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So I want to have conversations with some people at my school who are pretty political - they're in debate club and taking all these social sciences in school so they have a lot to talk about. Me, being a more math and science oriented person, don't really know much about what they're saying sometimes.

The problem I've encountered is how whenever I try to enter a conversation with these people about something political, I often find myself asking for clarification to understand what they're talking about. And sometimes, I can tell they find it annoying to have to clarify everything so they just continue talking to the rest of the group and I soon find myself in an awkward situation where I'm ignored. And that, sucks, so I end up making an excuse and walking away.

If all else fails, I think I might just have to get political myself and read up on the news, but I was wondering if there is any effective approach to having a conversation with someone political without making them feel annoyed that they have to clarify things? Like if I want to know their opinion on a topic or something.

Help would be much appreciated!

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    Ah... just to clarify, you are referring only to a group of people or several different groups of people that you want to have a conversation? – Yoshiaki Apr 9 '18 at 3:08
  • Specifically one group of people right now, but I'm sure there are many other political people out there. – user191799 Apr 9 '18 at 3:10
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    why are you interested in talking to people about politics if you don't understand politics or currently care enough to read about it? – WendyG Apr 9 '18 at 12:08
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    Most people I know that like to talk politics know little about politics:| You just have to be confident in your ignorance... – el.pescado Apr 9 '18 at 12:50
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Okay... this is usually what I do in a situation where I don't understand the topic yet I want to be involved. Hopefully it will be able to help you out as well.

Since you already knew that there will be a lot of politics conversations going on, this is at your advantage as you can do some homework beforehand. It can be as simple as just reading up with on some current political news on your region.

Second, listen and observe to what the people are saying in the conversations. It should formulate some questions out for you and you should more or less guess their attitude/thoughts towards some political policies or politicians. Ask questions that can somehow answer your doubts yet to their interest. For example you should be able get a gist of someone in the group might be disagreeing with one of the upcoming policy to increase the cost of tax (I do not know what are the politics discussion are, but it will be something along the line). Work with that. So you may ask something like:

Oh, this is terrible. The increase of tax will means we will have to pay more. That should also means our goods and services prices are going to raise as well? Oh man, did they explain why of the sudden increase of tax?

One thing for those unknown topics, I find the trick is to just try to relate to yourself. Gradually, you will find yourself in the part of the discussion as well.

Lastly, try to remember some political stuff in your mind that they discussed yet you don't understand and doesn't has a chance to ask any questions. When you are back home, research those political stuff. You may not need go into very depth, in fact, just roughly get the idea of the political stuff discussed earlier. The next time for another discussion, you may bring it out and discuss about it. People will react differently because you have done your homework, so they should be more willingly to explain to you...

Oh, the reason why I asked you if you only referring to one group or several groups is because, you can borrow conversations. This, I would call it a lazy method (if you don't want to do any homework). So the flow is something like...

  1. Engage in a group who are talking about political stuff
  2. Listen and observe. If there are questions that you can ask that also able to interest the person, ask. Otherwise, just take note in your mind. You can choose to/not to do your homework when back home
  3. In a new group, you may used back some points mentioned in the earlier group. And usually, you should get new information from the new group as well
  4. And then, somehow... you will already gain some knowledge in political stuff
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It's not possible to have an engaging discussion about politics when you know nothing about it. At the best, you can have a one-sided conversation, where the other person is talking and you are just nodding your head or saying something like 'Yes, I agree with X's views/policies' while you have no idea of what's being talked about. You might be more comfortable with a group whose interest is similar to yours (maths/science) and with whom you can have a meaningful discussion.

If you really want to have a conversation about politics, you should read up a bit. Learn more about the political folks being discussed.Try and understand their views about important things in your country,check if you agree/disagree with their policies.Just read up the news headlines everyday, it should be enough to give you a basic idea of what's going on.

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they just continue talking to the rest of the group and I soon find myself in an awkward situation where I'm ignored.

This is a common issue in a group discussion, no matter what the topic. A group meeting is not a private lesson. If you monopolize the attention of the whole group while one person explains something to you that everyone else already knows, then you're basically telling them that you think your time is a lot more important than theirs. This is quite rude, and everyone else will get bored rather quickly.

If the group manager has any experience, at this point he will suggest you come back later for a one-on-one discussion to assess your current level and explain how to bring you up to speed, then perhaps hand you a "how to join the club" leaflet, which hopefully would list reading material, etc, and all prerequisites. Since they didn't do this, you'll have to suggest it yourself.

In order to be accepted into such a group you have to bring value. As a beginner, you can do this by asking interesting questions that make other people think and show you're actually interested enough in the subject to have done some homework.

If you ask questions that show you did no work on your own then this means you're not interested in the topic at hand, so they'll of course reject you.

Now, some politics-specific stuff. The issue with this particular topic is that anyone can pretend they know what they're talking about, while actually having no clue. Also, disagreeing with people tends to piss them off. So it is a good idea to listen to the debates for a while and determine if there is any diversity of opinion. If all the speakers are interchangeable and ideologically uniform, and if they seem reluctant to let new members join, then suspect it's an ideological echo chamber and not a debate club.

Recommended reading, off the top of my head:

  • Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind
  • Hayek - Road to Serfdom
  • Saul Alinsky - Rules for Radicals
  • Thomas Sowell - Basic Economics (Not the one from Hazlitt)
  • Milton Friedman - Capitalism and Freedom
  • Nassim Taleb - Skin in the game
  • Frédéric Bastiat - The Law

For more left-leaning stuff, ask the social science students ;)

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The ideal path would be some education; keep up with current events, read/watch/listen to the news, maybe take a class or two. It's good to be aware of these things generally speaking, and it will give you a starting point for discussions about politics.

Barring that, listening to them discuss politics for a while may help, if they're actively debating a topic you may even get more than one point of view.

The other route would be to look for overlaps in subject matter. Often politics will overlap with areas that you may have more knowledge of.

If you're into earth-space sciences, their will be overlaps like environmental issues, government funding for research, state funded space exploration and the like. It may seem like a comp out, but government policy and debate has an impact on "science". Take things like energy production, medicine, and global warming.

And if science doesn't provide enough overlap, math is everywhere in politics. (Well math is everywhere in general) Statists would probably be a good place to start, but I'm sure there's plenty of interesting math in economics, tax policy, and so on.

Pretty much you may be able to offer an outsider's perspective on politics, based on the math and sciences that tend to be swept under rug when people talk about political policies.

picture of a children in a crowd holding a sign saying "What do we want? Evidence based science. When do we want it? After peer review"

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You talk about what you experience and how you see the world, you don't start attempting to quote stats. Open mindedness is key for this. If you have little understanding of the political world that expressing that you knowledge it limited in this subject will also help.

That being said if you want to start discussing politics you need to keep up to date with news of your country. Remember this however this main reason for Politics being a divisive subject is because it is mostly nuanced meaning that not one side is 'good' or another is 'bad'. They may have differing opinions but that doesn't mean they are the enemy by any stretch, something that is being forgotten in today's climate.

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When I was a teenager, I had a similar problem with cars. A large number of my friends would talk about cars and I was pretty clueless. However, I didn't want to be excluded from the conversations entirely, so I employed a few techniques to keep myself involved.

  1. Do not ask questions. The more questions you ask, the more of a burden to the conversation you become. Instead, just try to pick things up on context. If you really can't understand anything at the moment, stay out of the conversation until it moves back into more familiar territory. You don't really need to understand the full meaning of a conversation to move forward with it.
  2. Be agreeable. Most people will have a better time accepting you in a conversation if they think you are on their side. If you don't have a particular side, try to find topics that seem to have the largest agreement, and speak up to occasionally lend your support. E.g. "I can't believe this person did this thing! What was he/she thinking?" or even just an occasional "Yeah, totally!" This will be gratifying to those you are supporting and can give you credibility if you do it skillfully.
  3. Focus on the topics you are most familiar with, and be confident in them. You may be clueless about politics, but there will almost certainly be a topic you have an opinion on and at least some knowledge to work with. At the very least you can improvise some reasoning to support your opinion. Do not let them tell you that you are wrong on these topics or that you don't know what you are talking about. Find a very subjective defense of your opinion and stick with it. For me (cars) it was something like "I know it isn't the strongest, fastest, or best engineered model (this is always true), but I think it is super smooth looking and dang it, I like it!" For you it could be something like, "I don't know all the details, but it feels right to me. Shouldn't we all follow our own moral compass?" These kind of statements are really easy to stick to and hard for people to call you on.

As always, it helps if you know a thing or two, so my final advice is to go listen to some political podcasts. There are plenty of both liberal and conservative podcasts on iTunes, Google Play Music, etc. that can help you become familiar with politics and current events.

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You should never feel inferior to others just because the current topic of conversation is not your specialised subject. I wouldn't want to be in the company of people who deliberately made me feel that way, but I am assuming that isn't the case - they are good friends to you and they are not deliberately trying to confound you.

As you study science I'm sure you will know that many people have a basic, understanding of science - either high school level, or how forces affect them in a practical way. You are just studying science at a deeper level. Likewise, you may think you don't know anything about politics, but likely you do have a basic understanding of laws, taxation, border control etc - as far as it affects you personally. You likely just don't think you know much because you are comparing yourself to your friends who study it at an advanced level.

Ask yourself - do you get irritated if a friend asks you to explain or clarify something scientific? I'm hoping not - most science and mathematics is built on the previous work of others. There wouldn't be progress if scientists did not educate others about their work. Well, without commenting on the current state of politics, politicians are supposed to be concerned with what the general population think and feel. They represent them. If that is what your friends studying politics aim to be, then they ought to be happy to discuss with anybody at any level.

When speaking about politics, don't be afraid of sounding stupid, even if somebody attacks your point. Remember that politics is all about opposition! For every government there is a shadow government saying the opposite.

Also remember you can bring something unique to their discussion. For example - here in the UK where healthcare is mainly free and funded by taxation debates rage about smoking. Some say that smoking should be made illegal because smoking related illness costs the health service millions; whereas others say that the very high rate of tax on tobacco funds the health service, which would collapse without it. Two very different arguments, both seem sound from a financial point of view. Someone who knows a lot about politics and understands the intricate details of how things are funded could get caught up in the financial argument. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside to point out that health and lives are involved. As I said - just an example, please lets not debate the details here!

My advice is to go into any discussion confidently, challenge them, enjoy learning from them, embrace and enjoy your status as an "everyman" in such discussions.

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Others have talked about keeping up with the news to get in on their conversations, but I want to expand on that, explaining how and why.

The Link Between Politics and News

Political discussions are (often) about empirical facts and what's practically possible and current events. (Sometimes the discussions are about political philosophy and how the world should be, and even following current events will help with that in the long run, since opinion pages often discuss current events in light of underlying political philosophy. Peufeu's list of books addresses the political philosophy side, although you might want to see if you can find an undergrad textbook on political philosophy before reading the primary source material, so you can see how different ideas are in conversation with each other.)

Information Sources

I'd suggest asking people in the group where they like to get their news.

Then, in addition to their favorites, I'd suggest skimming a few well-accepted news sources. The following list is based on being an English speaker in the U.S., but:

  • The Week Magazine (nice summaries of important news--often samples from the sources below)
  • New York Times
  • Washington Post
  • Wall Street Journal
  • The Economist
  • BBC News
  • The Guardian
  • Al Jazeera News

Since you're a scientist, maybe add in something like Gizmodo or Wired or Ars Technica.

(You could set these sources as preferences on a newsfeed app, and you'll get a mix of articles. Don't start out by expecting to thoroughly read through even one of these every week.)

And/or try to watch Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, et al. as they talk about politics on their TV shows.

Topic Areas

Perhaps at first, try to focus on one or two current political topics. In America, a current one might be: What are tariffs and economic sanctions, and what happens when they are used? Another: What is "gun control" and what values and legal arguments are invoked by each side?

After a while, you'll see that many news stories keep repeating similar background (though maybe the slant and substance of that background is different across various news sources).

Ask About Current Events

A bonus of reading the news is that it's currently unfolding. So even if you know less about politics so far than the others, you could still contribute by bringing up current events, or nod when someone else talks about something you've heard about. You could ask questions like, "I'm trying to understand tariffs and I just read that [news update about tariff proposal]. Do you think that proposal is likely to happen? Who do you think would be the winners and the losers if that does go through?"

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