How researchers get heard

Tuesday Thought Leadership Teardown: How to Refute

People are buzzing about a new piece of content whose subject is in your expertise wheelhouse. It’s getting traction, as they say.

But you hate the piece. In your expert judgement, the content cherry-picks the evidence. Or it’s sensationalistic. Or it’s uniformed. Or the analysis is just plain stupid.

What should you do?

As an expert, your first impulse is to refute the content, point by point. That’s understandable. That’s how researchers respond in journals to arguments with which they disagree.

Don’t do it.

First: Point-by-point refutation is dull — a mortal sin outside of journals.

Second: It’s seriously limited because it just reinforces the original piece because it’s so tied to it.

Third: Dull and limited are unlikely to get much attention — certainly not as much as the original.

To paraphrase Dean Wormer in “Animal House,” dull, limited and unlikely to get much attention is no way to go through life, my friend. It’s letter-to-the-editormode.

Effective refutation isn’t about proving someone else is wrong. It’s about creating a receptive emotional space in your audience for your counterargument and authority. It’s as much EQ as IQ.

For a great example of this better kind of refutation, see Michael Waldman and Wendy Weiser’s new opinion piece for Politico, “6 Reasons Not to Panic About the Election.”

Waldman and Weiser are refuting a recent Atlantic magazine article by journalist Barton Gellman that the Republican Party is plotting on a dizzying number of legal and tactical fronts to challenge state-by-state votes cast in the U.S. presidential election and to steal the election. Predictably, in this time of high alert, the Gellman article has sent large swathes of Twitter (as well as the greater DC area, where I live) into a tizzy.

Waldman and Weiser (the president and vice-president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law) think US election laws and institutions are much stronger than Gellman’s narrative positions them — and that, while we should be angry and prepared for election mischief, “an all-out attack can work if all the institutional checks fail and the American people let it happen.”

But to make that argument, they don’t try to refute the Gellman article head on. Instead, they create that receptive space into which to drop their counterargument. I’ve broken down their rhetorical strategy into five steps you can use for your own refutations.

  1. You’re not refuting an article; you’re refuting a meme — a certain way people are thinking about a problem that the article exemplifies. Waldman and Weiser only mention the Atlantic article twice. The meme isn’t the article — it’s the widespread fear of election fraud that has been stoked by a swirl of events that includes Donald Trump’s “calls for vigilantes to invade polling places,” pledges to reject any election outcome that doesn’t designate him as the victor, efforts in many states to suppress voting, and much more.
  2. Agree that the scenario sketched in the trend is frightening (or heartening). Empathize with the emotion that is driving attention to the article. Create common ground with your audience before introducing them to your counternarrative. Waldman and Weiser do this concisely: “To be sure,” they write, “Trump is doing all he can to undermine the vote and foment chaos. All who care about our democracy should be angry — and ready. It’s terrifying to think about an Election Day full of chaos and disinformation, followed by false claims of victory and attempts to swap out electors.”
  3. Then pivot to convey from a higher altitude what you see as an expert. Don’t match emotion for emotion in refutation; instead, proceed from a broader, expert perspective. Waldman and Weiser establish their empathy, and then immediately pivot to their argument in reassuring tones: “But there are strong safeguards in place, and many ways for the system to block an illegitimate power grab. There may be a plot against America, but a lot of people would have to break laws for the plot to succeed .… It’s worth mapping out what those bulwarks are.” Now readers are leaning in, curious about what constitutes those bulwarks in a system they’ve been told over the last four years has been hollowed out to the brink of autocracy.
  4. Organize your refuting analysis using a declarative list that calmly but forcefully builds not just your argument but a counternarrative. Waldman and Weiser frame the guts of their argument using six declarative statements (e.g., “Second, it’s really hard to steal an election”; “Fifth, the system is more prepared than you might think for challenges to vote counting”) followed by a paragraph or two of supporting points. The sum of these six statements is a world in which we feel empowered through diligence to thwart subversion of the election — the opposite of the horror movie detailed by Gellman’s Atlantic piece.
  5. End by a) coming back to acknowledge the emotion and then b) pivoting back to your analysis encapsulated. Remind your audience of your empathy with the emotions that attracted them to the faulty argument in the first place, and then pivot back to reassuring (or, in the case where the original argument was reassuring, alarming) them as you close. We might call this the “empathy sandwich,” after another kind of rhetorical sandwich used to convey disagreement more effectively.

These rhetorical moves — don’t target your refutation, empathize, convey your expert vision from a reassuring, higher altitude using a declarative list that builds a counternarrative — have echoes in debunking research, where you want to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the narrative you seek to debunk.

Refutation is a big and growing part of public engagement for researchers. So it’s worth resisting the temptation to do it in ways that make yourself feel better but don’t have a snowball’s chance of changing anyone else’s mind.