How To Be Right: The Art of Being Persuasively Correct (2015)



In the early 1990s, on the desk in my office on the Emmaus, Pennsylvania, campus of Rodale Press, sat a single picture. It was of my mother, Jackie.

I had it there not simply because I love (and loved) her—which of course I do (and did). But it served as a guide—one that forced me to simplify anything that required simplification. As an editor for Prevention magazine, whenever I had to write about a complicated issue, I would look at the picture and try to figure out how I might explain the topic to her…over the phone.

Coronary stents? They’re basically straws from a drink you place in the arteries to keep them open for people clogged up with heart disease. They’re two-for-one at happy hour!

When I wasn’t on the phone with my mom, I would pretend I was having this conversation, to help me explain whatever I was talking about, be it stents, statins, or now, in 2015, crap like sequestration. (I have these conversations aloud, often on public transportation. My fellow New Yorkers seem to enjoy it, and learn so much!)

Sequestration—even the word makes my head hurt. But I am paid to have an opinion, and having an opinion requires that I first understand what the hell I’m talking about, and also that I am able to coherently explain the topic at hand. If I cannot explain sequestration to my mother, then good luck explaining it to you, who doesn’t have a mother’s patience.

“Hi, Mom, how ya doing.”

“Good, honey. What are you going to talk about on The Five today?”


“Sounds awful!”

“All it means is a law or something like a law that limits the size of the federal budget—the money our government can spend. It’s like a credit card limit. But if the government goes over that limit, an alarm goes off and spending cuts are imposed. The whole point is to stop the spending until you can figure out what to do next. We do this because politicians are idiots, and we are idiots for voting for them.”

The world of health journalism employs jargon, often used either to impress or to confuse you. Jargon is the Antichrist to persuasion. People who use it should be shot, or forced to read Thomas Pynchon. I prefer to use simple words people have heard before. It’s not hard for me. Somehow parading my stupidity just comes naturally.

Once you’ve learned to be simple, you can be clever. But be too clever and you lose your audience, or they want to strangle you. Anyone watching me on The Five has experienced the urge.

Example One: Immigration

Let’s say the argument begins with, “I can’t vote for a Republican because they’re against immigration.”

How do you respond? Simplify. “Please come, but get in line.”

Everyone gets the concept of a line and everyone hates line cutters. You aren’t against immigration, you are against illegal immigration. All you’re asking for is a proper process that helps people get into the country easily and without hassle, in a desirable order.

That is not a conservative position: that is a sensible position. And to appeal to liberals, it is also a “fair” position. Cutting in line is not fair.


You know a lib is about to destroy something when he announces it’s broken. “The immigration system is broken,” the president will declare, right before he smashes it to pieces—announcing his executive order declaring amnesty for millions. Essentially, he’s the handyman you call to fix your garage door, who then claims it’s fixed—after removing the door and selling it to the Taliban. After a lib says something is broken, they present a strategy to break it even more. Then they put a bow on it and call it a present.

Example Two: Legalization of Drugs

Imagine trying to convince your mother or grandmother that legalization of drugs is better than criminalization. Moms would not understand this. It’d be like trying to explain hedge fund derivatives or basic hygiene to Russell Brand. Good luck. Even as a supporter of decriminalization, I get and respect the opposition. Let’s face it—drug addicts suck. They suck the life out of families and societies. Some of us just have a different ideas about how to deal with these people. (I want to employ them as throw pillows.)

Do you remember the Dragnet episode where the guy on drugs is licking paint off a brush? That one scene alone terrified me. I swore to myself I’d never take drugs—an easy thing to do when you’re nine years old. At eighteen, I’d already violated that oath more times than I could count (because I couldn’t count, thanks to the drugs and the ingestion of paint).

My simplest argument: once it’s legal, behavior can be seen and therefore shamed and/or reduced accordingly. Drug addicts are hidden; drunks aren’t. And that allows you to kick drunks off your premises (please, be gentle).

Consider Prohibition. Because booze was illegal, it was made illegally (bathtub gin), and it was dangerous and often of dubious quality and proof—people died because they had no idea what they were drinking. Legalizing booze made it quantifiable as a safer, measured product—and the world did not end. People drank responsibly. But those who didn’t? Well, they became the town drunks. Likewise with pot. Obvious abusers will be on street corners, licking paintbrushes. The less obvious will be on their couches, licking what’s left of their ambition. That’s their choice. Shame on them.

And remember, although potheads are annoying, drunks are worse. Men and women who drink too much are often violent, and drive horribly. Pot smokers are silly but mostly benign, and as drivers, research suggests, their impairment is less compared to that of drunks. (Still, it’s wrong to drive stoned.)

The problem with drugs is the drug users themselves. Often playing up the novelty of their habits, they do themselves no favors. Snoop Dogg is really this generation’s Foster Brooks, a comedian whose entire shtick was playing a drunk (proving he was less versatile than even Charlie Callas). Over time, however, such things change, as illegal behaviors become mundane with legalization. Drunks aren’t mysterious—they’re tedious. Boring. This will happen with drug users. We just have to give them that chance.

So, in sum, what would I tell my mom? I’d suggest banning her martini. (I’d end up with bruises.)

Example Three: E-Cigarettes

As a user, and a proponent of their use—I get asked a lot about e-cigs. In short, it’s vapor without the usual bad stuff—like tar, and other assorted yucky chemicals that can end your life at an early age. It’s not perfect, but the problem is, it still looks like smoking and pisses off people who somehow get angry when they see other people having a good time. It’s like trying to keep someone from driving because they had three Shirley Temples.

To explain why the recent attempts to ban vaping are bad, you need to make it clear that this suppression is actually murderous. It’s pretty simple: vaping replaces cigarettes, without most of the toxins. The people who give up cigarettes for e-cigarettes therefore are maintaining something enjoyable without the majority of detriments. They are actually going to live longer with this ersatz habit. It’s almost the equivalent of drinking water that looks like ethanol instead of drinking ethanol.

This is the answer every doctor has been waiting for: a nicotine delivery device that effectively mimics cigarettes. It’s likely no different from a nicotine patch (which no one cares about), or nicotine gum (which no one cares about), and it’s better than some popular prescriptions (it doesn’t give you crazy nightmares that are often indistinguishable from real life—a drawback when you have a daily show, but a hoot otherwise).

The simplest way to put it: vaping is nicotine gum that you inhale. And anyone who opposes that should oppose gum, too. (And Shirley Temples.)