Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Why you cannot win an argument on the internet, according to science

Photo: Getty Images/Poba

There is always someone who is wrong on the internet. The worst thing to do is to try and correct them. The arguments may range from minor quibbles about the ending of Mass Effect 3 to broader ones about the nature of human identity, but once engaged, they end up going the same route: increasing vitriol, questionably cited expert opinions, the enlistment of likeminded thinkers along battle lines, and, inevitably, someone calling someone else Hitler. It always goes to Hitler.

The problem may be that we rely, in these moments, on convincing the other person using facts. Much has been written about our new, supposedly “post-fact” world, thanks in large part to the proliferation of fake news online and the election of a president who openly disdains traditional journalism, but the very validity of facts are also, according to an article on Scientific American, part of what makes people so vehement. It cites as examples the way creationists dispute DNA evidence, or anti-vaxxers overlook the complete discrediting of their foundational study, or the way 9/11 truthers burrow into arcana. When presented with a fact that threatens their worldview, these people don’t consider the fact, then reconsider their worldview—they just double down.


This is a helpful thing to remember when lost in a comments section debate about whether LeBron James is overrated (he isn’t) or why Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch’s best movie (it isn’t). Once we’ve got our opinions locked, “facts” to the contrary are threats to our very worldview. People talk a lot about “cognitive dissonance,” but, as the article describes, that term originated in a study of a UFO cult that firmly predicted an apocalypse. When that didn’t come, the followers didn’t turn back, but instead began predicting more and more impending apocalypses, with increasing certainty. Holding two competing worldviews in their brains at once was unpleasant, so they wrangled facts to fit more neatly into that worldview.

The piece concludes with an anecdotal means of getting people to accept factual information that they do not want to:

1. keep emotions out of the exchange, 2. discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum), 3. listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately, 4. show respect, 5. acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion, and 6. try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.


This would probably work, particularly in person. An alternative tack, at least if you’re on the internet, is to not engage in the conversation entirely. If someone thinks Fire Walk With Me is the best Lynch movie, they are probably beyond hope anyway.

Share This Story