Thanksgiving Dinner: How to Talk to “Drunk Uncle”

We’ve been there, most of us. Thanksgiving dinner, lots of family including many you don’t see very often, and at some point somebody says something so terrible, you feel like you have to respond. Maybe it’s about global warming, and you’re a young climate activist (thank you!). Here’s my advice.


#1: You Don’t Have To

I was at Thanksgiving dinner at my wife’s parents’ house, along with her brother, sisters, spouses, kids, and grampa. Grampa is not a bad guy — he was in his 90s by then, and was a WWII veteran (fought in Patton’s army). Like many families at Thanksgiving, we decided to watch a football game. Like most, it begins with the singing of the national anthem. The singer is a black woman. That’s when grampa complains, because, he says, everybody knows “black women can’t sing.”

I felt two instincts: one, to laugh out loud in the most derisive fashion; two, to scream “Aretha!!!” at the top of my lungs (if you don’t know who Aretha is, google it — it’s worth finding out). Fortunatey, my sister-in-law simply said, “Oh grampy, you’re so silly!” Situation defused, useless argument avoided.

Maybe you’re a young climate activist, your mom and dad are climate activists, your brother is a poli-sci major focusing on climate issues and your sister is a grad student studying climate science. Only “drunk uncle” doesn’t get it — so you don’t have to respond. A simple, “Oh uncle, you’re so silly!” is probably best. Let your family enjoy Thanksgiving in peace.

#2: Be Polite and Respectful, and Stay Calm

There’s an old saying, that when you argue with an idiot nobody can tell who’s the idiot. That’s even more true for a shouting-match. If, however, drunk uncle is loud, obnoxious, and abusive while you are calm, rational, and polite, it helps avoid strife at the dinner table and it makes your claims so much more persuasive. You might not think so at the time, but it does.

There’s also the fact that Thanksgiving is not about climate change. It’s about family. Maybe you really do “need” to respond, not to let things go unchallenged, but you don’t have to be angry.

Staying calm is perhaps most important. Never forget that one of the ways climate deniers get their way is to make you lose control. Stay in control.

#3: Be Honest

Totally honest. Don’t make up stuff. Don’t claim what you don’t know. Always remember that a perfectly good answer to a question is: “I don’t know.”

#4: Know Your Audience

When you respond to something provocative from “drunk uncle,” be aware that you aren’t talking for him. To him, maybe, but not for him. You’re talking for the other people. Your 11-year-old cousin who is genuinely afraid of climate change. Your other cousin, who’s not sure. Your aunt who thinks it’s a Chinese plot. These are the people you might actually influence — not drunk uncle.

Are they conservatives? Instead of talking about being eco-friendly to mother earth, talk about the economy — that man-made climate change is already making it harder. Talk about national security, how global warming is a severe threat according to, oh, how about the pentagon and the military?

Are they liberal? Instead of talking national security, talk about how it will impact the poor most of all. And yes, feel free to sing the praises of taking care of mother earth.

Are they evangelical Christians? Mention that God himself told us to take good care of his garden. We might have “dominion” over the earth, but that only means we’re caretakers, not owners. It’s God’s earth, not ours.

#5: Know Your Facts

How much has planet Earth warmed since 1900? (About 1.1°C = 2°F). What’s the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere? (About 407 ppm=parts per million). How fast is it rising? (About 2.5 ppm/year). What’s the scientific consensus that climate change is real, man-made, and dangerous? (About 97%). When drunk uncle spouts nonsense, and you have the facts and figures at your fingertips, you win.

You don’t have to learn it all. But the more you know, the more persuasive you’ll be. Learn it ahead of time; nothing makes you look more “out-of-control” than leaving the table to google the facts.

#6: Give Hope

It’s easy to talk about what we can’t do, what we can’t avoid. That turns people off. Talk about what we can do. Talk about the benefits of renewable energy — both climate-wise and economic. This is especially true if your 11-year-old cousin is so afraid she cries about her future. SHE needs hope … show her you’re not going to let her down.

#7: It’s the simple things that take your breath away

I was at a diner having breakfast with my wife. It wasn’t crowded at all, but at the next table was a man talking loudly about how the new tax bill to fund education was just more of the “take my hard-earned money” liberal nonsense. Rather than argue, all I said (just loud enough to be heard) was this:


Mark Twain said, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.”

The effect was miraculous. Suddenly the complainer wanted more funding for education! You had to be there to believe how effective it was. And there was no angry argument.

That kind of saying isn’t easy to find (unless you’re Mark Twain). But when you find one, use it.

#8: Know When to Quit

Let drunk uncle be the one who won’t shut up about the subject. Keep it short, keep it to the point, and when you’ve made your point, stop. It’s way more effective. And don’t forget, Thanksgiving dinner is about the love of family.


There’s my advice. I hope it serves you well.


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19 responses to “Thanksgiving Dinner: How to Talk to “Drunk Uncle”

  1. Our host, on how to talk to a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving:

    #2: Be Polite and Respectful, and Stay Calm

    Unless you’re David Brin, in which case only up to a point (italics in original):

    [Crazy uncle:] 8. I don’t care, I hate science:

    [DB:] Yep, that is the fall-back refrain. Hatred of people who know stuff. Not just science, but also teachers, diplomats, journalists, lawyers, professors, medical doctors, civil servants, skilled union labor… you name a caste of knowledge and professional intellect — of knowing stuff – and it’s under attack. Most vigorously by the foxed right (making Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley spin in their graves) but also by the loony far-left.

    Pragmatic-moderate problem solving and negotiation were great American virtues. Culture War is betrayal. Treason. And the chief purpose of denialism.

    Again. Scientists aren’t being dissed in order to detract from the theory of climate change. Climate change denialism is being pushed in order to help know-nothing-ism win the War on Science.

    The hell with being polite and respectful ;^)!

  2. D’oh! The phrase Brin italicized was ‘also by the loony far-left‘.

  3. Teaching a class for a few months, the conversation would often fall to climate change at the pub afterwards (adult students). I’d chip in with whatever facts and uncertainties I knew about the particular sub-topic de nuit.

    Eventually one of my students said to me, “We’ve been talking about this for three months and you’ve never given an opinion on the matter. What do you think?”

    Dealing only in facts over those months bought some credibility and attentiveness when answering that question.

    Similar to the above, my advice from experience is to know your subject well, articulate the facts and uncertainties concisely, and be open about what you don’t know. Avoid getting sucked in to a political stoush early in the conversation, and establish the credibility of your ‘opinion’ well before you give it.

  4. So much great advice here! I agree with all of it.

    Specifically with regard to the 11-year-old cousin crying at the thought of climate change, I’ve actually been working on some messaging involving this. I think it’s very important to communicate the hopeful side, but doing so involves changing the way we think of the climate change problem.
    http://centriclaw.com/defeating-defeatism-my-open-letter-to-a-friend-overwhelmed-by-climate-change/

    [Response: I read your essay, and found it both insightful and thought-provoking. I recommend others here read it also.]

    • Your optimism is far better considered and more persuasive than my cynicism. I’ve taken note. Thanks very much.

  5. Guess I have been banned. Same old, same old.

    [Response: No, your comments have to wait for moderation, like everybody else’s.]

  6. Maybe not banned? My original long post has vanished at any rate.

    Look, you are all operating your own echo chamber, just as you did before Tamino’s Damascene moment. The science is not settled, but that does not really matter. Well, some parts are and some are not, like any other science, but that is not the issue.

    What really matters is that the policy is not settled. People keep advocating doing things which will have no effect, as if they were the solution And they refuse to advocate doing things which, if their theory was right, are absolutely essential. On policy they show a complete lack of any ability to reason coherently.

    Example, the argument that China should not have to make big tonnage reductions because exports, history, installation of wind, and per capita. Which someone neatly parodied as the Green view that China should be given a free pass to destroy human civilization on earth because its only fair.

    The concept of denialism plays into this, because it focusses on belief not action, and it tries to use the process of argument not to reason to a consensus on what global programs to advocate, but to get clues as to whether we are talking to one of us or one of them. Its basically Manichean. It rests on the view that no informed, good faith, rational, disinterested dissent is possible. And on the crazed pretence that in climate science there is a 97% consensus on just about everything.

    And so we have echo chambers like this one, and a refusal to advocate effective policy measures which would actually reduce the total tonnage being emitted globally.

    And we also have the rise of Watts and the appointment of Pruitt. This, folks, is what your approach has led to. And it has also led to hugely rising emissions from the developing countries, and to giving China, India and so on a free pass at Paris. Which in turn led to the US leaving Paris.

    You, those of you who are activists, have screwed up royally, and one of the main reasons is your perpetual attempts to accuse anyone differing from you as being idiotic, venal or mentally ill. Its an exercise in futility. Do it in politics, and you will end up with Trump or a lookalike in four years time. And you will make zero impression on global emissions if you keep on doing it in climate.

    [Response: Let’s recap.

    You started by criticizing my blog for calling some people “denier.” You said no such thing exists. You “dared” me to name someone who disagreed with consensus science but did so in “good faith.”

    I did. After I did so, you posted again saying you didn’t believe I could, or would, do so. I pointed out that I already had. Rather than admit that yes I had, let alone apologize for leveling what amounts to an accusation which was demonstrably, provably, undeniably false, you’ve just moved on to other things. God forbid you should ever admit you were wrong about anything — that’s against the denier playbook.

    I asked you about Martin Durkin, is that an example of someone who is a “denier.” Your entire response to my pointed question has been to make mealy-mouthed excuses while staunchly avoiding an unambiguous answer to a yes-or-no question.

    But by then it was so obvious you were wrong about the non-existence of “deniers” that you suddenly wanted to talk about anything else. Refusal to face THE SUBJECT, all your attempts to avoid THE SUBJECT, are hallmarks of the intellectually dishonest.

    And now here you are again, trying oh so hard to blame the lack of climate action on those working for climate action. What’s next? Will you blame neo-nazi rallies on black people, or on the Jews? Will you blame Donald “grab ’em by the pussy” Trump’s behavior toward women on … women? Your level of delusion is impressive.

    Meanwhile, all your attempts to “discuss” climate action based on anything even resembling facts have been so effectively refuted by other readers — people who either know or acquired actual facts — that it’s an embarrassment to you. You must be really stinging from the rebuttals, so much so that you’ve decided to blame all of us for climate denial.

    You certainly are following the denier playbook.]

    • Ooh! Ooh! Michel’s post is a gold mine for denialist tropes and fallacies.

      We’ve got the straw man fallacy (that someone here has argued for China to be given a pass when quite the opposite is true).

      We’ve got the ad hominem attack–suggesting that the facts and arguments presented here should be ignored because this blog is “an echo chamber”.

      We’ve got the contention–presented with zero evidence–that the policies advocated by folks on this blog will do nothing.

      We have the contention that the existence of any uncertainties in a field renders even the basic science questionable.

      We’ve got the utterly ludicrous contention that somehow those arguing for the science are somehow responsible for the anti-science imbeciles like Scott Pruitt.

      And of course, the whole post is a Gish Gallop around the facts.

      Tamino, I know Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but one has only two cheeks–four if we decide to moon Michel. When do we accept the only hypotheses that explain the facts–that:
      1) Michel ain’t very bright.
      2) That Michel is a troll.
      3) That Michel is a self-deluded fool, blind to the facts or logic
      4) All of the above?

  7. Tamino, repying to michel:

    Your level of delusion is impressive.

    First, your response to michel’s latest sally was one of the more masterful excoriations in detail, i.e. fiskings, of an AGW-denier I’ve yet seen. Sadly, it’s most likely wasted on michel, whose impressive level of delusion will permit him to dismiss it along with all the other reality-based criticisms of his clumsy comments here. It was nonetheless gratifying to read 8^).

    In that vein, earlier today I stumbled across a reference to The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. There has been no scarcity of similar expositions, but I liked seeing my own peevish crochets echoed by a Naval War College professor. The Amazon blurb states:

    People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

    IMHO the tension between meritocracy and popular sovereignty in a nominally democratic republic shouldn’t be ignored, but Tamino’s regulars have certainly seen their share of narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism. Speaking for myself, constitutional democracy with universal adult sufferage is still preferable to any reality-tested alternatives I’m aware of, but AFAICT modern implementations haven’t put an end to class struggle, racism, nationalism etc.

    I want to live to 2050, if for no other reason than fascination with how the drama of the climate commons will play out in that critical interval! Too bad about all the tragedy, though 8^(. There won’t be any happy endings, only more or less tragic ones.

  8. Oh, for – ‘suffrage’, not ‘sufferage’!

  9. Its a torrent of abuse. But I return to the main points which are not rebutted.

    I don’t know whether Durkin is appropriately called a denier because I know nothing about him, never seen his movie, never read anything he has written and am frankly not interested in him.

    Yes, Tamino has named one dissenter who he thinks is not a denialist, so that is evidence he is not treating dissent as in itself denialism. I must find time to read that very interesting example!

    I continue to think the concept of denial is not only unhelpful, but in addition that it, and the way it is used, is a key cause of why no progress is being made with policy decisions and implementations. I think the emphasis on consensus is part of its dysfunction and would include in this those grotesque 97% studies.

    I think where its use is successful it only leads to the ‘spiral of silence’. It produces a situation in which there is apparent silent acceptance, the opinion polls will show no dissent, but when the measures are voted on, they will lose by a landslide. Because you can silence people by persuading them that what they think is contrary to the consensus, but when they vote, they are on their own in that booth.

    I have happened to have been in the UK on my travels for two electoral events where this was visible. Each time my hosts turned on TV and prepared to watch. On Brexit the polls had showed a narrow win for Remain. There was an appalled silence in the studio as the actual vote emerged from the North East. On the Cameron election, the polls confidently predicted a hung parliament. Again, the appalled silence as the real scale of the Conservative vote became apparent spoke volumes.

    This is what the spiral of silence does. And its doing it in spades on climate issues. Read Watts on Pruitt and some of the other appointments, and you will see its effect in action.

    If you treat anyone who differs from you as mentally defective or dishonest, they will stop talking. But you cannot persuade them of a different view by doing this. In fact, stopping them talking is the worst thing you can do, if you are trying to persuade. But this is the way the concept of climate denial is being used, and its the effect that it has.

    What it has lost us is much more serious than the US CO2 question. Its led to the gutting of the EPA, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Now this we are going to deeply regret over the coming years. What you are seeing however is the effects of the use of the denial trope. The whole recitation of Merchants of Doubt, denialism with its Holocaust Denial associations, the obsession with Singer and tobacco, the Exxon Knew campaign. Pruitt is the fruit of all this, he gets his legitimacy from it.

    Enough from me anyway. I do not think you will, any of you, change, because its in the echo chamber, so I should leave you all to it.

    Check Watts readership. Compare it to RC or skepticalscience, or stoat, or this site. Then, one of these days, ask yourselves if it is working, and if not why not. Remember when you start to wonder that someone once told you that the concept of denial was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    [Response: I’d like to thank you for a valuable lesson: that some people are so entrenched in their beliefs, not only will they deny reality (in this case, the existence of climate denial), they will so pervert their own understanding that they “project” their faults onto others.

    As for your appeal to stop calling deniers deniers, in spite of the ugly spectre of “Godwin’s law” I’ll point out that appeasement has been tried before, with disastrous results.]

    • OK, Michel. Put up or shut up. Who do YOU find to be a credible skeptic? Because I’ve looked, and I’ve found no one. Richard Lindzen has revealed himself to be a charlatan–not to mention that he has published nothing of note if decades. Roy Spencer comes closest, but I think his religious faith and his investment in his own models. Svensmark, although a credible solar scientist is not an expert on climate, and his models have been thoroughly discredited. Aunt Judy is a bad joke. I have yet to read anything that came from the so-called skeptic camp and say, “Wow. I understand that better now.”

      Who does that leave? I’ll readily admit the people, myself included, tend to concentrate on the worst among our enemies as a way of justifying our own positions. I refer to this tendency to make ourselves feel good by looking at the worst among our enemies as “scornography”.

      However, I can’t find a single so-called skeptic that is actively working to elucidate the climate. They don’t publish, and when people who reject a theory all stop publishing, it tends to make me think that theory might be important for understanding the field. This is how science works.

    • It is clear that Michel completely misses the appeal of sites like that of WUWT. His appeal to popularity could easily include sites like Natural News (which notably is ranked much higher than WUWT), AboveTopSecret or Infowars, and a range of other conspiracy websites. Why are they so popular? Well, one important reason is that they maintain a constant stream of messages that keep their readership angry. It is a literally a drug, a daily fix, the “Two Minute Hate”. No surprise then that they have a high rank on Alexa and a seemingly large readership.

  10. Okay, so Michel has failed to discover anything about Durkin, as he planned to do. Michel, that’s your task – we can’t do it for you.

    So let’s end this torrent of negativity. Michel, what do you intend to do that will have a positive impact?

    The reason I ask is that nearly everyone who claims denial isn’t real, and that proposed solutions are ineffective are doing so simply to delay any real action (whether that action goes far enough or not). I do not want to paint you with the same brush, although you’re making that very difficult for me.

    So, let’s stop calling names and take the next step to cleaning up our carbon. Note that I said the next step, not the first step. While deniers have been bickering and delaying, everybody else took the first steps long ago.

    What is the next step?

  11. m: I think the emphasis on consensus is part of its dysfunction

    BPL: Peer review and the scientific consensus are how modern science is done, and it has been a fantastically productive system: landing twelve men on the Moon, finding thousands of exoplanets, and sequencing the human genome. The scientific consensus is not a poll taken around a table; it is a consensus of evidence; similar to what E.O. Wilson calls “consilience.” When all the evidence points in a certain direction, it becomes foolish to keep debating it. No educated person debates heliocentrism versus geocentrism any more, and for good reason–there is so much evidence heaped up on the heliocentrism side you would have to be completely ignorant of the science to deny it.

  12. Michel, concerning “And so we have echo chambers like this one, and a refusal to advocate effective policy measures which would actually reduce the total tonnage being emitted globally.” please provide your list of effective policy measures that are not being advocated, with realistic paths for implementation. Please also explain how the nation with the world’s highest emission rate of CO2 per capita can convince developing nations to restrain their CO2 emissions, when it refuses to reduce its emissions below the temporary effect of inexpensive natural gas.

  13. michel:

    Its a torrent of abuse.

    Do you truly not consider the beam that is in your own eye? From our point of view, your relentless torrent of fake facts and fallacious logic on Open Mind, of all places, is abusive of our intelligence if not our ethical integrity as well. You’re here calling yourself an honest, sophisticated skeptic, and the rest of us all idiots and/or liars.

    This isn’t about anyone but you, however. In two sentences:

    Persistently overestimating your competence to evaluate climate science, dismissing the competence of working specialists, and failing to distinguish genuine from fake expertise, is diagnostic for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Refusing to apply the mediocrity principle first of all to yourself is a foundation of denial in the psychological sense, “in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.”

    IOW, you are the very model of a modern AGW-denier. One wishes the drama of the Climate Commons was only a comic opera! Yet by your comments, you exemplify the current governing plurality of US voters. Immense tragedy ensues therefrom.