Saturday, March 10, 2007

How Should I Confront Certitude?

There are times when people actually have good cause to be certain of things; this is not about them. It's about people who exhibit the obnoxious trait of continuously being certain about most everything, without justification.

Some people might consider their certitude a technique towards "winning" their every conversation. Others might worry that any doubt will make them appear inferior next to a seemingly brighter interlocutor. Some might feel brilliant if they feel like they know everything. Others feel comfortable in world that is simple and unambiguous. Some are delusional. And others might simply just not want to think much about anything.

Regardless, it can be a very annoying trait -- and the most extreme cases should be avoided.

But sometimes, we find ourselves confronted with certitude that cannot be walked away from. How should this be handled?

Well, it should not be handled by presenting refuting evidence -- unless, of course, you just want to be provocative; a genuine certifoon cannot be persuaded of anything that is contrary to his beliefs.

There are, however, two approaches that can lessen the onslaught -- and each is dependent on whether the certifoon's proposition is testable.

If it is testable (e.g., predictions of interest rates, sport outcomes, elections, etc.), then you need to ask the certifoon how much he is willing to wager on his prediction. Or, to emphasize your point, just offer him one dollar if his prediction turns out to be correct. And also ask him how much he will surrender to you if his prediction is wrong. And then ask him why he is not offering more than whatever he just put up.

This technique will not work if your certifoon is also a cheapskate. Few things are worse than a certiskate. This technique will also not work if he brings up irrelevant moral platitudes like how "you cannot put money on such a thing".

If the certifoon's proposition is not easily testable (religious dogma, silly medical advice, common superstitions, etc.), then ask him what it would take to get him to change his mind. If you get an answer, then you might have made some progress. If the answer is "nothing can change my mind", then the conversation is over.

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