The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, February 17, 2012

Argument By Obfuscation

Ahh, political season again...I fucking hate political seasons.  We get to see the worst of popular idiocy and dubious political rhetoric on display, and we get to hear both our elected officials and are want-to-be-elected officials try to mislead us for their own political ends. 

There are many ways in which those involved in politics try to mislead you, but one that seems to be dominant currently is a flavor of deception that I like to call "argument by obfuscation" - that is, trying to dissuade you from checking up on facts by either burying them under thick layer of rhetorical compost, or else getting you riled up and distracted.  This is different from just flat-out lying (although tactics used to achieve this effect include flat-out lying) in one important way - the people propagating the claims are generally less concerned with getting you to believe one particular bit of misinformation than they are with getting you to ignore reality in some way.  If you believe a particular lie, that's fine, but getting you to be confused with the sheer number of lies works pretty well, too.  It also works to simply get you to dislike someone who is telling you the truth, or, even better, to get you to think that they are unreliable, whether you like them or not.

Here's a few particular types of the argument by obfuscation that I have been seeing lately:

Hi-Ho Bronco!

People who spend time watching creationists know the Gish Gallup (named for Duane Gish, a leading nutjob in the creationist movement) - throw arguments, statements, and disingenuous questions at a debate opponent quickly, so that they don't have a chance to respond.  It's easy, someone who is ideologically motivated to argue for a position tends to also be someone who has little-to-no investment in telling the truth.  As a result, such a person (or organization, or movement) has little constraint in what they can make up, and can make crap up faster than a well-informed person can refute the nonsense. 

While this particular gambit is named for Duane Gish, it's popular in a variety of different movements.  People who are opposed to modern medicine (whether out of an admittedly reasonable dislike for the companies and/or system that produces said medicine or out of a delusional belief in new-age bullshit) will routinely either lie or accept lies told to them regarding the alleged evils of actual medications, while simultaneously accepting as legitimate all manner of nonsense regardless of how many laws of physics it violates (homeopathy, anyone?).  Likewise, we routinely hear about how the Obama administration is outlawing prayer, instituting death panels, imposing sharia law, planning to imprison priests, and so on

The basic concept of this approach is to simply drown someone in claims, so that even if they don't believe any of the ones that they have time to think about, they will be left with the impression that there are just so many claims that support a particular position that an opposing position, no matter how well supported, should be viewed with doubt.  Anyone who has dealt with pseudo-science (be it creationism, anti-vaccine nonsense, perpetual motion machines, aliens building pyramids, and so on) has encountered this time and again, but it is increasingly a popular political manuever as well.

Exaggeration as Truthiness

You know how 99% of people are protesting the top-earning 1%?  Oh, wait, that's not actually happening, is it?  No, what is happening is that a not-insignificant number of people (who, nonetheless are not the majority of people, much less the vast majority) are protesting issues surrounding the fact that there is an increasingly large gap between the nation's top-earners, and the rest of the country.  Many of the arguments for why this is a bad thing are sound, and it is a matter that, I think, should be of concern.  However, the protesters don't even necessarily speak for each other (ask five different protestors about their platform for change, you will get five different answers), much less 99% of the country.  Hell, I agree with the problem of the wealth gap, and these protestors don't speak for me.  The protestors and those who support these protests have adopted a rhetorical device (the 99%) that exaggerates the support that they claim to have from the nation at large.

This is, of course, nothing new.  In the 70s and 80s, we saw the political prominence of Jerry Fallwell's group, named the Moral Majority.  The very name of the group, much like The 99%, was intended to claim that this group spoke for most people, when, in fact, Fallwell and company really only spoke for a particularly delusional slice of the population.  More recently, we have groups such as The Million Moms, who tried (and failed) to get Ellen Degenerous fired from her position as JC Penney's Spokesperson while claiming that their numbers were far greater than they really were.  Stop and think for a few minutes, and you'll come up with many other examples.

This seems to go one of three ways: either there's an attempt at intimidation (such as the Million Moms claiming that they could stage a crippling boycott), an attempt to get a bandwagon going (you're a moral person, well, you should support the Moral Majority!), or an attempt to claim authority regarding the opinions of others (the Moral Majority did this, and the Occupy folks, with their 99% rhetoric are certainly doing this). 

That-There Well is Poisoned

We have all heard someone claim that the media is biased in favor of "liberal politics" and therefore anything that it says about a political and/or "culture war" issue shouldn't be trusted, right?  Of course, you likely have also been told that the media is controlled by the megacorporations that also own the Republican party, and therefore you shouldn't believe any of what they report regarding politics unless you want to be brainwashed by the right-wing Nazi machine.

There are, in fact, problems with media bias.  Large corporations do own most media outlets, and while they sometimes do mis-report news to the advantage of the parent corporation, my experience is that they are far more likely to mis-report it based on sensationalism and on the perceived biases of the audience.  It is good to bear this in mind when watching/listening to/reading the news, but it also has to be kept in mind that the fact that a source is biased in some way does not mean that all information that comes from it is wrong.  In fact, it's not uncommon for media bias to show up not in mis-reporting of information, but in not reporting it at all.  All of this together is the reason why you should have multiple sources from which you get news, not just to balance out the bias of whatever group you don't agree with, but also to make sure that you aren't being fooled by the echo chamber of your own side.

The problem, of course, is that most people don't do this.  They have a small number of sources from which they get their information.  And when an outside source reports facts that are not in concert with the previously held beliefs, our friend the media consumer simply says "well, of course THEY would say that!  they're biased and just want to brain wash the sheep that make up the other side" never once realizing the irony of the fact that to dismiss inconvenient facts as bias and lies without at least some investigation often leads one to becoming the mindless sheep.

Of course, this well-poisoning effect doesn't just apply to news outlets.  Scientists, clergy, university professors, southerners, Californians, major corporations, homosexuals, police officers, non-affiliated individuals, etc., etc., etc. all get labelled as untrustworthy to a person by many people.  The problem is that people will readily dismiss any and all information that they dislike that comes from a distrusted source, and give little reason (to themselves or others) for the dismissal other than that the information came from "them." 

Don't like the fact that global warming is in fact both occurring and anthropogenic?  Well, it's obvious that scientists are involved in a major conspiracy to promote this belief!  Don't like the fact that a person who you admired was convicted of a crime?  Well, clearly the police framed them and the DA and PD's offices went along to cover the asses at city hall! Don't like the fact that nuclear power is either safer or not as safe as you like to claim?  Well, the source that you hear dissenting opinion from is simply either shilling for the nuclear industry or is bowing to political pressure from radical environmentalists.

Again, the point here isn't to get you to believe anything in particular, just to doubt certain positions, and to persuade you that anyone who provides information in support of positions is doing so for ideological, political, or financial reasons, so you can safely ignore anyone who disagrees with you.

In Summary...

These aren't the only forms that this tactic takes, and these forms are not mutually exclusive - pundits and politicians will often use more than one at a time - but what binds them together is that they are less concerned with getting you to believe something in particular, and more concerned with confusing you into submission, and doubting sources that might provide you with legitimate information.  This is not a new tactic, by any means, but it seems to have become more prominent over the last few decades.  While it is currently probably most effectively used in electoral politics by the Republican Party, it is used to varying degrees by both of the two major parties, and you will see it used by groups with both left wing and right wing affiliations to get you good and confused.

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