How to achieve better dialogue
It’s easy to get caught up in your own opinions, especially in the kind of polarising atmosphere that we have today. But there is another, more thoughtful approach that we can take. Folke Tersman, Professor of Practical Philosophy, has written a book about opinions and facts with physician and author Stefan Einhorn.
They have known each other for some time, having met when they were in the same ethics group at Karolinska Institutet. Both were concerned about the atmosphere for public debate in Sweden.
“It has become more and more dogmatic and polarising, and there are risks associated with that. The ways in which we cooperate as a society are at risk of being undermined, and there are even feelings of hatred that can arise between groups with differing views. It’s our belief that a lot of people are concerned about this and want to try to do something about it,” says Folke Tersman.
While working on the book, there were many situations where the authors themselves had different opinions, which is also described in the book. It’s important to listen to each other, remain open and together find a way forward – which can be difficult.
“It’s very easy to say how other people should behave, but to varying degrees we are all tangled up in various mechanisms that make fruitful dialogue difficult. This was true even for the two of us who wrote this book. It’s easier said than done to cultivate the kind of openness that we all think is a good idea.”
Get some distance
The main message of the book is that we can improve our ability to look at our own opinions with a little distance. Often it is the lack of this ability that makes it difficult to have a constructive dialogue with a person you disagree with.
We need to find a more thoughtful approach and not regard our own opinions as truths, as we often do.
“We think that our own opinions are well established, and that we can trust them, even when there isn’t a lot of clear evidence to support this. When we are challenged and questioned, these so-called ‘truths’ become even more entrenched,” says Folke Tersman.
So at that point people just walk away and become even more sure of their cause?
“Precisely. There are quite strong findings in the research which show that if you want to try to influence someone, the absolute worst way is to just bombard them with arguments or objections.”
Important marker of identity
Today, it is common for opinions to be an important marker of identity. And not just political opinions, such as being a social democrat or a liberal. Even questions such as whether we should have wind power or not have become a marker of identity rather than a question where the facts and evidence should be the drivers.
That is why Folke Tersman thinks it is important that academics engage in public debate.
“Researchers can add a more objective and reasoned perspective. But I have a feeling that researchers have less chance of influencing debate today because of the increasing polarisation that we have. I think this is a problem, and one that can be demoralising for researchers. If others just cherry-pick and say ‘this researcher agrees with me’ it’s not the same thing as having an influence on the debate. You just become a tool for what others are trying to achieve.”
Reaching out to a wider audience
This book about opinions is a way of trying to reach out to a wider audience for the authors. The question is whether they are able to reach those who need this book the most.
“It can be frustrating. A book like this is meant to contribute to something – a change. But we also understand that we may be preaching to the converted. We have received positive feedback, but the book has not raised any debate. One explanation for this is probably that it does not have the kind of confrontational tone that is often needed in order to be heard in these polarised times,” says Folke Tersman.
You have written several popular science books of this kind. Why?
“Because I think the university’s third task is important. Those of us who do research at the taxpayer’s expense have a responsibility to communicate the fruits of our work and share them as far and wide as possible. It’s also great to meet people outside academia and hear their views. You learn things from that, I think.”
Book on opinions
"Tillåt mig tvivla. En bok om åsikter på gott och ont" (Permit me to doubt. A book about opinions for better or worse) by Folke Tersman och Stefan Einhorn, Natur och Kultur 2023.