How do you talk someone out of believing in a lie? There’s a better way than just spouting the facts, says Daniel Levitin, author of Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era. In an era where misinformation is increasingly mistaken for truth, this episode couldn’t be more important. Discover the lines of reasoning that actually break through to people who subscribe to conspiratorial, irrational and unscientific theories.
- Part of leadership is understanding the question behind the question @danlevitin
- How to show tact when someone is factually wrong, but emotionally right @danlevitin
Book: Weaponized Lies
Bio: Daniel J. Levitin is the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Music at McGill University, Montreal, where he also holds appointments in the Program in Behavioural Neuroscience, The School of Computer Science, and the Faculty of Education. He is also Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI. An award-winning teacher, he now adds best-selling author to his list of accomplishments as “This Is Your Brain on Music” , “The World in Six Songs” and “The Organized Mind” were #1 best-sellers. His work has been translated into 20 languages. Before becoming a neuroscientist, he worked as a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer working with artists such as Stevie Wonder and Blue Oyster Cult. He has published extensively in scientific journals as well as music magazines such as Grammy and Billboard. Recent musical performances include playing guitar and saxophone with Sting, Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, David Byrne, Cris Williamson, Victor Wooten, and Rodney Crowell.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Daniel Levitin. He is a fantastic writer. I loved a previous book that he wrote, The Organized Mind. The current book that we’re talking about today is Weaponized Lies: How To Think Critically In The Post Truth Era. The name was changed from the hardback, and we’ll talk about that a little bit. It was first called A Field Guide To Lies. It’s a tremendously fun book to read. It’s about statistics in the best kind of way, how we think about ideas and how we talk about ideas and how we try to prove our points and how other people try to prove their points in ways that may be misleading and in ways that require further investigation. He’s a professor at the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley and already from my conversations with him, a delightful guy. Daniel, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Daniel: Thanks for having me, Peter.
Peter: It is so fun. You use such great examples and you allow the reader to engage with the statistical challenges. You write things and it gets me, as I’m reading it … We talked just now about a point you make about how second graders, that kids read fewer and fewer books after second grade. I think I’m saying this incorrectly, and there’s all sorts of questions around that, and you begin to think, “Well how long is a book in second grade? What else are they reading?” All these things that allow you to recognize that a statistic is rarely just a truthful number that proves its point, and you’re really unpacking that in the book, so thank you for writing it. Let’s start with the change in the book title. You were just talking a little bit about it. You changed it from “A Field Guide To Lies” to “Weaponized Lies,” and maybe also speak about the idea of framing this whole conversation as lies. I think is kind of an interesting question.
Daniel: Well, so I began writing the book in 2001 actually, and was collecting examples from the media, from my students at McGill University before I was at Berkeley, and began in earnest to write it in 2014. And, this was before we saw the rise of Trump and his statements that in many cases are misleading or untrue, or just plain out false. And the book came out before Trump won the election. It was always our plan to release “A Field Guide to Lies” in paperback, in order to make it affordable to people who don’t want to shell out twice as much money for a hardback or just to have the portability of the thing, easier to read on an airplane in paperback.
And we were thinking, “Well is there something we can do to kind of announce the release of the paperback, and build some excitement?” And my editor at Penguin suggested that we change the title to “Weaponized Lies” from “A Field Guide to Lies,” which is a phrase I had used in an opinion piece I wrote for the New York Daily News in December, not about Trump actually, but you may remember there was a story floating around in October of 2016, Pizzagate. That Hilary Clinton was running a child sex slave ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington DC, and this drove a mentally unstable man, from one of the Carolinas to drive up to Washington DC, with a semi-automatic weapon and then discharge it there. Now, this whole thing about Hillary Clinton was a lie, and here’s a case where it had become weaponized.
Somebody literally took a weapon in hand, because of this lie. I thought, this marks a kind of a turning point, in public discourse and in our consumption of news. That many of us are now believing things that aren’t true and the consequences aren’t simply that we’re stuffing our heads full of nonsense, we’re now acting either politically or physically based on untrue information.
That’s not a statistical question, it’s someone’s opinion based on data that they’ve heard somewhere, with counteracting data. How do you engage in that kind of a conversation? Or, do you just not? I mean I didn’t quite know where to go from there.
Daniel: Well so I think one needs to separate the political from the factual here. So, clearly, the person you’re talking to, has a beef with Obama. Or, if not with Obama personally, with Obama’s policies or platforms. And that’s a separate issue and I think what the … It depends on whether or not you want to have a conversation with this person that will bring you guys closer together, or not.
Peter: I want to pause for a second, because it think that’s such an important point that you’re making, which is before you engage in any of these kinds of conversations, the first question is, “What’s the outcome that you’re going for?” Because it’s not a question that most of us answer. We just get triggered when someone says something, or we just blindly believe. And, what you’re saying, which I think is so important is, “What is the point?” We so often want to get to the truth, but it’s also worth saying, “What’s the point? Am I trying to get closer to the person? Am I trying to win something? Why am I engaging in this conversation?” I think that’s a brilliant and very important question.
Daniel: Right, and part of leadership, I mean this is a leadership forum. Part of leadership is understanding the question behind the question, or the comment behind the comment. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll tell you a story.
I was in a taxicab some months ago, and the cab driver said … he saw me working in the back seat on my computer and I have a little mobile internet, hotspot device, you know I’m working on … He’s says, “Oh do you have internet back there?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he says, “You know it’s a shame with all the technological progress we’ve made in the world … I understand that there are 20 billion people in the world, who don’t have internet.”
Now, you and I are laughing because we know that there aren’t 20 billion people in the world. I don’t know exactly the number, I’m not the Rainman, but it’s somewhere in between seven and eight billion people in the world. There’s not 20, so the number is clearly false. But the comment behind the comment, what he’s getting at, is an emotional point, which is that there’s a lot of people without internet and internet can be a democratizing force and a force to help people be lifted up out of poverty, to get them educated. It can be a force for tolerance. It allows you to see other people living other lives. So, we engaged at that level. We talked about the unequal distribution of wealth in the world, and how the internet can be powerful.
I asked him if he remembers the first time he used it. We had a wonderful conversation. At the end, I said, “And oh by the way… ”
Peter: You know, it’s amazing … I have to tell you, you’ve just shed light on a conversation that I had, and I took the absolute wrong tack. I was in Cape Cod, and it was when there was a hurricane coming up, and the hurricane was down in Georgia, North Carolina. This was probably about six or seven years ago and it was coming up the coast. And everyone was nervous and stressed out and buying water, and somebody said … We were at a beach actually. This was probably about 24 to 30 hours before it was supposed to get up to where we were in Cape Cod.But it was still 24 to 30 hours away. It was in Georgia or South Carolina or something like that, and the guy said to me on the beach, he said, “You know, this is going to be the worst hurricane ever. It’s moving up the coast at 500 miles an hour.”
Daniel: Faster than a jet.
Peter: Right and so what I should have said, which is what you said, is “You know, yeah, it’s really a big storm and it’s coming fast and we’re all a little nervous.” Instead, I was kind of a jerk, I said, “You know, 500 miles an hour, so it’s going to be here in about 45 minutes? Right? This thing’s going to be here in an hour.” And I said, “That’s ridiculous. It can’t possibly be 500 miles an hour.”I didn’t approach it in a useful way.
Daniel: It depends though, right? You have to know your audience, is one of the things that I say. So, if you were doing live news on television or radio, and the head of FEMA, or the head of the US Geological Survey said something like that, it’s your responsibility as a journalist to come back at them. No, I guess it wouldn’t be the US Geological, what would it be? Some meteorological agency, but you know what I mean. You’re talking about a public official, and you’re journalist, and those are the roles you’re playing. You have right to call them out and to fact check, and, “Could that really be right? Could you be off by a decimal point?”
Peter: And you talk about it, in the book, in terms of plausibility. You just ask the question to say, “Is it plausible if there’s 8 billion people in the world, that 20 billion of them don’t have internet?” Or, “Is it plausible that a storm could be moving twice as fast as a jet would move?”
Daniel: Right. And so with your experience in Georgia with the guy who says, “Well Obama wasn’t a citizen,” I mean what are the things you don’t like about Obama, or about his administration? Or what direction do you think the country should be taking? Where would you like to see the country in ten years from now? What I find when I talk to people who hold different political views than I do, in many cases we agree on where we want the country to go and what we want. We want the country to be secure. We want to minimize poverty. We want people who live here to feel that they opportunity. We want clean drinking water.
Now, we might disagree about the best way to get there. But as a starting point for the conversation we envision the same end state, and having established a rapport then, at the end of the conversation you could say something like, “Gee. If he really wasn’t a citizen, half the country seemed to be against him at any given moment. Don’t you think somebody would have filed suit and this would have been adjudicated and … You know. There are a lot of people who hated him. Not just you. Right?”
Peter: Yeah. That’s actually great. That’s a point. And you make that point in the book too and it’s great which is to say it’s a little bit like the plausibility argument. “But if this were true, wouldn’t you also see X, Y, and Z happen?”
Peter: And it’s interesting. That would have been a great way to answer it. And now I’m starting to think of this list of poor conversations that I’ve been in, and to throw them at you so that you can give me better ways of answering them because that’s very smart. And what I love about what you’re saying too it’s a very human approach. We’re not just rationalists trying to disprove people who use statistics poorly, but it’s about, ultimately, in the service of the truth and the relationship.
Daniel: Well there are two things going on here, Peter. One is that we’re trying to get along with others and build a society where people can talk across the aisle so to speak, and have civil discourse without just yelling at each other. And then at the same time we’re trying to inform ourselves about what’s really true so that we can make evidence based decisions. And I hope I don’t need to justify why evidence based decision making is better than superstition and rumor and innuendo. But I mean the fact is that it turns out that people who use evidence based decision making have much better life outcomes, greater life satisfaction, they live longer, they make better personal, and health, and medical decisions, better financial decisions. But parallel to that is you can’t reason somebody out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.
Peter: That’s great. Let’s say that one more time because it’s a very important statement.
Daniel: You can’t reason somebody out of a position or a belief that they didn’t reason themselves into. So if somebody’s made up their mind about something emotionally like Obama is not a citizen, showing the facts and evidence isn’t going to change that most probably. It might. You can hope that it will. I’ve gotten dragged into some arguments with 9/11 conspiracy and moon landing conspiracy people because I’ve gone around the country, actually several countries, talking about the book. Which I love doing. I love engaging readers and would be readers. And it’s interesting to me. I do think that facts are important. It’s been said we’re a post-truth era, and I think that’s horrible if it’s true. If it’s true that we’re in a post-truth era. It’s horrible because it threatens to send us back 400 years.
I mean, what was the age of enlightenment if not the introduction of evidence? We were no longer going to burn witches at the stake and resort to superstition. We were going to use reason and rationality, and that enlightenment brought in things like the germ theory of disease and the discovery of electricity, and a bunch of great boons to civil society. But where I’m going with this is that conspiracy theorists have gotten their emotionally, and sometimes talking facts with them doesn’t help.
But since you opened the door, I’ll tell you one of the moon landing conspiracists I talked said, “Well we’ve got a hundred pieces of evidence that the moon landing didn’t happen.” And I said, “Well give me the strongest one you’ve got, and let’s talk about that. And then let’s just agree that the others … If the strongest thing you got doesn’t hold up, then we won’t talk about the others because by definition they’re not as strong.” “Okay,” she says, “This one’s going to blow you over because it is airtight, solid, and it’s ten times more compelling than anything else we’ve got.” I said, “Okay.” And she said, “Well, if you look at the pictures of the flag on the moon it’s kind of rippled like it’s moving in the wind.” And I said, “Yeah. That’s pretty interesting isn’t it? Because the moon’s supposed to have no atmosphere, so what’s it doing rippling in the wind? And why is it standing upright instead of flopped down if there wasn’t wind?” And she said, “Yeah. That’s the point.”
I said, “Well, NASA people are actually rocket scientists and they knew that there wasn’t going to be an atmosphere, and they knew there was going to be this photo opportunity. So they had put this metal rod along the top of the flag in order to hold it up, and there were one or more rods sewed into the thing, and when they folded it for the flight the rods got bent and as they tried to unbend them you ended up with these ripples in the flag.”
And I said, “Moreover, there is archival video of the moon landing and you don’t have to rely on NASA. You can see it on the CBS new site, or even home hobbyists who took their old super 8 movie camera and shot right off the TV set. And you can see that this is really contemporaneous with the event, and in the video the flag is perfectly motionless. You’re assuming that if you see a still, there might be a more intriguing story in video that shows it flapping around. But no, the video shows it perfectly rigid because in fact there’s no atmosphere and it was rigid.” So she says, “Oh, yeah. Okay. Well forget about that. I got 99 more.”
Peter: Right. And that’s the challenge. I think all of these stories are fantastic, and they’re in the context of actually developing your skill to see through the characterizations and the statistics that might be otherwise misleading. So it’s not just entertaining as a book, it’s also very instructive as a book. For those who are just listening in, I’m speaking with Daniel Levitin. The book is, “Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era.” And for those of you who can’t tell, I adored it.
It feels like there’s two, I’m sure there’s more, but there’s two categories, Daniel. One is the outright lies. You give this example of someone who’s against Planned Parenthood and they’re trying to show on this graph the number of cancer screenings versus abortions, and the way they show it with the data seems to show a disproportionate amount of abortions compared to cancer screenings that are happening. And you look at that and that’s on purpose. It seems very targeted to influence a decision by distorting the data in your favor. And then there’s people who may be just mis-characterizing things because they don’t see through it. Because they haven’t read your book. Because they haven’t taken a statistics class.
In your experience, how much of it feels like outright lies and people trying to bias decisions with distorted statistics? And how much did you see are people who are just uninformed and sloppy in the way that they used statistics?
Daniel: You know, I don’t know how to answer that. I think really, I’m not qualified to answer it. One of the things that bugs me, Peter, is pseudo expertise. I talk about it in the book where you’ll get a pundit on TV, or radio, or a podcast and they do know a lot about one thing, but they are easily led to start pontificating about things they’re not an expert on.
Peter: You know a friend of mine, Marshall Goldsmith, says and I love this quote, “If you’re not the world’s expert in something, why are you opening your mouth?” And that would stop a lot of conversation from happening.
Daniel: Well, I’m not the world expert basketball player but I still enjoy a good pickup game. And I’m very far from being an excellent guitarist, but I still enjoy playing, and I’m enjoying this conversation. I’m not the world expert on this stuff, but I do know my limitations and I think you’d need a media studies person to really the answer question. My impression is that, without assigning proportions, there are different categories of error.
There are people who are really trying to fool you because they want to separate you from your money, or they want to influence or inflame you about a political or social event, and there’s that calculated, “I’m going to use these deceptive practices that I’ve learned in order to fool you.” And that’s clearly a lie. Then there’s another category of people who didn’t understand the data properly themselves, and it’s not just data and statistics. They didn’t understand the story. They didn’t understand the issue themselves. And they didn’t know that they didn’t understand it, and so as you were alluding to like your friend says, they just start opening their mouth and talking about it without realizing they just don’t know much.
And then you have a third category of people who I guess are kind of like the second category in that they just don’t know any better. They learned something along the line, they didn’t challenge it. They probably should have, but they didn’t know how to go about challenging it. And I think that in the second category of people who are willfully ignorant. Who should be, and they know they should be asking but they don’t. And then the third category you just have people who weren’t properly trained. This happens all the time. You’re in a workplace and somebody says, “Oh will you make this graph for us?” And you say, “Well I don’t really know how to do that.” “Well you know, we need it by 2 o’clock for the Penske presentation.” And so you do it.
Peter: I think it’s the third category that I’m curious about talking about because when you talk about this conversation you had with the moon landing, or the Mark Twain quote that you talk about that was really maybe Billings not Mark Twain, and who knows. And part of the ability to be discerning in those conversations is to actually have data, right? So you could be in that conversation with the woman who’s questioning the moon landing because you actually had data about what that flag was doing. I find myself in conversations where someone’s saying something.I’ll give you a great example.
I was talking to someone about global warming, right? And I’m pretty confident that global warming is happening, and I’m pretty confident that human beings have participated in accelerating global warming. But to be honest, I’m confident at that without having read any of the research. And I rely on the fact that there’s lots of experts who seem to be across the aisle, who are scientists. So I’m in a conversation with someone who I felt really didn’t believe that global warming was happening, and I said, “Do you believe global warming is happening?” And he said, “I do actually believe that global warming is happening, I just don’t believe that human beings have anything to do with it.”
And I find myself in that situation that I find myself in too often, where I have this gut response which is, “You’re wrong, and I disagree with you.” And I’m pretty sure I’m right, but in reality I haven’t spent the time or the attention to look at the data and the information to be able to actually engage in a conversation with them. And I’m wondering in that moment, how you engage in that conversations or is the only thing you can do is to drop it?
Daniel: Well, It’s a good question, Peter. I’ve thought about this a lot. Most of what we know, or think we know, we don’t really know first hand. I’ve never seen a cancer cell. But I trust this community of experts who have, so I believe that cancer exists. I know people who have cancer and who’ve died from it, and who’ve beat it. And it could be that it doesn’t really exist and that there are toxins in the environment and there’s a vast conspiracy by Big Pharma and the US Government, and the hospital industry to make us think that something’s going on that’s not. But I haven’t seen DNA myself. I actually don’t know that the sun is really 93 million miles away from my own observations. But we trust these experts, and we trust that the experts have a system of checks and balances and self-correction.
And we have to in order to function as a technological society. We have to trust the experts. And we have to insist that experts have certain certifications. So before you get on an airplane, at least in this country, and I’d say the G10 countries in general, the mechanic who worked on it has to have been a certified mechanic. It’s not just some guy with a wrench. Right? There are scheduled inspections every certain number of hundreds or thousands of flight hours. There are very particular things they need to look for and test, and you’re entrusting your safety. Same with doctors, with lawyers, accountants. There are these … They’re not perfect. Every once in awhile there’s an engine falls off the wing of a plane, or a tax audit happens and you find out your expert made a mistake. But it’s a pretty good system. It’s the best system we’ve got.
And so we do trust experts. I think that’s reasonable. The second part of this is that you can actually do a little bit of research on your own that’s not too time consuming, and I did this with the climate change issue because I try to be open minded. I try not to just adopt the views of someone without asking a few simple, as you communicated, plausibility questions. So my entry point on this, I’m not saying this is the best entry point, this is just where I happened to land, was there had been an open letter published, might have been in the New York Times. I don’t remember. Some months ago an open letter signed by something like a 1,000 climate scientists saying that global warming was not real. Or that it was not human caused. I mean it was something that goes against what you and I have taken to believe as the conventional wisdom.
And so I started going one by one, because they got the signature of all these people. I went one by one and I started looking them up to see who they were. Who are these scientists? These 1,000 scientists that say that global warming is not human related. And about 990 of those 1,000 scientists were not working in climate change, or didn’t have degrees in climate change, or didn’t have advanced degrees. So it would be somebody with a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering signing it. Look, civil engineering is a specialty, and they know a lot of stuff I don’t know, but there’s no reason to think that a civil engineer has expertise in climate science or can make sense of the climate science literature.
The other thing I was interested in was among those people who were holding PHDs in climate science, or climate engineering, or meteorology or some related field. Earth sciences, right? I mean they call them different things in different university programs, but atmospheric sciences. I mean they’re different names right? Some degrees might be in a physics department. That’s okay, but are they publishing in journals devoted to climate science? So there’s a person who’s got a degree from a physics department, who’s a physicist, but all that person’s publications and research and expertise have to do with magnetism. I would say that doesn’t count. That’s not a climate science. They’ve got to be engaged with climate science for me to look at their opinion.
And so this whole controversy about, “Oh well, not every climate scientist agrees. Well, they pretty much do if you define climate scientist properly.
Peter: Right, right. It makes a tremendous amount of sense. Last question that I want to ask you, which is there’s one other category.
Daniel: Oh, by the way. If I could just make an analogy. I’m sorry but I’m passionate about this. If your doctor … If three doctors tell you you have heart disease and that you better exercise and you better cut out the bacon or something, and then you keep getting opinions, at some point if you talk to 100 cardiologists, maybe one of them will tell you it’s genetic and it doesn’t matter what you do. Or maybe you’ll start talking to urologists about your heart problem and you’ll find a bunch of them who have different advice. Take that into account with the climate debate.
Peter: This question goes to even the open question of how we think of expert. When you talk in the book about New Age and I was in conversation with some people who in a very New Agey kind of environment, where it was a very funny conversation where we were in a hot tub and one of them was saying they don’t use chlorine in this hot tub they use whatever it was they were using.
Daniel: Well, maybe bromine.
Peter: And maybe it was bromine. And one said, “My doctor said that it’s not very good for whatever, your health.” And the other one looked at her and kind of grimaced and goes, “Your doctor? Like, who believes a doctor?” And the other one said, “No, no ,no. A chiropractor.” And they go, “Oh. Okay, okay.” Like, now it’s credible. And so it’s that question of who do you hold up as the expert. Like is there agreement even? I mean I guess you first initially have to get agreement on whose opinion or whose perspective we respect and say is the expert, and then work down from there.
Daniel: Well, so this gets to a question of certifications and again it’s an imperfect system but most professionals have an organization that certifies them. The roof workers, people who do roofing for your houses and buildings, there is a professional organization and if you’re unionized you have to go through special training and certifications. And if you’re not you can be a member of a professional organization if you meet certain standards. Airline mechanics, doctors, AMA certified, lawyers have to pass the bar. Gemologists. There are three or four professional organizations for people who will appraise jewelry.
The membership in these, in some of them anybody who pays their dues gets in. I would say that’s not an effective organization for you to know whether the person’s really an expert or not. It might be effective for these people to have a voice in government or to lobby. But what you want is an organization that holds its members to some standard and these exist, and you should look for them.
Peter: Chiropractors, for example, have an association. They have an association that requires certification and education in order to get there. It’s just that there might be a disagreement between one set of experts, and another set of experts who are equally certified in their own methodology and in their own history of their expertise. But you may have to make a decision at some point to say, “Which set of experts, which set of methodologies am I going to hold credibility with?”
Daniel: You’re right. You’re right. I mean there’s a lot of medical information floating around and I tend to look to places like the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic for definitive answers. They don’t always agree with one another, but their websites are good sources of knowledge. They’re at the cutting edge in many fields. But you’re right. You can find disagreement and that comes to really it’s the third section of my book, “Field Guide to Lies” or “Weaponized Lies.” The third section is how the scientific method works and science works in fits and starts and scientists don’t always agree with each other, and you can be left for a period of months or even years in limbo where you don’t know what’s true.
Peter: And that’s also where you can use the methods of the book because if one set of experts is saying, “This is what I believe,” the next question is, “Where’s the data,” if we’re going to go for evidence based. Then to say, “What was the statistically valid research based approach that you looked at the number of people in hot tubs with bromine and what kind of illnesses did they get?” And if it’s, “Well I had a friend who,” then chances are that’s not statistically very valid. Versus, “Yeah we did this double blind study,” and et cetera et cetera.
Daniel, thank you so much. The book is, Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era. It’s an international bestseller. It’s really an excellent book and I suggest that you run out and buy it. It’s a fun read that also educates you. Daniel, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Daniel: Thanks for having me, Peter.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit PeterBregman.com. Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.