The Art and Science of Arguing: A Conversation with Mehdi Hasan

You may recognize Mehdi Hasan from one of his interviews with controversial political figures on his show on MSNBC (and previously, Al Jazeera English), such as John Bolton or Michael Flynn, many of which became viral sensations. What stands out in these interviews is Hasan’s ability to hold powerful people to account, not letting them obfuscate the truth with evasive answers—he’s impeccably well-prepared to challenge omissions and half-truths, and always “brings the receipts.”

In his new book, Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking, Hasan lays out his approach to interviewing. He walks the reader through the art of persuasion, dating back to Aristotle, as well as some of the behavioral science that underpins effective persuasion. He describes some of the most effective techniques, like how to strategically concede certain points, how to set traps for your opponent, and how to deal with people who try to bury you in an endless torrent of lies you can’t hope to refute individually. The book drives home the fundamental lesson that anyone can develop the skills of an effective debater, particularly if they put in the time to prepare, do their homework, and cultivate their ability to stay calm under pressure.

I was curious to speak to Hasan to learn more about how he brings a scientific grounding to the art of persuasion. In particular, Hasan emphasizes that logic is only one element of an effective strategy, and that one ignores the importance of emotion at one’s own peril.

In our conversation below, we discuss how to use storytelling and humor to your advantage, while keeping in mind that usually less is more, and why you might not necessarily want to win every argument, but how to be equipped to come out on top when you do.

Dave Nussbaum: The book is titled Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking. One of the questions I had on a very basic level is why “the art” and not “the art and science” of doing so, because you include a lot of science in the book?

Mehdi Hasan: The easy answer to that is I am arrogant in many walks of life, but not all of them. I’m not arrogant enough to pretend that this is a book about science, or that I am a science journalist or a scientist. I’ve just spent the last three years of this pandemic making a focus of my journalism the importance of actually following science and elevating scientists and not having amateurs and ignoramuses and pseudoscientists tell us about masks or vaccines or social distancing. So I would be the last person to pretend that I know a great deal about science. I know very little about science, and I’m humble about that.

Human beings don’t just accept facts blindly. They don’t just accept truth blindly. You have to be able to deploy it.

But what I do is I defer to experts. One of my pet peeves is this very anti-intellectual, anti-elite, anti-expert climate that is growing, both here and back in the U.K. where I grew up. One of the things I find fascinating about American television is how few academics are on TV as guests—you have think tankers and pollsters and analysts and commentators, but not that many actual tenured professors. I find that interesting. I’ve tried to push back against that on my own show.

You cite a lot of behavioral science through the book. Is there anything you’ve learned that made you think you should approach the art of persuasion differently?

I’ve always been interested in narrative and story. I talk a great deal in the book about emotions and connecting with the audience emotionally. In the chapter on connecting with your audience, I talk about the importance of starting a story. And I talked also about the importance of repetition.

I was always interested in story, but I don’t think I quite comprehended how important it was until I started researching this book 18 months ago. I’ve leaned much more into that. If you want to say what I’ve taken away from my own book, it’s reminding myself that when I speak, when I do interviews like this, when I start my show, I lean much more into story. I always knew it was important, but I didn’t realize how important. I didn’t realize how much science there was about it.

I didn’t realize that there are neuroscientists, like Uri Hasson at Princeton, who are saying that there’s this thing called brain-to-brain coupling, whereby when I’m telling the story, and you’re listening to the story, the same regions of both our brains are going off in the same way at the same time, and we’re syncing up in that way. That kind of stuff I didn’t know until I started diving deep into the science behind rhetoric and storytelling. I’ve definitely leaned into that.

It’s interesting to understand how it works. But sometimes our intuitions are misguided, right? We have ideas about what should work and sometimes it doesn’t, or not nearly as well as you think it might.

I did economics A levels, which is, in the U.K., the exam you take between 16 and 18 years old. Then I did economics in university for a year, and I dropped because I hated it. As a student, a 17-year-old, I remember vividly the economics teacher saying, “Assume perfect competition, assume free information, assume rational consumer.” I remember saying, “But why? Why should I assume any of that?” “Be quiet. That’s how you do it.” I remember being slapped down.

My concern is for the people with facts and truth. Do they know how to communicate that? Are they able to win those arguments?

And I remember the financial crash comes along in 2008, after I’ve graduated from university. I’m working in the media, and everyone starts saying, “Well, economists got it wrong.” I started reading about behavioral economics, which was fascinating. I was like, Hold on, as a 17-year-old, was I ahead of my time?

It was a profound aha moment. It was like, yes, human beings are irrational! That affected my politics. I’m on the liberal left. I’ve been a critic of the way the Labour Party in the U.K. and the Democratic Party in America conduct their messaging. They message on the basis that a member of the public is some rational political animal.

You also discuss Jennifer Aaker’s work on the science of humor, and I wanted you to say a little bit more about that, because there seems to be an art to using the science. How do you deploy something like humor in a way that’s effective, rather than counterproductive?

The book has three sections. The first section is about the fundamentals. Things like the emotional appeal, the need to bring evidence and receipts, the use of humor, the importance of listening. The middle section is about tricks, techniques, things to get you out of a hole, the zinger, the one liner, the rule of three, the booby trap. The last third, which people might think is the “WBD”—the worthy but dull—is really important. It is about preparation, confidence building, staying calm, doing your homework, brainstorming, researching. I cannot overstate the importance of that section of the book—both to me personally (it says a lot about what it means to be me and to do what I do) and also in terms of myth busting.

A lot of people think you don’t need any of that, or you can wing that, or that you can’t build that. Some people believe, Oh, I can never be confident, or, I can never be a good researcher. All of those things, I believe, are teachable.

So to take your question: I talk about humor in the first third of the book, but you can’t execute humor without the last third of the book. You have to work at it. You have to practice. You have to study. You’re not just going to become some great joke teller unless you study other people and see how it’s done. Watch the masters of the craft, whoever it is—whether your father, Christopher Hitchens, Barack Obama, whoever that public speaker is that you think is interesting. How do they use humor?

We cannot have a functioning free press, if people are not willing to have good-faith arguments, and if people in possession of the facts and the truth are unable to win the argument rhetorically.

One of the main points I found fascinating—not an original point from me, but one that I echo in the book—is to make it an extension of your own personality. We’re all very different. Your humor is different than my humor, but we can all make people laugh. Everyone, even the unfunniest person, at some point in his life has made someone laugh.

To come back to something you said: How do I execute this stuff? My fundamental principle is that less is more, of everything.

Less is more of the judo moves, like concessions—don’t do too much of it. Less is more of humor—don’t do too much of it, no one wants a stand up comic, and you won’t be good at it. Less is more in emotional appeals, because you don’t want to get hacky or clichéd. Less is more even for bringing receipts. I write my own questions for interviews, especially the big interview. Sometimes my producer will say, “Well, can we shorten it, you’ve got way too many examples?” I want to hit them with this stat, this quote, but the viewer will switch away. Even in that case, less is more. Pick one or two really good stats or quotes.

I wanted to close on the idea of winning, which is essential to the book’s title. But there are times when winning an argument isn’t the only or even the primary goal, aren’t there?

The book is not a philosophical primer. Don’t buy it for moral philosophy.

I’m not saying you should win every argument. I’m saying, here’s what you do if you want to win an argument or, more importantly, if you need to win an argument.

We forget that there are people in multiple walks of life who have to win arguments. If I’m a presidential candidate going into a debate, I’m not there to listen and I’m not there to try and persuade my opponent to change his or her mind. I am there to win. Otherwise, what the hell am I doing there? I’m there to win an election. A political candidate for office needs to win a debate, and I’m saying here are the skills.

We live in a country where democracy is on the line. With climate change deniers or election deniers, yes, you want to win, and you want them to lose. I wrote this book for many reasons, but one of them was because we cannot have a functioning democracy, we cannot have a functioning free press, if people are not willing to have good-faith arguments, and if people in possession of the facts and the truth are unable to win the argument rhetorically. Human beings don’t just accept facts blindly. They don’t just accept truth blindly. You have to be able to deploy it.

There’s an ancient Greek story of the rhetorician and the doctor who go to different towns, and people are more likely to believe the rhetorician as to what medical treatment they should take, not the doctor, because he’s able to convey it in a way they understand, rather than a doctor who can’t. So that is my concern. My concern is for the people with facts and truth. Do they know how to communicate that? Are they able to win those arguments? That’s why I wrote the book.