brown bears fighting

Healthy sceptics can easily agree to disagree

In a swordfight, maintaining balance can mean an effective parry or a fatal gash. Sceptics also need great balance.

Agree to disagree. 

Sceptic does not mean ‘him who doubts’, but ‘him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found’

Miguel de Unamuno, “Essays and Soliloquies,” 1924 (our italics)

We have all done it. Got into an argument that we know we are not going to win. 

We try, give it a good go, let the emotional engine fire up with a raised voice or a bit of an ‘I told you so” or even a “because I said so” or a “go to your room”. 

But when the latter is out of the question because the argument is with grandad, then out comes the… 

Well, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

This phrase has always been used to avoid conflict when an argument risks getting out of hand. It is a way to mutually back down without either party needing to concede; a handy option in an adult conversation.

Only there is no agreeing anymore, not even to disagree.

It is alarmingly common for people to refuse any alternative argument at all. Their opinion is all that matters and no way are they going to let you have yours.

Often these are people who believe lies. 

There’s no need for evidence or a process to uncover the facts, the opinionated just believe what they want, simple as that. 

This mendacity trope has polarized the US with people believing whatever they choose to believe and then sitting on it as though it were gospel truth — which is ironic, of course, the gospel truth — and they inevitably argue with people who have some evidence. 

Many people will believe what is consistent with their worldview irrespective of whether that view makes any logical sense. Even if the effects scream at their face, they will still hold on to what they find most comforting. 

Why are humans so opinionated?

A look under the human hood and we find that the opinion and all its consequences are woven into our DNA. 

Psychologists give us confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and even our inability to understand probability, as formal explanations of such recalcitrance — in short, our egos are there to protect our arses and opinions are the egos light sabre.

Then, with a shrug, the psychologists tell us that there is little that can be done to soften opinion outside residency in an ashram. The ego is tenacious with its weaponry. 

And as most of us reside in the real world, our opinions grow stronger to stifle reasoned argument. 

All this puts the healthy sceptic in an awkward position. 

Healthy scepticism

Sceptics question the perceived truth all the time. 

Instead of opinion or worldview or bending facts to fit the context, the sceptic finds the truth of the matter. And while the evidence comes to light the sceptic holds opinions in check.

Only when there is insufficient evidence does the healthy sceptic put aside their questioning and land on an opinion, typically a temporary one that has considered the incomplete facts.

The healthy sceptic might argue with her available facts but rather than succumb will agree to disagree if the alternative argument lacks credibility.

More likely is a discussion that can unearth further facts and hone both opinions closer to the truth.

angry face in a crowd confronting police
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

What about the opinionated?

An opinionated protagonist unable to acknowledge evidence is a challenge to healthy sceptics and a problem for society too over the next few critical decades. 

Remember they are wielding their egos light sabre so undermining them only makes them strike faster. 

Simply presenting more and more of the facts as unassailable has the same effect. Expect more light sabre thrusts even if you are an experienced sceptic with facts at your fingertips and the skills to interpret them intelligently in context. 

Neil Degrass Tyson gives a neat example when he says that you cannot shift a climate change denier with logic or evidence and definitely not with criticism of their ignorance. Instead, ask them if they would buy a house by the river or next to the water on the coast.

In other words, ask them to trade places with you. Imagine for a moment what would happen if they did agree with your evidence. Just for a moment.

It might provide room for discourse.

Always agree to disagree 

Hold onto scepticism but learn how to be a socially acceptable sceptic, someone who can continue to gently prod the disbelievers and the half-truthers and the QAnon adherents out of their truth free opinions. 

At least work it so that they don’t have credibility in the system. 

Use facts to explain situations as they present in the real world. So a persuasion argument rather than a contrary argument. 

Of course, rusted on QAnons and the heavily opinionated will not change their view. They have found something that they can use to justify their deepest, darkest secrets and will run with it. But one would hope that they will remain a minority and that the general public will use their education and their intelligence and their general common sense to understand the evidence as it stands.

Agreeing to disagree is a useful way to lower the temperature. 

Better is not to provoke such an argument in the first place. Preempt the tension by dropping some neat ideas from evidence and not expecting them to be agreed upon. Instead, use them to tweak rather than bludgeon.

Strong beliefs in lies and half-truths do make the job of using evidence more difficult. It has always been this way and adherence to the evidence can be confronting in interpersonal relations. 

But when we meet people who it’s clear will believe irrespective, there is always the agree to disagree option.

No matter if we use it more often than we would like.

Hero image from photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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