Here’s what to do with people whose ideas seem cray

The author, with Catharine RIchert, upper right, and Maggie Koerth during an episode of The Theater of Public Policy.

From the brother-in-law convinced COVID-19 is a ploy to create one world government, to the Facebook friend who keeps forwarding you articles about how nightshade vegetables cause birth defects. Conspiracy theories, fake news, disinformation. It feels like they’re everywhere. 

The big question is: Can you talk someone out of an otherwise absurd belief that is nevertheless passionately held?

The answer to the big question is…maybe? Though you may not like what it takes.  

Earlier this month on The Theater of Public Policy, which is a show I host that mixes humor and, well, public policy, I talked with two journalists who have spent a lot of time looking at where this stuff comes from and what to do about it. 

If you really want to change someone’s mind, the first, most important, and probably hardest step is… listening. 

Both Catharine Richert of MPR and Maggie Koerth of FiveThirtyEight said it’s nearly impossible to reach someone and get them to change if you don’t first take the time to understand what exactly they believe and why they believe it. 

I wanted to try this out, but wasn’t sure how to start. Would it taint the experiment to message an old college friend and ask, “Hey, do you still think jet fuel can’t melt steel beams? Also, how’s the family?”

Luckily, I got a chance a few weeks later with another guest  on The Theater of Public Policy. Documentarian Michael Anthony joined our show to talk about his belief — and the science he says backs it up — that our consciousness continues after death. 

As the son of Lutheran minister, I would never compare belief in a life after death to a conspiracy theory, but it did feel like something fair to approach with some skepticism, and to test out how to engage with someone with a different set of beliefs.

I started our conversation asking Anthony how he came to believe consciousness exists beyond the mind and what precisely that means to him. I listened to him talk about how after he lost his father he began a journey that involved mediums, double-blind studies and interviews with well-credentialed academics who study the “paranormal.” 

I mostly listened for the first twenty minutes, asking clarifying questions to better understand his point of view.

When I finally came around to challenging the idea, I did not attempt a frontal assault, citing contrary scientific consensus or evidence. Instead, I explained that while he finds the notion of undying consciousness comforting, to me it sounds like a nightmare. 

A long life ends not with a much-deserved rest but with endless wandering around the earth seeking a new body to just do it all over again? 

Exhausting.

I tried to engage him on his terms, speaking for myself about my own unease with his beliefs, without turning it into an ‘Everybody vs. Him’ kind of debate. He laughed and said he understood, but that people with near death experiences usually discuss them as quite pleasant. 

From there on, I never tried to directly argue with Anthony. I just asked more questions.

“Is there evidence you see that makes you question this?” 

“What do you make of all the people who have near death experiences and don’t come back with any stories?”

“What if you’re wrong? Is there a potential harm in perpetrating this belief if it’s untrue?”

Anthony paused for a beat after that last question. “I don’t come to the question lightly,” he said. “There are things that are out there, that do definitely happen, from my perspective that the wider world is not aware of because they’re simply not looking.” 

Which was something we could both agree on.

In the end, am I convinced from our conversation that it’s possible to ask my dead grandmother if it’s alright if I finally throw out some of her old china? No. 

But do I share Anthony’s wish that we were all more inquisitive and more open to exploring things beyond our immediate experience? You betcha.

Richert’s been a reporter on MPR’s Disinformation 2020 project helps voters spot “faulty news” this election year. She explained that conversations with someone who is sharing something we don’t believe or that we know to be misleading comes down to what we want from the exchange. Is the goal to change a person’s mind? To score internet points dunking on them? Or is it about the person you’re talking to, and your relationship with them?

If it’s to change their mind or understand them better, get off their Facebook page and reach out to them in private. Start by listening, and asking why they believe what they do. Ask lots of questions and you may find that they move a little bit. (You might as well.) 

Remember that “winning” an argument is different than changing someone’s mind. 

Ultimately, you may or may not actually get them to do a 180 degrees on their belief or what they’re sharing. But you will know them better, and they will in all likelihood trust you more. That’ll make it a little easier to have this conversation the next time.