effect was used for years by the tobacco industry for years as it held back the tide of evidence about cancer and smoking. They sponsored contradictory research and pointed to cases where no harm had been done. The same is happening now with climate change.

One of the tricks of doubt is that it can be used to push the other side into making stronger claims which are logically weaker and so easier to attack. Those making the case mistake artful doubt as uncertainty. This leads them to making further assertive statements, and in doing so they fall into the trap. Now the tables are turned and the doubter becomes the logician as the persuader becomes the emotional complainer.

Once you have the other person on the ropes you can go for the kill with ad hominem personal attacks. Question their motives. Dig for other dirt on them. Show them as self-serving and anti-social. Imply that their lack of morals undermines their whole argument.

In this way doubt is used every day in situations ranging from family arguments to national politics. It may be lazy and disingenuous but it is common nonetheless.

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