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You Don’t Believe That!

You’ve probably encountered the “appeal to disbelief.” The person who uses it claims that his or her interlocutors don’t really believe what they say they believe or that they believe something they claim not to believe.


An obvious example is abortion. Some pro-choicers say pro-lifers don’t really believe their stated assumptions about the unborn. Some pro-lifers suggest that pro-choicers actually deep down believe or act as if they believe the unborn might really be a life.

But the third-rail topic of abortion is not the only example. I’ve seen atheists claim that Christians don’t really believe in sin or heaven or hell because if they did, they’d act differently, with more urgency about their final end. I have sometimes suggested most atheists deep down believe in things that contradict their own atheism–that deep down they’re not really atheists. I’m not here defending that proposition, but I confess that I have advanced it.

Abraham Lincoln used the appeal, too. In his Peoria speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he said,

But while you thus require me to deny the humanity of the negro, I wish to ask whether you of the south yourselves, have ever been willing to do as much?….The great majority, south as well as north, have human sympathies, of which they can no more divest themselves than they can of their sensibility to physical pain. These sympathies in the bosoms of the southern people, manifest in many ways, their sense of the wrong of slavery, and their consciousness that, after all, there is humanity in the negro.

(Of course, I could forgive someone for thinking that Lincoln himself didn’t really believe his own claim. Lincoln stated in the same Peoria speech that he would never seek political and social equality for freed slaves.)

The F-word

The appeal to disbelief might be a fallacy. It can be a straw man argument because it imputes to others a (dis)belief they don’t have. It can be an ad hominem argumen because it imputes to others hypocrisy and questions their sincerity.

It can also be an anti-fallacy, a handy way to police others’ inconsistencies. If someone walks like a duck and talks like a duck, but claims to be a goose, you can call them out on their canard.

Uses true and fair

I cry foul when others use the appeal against a position for which I have sympathy. But as I said, I do it, too. And even when I don’t, my conviction that another person doesn’t really believe what he or she claims–or believes it just when it’s convenient for the point they’re making–often informs how I engage that person.

But the appeal is almost always a bad idea. Even if someone doesn’t “really” believe what they claim, they likely believe in it enough to vote for that policy you believe is horrible. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be motivated to unmask that person’s “disbelief” in the first place. Relying too much on the “you don’t really believe that” argument will likely fail to change minds and encourage people to hold faster to their allegedly non-belief belief.

If you don’t really care about any of that–if you don’t care whether the appeal to disbelief actually works–then maybe you don’t (ahem) really believe it’s important to point out disbelief. Maybe you really want to do something other than demonstrate another person’s disbelief.

“I’m just pointing out inconsistency,” you might say. If that’s what you’re doing, then have at it. Consistency is a good thing and a cousin to that other good thing, intellectual honesty. By all means, point out inconsistency. But if that’s why you’re using the appeal, though, why not just skip the appeal altogether? “Well, that’s what you believe, but consider where that belief might take us” does the same job better.

And I suggest we don’t always want consistency. Consistency can lead to fanaticism. Most of us hold beliefs that in undiluted form and taken to their logical conclusions would justify all sorts of horrible actions. The same inconsistency that signals flaming hypocrisy can also make us better than our principles.

I concede that sometimes people don’t really believe what they claim to. If someone makes the accusation to you or me, maybe it behooves each of us to consider in what ways the accusation is correct. And if you’re the kind of person who already lives peaceably in a society, then chances are you don’t really believe some of what you claim on a given controversial issue.

A way out: the appeal to shared belief

Maybe I have it wrong about Lincoln’s speech above. Maybe he wasn’t trying to expose slaveholders as liars. Maybe he was trying to stake out some common ground, to keep up a conversation that was already about to descend into violence in Kansas.

Perhaps that which marks us as hypocritical and disingenuous also serves as the potential for common ground. Perhaps instead of “you don’t really believe that.” we can say, “here’s where you and I already agree.” That is what I call the appeal to shared belief.

There’s a lot that appeal won’t solve. Lincoln in 1854 may have swayed some of his fellow Illinoisans who were on the fence about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but I’m not sure how many slaveholders he won over. And some problems–slavery was one of them–are so urgent or have such high stakes that there’s no time for an appeal to shared belief.

But in those cases we’re beyond rhetoric altogether, if rhetoric is to mean the art of persuasive speaking. If the situation is urgent enough, words fail us, or are demoted from rhetoric to sloganeering. Not that slogans are never appropriate, but they are a contest over who is wittier, or mightier, and people then cease to be interlocutors or adversaries and become instead enemies.

I vote for holding on to the hope of persuasion for as long as possible. And I believe the appeal to shared belief works much better to that end than the appeal to disbelief.

Image credit: “Teapots,” by acute_tomato. Creative Commons 2.0: Attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

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75 thoughts on “You Don’t Believe That!

  1. I’m a big fan of consistency, and generally, I’m good with taking it to it’s absurd conclusion. Frankly, it helps me drill down into someone’s beliefs and thinking. Example: had a chat with a then girlfriend about torturing a terrorist to save the “kids on a bus” trope. She acknowledged that torture was evil and I asked her “how far along the axis of evil (number of people tortured) is too far? Frankly if you’re going to make statements like “we have to do anything necessary to protect ourselves, like she did, you damn well better understand how far down the rabbit hole you’re prepared to go. Otherwise you’ll realize one day “how’d we get here”?

    I generally assume that when someone is passionate about something they believe the position they are arguing from and I like to play devil’s advocate. Maybe this is why liberals think I’m a conservative and conservatives think I’m a liberal.


    • Believe it (hah!) or not, I actually had you in mind as I was writing this. I’m thinking of the questions you’ve asked about if Trump is so bad, then why not support a revolution to overthrow him. For what it’s worth, I used to think you were a libertarian, until you clarified the point a while back.

      I do think reductio’s, as reductio’s, can be useful. But I also think reductio’s are different from what I’m trying to describe in my OP. Or….perhaps people tend to use the “you don’t really believe that!” declaration when they have worked out the reductio for themselves without bothering to discuss it with their interlocutors. (By the way, I really don’t like the word “interlocutor.” It has too many syllables and sounds pretentious. But I have a hard time thinking of another word. Maybe “discussant”?)

      At any rate, thanks for reading!


      • Yeah, I kinda thought I saw myself in your post and was thinking, maybe I was an influence in the post. Then I thought, “Right, that’s thinking a bit more of yourself than you really should be old chap”. :)

        And I am libertarian-ish. I’d go so far to say 80%+. But I’m also contrarian by nature too. And I’ll say stuff to people that I don’t believe just to get a reaction :) And yes, I wasn’t totally on topic of your post. I do like reductios and use them a lot, but I think you made some good points on the appeal to disbelief.

        And about that whole revolution thing….sometimes I want to cut through the complaining. A lot of folks I know are all “Trump is so bad…yadda yadda”. At some point the whining becomes tiresome, as it did here (and still does), so I drop the “So what are YOU going to do about it”. That’s when people usually shut up, because the complaining is more important than action.

        Anyway, enjoyed the post. I’m going to tell everyone I know, whether or not it’s true, that someone wrote a post about me on “that website that banned me once”. :)


  2. Re Lincoln: It could be both. A speaker might make some points that permit each member of the audience to reach their own conclusion. Some people, already inclined to hate slaveowners, might take from it that slaveowners are immoral. Others, particularly those who had historically allied themselves with slaveholding interests, might find those ties loosened and be willing to act on the belief that slavery is wrong without necessarily demonizing the slaveowner. (In this case, Lincoln is calling Stephen Douglas a liar for expressed indifference to the issue of slavery and seeking to galvanize Democrats to vote for Whigs or anti-Kansas Democrats)


    • I think it is simply that Gabriel has made an anachronism. Today we see “recognize the humanity” and “political and social equality” as going hand in hand, or indeed being the same thing. In Lincoln’s day that would have been considered a category error on the basis that someone else can be a fellow human without being your equal. The idea that blacks were, or should be, the social and political equals of whites was a small minority opinion even among those opposed to slavery.


      • I don’t disagree that there were categories that don’t make sense today, and Gabriel alludes to one set: political, social and economic equality, Lincoln is in favor of one of these.

        But I think his point stands. Lincoln credited slaveowners with recognizing slavery was wrong because people he admired like Washington, Clay and John Todd (his wife’s uncle and the largest slaveowner in Springfield) eventually freed theirs. (A modern can be cynical about the timing and circumstances of emancipation, but one does not take pains to free an armoire, the effort discloses the recognition that a man is not a piece of furniture.) He believed there was a lowest-common-denominator ground.

        (He is meanwhile tactfully removing Stephen Douglas from that common ground, the only man alive indifferent to the issue of slavery.)


      • In her book, “Feminism is for Everybody”, bell hooks defines feminism as the battle against sexism. She rejects a definition of feminism as seeking equality between the sexes, because, as she says, “nobody is equal”.

        So the attitude is not completely dead, I think.


    • I agree, and I think Lincoln’s target audience was primarily 1) Illinoisans; 2) potential voters for what would become the Republican party (I’m not sure if the party had formally been established at that point); and potentially (though this might be a stretch) southern Whigs or “moderates”


  3. General comment on the subject: IF people are more likely to think in packs these days, then it would make sense that you could more frequently call people out for making claims they really don’t believe. On the other hand, IF people are more bubbled these days, this kind of calling out could more frequently be motivated by the speaker’s simple inability to accept that a person thinks differently than he does.


      • Scenario One: It seems that, these days, we’re more divided than ever. People will defend their perceived side in knee-jerk ways. The president did too much with his phone and his pen, when the president was Obama. Now that Trump is president, the president shouldn’t wait around for Congress to act. Dissent used to mean obstruction and covert racism, when the Democrats were in charge. Now that the Republicans are in charge, dissent is the highest form of patriotism again. You hear this kind of thing all the time, and you think to yourself, the speaker doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. He’s just parroting a defense of his side. In this scenario, there is an increasing number of opportunities to call people out for saying things they don’t believe.

        Scenario Two: It seems that, these days, people surround themselves with people who agree with them, and don’t engage with their perceived opponents intellectually. This makes it far easier for an entire way of thinking to fly under a person’s radar. Your favorite website tells you something, your favorite podcast confirms it, and there was something on the news that you weren’t really listening to but it seemed to say the same thing. When you encounter someone with a different set of facts, or who interprets those same facts in a different way, it’s easy to deny not only the facts/interpretation, but even the possibility that the other person believes the facts/interpretation. In such a scenario, we become far too likely to call people out for saying things we assume they don’t believe. Greater humility is in order.


        • Thanks for taking the time to explain it to me. I think the two scenarios, in practice, meld together in many ways. (And per your original comment, I read you as dealing more in likelihoods and not making sweeping declarations that these two scenarios actually exist as pure forms.)

          Again, though, I think I see your point now.


          • I probably shouldn’t have called them scenarios. Maybe trends or conflicting forces or effects or something.

            (There are two concepts in economics called the income effect and the substitution effect. Sometimes they cancel each other out. Sometimes they push in the same direction. I’m seeing these two tendencies I described as having the potential to interact oddly.)

            My usual reaction when I read an article is to think out how it could be completely correct, then think out how it could be completely incorrect. It’s an interesting topic to me when I can see both.


            • (There are two concepts in economics called the income effect and the substitution effect. Sometimes they cancel each other out. Sometimes they push in the same direction. I’m seeing these two tendencies I described as having the potential to interact oddly.)

              That makes a lot of sense.


  4. I frankly do not understand believing a person who claims to believe in one thing, but whose actions suggest something else. I would go further too: that if we need to choose between the two (and perhaps we don’t), we should always trust a person’s actions to know their truest beliefs. In other words, it is one thing to simply suggest that somebody doesn’t believe the thing that they are saying. It is quite another when there is plenty of evidence available illustrating the claim.


    • Eh, but there’s another game that can be played.

      If you *REALLY* believed X, you’d be willing to violently protest.
      Since you’re not violently protesting, you must not *REALLY* believe X.

      Look for this to go hand in hand with “reasonable people can discuss things without having to resort to violence” as a way to set up something like “everyone who doesn’t agree with me is either an insincere hypocrite or a violent nutjob”.


        • If you *REALLY* believed X, you’d say so at your job and be willing to get fired for it.

          If you *REALLY* believed X, you’d harm your children’s ability to go to college.

          If you *REALLY believed X, you’d get yourself shot by the police.

          You haven’t.



          • And then if you do have someone willing to pay a price, look for the tactic of arguing that it’s awful that someone would believe that particular thing so it’s appropriate that they had to pay the price for it.

            See, for example, Kaep.


          • This kind of sounds like the reasoning that might motivate someone to vote for Roy Moore, actually. I mean, he was willing to get fired for his (seriously messed-up, in my opinion) beliefs.

            And of course, he gets to sneer at everyone who didn’t.


      • Adding to what Jaybird said, a lot of misogyny is based on alleged inconsistencies between statement and actions. The most notable being women say that want funny and charming but they date “bad boys” instead. This ignores that being a “bad boy” isn’t inconsistent with being funny and charming. Conservatives also do the entire liberal say one thing but do another when it comes to mocking upper middle class liberals. Some of this is justified but a lot of it isn’t.


      • I think we would likely be better off if we understood human beings to be either insincere hypocrites or violent nutjobs, depending, but especially that first one. This strikes me as a particularly potent way to get at what people ACTUALLY believe, because it seems as though they do not tend to believe in much of anything.

        Take the marriage argument. We’re asked to believe that social conservatives believe deeply in the institution of marriage, and as evidence, we’re asked to accept their hostility toward gay people. Is it really that unreasonable to ask, “Hey, if you believe in this thing so much, why are you attacking these people over here, and not the numerous straight people who almost certainly aren’t living up to your alleged ideals?”

        I realize this gets back at my old sawhorse – words versus actions – but I’ll never believe a person’s words if their actions do not adhere to claimed beliefs. It’s too big a jump.


        • But people can believe things at like a “3” instead at a “10”.

          People can believe things at a “6” or “7” but when these things come into conflict with something that they believe in at a “10” they defer to the “10” rather than the lesser beliefs.

          Hell, there’s *TONS* of stuff that Maribou moderates me on.

          “If you really believed that stuff, you’d tell Maribou to pound sand!”

          No… I love Maribou more than I believe stuff.

          “You must not believe stuff then!”


          It’s just possible to believe things at a 3.
          It’s possible to believe them at a 6 or 7 and push them aside when they come into conflict with 10s.

          And, personally, if someone held a gun to my head and made me pick between insincere hypocrites and violent nutjobs, I’d pick the insincere hypocrites because, say what you will about insincere hypocrites, they don’t tend to hold guns to people’s heads and make them pick between insincere hypocrites and violent nutjobs.


          • And, personally, if someone held a gun to my head and made me pick between insincere hypocrites and violent nutjobs, I’d pick the insincere hypocrites because, say what you will about insincere hypocrites, they don’t tend to hold guns to people’s heads and make them pick between insincere hypocrites and violent nutjobs.

            I dunno. I don’t think I’d antagonize the dude with a gun to my head like that. Which maybe makes me one of the insincere hypocrites.


        • I think this is probably not the best way of approaching the issue, for reasons that overlap substantially with ‘s. It’s a short slide to challenging vegetarians to start blowing up butcher shops, which is probably silly.

          A much better way of looking at hypocrisy is to see who the costs are being imposed on. The thing that’s striking about a lot of anti-gay marriage advocacy is that it pointed to problems, real or potential, with straight people’s marriages, and from there decided that instead of addressing those problems directly (and thus potentially insulting or inconveniencing the vast majority of people) it would impose a disproportionate cost on the very people who didn’t have the problem.

          “Do you believe this enough to potentially offend and upset members of your in-group?” is a much better test of sincerity, I think.


          • I’d say hypocrisy is actually a major problem. To often a party or pol gets teh benefit of beating a drum loudly for an issue but then gets to change his mind when it will cost them at no expense to themselves. See this as an example.


            I don’t’ have a problem if someone changes their mind and explains their thought process. That is solid. What happens to much though is issues are just cudgels. When the cudgel is not useful it is dropped. So actual ideas or issues are never actually debated or even addressed. One of the consistent complaints of conservatives in the Trump era is that R’s never delivered on what they promised. Well partially that was because all they wanted was the cudgel, they didn’t want to follow through. If people had to follow through with their beliefs…..well that would be something.


          • @jaybird Well, I believe that the willingness to blow up a butcher shop, rather than simply minimize animal consumption, gets us to a better understanding of the differences between somebody being a 3 (minimizing animal consumption) and blowing up a butcher shop (10…maybe to 11…their belief goes to 11).

            In other words, we might encounter a 3 Vegetarian, and think, “Wow, this dude’s committed…” and then encounter a 10 Vegetarian, and think, “Goddamn dude.”

            But for the sake of conversation, imagine encountering a vegetarian eating a steak. What then? That is what happens when confronting those who claim to care deeply in the institution of marriage. They want us to believe that they believe one thing, and then all of their actions would suggest that we need to believe in something else instead.


                • Hypocrisy isn’t *INTERESTING*.

                  Someone values different things differently! Someone knows something with his head but has appetites that are stronger! Someone is conflicted between two things and does one of them but not the other but still feels like the other has value!

                  This happens ALL THE TIME!

                  It’s not an interesting criticism!


                  • insincere hypocrites

                    No, most people are sincere hypocrites. The Greeks had a term for it, Akrasia, and St. Paul famously expounded upon that. Heck, we wouldn’t even read Plato if it weren’t for the question of why we do that which our reason tells us is wrong.


                  • But let’s say you get a serious Tartuffe or Al Gore type who does stuff like preach one thing but have electricity bills larger than most people’s mortgage payments.

                    You then get to have arguments *QUIBBLING* over whether or not Al Gore had his office in his home and, therefore, it’s not unreasonable for him to have electricity bills that large because his bill needs to be offset against the costs of having two buildings to need to heat and provide electricity to and, therefore, he’s *NOT* a hypocrite and people who think that he is are really being jerks like that Tartuffe guy who, seriously, is only gaming the things that other people believe in order to get some positional advantage.

                    It’s not interesting! Grah!


                    • This is a strange argument for you to make Jaybird, since in the past *you* have attacked Gore for his hypocrisy. So it’s strange to hear you now say that your own use of hypocrisy to attack Gore is evidence of how it’s an uninteresting attack.


                      • And it was dumb when I made it! (I admit, it was a fun argument. But it was also a dumb argument.)

                        If Global Climate Change is important, it’s important whether or not Al Gore has a rich person’s electricity bill. If fighting Global Climate Change is important, it’s important whether or not Al Gore generates more carbon with one trans-Atlantic flight than most homebodies do in a month.

                        Al Gore’s hypocrisy (whether or not it actually exists) is the *LEAST* interesting part of the Global Climate Debate.

                        It is, however, a great way to flip the train off the tracks and get people to split hairs over whether or not we should be actually appalled at a superficially appalling electricity bill.

                        Take it from me: Someone who has used “Al Gore Is Fat” as an argumentation tactic.


                  • It’s only uninteresting if you believe people’s words don’t matter, seems to me. But believing that is a big part of the reason our political world is on fire right now.


                      • So close up the OT. Why bother to talk about anything? Why bother to actually pretend any ideas or actual policies matter? It’s all debating games and word play. Is that what you are heading….because that seems like it.


                        • Talking about stuff is interesting. Ideas are interesting. Weighing ideas against each other is interesting. Figuring out why X is more important than Y but neither is as important as Z is interesting.

                          Saying “you say that you think X is important, but here you’re doing Z! You’re a hypocrite!” is the least interesting criticism in the freaking world.


                          • Ideas separated from the world where they get tested and implemented and where the rubber meets the road are not much of anything. If an idea is worthwhile it is useful in our lives. Ideas that are never tested or fail, need to be weeded out. That is how we know how good our ideas are: we try them out. Especially in the realm of political philosophies and government ideas aren’t’ squat unless they work.


                        • But uttering words is a great way to lay down a position and the hypocrisy argument is a great thing to use against anyone who is willing to stop short of killing 59 people from a hotel room in Vegas to achieve his goals.

                          “Oh, you think it’s important to be altruistic but I see you spending entertainment dollars on entertainment products for yourself for your leisure time, huh? Tsk tsk tsk. If you truly believed in altruism, you’d donate that money to my own personal charity which is devoted to altruism.”


                          • Now you’re just back to saying folks who call out hypocrites are the REAL hypocrites, as if there is no middle ground – or even different ground – the debate can take place on other that indicated by your edge case examples.


                            • I’m back to saying that “hypocrisy is not an interesting criticism”.

                              Especially because it is possible to believe things at a 3 instead of a 10. It is possible to believe two things that can occasionally conflict with each other. And a willingness to be extreme in service to a belief is only as admirable as the belief it is in service to. If we are faced with a group of people who believe truly awful things, you better believe that I’m hoping they’re hypocrites. The more hypocrites, the better.


                              • I’m back to saying that “hypocrisy is not an interesting criticism”.

                                But only on a political calculus in which people’s words – honest or deliberately false – will be used against them by their enemies in any event.

                                It doesn’t follow from that observation that honesty shouldn’t be rewarded and lying shouldn’t be discouraged. Your argument amounts to a defense of lying because, hey, it doesn’t matter what anyone says anymore! Sam’s argument (it seems to me) is to say, yes Jaybird, and that’s a big problem.


                                • Honesty/dishonesty is a much more interesting avenue.

                                  “If elected, I will X!” (turns out, she Yed)

                                  That’s good stuff. Measurable, even.

                                  But “lying” is different from “hypocrisy”, isn’t it?

                                  Hypocrisy is a very specific subset of lying and it has a hell of a lot of thumbs on scales weighing what someone who claims to believe X would *REALLY* act like and those judgments of what people who believe X would *REALLY* act like are… well, they suffer from both accuracy problems and measurability problems. (And we can usually tell the difference between “If you *REALLY* believed X…” statements that come from people who believe X and those that come from people who are pretty opposed to X, can’t we?)

                                  But lying/truthtelling is an interesting criticism (at least until we get into “What is Truth?” meandering through “technically, Ulysses *WAS* faithful after his own fashion so it wasn’t a *REAL* lie” equivocations).


            • I’m not sure I agree with , but reading about guys like Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA16) pushes me in that direction:

              “And you have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week when we thought that was one of the options,” Shannon Edwards, a forensic psychologist in Pittsburgh with whom the congressman admitted last month to having a relationship, wrote to Mr. Murphy on Jan. 25, in the midst of an unfounded pregnancy scare.
              The congressman has been lauded by the Family Research Council, for his stance on abortion, as well as for family values, generally. He also has been endorsed by LifePAC, which opposes abortion rights, and is a member of the House Pro-Life Caucus, an affiliation that is often cited by his office.


              • The GOP is literally(!!) a clown car train wreck of destructive chaos. A laughably absurd, dangerously insane group of cynical maniacs.

                And they might gain seats in 2018!


        • I think we would likely be better off if we understood human beings to be either insincere hypocrites or violent nutjobs, depending, but especially that first one. This strikes me as a particularly potent way to get at what people ACTUALLY believe, because it seems as though they do not tend to believe in much of anything.

          I hesitate to enter this sub-thread because it’s going in a direction that I’m not personally willing to engage. But I’d like to reiterate a few things here:

          1. My main argument is that we generally shouldn’t try to decide what those whom we disagree with truly believe.

          2. If we do try to decide what they truly believe, it’s usually more effective to suss out what they and we already agree on.

          3. To part of Sam’s comment I just quoted, I disagree with the first sentence, assuming I read it right. Finding out that someone is a hypocrite or a nutjob (surely not the only two possibilities?) in my view doesn’t get us far. We know they’re a hypocrite or nutjob and therefore also know we should be wary of them. But even so, the hypocrite still ends up committing the action the the accuser objects to. Maybe in the meantime some people on the sidelines are swayed to the accuser’s side. Even so, I posit that very little has changed and there’s very little progress made.

          4. I also disagree with the second sentence. Identifying hypocrisy and the disjuncture between actions and statements/words is perhaps the first step in deciding what another person believes. But we need to go more deeply. We usually don’t know all the actions. And the actions we do know about usually admit of different interpretations. And I submit that it’s possible for even mutually exclusive interpretations to be correct to some degree.

          5. I have a lot of sympathy for this part of Sam’s comment:

          I realize this gets back at my old sawhorse – words versus actions – but I’ll never believe a person’s words if their actions do not adhere to claimed beliefs. It’s too big a jump.

          I’m not fully on board. “Words” can offer intention (“claimed beliefs”) and “claimed beliefs” can inform actions or show us how the doer of the action conceives of his/her actions. (I’m leaving aside the question of how we draw the line, if at all, between actions and words.) At the same time, I agree that actions usually matter more than words or claimed beliefs. While I don’t wish to jettison the claimed beliefs entirely, I give much more weight to actions than to claimed beliefs.


    • My intention is less to argue about whether someone really believes what they claim. Rather, I’m trying to argue that that’s often not a good question because it usually doesn’t get us to where we’re trying to go. For example,

      1. If someone “doesn’t really believe” in the assumptions behind that horrible policy I don’t want them to vote for, but if they vote for it anyway, then they must believe it enough.

      2. If I’m trying to convince someone to change their assumptions, it’s risky to engage that person by saying “you don’t believe that.” It’s at least even money that I’ll antagonize that person.

      Now, mine isn’t a slam dunk case against the appeal to disbelief. Now, maybe with no. 1, *some* people will be convinced enough to change their minds, especially if they’re on the sidelines and trying to weigh which side to join. With no. 1, some might very well listen. And in general, there may be cases, especially when assessing someone’s promises, to inquire whether they really believe what they claim.

      I will say that if one tries to use the appeal to disbelief, I agree with you that actions should be the strongest guide. Not the only guide, the preponderant one. I would like, however, to gently suggest that if we are going to delve into belief/disbelief, then even actions are more complicated than they might seem. The person that votes for horrible policy X may not fully live his/her life as if he/she has fully bought into the assumptions behind that policy. But maybe that person often does, or in ways that aren’t always visible. That’s largely what I was trying to get at in my ad hominem posts (part 1, and especially part 2…I’m bringing those up now because I think they’re relevant and because I had you in mind when I wrote them).

      Having tried to argue that the appeal to disbelief not usually a good tactic, I’ll admit to what you say that


    • I think most, if not all, people do this. The frontal lobe is a very late development, whereas the amygdala is several million years old. By which I mean that we are creatures driven by emotion, but capable of reason. We exercise reason when it feels good to us to do so.

      Sometimes that exercise of reason produces suffering, but we have also learned to associate suffering with love, and so we accept that reasoning and it’s associated suffering. But that’s unusual.


  5. One thing to look for is resistance to new information.

    If someone has an opportunity to get new information that would require them to change their views and then they start arguing against this new information… either by saying that it’s not true, that the information lacks context, that you can’t trust the person giving this new information… well, that’s usually a tell that something else is going on.

    So keep your eyes open for someone who gets offended when (what you’d think would be) a fairly trivial observation gets made.


  6. It’s often a question of who it is you’re trying to persuade. If you’re trying to persuade the person you’re talking to directly, than it’s hard to imagine a situation where saying, “You don’t really believe that,” is likely to be helpful unless they just said something really dumb in the heat of the moment.

    But oftentimes you are playing to an audience, imagined or otherwise. Then, of course, making your opponent look shifty, or insincere, or just plain dumb, can be useful. So can getting them mad. ‘s YEC article was all about this approach. It generalizes.

    Even in that situation, it needs to be handled with care. A lot of time the argument that your opponent doesn’t believe what they say they do is rooted in a faulty assumption about things that you’re sure they do believe, but don’t.


  7. I usually try to avoid telling someone else what they think. It is, in my opinion, condescending and dismissive. However, I do feel that there is a special kind of “belief”. Some people are willing to grasp at even the most ridiculous of ideas to cover for a true belief that is socially intolerable. These are often identified by the phrase “I’m not a ____ but…”.

    I, of course, know better than to try and rip that fig leaf off. I honestly don’t want to see what’s underneath and they will go to great lengths to keep from exposing the truth.


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