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Cynthia, who has provided guest posts in the past, sent me another one, but it got lost in my inbox. Sorry! So this is a little overdue, but should still be of interest.

Thanks so much – and if ever you want to provide guest posts, please don’t be afraid to do so.

Talking with my taxi driver – thoughts on “sufficient evidence” and a lesson in what persuades people

By Cynthia

A little while ago, Jonathan was discussing issues raised by the Doubting Thomas story in the New Testament and the implications of not giving everyone the additional evidence that they would need to believe. In the comments, I had an exchange with Verbose Stoic, where VS suggested the idea that someone might be blamed for their lack of belief if they had been provided with “sufficient evidence” to believe.

I’m not Christian and don’t see lack of faith as something that should be blameworthy at all. I started to wonder, though, how I would deal with the “sufficient evidence” argument if it was made about a subject that I did consider important.

As it happened, I was encountering vaccine skeptics and conspiracy theorists online. I admit that it was tempting to rant about how people could be so stupid and crazy to believe such things. This was a personal test of whether I truly believed that the “sufficient evidence” argument could be rejected, and believed instead that people shouldn’t be judged on their beliefs at all as these were a product of their experiences and knowledge, and that the onus was on us to do better to teach people if it was important for them to accept our argument.

Now, my family would be the exact opposite of vaccine skeptics. In fact, I wrote this while in quarantine, since my son and I returned to Canada after receiving our 2nd doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the United States. After a ton of research, we figured out that the easiest place for us to get the vaccine would be Indiana. I had never been to Indiana and knew nothing about it, except that Mike Pence was from that state and that it was close to Chicago. So, on a Friday afternoon, we managed to make our way to East Chicago, Indiana, and get our shots at a pharmacy. We then discovered that Uber had no drivers available, but after some effort on a blazing hot day, we finally found a taxi to take us back to Chicago, driven by an awesome guy named Dwayne. We were thrilled when he arrived.

Dwayne admitted he was a bit of an anti-vaxxer. He was concerned by how fast the vaccines had been approved, had seen stuff online about infertility and wanted to wait 2 or 3 years to know for sure that things were safe.

We didn’t argue with him. Like I said, we were extremely grateful that he showed up, and he was also a really interesting guy to talk to. We said that we were from Toronto, Canada, and had come to Indiana to get vaccinated. I mentioned that my husband, as a physician, had gotten vaccinated back in January, but the rest of us had to wait. I told him how upset Canadians were about the lack of vaccine supply, since we saw cases falling in the UK and United States as vaccination rates went up, while our case numbers skyrocketed as we got hit with the UK variant before most people got their shots. I said it was amazing to see how life was largely back to normal in Chicago, while in Toronto, there were no ICU beds available and the government had ordered people to stay at home except for getting groceries, go to the pharmacy or medical appointments, walking the dog or essential workers going to their jobs. He had heard great things about the Canadian health care system, so he was pretty shocked to hear this.

The taxi ride took just over an hour, so we also talked about a bunch of other things, from development on the South Shore to Obama to Elon Musk to Nicola Tesla to family law to comparisons between Chicago and Toronto. It was a lively conversation, we laughed a lot and enjoyed ourselves.

As he dropped us off at the hotel, he told us that we had given him a lot to think about, and he might get the vaccine after all.

Now, I don’t know whether he did or not in the end. I’m pretty sure, though, that the key to a productive conversation starts with basic respect. I’m also pretty sure that conversations go better when people can relate to one another, and find something in common other than one area of disagreement. Beyond that, we all have different personal experiences, which will mean that we are exposed to a different set of facts/examples and have different relationships of trust in various experts.

On this issue, where I live and my relationship to the medical and scientific community put me in a position where I had people I trusted to provide me with data and explain it in detail. Not everyone has that privilege, and I can’t claim that I’m somehow more virtuous than another person who isn’t in the same position and doesn’t have the same knowledge that I do. There’s no real role for contempt here – we need to meet people where they are. Evidence isn’t “sufficient” until it actually convinces people. [I will judge people who actively spread misinformation and conspiracy theories, but that’s a slightly different topic.]


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...