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

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BE COLUMBO

At Prevention and Men’s Health, much of my work entailed the brutal challenge of interviewing doctors—aloof but brilliant creatures possessing two disadvantages. They were not press-friendly, and they didn’t know how to articulate the fine work they actually do.

That was the irony in the world of health: the bizarre health nuts and quacks were ace at selling you the most ridiculous things, while a respectable MD, whose work involves carefully quantifying the results of scientific repetition, and publishing the results of such careful repetition, cannot sell you his achievements or persuade you of his findings to save his own life or your own. It’s beneath him, and he has no interest in it. And if you don’t understand what he does, that’s your problem. Literally, if you need treatment.

Does this sound familiar? The hucksters are great at selling, and the experienced substantive folks come off as stiff and clunky? It’s our political system, channeled through the New York Times and its clingy minions. The left can sell bad ideas; the right can’t sell a decent one. The left can convince you a bad idea that killed millions should be reanimated (see: communism and socialism). The right can look at their victories of the past and fail to tell you why they were victorious, and why it mattered.

The scourge of health and science writing is the desire for a sellable answer. The fact is, like Lil’ Kim’s face, science is never settled, and is always changing. But answers raise money for grants, sell magazines, and grab eyeballs for your inane talk show.

The problem: although science is messy and hard, the media hacks will shape it into something simple and alluring by leaving certain things out. Lawyers call it “willful blindness,” but it’s simply “stupidity.”

As a writer whose role was to interview cranky doctors, it was my job to ask them simple questions, and get simple answers, and read the studies they authored. And then simplify everything.

The key to getting started is never to be afraid of admitting you’re stupid. Because pretending to know more than you know always ends in disaster. If someone asks you if you can fly a plane, you don’t say yes if the answer is no (especially if you are settling into the pilot’s seat). Oddly, we do this when discussing almost anything complex.

Stupidity opens doorways to knowledge and invites experts to teach you for free.

Here is the wrong way to approach any conflict: you come to it loaded with jargon you barely understand, hoping to impress. You will get nowhere.

The right way is to start it off by saying you know nothing. Chances are whoever you’re talking to will be so shocked by your refreshing honesty, he’ll walk you through an entire issue with glee. He might even give you a warm hug (no tongue). And he’ll like the fact that you’re coming to him for help.

I did this in my previous incarnations at health mags: I told every doctor that I knew nothing. “Doctor,” I would say, “before we discuss Alzheimer’s, who the heck is Alzheimer?”

That opens the doorway to a methodical explanation of the history of the disease.

I’ve asked doctors millions of dumb questions (a specialty of mine), starting every interview with “I’m just a reporter, and forgive me if I embarrass myself, but could you explain…”

I stole all of this from Columbo. The legendary television detective mastered the art of asking seemingly dumb, apologetic questions…until the very end of the ninety-minute episode when he nailed the perp (usually played by William Shatner or Jack Cassidy).

All you’re really doing is asking questions that no one dares to ask because they’re all too scared to look stupid.

Example One: Amnesty

Every Democrat seems to be for this thing. And also a few Republicans.

Why? I mean, if it’s so great, why do we even need to declare it? From what I can tell, there seems to be absolutely no downside!

Pardon me for being stupid, but if amnesty is a good thing, then this “border” thing must be a bad thing. So, are borders a bad thing?

If borders aren’t a bad thing…then I’m confused. Because we’re saying it’s okay to come here illegally. Can you explain to me how you can have a border and not be against amnesty? The dumb question “Why do we have a border?” leads to the smarter debate over law and order. And often to fisticuffs and bail hearings.

Example Two: Birth Control

As I write this, activists are demanding that Fordham University pay for students’ condoms. A casual observer might say, “Why not? Students need condoms.” They sure do—to ensure we don’t make any more of these Fordham students. The problem is, Fordham is a Jesuit college, so it’s not exactly part of the school’s belief system. But more important, the activists are calling it a human right—yes, finally, condoms are a human right. You can laugh, or you can be inquisitive and ask them to explain their stance.

How are condoms a human right? If condoms are a human right that must be paid for by someone else, why not your food or clothing? Aren’t those two items more important than condoms?

What’s a human right? Is it something that you demand another human pays for? What if I, a Jesuit, do not want to pay for your condoms—isn’t that my human right?

Simple questions open doors to smart thoughts, and prevent your opponent from avoiding coherent explanations in favor of strident emotion.

And by the way, this technique works even better if you can do it in Columbo’s voice. Now there’s a man who never paid for someone else’s condoms.

Besides, if condoms really are a human right, wouldn’t Thomas Jefferson have included them in the Declaration of Independence? (Although I read that Ben Franklin might have tried.)