Anyone who’s braved a Thanksgiving conversation with an uncle or commented on a Facebook post or really is just alive in the year 2020 knows that convincing a skeptic to change their mind is nearly impossible. A hostage negotiator may say that empathy and not logic is often the best weapon against COVID-deniers, but should you want to engage in a debate about the reality of the virus that’s led to over 150,000 American deaths, it’s best to come armed with cross-examination skills.
Since lawyers aim to convince a jury rather than the witness themselves, this isn’t a perfect parallel, but plenty of the same techniques apply. Two law professors, Lara Bazelon (USF) and Spencer Pahlke (Berkeley Law), humored our questions about how to use their decades of legal acumen to disarm someone distrustful of science, or worse, a troll posting memes showing Bill Gates as a “plandemic” puppet master (who also spreads cancer through 5G cell phone towers, obviously).
Like any lawyer taking on a difficult case, the first thing to do before interacting with a COVID denier is prep work. You can expect a spread offense of many divergent theories not covered in mainstream media, so Google “what sources do coronavirus deniers rely on most commonly.” Politely ask for evidence, and be ready to discredit unreliable outlets or so-called experts by stressing their underlying motivations, which in the case of viral Youtube personalities, is likely financial. With regards to hydroxychloroquine advocate Stella Immanuel, one might calmly inquire if they’re aware of her statements about demon sex.
The key phrase there is “calmly ask” (close second, “demon sex”).
“I think for some of these folks, they really enjoy making other people angry, and sort of red-faced, and almost incoherent in the enormity of what they’re trying to explain and the stupidity of what they’re confronted with,” says Bazelon. “I wouldn’t give them that.”
Pahlke suggests establishing agreement on a few basic facts that may deflate faulty arguments, like comparisons to flu deaths. For instance, establishing a universal reference point, like the fact that the 3,000 deaths from the September 11 terrorist attacks is something of a big deal. Or even playing to partisan slants, bringing up the cost of lives from controversial issues like inner city gun violence.
“If you’re concerned that they were going to disagree that 150,000 deaths isn’t enough, there are ways to get them into a difficult position where they’re agreeing that something less than that is in itself a tragedy,” says Pahlke.
A personal hypothetical is another strong approach. Present a scenario where one of their specific family members contracts COVID-19 and has to be hospitalized. What happens when as their mother’s medical contact, they’re forced to sign off on treatment decisions? Will they follow the doctor’s advice or insist that it’s not serious and demand another treatment? A concrete situation like that will resonate much more than sweeping data-driven statements or testimonials about others.
Another strategy is to ask a question and give the denier a few options that are all bad (hopefully no judge is present to yell “leading the witness!”). One could present a list of Democrat and Republican politicians who have all spoken out against the virus, then ask the denier if they trust any of them. Or go even further and ask an open-ended question.
“I generally don’t like to ask open-ended questions,” says Bazelon. “But with crazy people I sometimes do, because whichever answer I get is going to be good.” In the case of the coronavirus, Bazelon suspects answers would fall into two categories: total ignorance or defiance of conventionally accepted knowledge (neither a good look).
“You can push somebody out on the limb and make them look even more silly, because the position they’re taking has so little support so that nobody else, your jury, would want to follow them out on that limb,” says Pahlke. “You get to persuasion not by virtue of directly persuading your witness, but by isolating them in this world that’s not real. And pointing out how unreal this world they’re living in is, so others wouldn’t tread there.”
If the argument takes place around a group or on social media, the more far-fetched the denier’s response, the better.
“Comedy and cross-examination are actually quite similar in that the bigger gap you can create between the expectation of what the witness should have done, and what they actually did do, the more impact from the questioning,” says Pahlke. “Likewise in comedy, the greater the difference between where you think the joke is going, to where it ends up, the funnier it seems to be.”
And while it’s a risky choice to wade into the comment section or speak your mind in an unfriendly crowd, there is a legal parallel to a citizen’s responsibility when they witness a crime.
“This goes back to your duties as a bystander. Do you intervene in that situation, where you see that there’s a harm being created and spread?” says Bazelon. “I think of this type of misinformation as a harm, because it can cause people to make decisions that are lethal. If you see that happening as a good citizen, and care deeply about the person spreading the misinformation, do you have an obligation to intervene? I think that’s up to the individual.”
Like convincing a dishonest witness of their wrongdoing, it may be impossible to destroy the roots of COVID misinformation. But civilized discourse can keep disingenuous ideas from reaching more people, and if the United States hopes to flatten the curve anytime soon, it’s important to keep pointing out falsehoods, which is what legal practice is all about.
“It’s a vehicle for showing truth to a fair cross section of the community,” says Pahlke.
Dan Gentile is a culture editor at SFGATE. Email: Dan.Gentile@sfgate.com | Twitter: @Dannosphere