Five-minute Explainer: The Conflict Thesis

How do you reach someone who believes the world is flat? How do you convert a global warming denier? How do you confront an anti-vaxxer? You may have noticed, when presenting facts contradicting their arguments, or even pointing out the self-contradictions in their own arguments, that your audience remains intransigent.

Why should this be? Especially where vaccination or global warming are concerned, the stakes ought to be too high to allow vagaries of ignorance to win out. Yet facts don’t cut it. You risk entrenching the other side, and you come away even more convinced of their wrongness. Everyone goes home angry.

There are strategies to take for winning over people with different viewpoints: the best one being to find common ground. This tack has nothing to do with the facts at issue, but it’s the best way forward.

How did we get in this situation where it’s possible to disagree with facts themselves? I propose that it’s not so much that we find ourselves arguing with a reasoned point of view but with an identity.

Meet Alice and Bob

Consider Alice, who believes that human-caused global warming is changing the Earth’s climate (hereafter “climate change”). She’s trying to convince Bob, who just doesn’t believe Alice. Everything he’s heard leads him to believe that there’s just too much doubt to know for sure if the Earth is really warming, and if it is, there’s no way that humans could be the cause.

No matter what Alice says, Bob believes Alice is wrong. What’s Bob’s deal? Fundamentally, this is not a discussion about whose facts win out over whose. Instead the question is about who is arguing from the more meaningful authority.

Some of you might be wondering, well, gosh, Alice isn’t arguing from authority, is she? She has facts and figures and charts and scientific consensus to back up her side. Here’s the problem: science itself has been turned into an authority over the years—in Bob’s mind and even in Alice’s mind.

Let’s leave them to their intractable argument and visit this idea of battling authorities.

The Conflict Thesis

It’s probably a vast oversimplification to consider Alice and Bob above as proxies for science and religion. However, they likely carry feelings that science and religion conflict irresolvably, and elements of that conflict almost certainly underlie several of their attitudes. Where did these feelings come from? What do they mean?

The conflict thesis is not so much a description of the reality of science as it is a historiographical approach to the history of science itself. It’s a belief that religion is inherently and attitudinally adverse to science and vice versa. It permeates Western science education and many current Western religious doctrines.

For most people raised in the United States, the idea of the conflict thesis will feel very familiar—it may conjure up images of Galileo’s house arrest or the Scopes Trial. Many contemporary popular scientists, speakers, and writers have promulgated elements of the conflict model, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Isaac Asimov. Quoting Stephen Hawking, who stated the conflict very forthrightly near his latter years,

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

The conflict model is not especially useful, though, for understanding the relationship between religion and science. Historians have mostly moved to more nuanced models for describing the history of science. The evidence available doesn’t support conflict.

Primarily, two episodes in history foment the supposed conflict between religion and science (or more particularly, Christianity and science): the Galileo affair and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In point of fact, before the modern period, religion was such a dominant force in society that scientific thought was not seen as in conflict with religion so much as aiding it by discovering God’s plan. This view is literally ancient: Saint Augustine of Hippo considered God’s word, as written, fallible because of the imperfection of language (PDF download). Therefore, where natural knowledge and science contradicted the Bible, God’s former scripture—creation itself—wins out.

In the case of the Galileo affair, Galileo’s persecution had less to do with the Church’s disagreement about heliocentrism or of Galileo’s supposed heresies than about Galileo running afoul politically of the pope. Heliocentrism as a mathematical model predates Galileo by nearly a century, and (even despite having some contemporary detractors and competing models, such as the complicated Tychonian model), the Church had no problem with its use. The pope also approved the publication of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems before subsequently banning it (possibly because some statements the pope had made within Galileo’s hearing which he had then placed in the mouth of a character he named Simplicio).

This is a five-minute explainer, so I won’t go into other historical examples in detail. Suffice it to say, many episodes of putative conflict in the past (such as the Galileo affair or the Scopes Trial) had political and personal motivations and issues at play as well as, or rather than, pure conflict between religion and science.

The Problem of Authority

So we come back to Alice and Bob. How does the conflict thesis shape their argument?

Recall that I mentioned that Alice and Bob are both fundamentally arguing from authority. This may seem like a sharp tilt on what’s happening, but here’s what I see. The conflict thesis has become common enough to make it into textbooks, popular writing, TV shows, and even public policy. People who believe science and religion can coexist (let alone build on one another) find themselves in a minority.

One of religion’s main functions as an institution is providing a foundation for community via shared mores and beliefs. From this position, religion becomes an authority, and in that capacity, the Christian Church served as a powerful authority for many centuries. The conflict thesis emerges naturally as a way of supplanting that authority in order to center a scientific model of reality.

The problem is that we have exchanged one authority for another. This happened as a natural outgrowth of the process of deconstructing religion as authority. However, science is not designed to be an authority, and it doesn’t function best that way.

Yet it’s taught that way. Consider how scientific news flows to the public—channeled through layers of intermediate journalism: the actual scientific publications, next scientific journalism, then mainstream journalism. Along the way, what remains are names of lofty institutions, their impenetrable facts, and their avatars of a new faith. Worse yet, consider what’s emphasized in school: not processes, not approaches, but perfected facts and great minds beyond impeaching.

Missing is the human element: the struggle with ambiguity, the charting of unknown territory, the failures and blind alleys. Science can contain narratives which empower people, if only we can burnish its anti-authoritarian stance: question everything and everyone. Finding the right questions is within anyone’s power, and science is more about questions than answers.

Resolution for Alice and Bob

Turning back to Alice and Bob again—isn’t that actually what Bob is doing? Questioning Alice? Questioning the science behind climate change? Unfortunately, he’s not really questioning them. This is mere denial because he’s not examining them in any rigorous, critical way. In his mind, however, he may have an anti-authoritarian stance, believing Alice has bought into climate change without critical thought on her part.

Meanwhile, Alice hasn’t taken Bob’s point of view seriously at all. She hasn’t sought to understand it, and therefore she has no idea how to engage critically with it. Maybe his point of view isn’t consistent, rational, or even coherent, but it’s where they have to begin if he’s going to join Alice.

Both sides are merely dismissing the other, and that’s why nobody is making headway. They both fervently believe in what they have learned, and they have bound up their own identities in those beliefs. Unfortunately for both of them, the conflict thesis has interwoven tightly into their beliefs as well, leading them to a place where their systems of thought are thoroughly immiscible.

Even if they can’t bridge the gap between belief systems, though, the hope is that Alice can reach Bob in a way that doesn’t force him to abandon his beliefs, his authority, or even his identity in order to incorporate new knowledge. For this reason, finding common ground is key.

An excellent place for Alice to begin is with this excellent video, Global Weirding with Katharine Hayhoe, produced by KTTZ Texas Tech Public Media and distributed by PBS Digital Studios, to allow her better to reach Bob and understand why butting facts against facts directly (or facts against faith) is a doomed effort.

Winning hearts and minds is about overturning the root of conflict through which we see science and religion. It allows Bob (and Alice!) to entertain multiple ways of seeing the world simultaneously. With the conflict resolved, Alice can move from changing Bob’s mind to adding to what Bob knows instead, and Bob can move from losing foundational beliefs to incorporating new ideas into those foundations.

A Taxonomy of Disagreements

I share my world with people with whom I disagree. The question is how and when to act upon it.

Not every disagreement deserves the same reaction. It’s not strictly necessary that I find common ground in every disagreement, and not every disagreement requires my engagement. Even among the cross product of these categories, I can respond in different ways.

I view disagreements along two axes which I’ll call triviality and consensus. By triviality I mean that the subject matter has little impact on at least one party’s life. Consensus means that agreement must be reached; this is not an agree-to-disagree situation.

I’ll lay out what each combination means.

  • Trivial, non-consensus disagreements—disagreements about an unimportant subject which doesn’t strongly impact all parties, or does so unequally. Food preferences are a perfect example. If one person likes mayo, another likes Miracle Whip, and yet another thinks they’re both kind of unpleasant, this is a trivial disagreement. It’s also pretty irrelevant to disagree because nobody has to change their lives too much over this disagreement. Live and let live.
  • Trivial, consensus disagreements—disagreements about an unimportant subject which impacts all parties and for which a single decision needs to be made. This is common in families and offices, like setting the thermostat or choosing where to go for dinner. Contention over shared resources, or picking common tools or workflows at work, can lead to a lot of nitpicking, but the problem is solvable, sometimes even with a coin-toss.
  • Nontrivial, non-consensus disagreements—disagreements about a subject which impacts all parties strongly but for which consensus is not needed, or is even impossible. The most salient example is any question of faith. Faith doesn’t respond to reason and occupies maybe the most important part of some people’s self-identity and self-determination, but agreement over the details of faith or religion are impossible to bring into accord. It’s unrealistic to try. Yet we have to try to find some way to live with people of different faiths. The very intimate, personal nature of their beliefs makes them immutable—non-consensus, as I’m calling it—since we can’t all share a singular faith and probably wouldn’t want to.
  • Nontrivial, consensus disagreements—disagreements which impact all parties strongly and which require agreement. This is the really hard stuff: fundamental human rights, ethics, land-use rights, traffic laws, and so on. For these disagreements, I permit no quarter for non-consensus because I believe that aspects of human rights are both of paramount importance and cannot be yielded to, appeased, or ignored. To do so—to say “live and let live,” “agree to disagree,” to fundamental questions of humanity, dignity, life and death—gives those viewpoints with which I disagree a place to dwell, a platform from which to speak, and an implicit permission for action. The crossover between non-consensus and consensus for nontrivial disagreements begins at the threshold for potential harm.

Within the triviality axis, the consensus degree of freedom actually can be a bit blurry. Taking the trivial disagreements to start with, it’s easy to see where certain topics that should have been non-consensus have blended into consensus in people’s lives—like food preferences, which culture has buried with spades of shame and influence in order to make people eat the same things in the same ways. I work in tech, where similar things have happened for decades, such as the Editor Wars: who edits what and how on their own computer should be an agree-to-disagree situation, but it became a holy war.

Unfortunately, at the other triviality extreme, the same kinds of confusion take place. Nontrivial disagreements which should be non-consensus (which should look like agree-to-disagree) have become literal holy wars. Worse yet, disagreements about basic human dignity and rights have begun to look like agree-to-disagree situations.

I believe we all have a similar taxonomy in our heads, that we believe we’re “entitled to our opinions,” regarding certain questions of faith and politics. In some matters, we are. We’re entitled to our opinions regarding how much funding the Federal Highway Administration should get. Whatever my beliefs about interstate highways, I could break bread with a person who believes in gutting their funding.

However, the idea that we’re “entitled to our opinions” leads to a simplified taxonomy that doesn’t take into account which opinions—which disagreements—are over harmless questions and which are over potentially harmful, dehumanizing, or traumatizing ones.

More complicatedly yet, matters of faith—a place within many of us untouchable by consensus or persuasion—have enabled some people to spread the non-consensus umbrella over many other areas of their worldview, seeing them all as speciously linked by faith and therefore unimpeachable. As such, their political opinions about personhood, their ethical behaviors, their votes—no matter what their source, they are all placed into a category beyond rational discussion.

I have found myself exhorted to meet these people in the middle, to attempt to understand them, to “agree to disagree” with them, or to attempt to include them in wider political efforts to advance my own political will. These efforts often come from centrist-liberal sources.

What I’m here to tell you is that if your politics touches a human, if it has the potential to visit harm and suffering, if it detains a person, I have no place for you at my table, in my home, or in my life. If you use the idea of free expression to shirk the responsibility of examining your own ideas, you have abrogated your duty as a citizen under the guise of entitlement.