Commons Speaker Series #2 — Evan Dawson

On Tuesday, December 1st, Evan Dawson (host of WXXI’s Connections talk show) was the featured presented on the Commons Speaker Series, speaking on confirmation bias and what it would take to change one’s mind. The BCCE was full with nearly 100 audience members, and as expected, the evening’s presentation and ensuing discussion was lively and ranging. Evan offered examples in current news reports, social media, and more of how passionate arguments are more often about winning than being right these days. He offered data on a research study which proved that people good at math would deliberately get the math wrong if the content of the story problem they were solved ran counter to their held beliefs. He also shared the compelling story of Megan Phelps-Roper, lifetime family member of the Westboro Baptist Church, who turned away from what she had always known to embrace a different path because of conversations on Twitter. (

He then outlined the conditions for how to change people’s minds:

  1. Humanize them
  2. Break away from the debate
  3. Compliment people and give ground wherever you can
  4. Ask “what would it take to change your mind?”
  5. Insist on civility – abandon snark

For balance, he also added a list to consider for how to check to make sure your mind is open to be changed:

  1. Be aware of your biases
  2. Understand sample size (emotion should not trump experience)
  3. Humanize the person trying to change your mind
  4. Evaluate multiple perspectives
  5. Reject confirmation bias at every turn (consume a wide variety of sources from different perspectives; don’t just look for what reinforces your personal view)
  6. Eliminate “third rail” topics (religion and politics should be things we can discuss). We should be willing to talk about our beliefs.


The following day, Evan returned to Harley to work with students and teachers in all three divisions. He first grabbed some lunch and good conversation with Jeanette Oettinger (3rd Grade teacher) and two of the students he interviewed on his show last year when they were in the midst of their solar-powered lamp/off-the grid project. From there, he met with the students in the 9th Grade Rights & Responsibilities class and those in AP US Government. He asked them about their sources for news and current information, which led to a great discussion about confirmation bias, the role of media in politics, and whether there is such a thing as objectivity. Evan then met with Doug Gilbert’s 7th Grade History class where they discussed the early revolutionaries, the Declaration of Independence, and the students’ own personal Kids’ Declaration of Independence, which was a recent assignment. They also discussed the Constitution and a few of the hotly-debated amendments.


The end of the day involved the entire Upper School for an assembly which was structured as a mock radio show, as hosted by Evan, with a panel of students and faculty discussing why it is so difficult to have conversations about race (and class, and religion, but race was the only topic they addressed in the available time). It was a good opportunity for a variety of students to offer their perspectives and for the assembled group to hear how civil and respectful discussions can be encouraged and moderated. Future assemblies addressing the aforementioned topics will likely be scheduled.


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