A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Thursday, July 28, 2011

20 nifty tricks to argue like a charlatan

For scientists, skeptics, debaters, or indeed anyone who values useful information over shrill soundbites, there is little more infuriating then crass manipulation of the facts to mislead an audience. Purveyors of woo and snake oil are particularly skilled at this cynical sideshow, but they are by no means alone in the practice which all too frequently raises its ugly head in politics too. And when constructive debate breaks down along ideological barriers, you can be sure the quality of discussion suffers.  When discussions arise, those with a vested interest are adept at sidetracking the debate with enough petty logical fallacies to fool an audience into thinking their claims have some merit. “What beastly intellectual cowardice!” I hear you mutter. And I concur.

But just for a moment, let me play advocatus diaboli. Perhaps we should look at their techniques and admire the smoke and mirrors approach to discussion that can leave the most well informed earnest orator flummoxed and flustered. Let's give these rogues their due, and identify some of their little tricks, in the hopes we can catch them out at their own game.

So for your viewing pleasure, I present..


20 nifty tricks to argue like a charlatan

  • Use circular reasoning liberally – Circular reasoning is purely tautological but because you're repeating your assertions it'll just reinforce your message it for the less astute in the audience. “The bible is the literal truth because God wrote it and we know that because the bible says it!” 

  • Construct straw man arguments – If you can't rebut an argument, misappropriate your opponents position and pummel it to great applause. Essentially, if you can't attack your opponents position with a decent retort, make a mock-up of their position and trounce that instead. Odds are your audience mightn't notice, particularly if you insinuate something shocking. “Obama's health care reforms will bring in death panels for old people so protest at your town halls

  •  Use ad hominem attacks to reinforce your thesis - Remember that smearing your opponent can be a sure way to turn the audience against him, provided you exploit their prejudice. “My opponent may be an expert on this subject. But he is also homosexual who associates with known socialists. Is this the kind of person we want to be taking advice from?!”  

  • Construct false dilemmas – There is usually a spectrum of valid views on a subject. Many of the less extreme views require careful nuanced reasoning to explain - screw that; go nuclear. Fool the audience into thinking that the choice is a binary one. “You are either with us or with the terrorists!” 
I'm afraid it's not that simple, Lord Vader...

  • Argue from purely anecdotal evidence – No matter how much the evidence is against you, simply quote a coincidental success story and cite this as proof of your position. This also works if you're trying to argue that something is endemic when it isn't - merely keep restating your experience, no matter how untypical it may be. “I had a headache and when I took some homeopathic remedy it cured it! Therefore it proves homeopathy works!” 

  • Use statistics badly to draw inane conclusions – Incorrect use of statistics is rife in everyday life and even in academia. Exploit this to your advantage. If in doubt, make up some figures too - it's unlikely anyone will be able to check in the immediate aftermath, and that may be enough time to flummox the opponent. “50% of people die in hospitals - it's obvious that if you're sick, a hospital is as likely to kill you as keep you alive!”

  •  Don't be afraid to cite sources that are utterly discredited – Also works with sources that are partisan, utter junk or patent nonsense. Quote any disseminate of pseudo scientific garbage to back up your point. “I know the MMR vaccine is the cause of Autism - Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy keep giving information on it!"
Jenny McCarthy - Immunologist ?
  •  Implement faulty cause and effect – Post hoc ergo propter hoc for all you Latin majors. If an event followed another one, argue that the preceding one MUST have caused it if it suits your argument. You don't even need evidence of correlation, just an order of events. The best thing is this can be used for anything you like - the actual order sometimes isn't even important. “Hurricane Karina happened after the legalisation of abortion - this just goes to show that God hates abortion.” 

  • Confuse the issue – Don't be afraid to muddy the waters to strengthen weak conjecture. Also works wonders when you don't understand the issue well enough to argue it, or when the issue requires a large degree of technical understanding and fine nuance. “Nuclear weapons can kill. Doctors use radiotherapy to KILL cancer. So of course Nuclear power must be made illegal!”.  

  • Simplify every thing to the point of pure stupid – Make simple bold statements with no regard to the complexity of the issue at hand. “Medicine can kill people, so it is bad. Reiki doesn't kill, so we should all get Reiki instead.” 

Set Reiki hands to 'Stun'

  • Engage the slippery slope argument – Interpret any move by your opponent as the beginning of a slippery slope. This engages the audience's fear and they become resistive to any sensible statements made by your opponent “If we allow scientists to study embryonic stem cells today they'll be murdering babies for their organs tomorrow!”   

  • Make plenty of bogus analogies – An unwarranted and pointless comparison can often fool the unwary. The more outlandish the better. Better still if you can play the victim too. “The attitude to alternative medicine from the skeptic community today is like the repression of Jews during world war 2!”. 

  • Thought terminating cliches are your friend – If you're arguing something really dodgy there is a chance that your audience will experience at least a mild cognitive dissonance over it. Reassure them with an empty statement that terminates their critical evaluation “Ah, but the lord moves in mysterious ways”   

 The Lord moves in Mysterious ways. U2 say "she moves in mysterious ways". The Lord is ergo a woman. QED

  • Selectively focus on the negative traits to extrapolate a nonsense conclusion – Emphasis the negative to win some votes. Ignore any valid observations to the contrary “Water drowns people and erodes the landscape. We should therefore ban water”. 

  • A red herring is not just a pretty bird - If you're on the defensive, use the red herring argument to distract your opposition. I could try and concoct a functional example but I think South Park's Chewbacca Defense is all you need to illustrate. The Chewbacca defense".

  • An argument from ignorance can be a blessing– Know little or nothing about the topic at hand? That doesn't matter, you can speak from ignorance with authority. “Scientists don't know exactly how life on Earth arose,  so God must have done it.".

  •  Always beg the question– If you make an argument based around an unproven or presumptuous conclusion, you'll back foot your opponent who will have to scramble to correct your assertion. “Since the killing of a person is an act of murder, euthanasia is obviously murder"

  • Be non sequitar!– Done well, this can utterly throw your opponent. Make an statement and immediately say something that doesn't follow.. “I wore my lucky green shirt on Tuesday, so it was probably why I passed my exam the week after".
Non sequitar guy. But no master of the english language - the word is "inexplicable" ...
  •  Appeal to tradition - Just because somethings been done for years does not make it correct or immune from criticism. But you may be able to fool an opponent by appealing to tradition or cultural heritage. “If Chinese medicine is mainly ineffective, why then have the Chinese used it for thousands of years?".

  • If all else fails, accuse others of engaging in a conspiracy - when the vast bulk of scientific and other evidence is contrary to your point of view, just allege a conspiracy or hoax. ““All publishing climatologists maintain man is contributing to global warming. Isn't it obvious it's all just a conspiracy to get more funding?!" 

For those of you over the legal drinking age, feel free to play a simple drinking game based on this; watch a defender of nonsense debating a skeptic and take a shot whenever they engage any one of these tricks. I personally advise against it for the heightened chance of acute liver damage. Of course, all these tools are disingenuous and ultimately vapid but time and time again there will be trotted out to defend dodgy ideas and faulty logic. But depressing as that might be, they can only succeed in fooling the public if we're not sharp enough to see the flaws in the reasoning and not outraged enough to point it out, or not wise enough to see when we ourselves fall into these logic traps.

The tricks might be fundamentally hollow, but it's up to us to catch them out and make others aware. Otherwise these tricksters can ply their unethical trade with impunity.


  1. It doesn't help that they confuse theories, either. Someone on Twitter kept sending me messages, repeating the same thing, "evolution is not true because dead stones don't end conscious"..I asked them to clarify what they meant by this several times and after they refused to do it, aside from simply repeating the same thing, I suggested to them that they were confusing the Theory of Evolution (ToE) with the theory of Abiogenesis, and that even if abiogenesis is proven false, that doesn't have an impact on the ToE. Even though this was pointed out, they continued on repeating the same thing.

  2. So ToE is now ok after being radically changed in last years? How will it look after another 100 years?

    Well yes, ToE is the only one to comfort people, because it is always up-to-date, hehe

  3. But no master of the Latin language - the word is "sequitur" ...

  4. Posted to /r/atheism on reddit.com ===> http://redd.it/ph9zn

    Mike Smith - dominoconsultant


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