I have had some success over the years in talking with people who on the surface do not seem to be very much like myself. Superficially, I am a west-coast liberal elite professor who has cats in lieu of children. My tribal affiliation seems clear, yet I am often at ease discussing heavy stuff with all types.
In a recent conversation with a neighbor whose votes likely exactly counter my own, I believe I made substantial progress in broadening his views on COVID vaccinations, news sources, conspiracy theories, and maybe more.
In this post, I’ll run through key messages in that conversation and elements that I believe may have allowed those messages to land. Then I will discuss more broadly some attributes that I think make substantive conversations with unlikely interlocutors possible.
First, we’ll start with my neighbor, Chip. That’s not his real name, but I want to convey a sense of a man’s man. Chip owns and operates heavy machinery, knows his way around concrete, and loves going fishing on his boat.
I took some honey harvested from my bees to thank Chip for loaning me two massive iron spikes that I used as anchors driven deep into the ground to drag something heavy across the dirt. The conversation we had ranged all over, but I capture main themes here as an example of how one might make progress, perhaps offering tips that may allow others to have similar success.
Approaching Chip on the street by his truck, I announced that I was vaccinated but would put on my wrist-strapped mask if he wished. After I handed him a jar of honey that he tasted and admired, he said that his wife just got her second vaccination shot, and was feeling terrible. To him, this only fueled the concern that COVID vaccinations were a bad idea.
I responded by enthusiastically describing how cool the vaccination idea was: growing coronavirus-mimicking spike proteins on your arm’s muscle cells to train up your immune system to recognize and destroy them. The second shot was the immune system’s first chance to mount a massive defense of its newly trained army against a deluge of enemy spikes, which brought with it the usual side effects of a full-press immune response: fatigue, aches, elevated temperature. It means it’s working well, and a good sign that any real coronavirus will be ripped to shreds at first entry—the response not even being noticeable compared to the reaction spurred by a massive buildup of second-dose spikes. I praised the innovation involved in the novel technique, and the robustness against variants by attacking this external feature that is part of its mechanism for latching onto body tissues. I tooted America’s horn for its role in leading the charge.
He had never heard an account of the vaccine’s mechanism, and followed the description with interest. My communication was not meant to make me seem impressive (what’s the point of that?!), but to optimally convey the idea in as clear and understandable a way as I could. This is one hint: don’t make it about you; make it about them—the difference is easy to perceive. My enthusiasm may have played some additional, infectious role. In any case, he genuinely appreciated getting the scoop, and said maybe he should get vaccinated after all. I never suggested one way or another: just provided the narrative.
As a byproduct of the vaccine conversation, Chip likely was trying to reconcile what I told him with what he hears via his information sources—the usual suspects of Fox News and its ilk. He said he’s not sure who to trust.
I hit on what I think is a key tell. If the news is boring, it’s probably correct. If it triggers you, riles you up, evokes an emotional response, then it’s probably manipulation hiding under a thin, selective veneer of news.
I explained how some media outlets have become masters of psychology, and know just how to push buttons. One night I was visiting friends, where as a form of torture we watched some Fox News. The events of the day included testimony from an impressive governmental official who was expert on Ukrainian relations and shared insights relating to the infamous Trump phone call that resulted in the first impeachment. The other big story that day was the conviction of political operative Roger Stone on 7 felony counts related to election interference.
On the Fox News channel, the focus was on a Democratic congresswoman’s praising of the expert witness as a role model for women who want to be professionals, experts, and patriots. Despite this being a minor part of the introductory remarks from the representative, Fox’s coverage was about the Democrats turning the hearings into a circus about gender equality and the like. Other news outlets covered the main points made by the witness, which not surprisingly were the same for all the “real” channels. Boring, perhaps, but accurate. The Fox treatment failed to cover the core substance, but almost certainly managed to irritate a mostly male audience having misogynistic leanings. Those deplorable Democrats, always dwelling on identity politics! Wait: exactly who is focusing on identity politics?
Roger Stone’s daughter then boo-hooed about how unfair all this was to her father: a political hit job lacking any substance. Never did they list even one of the seven felony counts—something every real news outlet treated as compulsory. A teacher grading the report would have no choice but to knock the grade down to a C, at best, for failing to capture the main outcome. They also did not mention that a carefully vetted impartial jury disagreed with the “lack of substance” charge, such a claim apparently lacking substance.
Sometimes news actually is exciting and emotionally triggering, which no news outlet can suppress. The 9/11 attacks were shocking no matter what channel, resulting in fear, anger, and deep sadness across the board. But on normal days news is pretty boring. The PBS News Hour, for instance, is exceedingly well put together with thoughtful analysis, questions, and conversations. It’ll put you to sleep, but they get key experts who know the topics inside and out and have discussions of real substance from various points of view. Has anyone ever thrown the remote control at the TV in response to something Judy Woodruff said?
Chip asked what I think about the origin of the coronavirus: was it from a Chinese lab? Having already covered the “boring equals more likely true” thesis, I could apply a similar logic here. Scandalous yet specious charges spread quickly because they’re exciting to hear and exciting to tell.
Many conspiracy theories involve an imagined cadre of elites who have super-human intelligence and power. I could relate to Chip that I’ve served on panels with the most elite scientists in the country. I personally know a handful of Nobel laureates, and an even larger number of scientists of exactly that same caliber. These are very smart people: at the top of the stack. But even the brightest bulbs are still well short of movie portrayals of ultra-smart masterminds. Just sit in a room with these folks trying to get the stapler to work, connect to WiFi, or even operating on their primary turf arguing about some point in a proposal and it’s clear that no one’s making a movie of this scene unless it’s a comedy.
The phenomenon bears some relation to the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which incompetent people are too incompetent to accurately rate or appreciate their incompetence—often inflating their self-sense of capability. The flip side is that most people are not able to calibrate the top end of the scale, being unable to gauge limitations of smarter brains. It can be clear that someone is smarter, but impossible to tell by how much using their own limited hardware. The old saying that “it takes one to know one” contains some real truth.
So conspiracies, I expressed to Chip, are attractive but often very miscalibrated. The world I know, having accessed some “inner circle” gatherings, doesn’t work that way. Think of it like this: “boring” is a cousin to “probable.” Probable things are commonplace, and thus boring.
My conversation with Chip seemed to go quite well. It was helped by a foundation of trust and respect. We worked on a landscaping project together, and he saw me dig up a number of massive stumps, pulling literally tons of wood out of the ground single-handedly. That’s manly work. I toiled like a tenacious mule, neither whining nor crowing. Just got ‘er done, day after day. My comfort with and effective use of tools likely also helped.
But as much as anything, our relationship started with respect on day one. I never gave off a whiff of: “dude, I’m a professor and who the hell are you?” It’s not feigned respect. I approach all new relationships assuming the other has something meaningful to teach me. Admittedly, I may eventually be disappointed, but I always start off on a good footing. The important thing is to pay attention to the person as you meet them, not as you might model them based on superficial associations. It’s what they say and do that matters. Even if sounding unpolished, look for the nugget of real wisdom or knowledge: not getting hung up on delivery.
Because Chip feels genuine respect coming from me, and has seen with his own eyes my capabilities in problem solving and getting stuff done (not because I ever told him of my abilities like a braggard; that would be counterproductive), his returned respect for me comes naturally. He said as much in our conversation. He was asking about news sources and conspiracies because he valued my opinion and insight. He trusted that I would not be condescending or act superior. He seems to view me as an accidental member of the elite/smart club, but not like all them others.
Other Tips for Effectiveness
In today’s polarized culture and tribal battlefield, it pays to defy easy characterization or labeling. In some sense, having the views that I do:
- Growth is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; it has brought much benefit thus far but will ultimately ruin us if prioritized;
- Collapse is a legitimate risk whose dismal and fringe perception prevents many from acknowledging;
- Technology is unlikely to “save” us, and in fact may not be compatible with long-term success of the human species;
- Unless we start prioritizing nature and ecosystems (our life support on this finite planet) over ourselves, failure is likely;
puts me well outside of the mainstream in either liberal or conservative camps. Try to imagine combining two characters I adore, one fictional and one real: Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation, and Noam Chomsky. Their politics are opposite, but I admire the unshakable quality of each: they know what they’re about.
I can appreciate liberal stances on tolerance, fairness, opportunity, and environmentalism (a la Chomsky). I value traditional conservative mindsets on tough love and living within one’s means (a la Swanson). I can even see the appeal in libertarian ideology and perceive its adherents as typically being smart (but missing some key pieces of the real world that will never conform to their ideology, no matter how attractive it is to them). In my adult life I have voted for presidential candidates in four parties spanning the spectrum. I have lived in all corners of the country, including a non-intellectual upbringing in the Appalachian region. My roommates have variously been scientists, fundamentalists, and construction workers. I have lived with and without religion, including substantial exposure to multiple forms of Christianity. I have driven all over the country, and can often make connections with anyone I talk to based on geography and an appreciation for what is familiar to them.
All these things help me break tribal barriers, failing to adhere to a monolithic portrait. I endeavor to find common concerns, respect the other, and speak from the heart in ways that I hope seem like obvious statements of common sense that cannot help but meet with agreement. I can’t say I have some magical power to be persuasive or completely diffuse tribal tensions. But I believe I can do tolerably well. My biggest handicap is that I really care, and can get a little wound up when my points are dismissed without honest reflection.
People can’t change their past, so the recipe that gives me various cross-over advantages will not be shared by all. But perhaps some of the advantages delivered by my past can be identified and amplified in you. Think about commonalities that connect you to the “other,” and emphasize those things. Expand your life experience to give yourself more common ground.
Effective teaching involves meeting the student where they are, and trying to gently guide them to a new place. The first step is developing a sense for their present state, and engaging with them in that space, rather than demanding that they immediately come to your way of thinking, on your terms. I think the same goes for effective communication on tricky subjects. Consider the world they must see through their eyes, and identify the disconnects. Then you can craft the bridge that allows them to set foot into a different world, if they choose to cross it. Create the opportunity, and leave the choice to them.
As a related aside, imagine a national program of one-year compulsory service that mixed young people from all backgrounds in efforts to perform useful tasks of national or global interest (my vote would be for actions that benefit ecosystem health). Like the bonds that form between combat soldiers, differences get swallowed up by common experiences and by the undeniable, recognizable humanity of people of every stripe who otherwise would not come into direct contact. Mutual respect can be borne out of shared experience and endured hardships. It becomes harder to demonize group X when your new friend-for-life is associated with that group. Such a program could act as a reset button restoring a sense of national (or better yet global) unity and that we’re all in this together.
This post illustrates why I consider learning leadership skills the most important action anyone can take. More science and engineering won't hurt, but they rarely influence people's behavior, nor do haring facts and figures or telling people what to do.
Plans like in Project Drawdown sound nice, but doing them requires people working together — that is, leadership. Otherwise, they're just words on pages with pretty pictures. Or worse, palliative ideas leading people to think someone else is taking care of the problems so they don't have to.
Leading others, which means listening, role models, stories, images, community, and other elements of culture multiplies our effects. Few people do it. Instead they exert authority or tell people what to do — the opposite of what I mean by leadership.
CO2, mercury, and pollution don't act on their own. They react to our behavior. If we want to change the result, we have to change the cause, meaning changing our behavior, meaning changing culture and systems. Knowing the science gives us direction, but developing the social and emotional skills takes training, practice, and repetition, like any skills.
That's why despite my PhD in physics, my upcoming book on sustainability is on sustainability leadership.
Regarding national service, have you read about General McChrystal's proposals? I consider it a great idea I expanded on in my podcast on a civilian service academy: https://play.acast.com/s/f2ca38e6-a092-545d-9db2-7b2fba45977e/5c6585b8f369660658964fcd. Here's his Time Magazine piece on it: https://time.com/4824366/year-national-service-americorps-peace-corps.
This strategy is great, but it requires two things before it can work:
1. There obviously has to be some close proximity to engage in a conversation. People who will never be near each other can never have the neighborly personal relationships that dissolve animosity. Pretty hard to do over Zoom.
2. Matters of failth must be left off the table entirely because there are no matters of fact or reason involved. This requires mutual consent to permanent forbearance.
Unfortunately, it's easy to find examples of both these limitations as the root cause of horrific violence between people. As political issues, especially conspiricies stories like "Stop the Steal" become more and more like matters of failth, it will be very difficult to defuse polarization.
I have lived in many different places and had to learn different languages to just participate in daily life. I have observed that people are just about the same everywhere and (almost) everyone deserves respect. But it is still easy to find groups of close neighbors killing each other over things that a distant observer might think trivial. I certainly saw that happen in Lebanon between groups of people with very similar daily lives separated by a faith-based tribalism.
I like the idea of national service for its own sake, as well as a means of breaking down class and race stereotypes, but it would be more effective if something similar could happen much earlier in people's lives. Perhaps mandatory summer camp for every 6 year old?
There are a lot of comments that I would like to make about this post but I'll limit it to just one relating to your take on reliable news sources.. At the time of the 2020 election we were getting much of our daily news from ABC Radio (we don't have TV). Just two days after the election the ABC "newscasters" repeatedly claimed that "there was no evidence for any voter fraud." Funny, isn't it, that for 3+ years after the 2016 election, we never heard anything similar regarding evidence for "Russian Collusion." I guess that was just so obvious that it was ridiculous to even question its existence.
P.S. I am a huge fan of your "Do The Math" blog, having followed it for years. In fact, a few months ago I purchased your recent book. It is awesome.!