I Support My Assertions. Do You?

Elle Beau ❇︎
Jul 14, 2019 · 5 min read

Why bother to respond if you can’t back it up?

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

I’m interested in things — in stories, in data, in perspectives, in the world at large. I read a lot about a wide variety of topics, and so when I write something, I’m often drawing upon that knowledge and how it has informed my larger point of view. But even if I know I’m well-supported, I still do research and post citations for nearly every assertion that I make. It’s in part to be thorough and in part to ward off the people who are going to say, “Where’s your proof?”

Sometimes my perspective comes out of my own personal experiences, and in such a case, I explain that too. The vast majority of my social commentary is a combination of data, research, and how that aligns with my own personal stories. Those are some of my favorite pieces to read from other people, and so if pressed to identify a writing style, I’d say that was mine as well. I find it somewhat amazing how many times my solid research is countered with, “That’s not really true. Why? Because I say so.”

I understand that for many people, being presented with research or data that counters what they believe does not change their mind; it merely drives them into cognitive dissonance. But even so, why bother to respond to something that you can’t actually support in any way. Is the cognitive dissonance so overwhelming that you’ve lost all tether on reality and believe that you look intelligent by claiming that something that has been asserted isn’t correct simply because you say so? I don’t understand this in the least — and yet I encounter it nearly every day.

Beyond the unsupported statements of “that’s not true” are an amazing array of other types of mental gymnastics. When I’ve presented a lot of statistics, the detractors tell me that statistics don’t tell the real story. I understand that there is research out there to support just about any point of view and that in some cases different interpretations of the same information are valid. But when the prevailing interpretation from a wide variety of credible sources is disbelieved without some kind of substantive rebuttal, I’m not buying it. No, the CDC is not a feminist organization. And yes, properly constructed surveys of people’s own personal experiences are actually a legitimate and common way of gathering quantitative data. No, your unsupported imagining about what it likes to be Black in America that come from nothing but your White male experience don’t count for much.

Refusing to believe in personal accounts is yet another type of common mental gymnastics. These are the people who think that an aggregate of “anecdotal evidence” or first-person reports don’t actually count for anything because a double-blind study hasn’t been conducted. How exactly are researchers supposed to do that with, for example, rape statistics? Do you actually believe that people don’t know whether they have been raped or not? This is a meal of red herring to further feed cognitive dissonance.

In a recent discussion about the medical efficacy of acupuncture, I pointed out that besides being used successfully in Traditional Chinese Medicine for the past 5 thousand years, acupuncture is becoming more and more widely available in Western hospitals. “Well, that doesn’t mean that it works,” was the reply. Eyeroll! So then I presented the results of a large study that had been done using standard research methodologies which demonstrated how acupuncture had been shown to reduce pain in a post-operative setting. He conceded that it was a randomized, blind study of sufficient size as to be relevant, but the cognitive dissonance was so great that he concluded that the results of the study were exactly opposite of what they actually were. This was my response:

The study did not conclude that there was no relevant benefit — it concluded exactly the opposite. I’ll quote it to you again since you seem to have missed it the first time.

“For example, in the postoperative setting, acupuncture has been found effective in reducing pain and narcotic use [31, 32]. In addition, its use has demonstrated a significant reduction in the incidence of postoperative opioid-related adverse effects, including nausea, pruritus, dizziness, sedation, and urinary retention [33].

And despite the fact that self-reporting is statistically relevant, patients can’t self-report urinary retention and they are either using fewer narcotics or they aren’t. That’s something that can be objectively measured.

That you imagine that increased use in mainstream medical environments is not relevant is just absurd. You are truly grasping at straws here — I mean really!

I think it’s quite amusing that people reporting incredible healing is considered cognitive bias — because after all, people don’t actually know if their health is improved. How would they, without you to tell them whether or not it was legitimate? 😉

At least he had the presence of mind to stop at that point. I conceptually understand projection and cognitive bias, but in practice, I still find it hard to fathom at this level. And yet I see it nearly every day. Because I’m actually interested in better understanding the world, if someone presents to me a well thought out or well-supported rebuttal or another perspective, I’m happy to adjust mine. I’m not perfect, but at least I’m trying.

Some time ago I came across a man on Medium whose profile descriptor was “Opinions expressed here are ready for transformation from new information.” I was so impressed that I wrote a story about him and others like him who are willing to truly engage with other people and other ideas. Very sexy! I also wrote about the kinds of people who really annoy the heck out of me, including but not limited to the kind of debator already discussed above, but also the ‘splainer who wants to clarify my own thoughts for me, and the dispenser of tribal markers who isn’t doing any of his own thinking.

Is it really so hard to show up and talk to other people in good faith? That doesn’t mean that ultimately we all have to agree, but does everything have to be some kind of dominance jousting? Oh, that’s right — I nearly forgot. This is America, so yes, in many cases it does have to be that. That doesn’t mean I don’t find it maddening.

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