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Me

I live in a large city and have done so my whole student life and now career. I studied science at university and have two degrees. Through work and studies, I've lived a large chunk of my life abroad so speak French and German fluently and to an outsider, I'd probably be seen as a "metropolitan liberal". I like to discuss things: I can discuss a topic for hours, probably even enjoy a conversation with someone who disagrees with me, rather than someone who shares exactly the same opinion, so we can share different points of view. Due to that,

I rarely make statements with full certitude and do not mind showing a bit of doubt in my claims. Although that could be seen as lack of confidence, actually I'm fairly confident in what I know/don't know. In general, I'm more of a listener than a talker but enjoy talking about matters that I feel I have something useful to share about i.e. I'm not the kind of person that dominates a conversation but when I have something important to say, you'll hear from me.

I struggle to tolerate stereotypes and generalisations, I think that most things in life are more nuanced and that understanding the general characteristics of a country or a person is important but that deep understanding requires a more nuanced approach. In the same way, I'm not entirely against talking about conspiracy theories and similar. They can be "entertaining" but that if you want to suggest that the Americans didn't land on the moon, you certainly can't make such a statement with more confidence than anyone can make a statement that they did: science is as much about determining what you don't know than it is about what you know.

My father

My father is very different, he left school and home at 17. He's a smart, switched-on man so I think he has always been keen to prove his knowledge: he likes quizzes and general trivia, reading up on things: he's a fan of popular "science" books. He lives in a small town. He may be described as someone who "likes the sound of his own voice".

He likes to make bold statements and gets very frustrated if anyone questions anything he states. As he doesn't have a "traditional" education, I sometimes feel he tries to replace it with trivia, popularized science and has a thing for conspiracy theories.

For example, my father may talk about a conspiracy theory in which a coincidence is seemingly so "unbelievable" that it proves some dark forces are behind it, when in effect it can be explained through general probability i.e. an event that has a 1 in 5000 chance of happening, if it happens, is nothing more than a funny coincidence.

The Problem

Most of the time I will just avoid even talking when my father starts talking about such matters as I know that he doesn't really want to hear anything I have to say. He just wants someone to nod along. But even when staying quiet, he will throw in a few personal attacks like "You university-educated people wouldn't understand this" or "People like you from the metropolitan elite, disconnected from reality, can't understand this", which makes it difficult to stay quiet. Remaining quiet doesn't seem to work for me.

Since I'm aware that someone who keeps interjecting and weakening someone's statements is very annoying, I will very rarely, if at all, "temper" his statements like that but on occasion, I feel the need to provide a more nuanced view. Whenever I make a reply that presents a slightly different perspective, it will annoy him incredibly. For example, he may say that Americans all have right-wing views apart from the "metropolitan elite" of course, and having lived in Vermont, I will mention that the State tends to be on the left side of the political spectrum, and he'll be very annoyed. On the few occasions that I have felt strongly enough to present a completely opposing view, this has been enough for us to fall out.

He has put me down in front of my wife and family in the past and to avoid conflict I've had to just stay quiet. I think he is aware of that and exploits it. On one occasion when I pointed out that he was being disrespectful he jokingly said that he's allowed to be disrespectful as he's my father.

I sometimes wonder that if I paid less attention to what he was actually saying and then just steered the conversation in the direction I wanted, there would be fewer opportunities to really disagree on anything.

How do I prevent such a person from putting me down during our conversations, considering that he's my father?

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    I think this is a fairly major literary archetype: down to Earth man of the soil father feels child educated at fancy-shmancy college has too much airy-fairy book knowledge and doesn't know enough about the real world. Reminds me of the joke that ends "pi are round, son; cornbread are square". – barrycarter Sep 2 '18 at 21:06
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You've already learned from past experience that your father isn't interested in opposing viewpoints, and it would seem that you and him have very different ideas about what makes for an interesting conversation.

My suggestion would be to disengage from the topic or conversation when he puts you down, or when the conversation moves in a direction where you feel that outcome is likely.

You could either try to change the topic, or move on entirely to another room, place or activity, while keeping the mood as light as possible.

For example, if your father makes a remark like "you university educated people wouldn't understand this", you could respond with something like "Maybe not, but what we do understand is how to have a good time! Hey [family/wife/mother/siblings] how about we go [for a walk, watch a show, play a game, get some drinks, etc]".

Or as he's starting in on a topic you know will be one-sided nonsense, use a similar tack before it gets too far along. "Oh I think I've heard about this before, but hey [other person], can you tell us about xyz instead?" Or maybe "I don't need to hear about this one, I'm going for a walk".

The goal here is to use your presence and attention as a way of dictating what you are willing and unwilling to sit through from your father. If he is going in a direction of conversation you aren't interested in hearing, or treating you in a way you don't wish to be treated, you disengage and he loses your attention. In this way, you don't have confrontation or conflict, and you don't have to waste time arguing or trying to change his viewpoints. Obviously the specific way you respond and where you put your attention instead of giving him your attention will depend a lot on you, your interests, and your family dynamics. If your father is persistent is his behaviour, it might ultimately mean seeing him a bit less, or spending less time with him directly even when visiting.

Finally, I would suggest you give some independent thought to your father and his motivations. I don't know the man so I can only guess from the sparse description you provided, but often those who talk the loudest and with the most forcefullness are covering an insecurity. It may well be that your father is somewhat intimidated by your deeper level of education and that some of these slights and declarations are coming from a place of respect, not that that makes the conversation any more interesting or the slights any less uncalled for.

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Since engaging didn't work and not engaging didn't work either, I will suggest playing the "why" game.

Whenever your father says something you think isn't right and you can't just listen and do nothing, ask him why he thinks that or just a simple "really?" to ask for more information. Keep asking him questions. Don't argue against him, let him get bogged down in his explanations. At some point, he will probably get uncomfortable, maybe even angry at you and will want to leave the conversation. Let him do that (or else, he will get really angry).

Repeat using this technique. If you father know that engaging in this kind of conversation will lead to him being uncomfortable, he will just stop engaging in them and you "win".

Warning: I will advise to be careful with this technique, some people might react badly to it and you may not want to deal with the consequences of that with your father. See how it goes when using it and, if you don't like where the conversation is heading, just stop ("Alright, I don't want to talk about this anymore").


Note: A French radio columnist named Guillaume Meurice use this technique and it's really funny to listen to. If you understand French, I suggest you take it a look.

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    Keep in mind that due to his propensity for "[other people] don't understand this", repeatedly asking for clarification will put fuel to the fire that he's smarter than other people. While it may be a good way to deal with the current uneasy conversation, it may increase the odds (or occurence) of similar future conversations. – Flater Aug 29 '18 at 13:03
  • @Flater What make you think that, by asking other people "Why do you think [other people] don't understand this?", these people will feel smarter? – Ælis Aug 29 '18 at 13:35
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I wonder if your father feels insecure about his own (lack of) education, and hence feels the need to re-establish the role of father and mentor that he had when you were growing up.

If so then one way forward would be to find something he is better at or has more experience of than you, and ask for his advice on that subject.

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It sounds like a mismatch of epistemology.

Epistemology addresses such questions as: "What makes justified beliefs justified?", "What does it mean to say that we know something?", and fundamentally "How do we know that we know?". - Wikipedia

There are various formulations, one of which ([BYU][2) distinguishes among intuitive, authoritative, logical and empirical approaches. As a highly educated person, you probably give more credit to logical and empirical approaches. Your father sounds like he favours the intuitive and authoritative approaches.

Each approach helps you ‘know’ different things well, and each has its pros and cons in knowledge acquisition. For example, you’d want an empirical approach to medical testing but a more intuitive approach when interacting with people (imagine a salesman coming up to you multiple times with different ways to pitch the same thing - it can get annoying very quickly).

The problem is that evaluating one approach with the tools of another approach doesn’t work well. The logician is frustrated with the imprecision of the empiricist; the empiricist can’t see where the intuitive get their facts; and so on. When you say that your father is “wrong” about something ostensibly in the empirical domain, you’re not ‘speaking his language’.

Try this: instead of pointing out the logical and factual flaws in your father’s statements, ask him:

Hey Dad, where are you going with this?

You can word it to suit the way you normally talk with your father, but the intention is to understand why he brought it up. He might just be relaying something he heard on the news, or he might be trying to express his concern for your wellbeing. If it’s just trivia, feel free to disagree with him (politely) - he’s likely not all that vested in it emotionally anyway. But if it’s about him worried about you personally (regardless of how crazy the threat vector might sound), he’s emotionally involved, and you can acknowledge his concern.

Once he knows that you are seriously trying to engage with his matters of interest, it would be natural for him to move from put-downs to true discussion.

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Among other things, if you notice the conversation is headed in the direction where your father might challenge or try to put down your opinion, try to switch into grey rock mode, as said in the accepted answer at How can I handle my father challenging everything I say?. Effectively,it's a way of disengaging from a conversation, and prevents giving the person more things to latch on. So in your example, when he says

"People like you from the metropolitan elite, disconnected from reality, can't understand this"

Respond with dispassionate

Ah, OK.

This may not stop original statement, but prevent the situation from sliding into the direction where he can put you down.


Second, suggestion I'd give is let him have his opinion, unless it's a matter of serious consequence (health, life/death situation, etc), where there's no room for opinions. So if he's arguing about political spectrum in your state, that's fine - let him have his view, regardless of whether it's fact or not; in this case, you're not required to prove it's false.

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There isn't much you can do with someone who is actively resistant to argumentation or critique of their ideas, and especially someone whose sole, effective position is "you are wrong" regardless of the topic.

It's likely not worth trying to engage in much detail on any given topic-- he's indicated that he is unwilling (or unable) to do so. Here are a few things I've found useful towards the goals you describe:

1. Engage to the level of detail your father is willing to entertain

This is an easy one since the level of detail sounds low, though if he specifically wants to goad you it may not deflect him. If he states that Condition X is true because of Element Y, you can say something like

Yeah, X would be consistent with Y

It acknowledges that he might be right, and that the connections he sees (or more murkily assumes) could conceivably be real given that the assumptions are valid. You don't have to establish the validity of the premise or the conclusion, or even disagree.

You can express disagreement, gently, by indicating that your father's assertion is not the only possible explanation consistent with the information he's given.

2. Ask him to explain

This can be risky-- plenty of conspiracy theorists love to wax on about their beliefs. But, in my experience, most people that entertain conspiracy theories (and similar ideas) feel strongly based more on repetition than evidence. People that watch a lot of cable news networks (of any stripe) often come away with a strong belief in specific conclusions but little as far as evidence suggesting that those conclusions are valid.

If your father is incapable of presenting evidence upon request, this may be the case for him as well. Afterwards, even if he repeats his assertions, you have some space to say that even if he's right, he can't demonstrate it, and if he can't demonstrate it, why should he expect anyone to be persuaded? He may not slow down, but he will look (and possibly feel) increasingly foolish if totally unable to meet a very reasonable request to back up both his assertions and his innuendos.

3. Challenge his insults

This is the hardest one, but takes direct aim at what seems to be upsetting you the most about these situations. When he says something like "You university-educated people wouldn't understand this" you can respond

Why not?

This is totally different from challenging the specific position he's asserting since it's about what can be known and by whom. He may or may not have much of an answer, but it at least breaks the two assertions apart from one another.

Note: this is not an endorsement of starting a deep, adversarial conversation about epistemology (unless you both want to), and it's definitely not an endorsement of arguing back about how much a person with a university-level education might know.

4. Steer the conversation

You mentioned this one in the question, and it's a good tactic. If you are able to keep conversations away from topics that get him going, and especially if you can keep conversations from lingering there, then the issue just won't come up so much.

5. Be direct about what you want

You can tell your father it bothers you when he puts you down in front of your wife and family and ask him to stop. Even if he truly feels he has a right to that behavior that doesn't mean that he has to exercise that right. He may stop if you make clear that it really does bother you.

6. Humble up

Even in cases where you are certain that you are objectively correct, it is also possible that your knowledge is neither complete nor decisive, and you may not be interested in explaining/able to explain the relevant background in a way that makes a persuasive case that what you're saying is true. You may be hindered in expressing the detail which demonstrates that you are correct, in which case your position is not much better than just repeatedly asserting that you are correct and this is the case even when you actually are.

As an example, in the question you describe an appeal to general probability theory suggesting that an event with a 1 in 5000 chance of occurring actually occurring is simply a random coincidence. I'm sure that's not a complete description of events, but as written the statement is incorrect (i.e. just because there is some probability X of me dying by accident in the next year doesn't mean that I can't be murdered, and it would be bad police work to ignore the possibility of murder because there is a nonzero chance the death could just be a random accident).

I imagine that your actual statements were along the lines of the law of large numbers and Occam's razor, and these are great arguments. But they are also relatively dense, describe what is most sensible to believe (rather than whether or not a given event happened), and do not disprove your father's position (though they likely undercut his chain of reasoning pretty badly!). Maybe your father has enough background to evaluate the arguments. If not, it would be similar to handing over a written version of your argument recorded in Japanese (assuming your father cannot read Japanese). The truth of the information in the document does not in any way make it any more accessible.

It's easy to be certain that you're right but much harder to be able to back that certainty in a clear, logical way that can be demonstrated to others. Unless you're doing the latter with your father (and it sounds like he wouldn't be interested), your father may not perceive much basis for believing you over the last dozen books he read-- it's all assertions to him anyways, and he's had a lot of repetition to internalize one particular set of those.

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My father loves his conspiracy theories as well (though he did graduate with an engineering degree at the top of his year), sometimes he enjoys telling me about one of them and argues (pointing out at me not getting quite as good of an education) if I find it necessary to straight out deny some of the arguments he makes. Though we do end up arguing loudly sometimes, we do agree on one point in the end: you can't prove anything with 100% certainty one way or the other.

you certainly can't make such a statement with more confidence than anyone can make a statement that they did

You should probaby tell him that every time he tries to get a response from you and just avoid the discussion altogether without trying to put him down in turn.

He has put me down in front of my wife and family in the past

Now this is an unrelated issue and parents often do that, though most of the time without malicious intent. He said it himself, he's your dad. And it seems, that he loves you, though in his own way. He did help you get a good education, something he himself does not have, but seems to find important.

Since you did bring it up with him, I believe he will try to rein himself in, but will need reminders from time to time. You gotta understand, most of his time wth you, you've been a little runt and it's hard for him to change his attitude towards you now that you're a grown man. I have 2 little sisters, that are married now, but most of my life (around them that is) they've been riding on my shoulders and now it's hard for me to view them differently.

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