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“How to Talk to Anyone about Energy”: Alex Epstein’s Principles of Persuasion

How to Talk to Anyone about Energy” is an online video course created by Alex Epstein, author of the highly influential New York Times bestseller: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

In his introduction to the course, which is available free here, Epstein explains that he created the course in response to demand from readers. “The number one request I have gotten since The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels came out is: ‘How can I get better at explaining these ideas to friends, family, and neighbors?’”

Epstein delivers his answer in a warm, conversational style over a series of six logically organized video presentations. Part of the appeal of the course is how clearly he explains the problems associated with persuasion, and how he derives effective tactics from this examination. One of Epstein’s key insights in this regard is that, to be effective in persuasion, we should “focus on method before content.”

Epstein explains that effective persuasion depends on two elements: how clearly we understand an issue, and how clearly we communicate the issue to others. Clarity in understanding is the more important of the two because the more clearly we understand an issue, the better we can communicate to others how we came to this understanding.

One example of the fundamental importance of clarity in persuasion is demonstrated in the first module: “Why discussing energy and environmental issues seems so hard . . . even though it isn’t.” Here, Epstein begins with the observation that people commonly hold antagonistic or even hostile views of the primary producers of energy—namely, the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. Such views are practically ubiquitous and are incessantly pushed by the media, politicians, thought leaders, and educational institutions.

Once we recognize that these views are so common, the quest for clarity demands that we understand why this is so. Epstein makes clear that these negative views do not result solely from a lack of information or biases regarding the information people have; rather, they result from biases regarding how people think about the information. That is, the fundamental issue is not bad information, but bad processing of information.

People come to false conclusions because they have not learned how to process data with regard to the role energy plays in their lives and their environment.

Epstein illustrates this idea by examining methods he used in his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. One example I found particularly powerful is his method of clearly establishing a moral standard by which we can evaluate whether something is good or bad. “The outcome we’re after is to maximize human flourishing,” Epstein explains. Thus, we measure good and bad by what happens to humans, now and in the foreseeable future. If this moral standard is agreed upon in a conversation, “we have structured this as two people looking for what is best for human life, not the normal biases of industry or political party.”

Here we begin to see why Epstein holds that we should “focus on method before content.” Effective persuasion involves changing a person’s conclusions by changing the method by which he came to these conclusions. It requires recognizing an individual’s independence and respecting the fact that one cannot force another person to think or to change the way he thinks. Effective persuasion is a process of demonstrating to a person that exerting the necessary mental effort to change the way he thinks is beneficial to his life. “Most people do not practice the right thinking methods but will recognize and embrace them if they are made explicit,” Epstein argues. And part of making them explicit is showing that they are crucial to a person’s life.

“How to Talk to Anyone about Energy” is about practical principles of persuasion, and it is an excellent companion to The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Whereas The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels focuses primarily on how to think about energy and the environment, this course focuses on how to talk convincingly with others about these ideas. Highly recommended.

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