Many people would like to have a one-on-one argument with renowned professor, author, and all-around big thinker Richard Dawkins. He’s most one of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals and has written over a dozen books on matters as wide-ranging as atheism and science. Because he attacks such deeply held beliefs, many people disagree with him. But how is he so effective at what he does? Simple. He imagines his argument from the other side’s perspective. That way, Richard Dawkins posits, there’s a much higher chance that he can land his point. Richard Dawkins’ new book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
Richard Dawkins: Sometimes you’re not trying to persuade the person that people think you’re trying to persuade. What you’re actually doing is trying to persuade lots of other people at the same time.
I’ve spent my whole life as an educator, as a scientific educator at Oxford and at Oxford we have a rather unique system: a tutorial system where every student gets a one hour one-on-one tutorial each week with a tutor.
And I had this as an undergraduate, which I absolutely loved, and then throughout my career I was a tutor. So I would have student after student after student coming into my room, spending an hour with me; they would produce an essay, we will talk about it, and I would be trying to, we would have a conversation.
So I got very practiced in the art of persuading people of scientific things. And I think this may show itself in my writing the discipline of putting yourself in the shoes of the reader, of the other person, asking yourself all the time: “What could be misunderstood here? In what way might my words be misconstrued? How could I... this person is not really getting it, I can see it from their face that they’re puzzled, maybe an analogy would help, maybe a metaphor would help.”
So I suppose the only general thing I can think is put yourself in the position of your audience, try to see where they’re coming from sympathetically and, um, argue your case in a way that should resonate with them.
There is a difference between persuading a single individual, which is what I was talking about in the case of an Oxford tutorial, and persuading a whole audience who are, say, reading a book or listening to perhaps a radio program where sometimes—I’ve done quite frequently in America—I’ve done shows where there’s a phone in and people phone in and ask me questions or have an argument with me.
And there I have sometimes given up, I have to confess this I have sometimes given up on the quest to persuade the person who is arguing with me I might regard them as a lost cause, but I’m conscious of the fact that thousands of other people are listening in, and the way I handle my argument with the one person who—maybe say a Young Earth creationist—who is beyond redemption and clearly they aren’t going to believe anything I say.
Nevertheless the method that I argue with them maybe a total failure as far as persuading them is concerned, but nevertheless may persuade thousands of other people who are listening in.