The quickly-aging question, “Why am I hearing this from you?”

I was struck today by the realization that this is actually an interesting question to receive. It's a reality check. It's an ego check. What's most important about those checks is that they may be right. It's not simply the case that you can barrel forth through it or navigate around it, whether tactfully or waddling haphazardly.

The context

Let's back up and set the context, in case it's not clear. To set the stage, let's say that you're having a chat with someone about something important, where you know something you need to convey, and they may have no clue you need them to hear it.

It grows more and more difficult these days to deliver the leading scientific evidence that COVID-19 is extremely harmful to continually choose to keep around in our communities and global population through collective ignorance and inaction, as well as being very hazardous to contract for an individual, regardless of your health background. Furthermore, it's becoming obvious that we can easily choose to dramatically reduce its presence [1] , if not eliminate it entirely. One critical fact that most people tend to be missing is that COVID-19 is transmitted by breathing. Let's choose this fact as the one that your chat partner is missing.

Given this important, life-saving information, there's a natural urge to want to share it with those you care about. It leads to conversations where you have someone close to you who is (at times, blissfully) ignorant of the changes that need to be made in their environment and, likely, their behavior. Even if for the well-being of themselves and others, it's tough to be the bearer of bad news. When the time comes to deliver the information from one knowledgeable conversant to the other, there's sometimes an immediate push-back – whether gentle, firm, or forceful – in the form of a simple sticky question: “why am I hearing this from you?”, as titled.

Given that the title question is in its naked form, you may not recognize when you've received it in the past already. It can be as subtle as oddly-timed silence. At times the question is a gentle push-back, such as a nonsequitous assertions “we are following the latest governmental regulations” or “we are following OSHA guidelines” [2] . It can take the form of a non-committal “okay” or “cool” when you deliver such news that should instill any emotion, and subsequently some form of action, but seems to generate none. Other times, the question is somewhat-less disguised in the form of a negative question, leading to an implication on the behalf of an absent party; for example, “why hasn't the government issued any changes?”. Among many other forms, the question can also finally come outright, exposing no concern for hiding the doubt, as titled and mentioned above. The titled version may sound most aggressive at initial thought, but where every person and relationship is different, it may also simply be the most open form: a sharing of doubt to be tackled as a team, instead of keeping it hidden.

Regardless of format, each is the same problem: you are not the expected person to be delivering such news.

The problem

Tackling the problem seems simple, and doesn't seem to deserve any article of guidance such as this one being penned (and presumably, read). At first blush, the titled question may seem as valid a question as any, and should be tackled earnestly, but I otherwise contend in this article and this section that it's not actually a valid question, it is an interesting situation that is driven by a pair of logical fallacies. I'm a lightweight at fallacies, so I won't make heavy use of them, but they're something that we all should grow in familiarity with, so I'm going to employ a couple.

In effort of full disclosure, there may be some unpleasantness to acknowledging these fallacies in-use upon you, and further unpleasantness with your conversant to pick them apart. The first fallacy will begin to show why, and the second will make it more clear. It's left as an exercise to the reader and user of this knowledge to be sure you aren't simply wrong, of course, but assuming not, let's cover these fallacies at play.

“The experts don't agree with you...”

The first fallacy is an appeal to authority: in brief, you're not a person they trust to tell them such critical information. They have heard conflicting statements from experts (such as the government or their employer) and those experts must be correct.

At such time that you hear this, it's worth checking if you're outside your circle of trust, or if you have mutual trust established. I've recently heard valid complaints that COVID-cautious folks (and those more stringent) are overly busy working outside of their circle of trust. This point may be well argued, and so you should check if you've forgotten yourself and your circle of trust or influence. Ask yourself if your chat partner has openly shared signals or messages of trust with you.

If you are in the right circle of trust, and your conversant apparently or expressly trusts you, then this fallacy tips the hand of the second, sneakier fallacy that was played. It's not simply that there is the one fallacy outlined here. I say this because it would look different to simply commit the first fallacy above. To simply commit the first fallacy is to say “oh, you must be mistaken. Here, look, the government has issued a notice that everything is fine – and always was”. That's what it looks like to argue by authority: there should be a tangible effort to issue the poorly reasoned “correction” to the other side.

This is, at least, not what I run into. I regularly see no attempt to educate me differently, because the appeal to authority is a convenient means of confessing a preclusion to COVID-19 being dangerous in any way, or requiring individual change (or larger). Since that's not what tends to happen, let's add the second fallacy to get the full picture.

“So you can't be right”

As background to the second fallacy, I've had this conversation a few times, and always received it flat-footed. I've developed this article to remind myself how to argue, as well as perhaps luck into helping someone else.

To the point, when I find myself in this conversation, it always feels like a one-two punch to receive this doubt. It's not simply the effort to educate me by the hands of the expert. It's (1) that I'm not the right person to be giving this information and (2) therefore I'm wrong about the information, further. Point number one is fully covered by the above fallacy, but the second assertion is an extra logical step taken which requires some second descriptor. I'm not the government, so they conclude that, no, there's no need to wear a respirator or change any attitudes or behaviors towards the deadly pandemic killing millions across the globe. Let's take it as a given, then, that there's a second tool at play.

The particular nature of the second fallacy is arguable to me looks to me like an argument from fallacy, but I'm no encyclopedia on fallacies. In any case, the first fallacy has them effectively saying you're the wrong person to tell them: that you're no expert, and since you're no expert, you cannot be trusted for this information. In the second fallacy they say, “I've already assessed that what you say is false because it's not from the right source,” which is a fallacy itself, as described above, “and therefore since your reasoning is flawed, your conclusions are also flawed: COVID-19 cannot therefore be as concerning as you argue”.

Hopefully the second fallacy can be seen as distinct, by now. The second fallacy brings with it the aforementioned unpleasantness that you may not have noticed yet: it exposes quite plainly that your conversational partner either lacks the tools or the preference for determining truth by gathering direct evidence. That is, they hear the truth from other people, and are inclined to (or forced to) trust it, even when we know that such methods of gathering the truth have a notably poor signal-to-noise ratio. In lay terms: people make many mistakes and they lie for myriad reasons.

We won't be able to cover here the impossible text of “how to gain truth”, but it should be easy to agree that you don't simply trust others for everything: you should be doing legwork to verify the truth of things through direct evidence, and also seeking high-quality counter-evidence to your assumed beliefs in order to challenge them.

Returning to the point that your conversant does not know how to look for truth themselves, that they validate and accept information by its source or by its convenience, or other factors than truth's reality, we have outlined the problem entirely. A summary follows.

”...How could you convince me otherwise?”

Our problem is that you're hearing “you aren't the right person to tell me this, so therefore it's actually false information”. We know that's not true, so the problem and challenge is: what now?

This is the (at least) 7 million confirmed deaths and counting question to answer. It would be very valuable to solve such poor argumentation in general, and then to begin winning the frequently-lost battles in the wild.

An exploration of solutions

Any reasonable solution to this problem has to be greeted with empathy and compassion, brokered through trust.

What if you are the wrong person?

If you're the wrong person to be telling someone news like this, the right answer and solution is to realize your mistake and back down. Your perceived circle of influence expanded beyond its real impact, and you should admit your mistake and learn to focus your efforts on those you truly share a bond with.

It's easy for us to begin pinging people publicly on social media (or directly messaging them) as if they have invited us to do so, but it is worth quickly checking twice if the kind of contact we are providing them was ever requested. Without an established relationship, such unwanted contact is at minimum abrasive, if not rude, if not outright vexatious (whether intentionally or not). In short, if you are reaching out to your friends over social media, it's worth asking where your bond of friendship was forged and how strong it is.

The above is the easy case, but now for the hard cases.

What if you “aren't”?

There's many times when the titlted question is issued by a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, an uncle, a cousin, a friend of some degree. By all names: a trusted confidant in some capacity, who trusts you.

Dismantling someone's argument by pointing out its fallacies is almost guaranteed to fail (and you would know your audience where it would work), so we need a better plan of action.

I offer this section as an inquiry, instead of as a guide. I believe that acknowledging the argument as given as fallacious, twice-over, is sound footing to begin working against it. I will put a few solutions that work for my circle of trust, but the right answer is to ask what would work in your circle of trust.

For my circle of trust, the options are simplistic, but likely more successful than my previous strategies:

  1. Ask them if they believe their employer or government representatives have followed all of the latest science on COVID-19, or if they may have gotten exhausted from following themselves and have lost track of the urgency as information comes in from their best sources. It's not likely to be effective to point out that arguments should not be made from authority, but it is worth pointing out that their experts may not actually be experts. This can invite, at minimum, a search for new experts, such as science communicators.

  2. Ask them if they have taken the time to check the sources for themselves. Make mention that the sources I have are readily available for citation, and the studies are clear. Remind them of a time where we did things wrong, such as with wide-spread cigarette smoking, ignorant of the risks of lung cancer, and ask if there could be any similarity.

  3. Encourage them that they are actually part of the few pioneers instead of the many folks trailing the truth. This is, for better or worse, simply a fact. If anyone is hearing from a total minority like myself, someone who believes that COVID-19 is one of our highest priority global concerns [3] , then they are the first-degree away in the network of knowledge from the highly important and life-saving truths of the proven harms and hazards of COVID-19.

Beyond the simple strategy above, I'm certainly open to workshop ideas to approach this flawed argumentation. You can reach me by my signature-link.


[1]: Yes, we can easily, though not freely, choose to reduce or eliminate COVID-19 and other pathogens that spread like it. It will take the cost and action of changing our buildings to filter and exchange air more readily and to specific standards. It will take an acceptance of respirators in common-use in the West, much as they have been in the use in the East. It will take a change to raise awareness in everyday lay people to know how to avoid viruses which spread through breathing, for them to prefer outdoor and ventilated environments. The most difficult change will likely be the attitude changes required for those who meaningfully influence any of these things, whether by convincing them or replacing them. ← Back

[2]: There could be a whole separate article written about how these are, by design, never the leading groups of knowledge, but always the trailing ones which collect long-standing agreements. ← Back

[3]: Alongside the exceedingly evident and disastrous effects of climate change, which will actually be tackled in tandem with COVID-19 mitigations: remote work is good for climate change ← Back

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~ N.0

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