Copyright by John T. Reed
This Web site is, in part, a debate between me and others with whom I take various issues. I welcome intellectually-honest debate. It is one of my favorite ways to test my theories and learn. That is the way we were trained at Harvard Business School where all lessons are taught by the case method and my wife and I got our MBA's. When Harvard Business School was founded in 1908, it was modeled after Harvard Law School, which also uses the case method of instruction.
In college, I was on the debate team during my freshman year. Retired general and unsuccessful presidential candidate Wesley Clark was on that debate team as well. He was my ‘Table Commandant” in the mess hall at West Point three meals a day for a number of months that year.
I have not written a book about this per se, but this book of mine has the most about making an honest living:
One of my readers said reading this article changed his life. I was surprised by that. But I find myself returning more and more to it over time. One of the great disappointments of my life is discovering how thoroughly dishonest most people are. Some people will, on the slightest provocation, fire off a statement or paragraph that contains three, four, five, or six different, intellectually-dishonest arguments in a matter of seconds. Alan Colmes who regularly appears on Fox News is one of them. Juan Williams is another.
Fox Has had various interest regular segments most notably Tonya Reiman’s body language analyses, O’Reilly’s “Truth Serum” and “Is it Legal?” segments, and Howard Kurtz’s Media buzz which evaluate truth and general validity of various presentations. I really think they need to add a regular segment that does what this article does—identify intellectually-dishonest debate tactics of various prominent speeches or debates—and I suspect it would be more popular and enduring than the fact-check and body language segments and actually elevate the discourse in America.
Readers who like this article will probably also like my Real Estate B.S. Artist Detection Checklist.
‘How did you behave when YOU were 18?’
Here is a discussion I once had with a mother of an 18-year old I had just thrown off a high school varsity athletic team I was coaching. I was new, so I did not know the kid’s reputation. But it was such that when I was asked by the principal how the team was going and I started to say, “There is one kid…” He stopped me in mid-sentence and said let me guess, then stated the name of the kid in question. Apparently, he had been a pain in the ass in the local schools since first grade. So his mom comes in to tongue-lash me in front of the team about it. At one point, I listed all of his transgressions on the team—transgressions she could not deny were misbehaviors.
Her response was to demand, “How did YOU behave when YOU were 18?”
“I was a cadet at West Point when I was 18.”
I thought that was one of the world’s greatest answers to a woman trying to prove I, too, was a juvenile delinquent at that age. It wasn’t especially clever on my part. It was just a fact. She had committed the cardinal lawyer’s cross examination mistake of asking a question to which she did not already know the answer.
In a nanosecond, she shot back, “This isn’t West Point!”
It took my breath away. She not only changed the subject—an intellectually-dishonest debate tactic—she changed the meaning of my answer 180 degrees. My thought was no wonder this kid is such a mess. This woman is world-class dishonest. Not the slightest thought of reacting to my answer like a normal person would, i.e., laughing and saying “I guess you’re not a good example of boys will be boys then.” It is not unconnected that she was a Berkeley, CA super Lefty.
Most debates are one dishonest tactic after another
Although I am fond of intellectually-honest debate, about 90% to 95% of the statements made by my opponents to prove that I am wrong have been of the intellectually-dishonest variety. The same thing applies across the board. Almost all arguments consist of one intellectually-dishonest debate tactic after another. The general failure to recognize these tactics as intellectually-dishonest and invalid are one of the reasons why our country has gotten so screwed up.
Lest I be accused of intellectually-dishonest debate myself, I hereby explain the difference.
Two intellectually-honest tactics
There are only two intellectually-honest debate tactics:
1. pointing out errors or omissions in your opponent’s facts
2. pointing out errors or omissions in your opponent’s logic
That’s it. Simple! The dishonest list is much longer.
Rules of debate
All other debate tactics are intellectually dishonest. Generally, the federal rules of evidence of our courts attempt to make the argument or debate there intellectually honest. Roberts Rules of Order, which were written by my fellow West Point Graduate (Class of 1857) Henry Martyn Robert, are used to govern debate in many organization meetings. For example, one of Robert’s Rules, Number 43 says,
“It is not allowable to arraign the motives of a member, but the nature or consequences of a measure may be condemned in strong terms. It is not the man, but the measure, that is the subject of debate.”
Some debate organizations have rules like the Code of the Debater from the University of Virginia which says among other things:
“I will research my topic and know what I am talking about.
“I will be honest about my arguments and evidence and those of others.
Federal Rules of Evidence
The Federal Rules of Evidence are also excellent. Here is an excellent summary of them in the form of a Wikipedia list of objections to questions that lawyers can make in court. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List of_objections_(law) Some Federal Rules of Evidence are technical and therefore do not apply outside of a court room, like “beyond the scope” which refers to the fact that in a cross examination, you cannot ask a question that does not relate to the other lawyer’s questions of the same witness during his direct examination.
Politicians, con men
Intellectually-dishonest debate tactics are typically employed by dishonest politicians, lawyers of guilty parties, dishonest salespeople, cads, cults, and others who are attempting to perpetrate a fraud.
Here is a list of the intellectually-dishonest debate tactics I have identified thus far. I appreciate any help from readers to expand the list or to better define each tactic. I am numbering the list in order to refer back to it quickly elsewhere at this Web site.
1. Name calling: debater tries to diminish the argument of his opponent by calling the opponent a name that is subjective and unattractive; for example, cult members and bad real estate gurus typically warn the targets of their frauds that “dream stealers” will try to tell them the cult or guru is giving them bad advice; name calling is only intellectually dishonest when the name in question is ill defined or is so subjective that it tells the listener more about the speaker than the person being spoken about; there is nothing wrong with calling your opponent a name that is relevant and objectively defined.
The most common example of name calling against me is “negative;” in coaching, the critics of coaches are often “college professors” and the word “professor” is used as a name-calling tactic by the coaches who are the targets of the criticism in question; as a coach, I have been criticized as being “too intense,” a common but undefined put-down of successful youth and high school coaches. People who criticize their former employer are dishonestly dismissed as “disgruntled” or “bitter.” These are all efforts to distract the audience by changing the subject because the speaker cannot refute the facts or logic of the opponent. “Womanizer” and “price gouger” and “exploiter” are other name-calling names that cannot be objectively defined.
There is nothing wrong with calling someone, for example, a liar when he is, in fact, a liar. Don’t tell me it’s ad hominem. That’s #50. You can’t just say it though. You must prove it.
2. Changing the subject: debater is losing so he tries to redirect the attention of the audience to another subject area where he thinks he can look better relative to the person he is debating, but admits to no change of subject and pretends to be refuting the original on-subject statement of his opponent. Political people on TV often use the phrase “But the real question is___” or “What the American people are really interested in is___” as a preface to changing the subject.
3. a. Stating WHY you are wrong without stating WHERE you are wrong. In other words, they say you are wrong because, but what follows is not identification of errors or omissions in your facts or logic, but rather deficiencies in your background or possible bias. Essentially, these all say that the opponent is prohibited from commenting on the topic in question because of what’s in their resume or not in their resume or because of some possible bias.
b. Questioning the motives of the opponent: this is like tactic number 2 changing the subject; a typical tactic used against critics is to say, “They’re just trying to sell newspapers” or in my case, books—questioning motives is not always wrong; only when it is used to prove the opponent’s facts or logic wrong is it invalid. If my facts or logic are wrong, my motive may be why. But let’s cut out the middleman of why my facts or logic are wrong and just point exactly what the error is. Pointing out the suspicious motive obliquely admits there is no error; it’s just an attempt to insinuate an error by innuendo. Don’t say why I’m wrong; say where I’m wrong.
c. Stereotyping: debater “proves” his point about a particular person by citing a stereotype that supposedly applies to the group that opponent is a member of. For example, Professor David Romer of Cal did a study that found coaches should go for a first down far more often and kick far less on fourth down; Some coaches laughed and rejected his findings because he is a “professor,” turning the report sideways when reading it, dismissing Romer as “Ivory Tower.” If Romer is wrong, it is because of an error or omission in his facts or logic; not because he is a college professor. Conspicuous by its absence in the coach’s protests is any evidence of errors or omissions in Dr. Romer’s analysis.
d. My resume’s bigger than yours. All the more reason why you ought to be able to cite specific errors or omissions in my facts or logic, yet still you cannot. Your resume being bigger than mine suggests a possible reason why I might make a mistake, but that does not absolve you from having to point out the specific error or omission in facts or logic that I made. The fact that I might make a mistake because of insufficient training or experience is not proof that I did make a mistake, and your trying to imply that it is dishonest.
e. Your resume is not big enough for you to comment on this and my resume is irrelevant to whether I can ban you from the discussion by pointing out the inadequacy of yours. This is an admitted know-nothing banning you from the discussion on the grounds that you do not know enough.
4. Citing irrelevant facts or logic: this is another form of tactic Number 2: changing the subject
5. False premise: debater makes a statement that assumes some other fact has already been proven when it has not; in court, such a statement will be objected to successfully by opposing counsel on the grounds that it “assumes facts not in evidence.”
6. Hearsay: debater cites something he heard, but has not confirmed through his own personal observation or research from reliable sources, e.g., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s allegation that a Bain Capital investor whom he refused to name told him that Mitt Romney has not paid any taxes for ten years. He later admitted he had no basis—and bragged, “He didn’t win did he?”
7. Unqualified expert opinion: debater gives or cites an apparently expert opinion which is not from a qualified expert; in court, an expert must prove his qualifications and be certified by the judge before he can give an opinion
8. Sloganeering: Debater uses a slogan rather than using facts or logic. Slogans are vague sentences or phrases that derive their power from rhetorical devices like alliteration, repetition, cadence, or rhyming; Rich Dad Poor Dad’s “Don’t work for money, make money work for you,” is a classic example. Coaches frequently rely on cliches, a less rhetorical form of slogan, to deflect criticism. Jesse Jackson was the champ of this form of dishonesty, e.g., “Up with hope. Down with dope.”
9. Motivation end justifies dishonest means: debater admits he is lying or using fallacious logic, but excuses this on the grounds that he is motivating the audience to accomplish a good thing and that end justifies the intellectually-dishonest means. Bad real estate gurus use this one a lot.
10. Cult of personality: debater attempts to make the likability of each debate opponent the focus of the debate because he believes he is more likable than the opponent
11. Vagueness: debater seems to cite facts or logic, but his terms are so vague that no facts or logic are present. A Facebook poster demanded that I debate American “hegemony” with him regarding the Boston Marathon bombers’ motives. I refused on the ground that hegemony was too vague a term. He then “proved” it was not vague by posting the dictionary definition of hegemony. If a word having a dictionary definition proves it’s not vague, then every single word in the English language is not vague because they all have dictionary definitions. Which begs the question of why the word “vague” itself exists. Debates where any party is allowed to use vague terms last forever, are circular, and settle nothing.
12. Playing on widely held fantasies or fears: debater offers facts or logic that support the fantasies or fears of the audience thereby triggering powerful desires to believe that override normal desire for truth or logic
13. Claiming privacy with regard to claims about self: debater makes favorable claims about himself, but when asked for details or proof of the claims, refuses to provide any claiming privacy; true privacy is not mentioning them to begin with; bragging then refusing to prove the claims is silly on its face and it is a rather self-servingly selective use of the right of privacy. This is also big with bad real estate investment gurus.
14. Scapegoating: debater blames problems on persons other than the audience; this is a negative version of playing on widely-held fantasies; it plays on widely-held animosities or dislikes. Hitler’s blaming the Jews for everything that was wrong was the classic example. Politicians blame their opponents for everything that is wrong.
15. Arousing envy: debater attempts to get the audience to dislike his opponent because the audience is envious of something that can be attributed to the opponent; see the 2012 campaign against Romney.
16. Redefining words: debater uses a word that helps him, but that does not apply, by redefining it to suit his purposes, like Leftists calling government spending “investment.” “Life” and “choice” are words that have been warped by abortion antagonists.
17. Citing over-valued credentials: debater accurately claims something about himself or something he wants to prove, but the claim made is one that attempts to get the audience to over-rely on a credential that is or may be over-valued by the audience; for example, some con men falsely point to government registration of a trademark or corporation as evidence of approval by the government of the con man’s goods or services
18. Claiming membership in a group affiliated with audience members: debater claims to be a member of a group that members of the audience are also members of like a religion, ethnic group, veterans group, and so forth; the debater’s hope is that the audience members will let their guard down with regard to facts and logic as a result and that they will give their alleged fellow group member the benefit of any doubt or even my-group-can-do-no-wrong immunity, also called “affinity fraud”
19. Accusation of taking a quote out of context: debater accuses opponent of taking a quote that makes the debater look bad out of context. All quotes are taken out of context—for two reasons: quoting the entire context would take too long and federal copyright law allows “fair use” quotes, but not reproduction of the entire text.
Taking a quote out of context is only wrong when the lack of the context misrepresents the author’s position. The classic example would be the movie review that says, “This movie is the best example of a waste of film I have ever seen,” then gets quoted as “This movie is the best...I’ve ever seen.”
Any debater who claims a quote misrepresents the author’s position must cite the one or more additional quotes from the same work that supply the missing context and thereby reveal the true meaning of the author, a meaning which is very different from the meaning conveyed by the original quote that they complained about.
Furthermore, other unrelated quotes that just suggest the speaker is a nice guy are irrelevant. The discussion is about the offending quotes, not whether the speaker is a good guy. The missing context must relate to, and change the meaning of, the statements objected to, not just serve as character witness material about the speaker or writer.
Merely pointing out that the quote is not the entire text proves nothing. Indeed, if a search of the rest of the work reveals no additional quotes that show the original quote was misleading, the accusation itself is dishonest.
This was done to Mitt Romney in 2012 when he said that as a consumer he liked to be able to fire people at service providers, by giving his business to one of their competitors, so they would be more motivated to do a good job. It was taken out of context as proof he liked to fire people in general when he was a boss. In the documentary The Best of Enemies about the William F. Buckley, Jr. versus Gore Vidal debates in 1968, Vidal frequently uses isolated quotes from Buckley that misrepresented by being taken out of context.
20. Straw man: debater attacks an argument that is easy to refute, but which is also an argument that no one has made in the debate. Obama can hardly get through a paragraph without committing this violation. Straw-man arguments are easy to spot. They almost all use the phrase “those who.” The antidote to the straw-man tactic? Demand the attacker identify one or more of “those” by name. If he or she fails to do so, you are free to state that their implication that such people ever existed is a lie.
21. Rejecting facts or logic as opinion: It is true that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But everyone is not entitled to their own facts or logic. Nor is anyone allowed to characterize a factual/logical argument as merely the opinion of the opponent.
Facts are facts. 2 +2 = 4 is not my opinion. It is a fact.
Frequently, when I explain one of my conclusions with facts and logic, my debate opponent dismisses those facts and logic as merely “your opinion.” That is a lie. Rich Dad Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki says incorporating enables you to deduct a vacation to Hawaii as a board meeting on your federal income taxes. He’s wrong. It’s not my opinion. It’s the Internal Revenue Code Section 162(a) which you can read for yourself at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode26/usc_sec_26_00000162----000-.html.
Whether you can deduct a trip to Hawaii has nothing to do with whether you are incorporated. And you cannot deduct a vacation. It has to be an “ordinary and necessary business” expense. Travel expenses which are “lavish or extravagant” are explicitly not deductible according to IRC §162(a)(2). The fact that Kiyosaki and his CPA co-author differ from my statements on that subject are not matters of opinion. They are either lying or incompetent. I am accurately describing the law.
22. Argument from intimidation: [from a reader] The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: "Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea." This is reminiscent of the McCarthy era loyalty oaths or groups that demand that candidates take a yes or no position on complex issues. Or the “climate change denier” accusation. This is also the stock in trade of the 21st century black race hustlers like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
23. Theatrical fake laughter or sighs: This can be wordless, but it says “What you just said is so ridiculously wrong that we must laugh at it.”
Hillary tried this (theatrical laughter) without much success in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Biden did it to Paul Ryan in their 2012 VP debate.
It is intellectually dishonest and devoid of any intelligence, facts, or logic. The whole Democrat party laughed at Sarah Palin. They were successful with this tactic. But that was in spite of the fact that, conspicuous by its absence in that “explanation” of how she was such a joke, was any evidence or logic.
How is a guy who was never mayor or governor or head of anything else better qualified for the top executive job in the world than a person who was a mayor and a governor?
Al Gore made the sigh debate tactic famous in the 2000 presidential debates and the ensuing Saturday Night Live parodies of it.
On 6/2/09, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams celebrated this tactic in a comic strip that had Dilbert saying to the pointy-haired boss, “I like what you’ve done with your dismissive scoffing sound.” In 2010, Nancy Pelosi used a verbal version of this when she said, “Are you serious? Are you serious?” in “response” to the question where in the Constitution is the federal government authority to order Americans to buy health insurance. (Five Supreme Court justices later said it was authorized by the income tax amendment.)
Liberals hate my using examples that make them look bad. Okay. Would some liberal please come up with an example of conservatives or Republicans behaving like this with regard to some Democrat moron like Joe Biden? Let me know when you do. [One said Sarah Palin used the sighing or laughing tactic.]
24. Innuendo: an indirect remark, gesture, or reference, usually implying something derogatory.
25. Insinuation: a sly, subtle, and usually derogatory reference
26. Halo effect claims of expertise: Implying you are an expert in X when your actual expertise is far narrower than X or even unrelated to X. This is a, “You know I’m right because I’m really smart.”
Dr. Laura arguably did this daily in that she implied she had a doctorate in relationships when, in fact, her Ph.D. was in physiology (the study of the mechanical, physical, and biochemical functions of living organisms). She also has a USC certificate in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling.
The halo effect is the tendency of people who do not know a person to assume if they are good at A—the first impression on the other person—they must be good at everything.
The epitome of smarts today are things like Rhodes Scholarship or a Nobel Prize. In fact, winning either of those means no more than that the person in question met the specific qualifications to get the award and no other qualifications.
The same is true of all sorts of mystique accomplishments or experiences like being an Army ranger or a Navy SEAL or a former POW and so on. Army rangers, of which I am one, have about two months of training in patrolling behind enemy lines including ambushing and small hit-and-run attacks. There are also ever-so brief introductions to mountaineering and rubber rafting techniques. But many believe and are encouraged by the Army and some rangers to believe that being a ranger makes you a sort of general superman.
High school graduate movie stars with no training or expertise in government policy pontificating about government policy are another example of persons using their success in one realm to imply high expertise in an unrelated field.
27. Peer approval of subjective opinion: “Proving” correctness of a subjective statement by citing the approval of political allies in the same subject—so-called peer review in academia. Peer approval has value when it relates to objective standards like those in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Such peers check the accuracy of calculations, the cleanliness of laboratories, and whether they can replicate the results in their own experiments.
But peer review is of little probative (proving) value when it relates to subjective areas like sociology, economics, or women’s studies where the peers in question, and indeed the whole field or large portions of it, have a particular political agenda. What is considered correct academic teaching in high schools is determined by long-term, circular, self-reinforcing, peer group-think unaffected by results achieved by their students.
Meanwhile, at those very same high schools, numerous coaches and athletic directors decide what is correct by whether it produces victory in athletic competition against other high schools. Global warming advocates are big on using this. I heard one opponent scientist observe dryly when hit with the global-warming “consensus” argument, “In science, we do not take a poll to ascertain the truth.” 2 + 2 = 4 no matter how many people say it is 5. By the way, the Global warming/climate change theory is not based on science. It is based on a computer model. There is such a thing as model error, which does not require science error. See the Wikipedia article on Butterfly Effect. In Latin, this logic fallacy is called Argumentum ad numerum or Argumentum ad populum.
28. Ill-defined words: This could be called wine taster approval. In his book Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell says leftist intellectuals use words of approval like:
and words and phrases of dismissal like:
• turn back the clock
These words have little or no meaning therefore cannot convey facts or logic therefore they are intellectually-dishonest debate tactics when used to argue a point.
29. Finding small error: Citing a slight error or typo as evidence that everything the opponent says is false or that the opponent is “unprofessional” or incompetent (name calling, ill-defined words, typo).
30. Protest-too-much quantity of sources: This is citing an overly long list of legal or other purportedly-authoritative citations to prove the opponent is wrong. For example, people who claim income taxes are unconstitutional typically cite a book-length list of court decisions and statute sections to “prove” they are right. In fact, income taxes are constitutional because of the XVI Amendment to the Constitution as upheld by numerous court decisions over 102 years that have dismissed the long lists of legal citations as “frivolous,” typically fining the litigant for pursuing the suit at all.
Actor Wesley Snipes went to prison after failing to pay his income taxes on the grounds that they were unconstitutional. Part of the trick of this debate tactic is to get the opponent to spend days researching all the citations. This is akin to #44 badgering, i.e., trying to win the argument by attacking again and again with the same argument in an effort to wear the opponent down or repeating something over and over in the hope that raw repetition will displace the truth.
31. Accusing opponent of being overly “simplistic:” Thomas Sowell identifies this intellectually-dishonest debate tactic on page 80 of his book Intellectuals and Society where he says, “…certain arguments are unworthy because they are ‘simplistic’—not as a conclusion from counter-evidence or counter-arguments, but in lieu of counter-evidence or counter-arguments.
With one word, it preempts the intellectual high ground without offering anything substantive. Before an answer can be too simple, it must first be wrong. But often the fact that some explanation seems too simple becomes a substitute for showing that it is wrong. Virtually any answer to virtually any question can be made to seem simplistic by expanding the question to unanswerable dimensions and then deriding the now inadequate answer as simplistic.” This is akin to my #3 above.
32. Assertion of non-existent ‘rights.’ E.g., the “right” to affordable health care and housing, the “right” to a job, a living wage, not to be offended or made uncomfortable, and so on.
Some such “rights” become law, in which case they are technically now rights, but “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the only true rights in America. The rest are various forms of forced charity contributions—typically forcing wealthier or less politically-powerful Americans to subsidize poorer, more politically powerful ones.
33. Claiming hyperbole = dishonesty. For example, I have often repeated someone else’s observation that, “The green movement is the red movement in disguise.” My debate opponent claims he is green, but not red, therefore I am a liar or wrong because I said that every single environmentalist was Communist.
In another example, I noted that a mainstream media outlet—NY Times or Newsweek I think—tried to get comment on Obama from his Columbia classmates. After asking 400 who said they never met or heard of him at Columbia, they gave up. I cited that and commented, “Nobody knew him at Columbia.” or words to that effect. My debate opponent claimed there was one person who said they did remember—not in the 400—and that was all that was necessary to prove I was wrong.
Does the word “pedantic” mean anything to you? If not, here is one of the Webster’s Dictionary definitions of “pedant:” “A person who overrates the importance of minor or trivial points of learning; displaying a scholarship lacking in judgment or sense of proportion.”
The implication of this debate tactic is that all characterizations of large data sets must be stated in percentages to the third or fourth decimal point. Of course, such data is not available in most cases and would take considerable effort to dig up if it did exist. Hyperbole exists to deal with such situations. Hyperbole is also a distinctly American form of humor. The British, in contrast, generally use understatement to achieve humorous effect in similar situations.
34. Repeating sarcasm without indicating it was sarcasm. One of the cardinal rules when you give an unvideoed deposition is never use sarcasm. Sarcasm is a statement which is the opposite of what you believe. The key is that you say it in a tone of voice that reveals how stupid a statement you think it is. The phrase, “Yeah, right” is the classic example.
But dishonest trial lawyers will quote what you said in the deposition transcript and leave out the sarcastic tone of voice, e.g., The lawyer asks in the deposition if you believe the sun rises in the west and you say, sarcastically, “Yeah, right.” Then in court, he reads that part of the definition making it sound like you agreed with the statement that the sun rises in the West.
In Asia, they have no such thing as sarcasm and take all statements literally. When Saturday Night Live or the Onion or some such said Kim Jong-un was the sexiest man in the world in a parody, North Korea reported it as fact.
35. Sunk cost. Decisions should be based and evaluated on what you know now, where you are now, where you want to go, and what the best way to get there is—only. Taking into account past expenditures of money or effort is flat wrong and utterly irrelevant to decisions. This concept is also embodied in phrases like “water over the dam,” “water under the bridge,” “Don’t cry over spilt milk,” “what’s done is done,” “throwing good money after bad,” and “cut your losses.”
36. Both sides of the story. The media is trained to get “both sides of the story.” And they do mechanically, mindlessly. But what law of nature says there are only, or always, two sides to a story? Sometimes there is one; sometimes two; sometimes more than two. When this is used in an intellectually-dishonest way, it is typically to elevate a bogus argument to equality with a valid one. You see this with the anti-vaccine movement, global warming, urban legends, superstition. Junk science and urban legends do not deserve equal time on the stage of public debate just because of the notion that there are “two sides to every story.”
37. Political correctness. I hesitate to cite this as a debate tactic because it is more accurately described as a refusal to debate. Al Gore recently said regarding an argument against his global warming theory that “the debate is over.” Gee. Who is the one who gets to decide that? Is he some kind of king or pope who gets to order the rest of us around? Doesn’t our constitution, including the part about free speech, prohibit such a censor in chief?
The politically correct have a list of statements that, to them, cannot be debated. If you say anything that conflicts with the list, the politically correct denounce your ideas and you in the most extreme ways alleging racism, idiocy, “hate speech,” etc. The vehemence of their language is exceeded only by the certainty of their conviction that they are 100.0000% right. Of course, it’s easier to be certain when you only have to check a list or catechism of political-correctness than when you have to figure stuff out using facts and logic. The realm of the politically correct is a facts- and logic-free zone.
38. Mockery. 1. Derision; ridicule. 2. An absurd misrepresentation or imitation of something. No facts or logic.
39. Dismissing your failure to abandon your position because you “just don’t get it.” Enron, was famous for using this one when people said their business model made no sense. Actually, the critics were right. Enron went bankrupt and its CEO, who claimed he got it, got 24 years in prison for conspiracy, insider trading, making false statements to auditors, and securities fraud. See the Wikipedia write-up on the documentary about Enron called “The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
40. ‘Everything you say is wrong and everything I say is right because you support [Bush or Cheney or Palin or any other person or policy the liberals are deranged about] or because you watch Fox News and I do not.’ This is a variation on changing the subject and assuming facts not in evidence, i.e., everyone “knows‚ Bush, Fox, et al were incompetent/evil/biased. The “everyone” refers to those on the left who suffer from Bush-derangement syndrome or the Cheney or Palin or Fox mutations of it.
The user of the tactic make a typically illogical, emotional, and/or intellectually-dishonest argument, then, upon being challenged with facts and logic, changes the subject to Bush or Cheney or Palin or Fox, alleges the target supported one or more of those persons, that the user of the tactic did not, and therefore the user is always right about everything and the target is always wrong about everything. (I never voted for a Republican except Reagan and then only in 1980, or a Democrat other than McGovern.) The key point is not to fall for that and start defending Bush or Palin. Stay on point.
I have gotten a comical response to this from liberals. Flaming rage that I only included examples of leftists doing this. Okay, let’s include examples of people on the right doing this. Hmmmm. Sorry, but I can’t think of any. Joe Biden is the Left’s moron, but I have never heard the phrase “Biden derangement syndrome” or any other derangement syndrome that starts with the name of a Democrat. If you liberals can come up with the name of a Democrat that will fit into the first sentence of this dishonest debate tactic, please let me know. The fact is this appears to be a liberals-only, dishonest debate tactic.
In 2015, Kirsten Powers, one of Fox News’ in-house liberals, wrote a book titled The Silencing, how the left is killing free speech. Another Fox News in-house liberal, Juan Williams, wrote a similar book titled Muzzled about his being fired by NPR. Mary Catherine Ham and Guy Benson wrote another titled End of Discussion about this phenomenon. TV Investigative Reporter Sharyl Atkisson’s book on this is called Stonewalled. Tammy Bruce’s is The New Thought Police. There are others.
The Left says they are no worse than the Right in this regard. They are lying about that. Both sides use inellectually-dishonest tactics on occasion, but the Left is the far greater user and often has a zero percentage facts or logic in their arguments. This is probably because they must prove socialism works and that they should decide how to spend your money and how should go about your day. Neither position can tolerate facts or logic, so they have to be the masters of deceit.
41. Shouting down, jamming, or intimidating the opponent. This is another left-only dishonest-debate tactic. Republican or conservative speakers are routinely shouted down at college campuses and elsewhere, e.g., the Wisconsin statehouse when they made WI a right-to-work state.
Comedian Chris Rock has stopped accepting invitations to appear on college campuses because of this. I have seen this discussed on panels on TV where the panel included both liberal and conservative members. The conservatives all had stories about being shouted down when they tried to speak. The liberals on the panel were asked by the moderator to share their stories of being shouted by the right. They had none and said they had made speeches or other appearances before right-wing audiences and they were given full opportunity to speak.
This stark contrast between the propensity of the Left to use shouting down and violence compared to the right’s approach was evident in the comparison between right-wing demonstrations like Glenn Beck’s rally, which left the Washington mall cleaner than before they arrived, and the Occupy movement and union demonstrations which shout down and use vandalism and physical assaults, e.g., a TV reporter asking questions at a union demonstration in 2012 getting beat up by union guys on camera while one of them yelled falsely, “He’s got a gun!” Or the black Congressmen who deliberately took a stroll through a crowd of tea party demonstrators a couple of years ago. They were obviously trying to provoke trouble. The crowd refused to take the bait, then the Congressmen claimed falsely that they were called the N-word and such. There were only about a million cell phones videoing their every step.
Breitbart offered a $100,000 reward for evidence that their N-word claims were true. No one claimed it. The above-mentioned Kirsten Powers engages in jamming whenever a debate opponent lands a good “punch” on her. She immediately goes into loud, rapid speech preventing the other person from being heard. She does this again and again to Bill O’Reilly, making me wonder why he keeps having her on his show.
42. Badgering. This is repeating the same intellectually-dishonest debate tactic again and again in an attempt to wear out the opponent. There seems to be an implicit notion that if you say the same incorrect thing over and over enough times, that makes it true or that by saying it enough times you can make an incorrect statement have more weight in the debate. Toddler children are big on this.
So is Sean Hannity. I have heard him admit it. He says you can’t watch his show every day or you will hear phrases like “unrepentant terrorist” and “sat in his pew in that church for over 20 years” too many times. He admits he repeats the same phrases over and over to use that tactic to change people’s minds citing some street corner psychological theory to justify it. It may work, but it shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t use it for that purpose. Facts and logic should be the only basis for changing one’s mind. There is a Latin phrase for this: Argumentum ad nauseam.
43. Claiming well-defined words are vague or ill-defined. This is a mirror image of #30. It is a favorite of those who do wrong, but seek to avoid the consequences or responsibility by asserting that what is right or wrong is merely a mater of each individual’s opinion. Try that in court and see how far its gets you. This is also akin to #22: rejecting facts or logic as mere opinion.
44. Rhetorical question. This is a statement posing as a question. Typically, the questioner already knows the answer; often everyone within earshot knows the answer. Pretending the statement is a question is dishonest.
If the questioner wants to make a statement, he should stand up like a man and do so. Often, the format is such that the questioner is only allowed to ask questions, but wants to make a statement and tries to get around the questions-only rule by phrasing the statement as a question, albeit one that he and everyone else already knows the answer to.
In other cases, the person is allowed to make a statement, but the statement being made is inappropriate. Here is one definition from the Urban Dictionary: “A question asked in which one already knows the answer to not expecting reply; simply to be a dick, to annoy you, or for some other odd reason.” And here is one from UsingEnglish.com: “The speaker (of the rhetorical question) is not looking for an answer but is making some kind of a point, as in an argument.”
45. Ignorance is not an opinion. I got this from the 11/10/13 Dilbert cartoon. It is akin to #22. That is rejecting facts and logic as mere opinion. This is claiming that, despite an absence of facts or logic, your position is nevertheless valid as an opinion. No, it isn’t. It’s just an attempt to dishonestly spin your failure to do your homework or your refusal or inability to apply logic to your facts. The issue is whether pertinent facts or opinions are available; not whether you choose to ignore them.
46. Lawyering. This was inspired by Chris Christie’s recent criticism of Obama for trying to “lawyer” his lie about keeping your plan and your doctor if you like them. It was also inspired by a couple of lawyers criticizing me in the last year.
The purpose of debate is to ascertain the truth. The purpose of lawyering is to win the case by whatever means will accomplish that end. Famed Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz said, “When the truth hurts my client, my job is to suppress the truth.”
As you know, many lawyers will use every trick in the book to win for their side even if their side is guilty or liable: obfuscation, demagoguing, asking questions they know are not allowed then saying “withdrawn” after the judge sustains an objection against them, “ringing” improper “bells” that cannot be “unrung” in spite of the judge telling the jury to disregard the words the offending lawyer or witness just spoke.
In short, lawyering means using any illegal, unethical, illogically, dishonest, confusing, distracting, delaying, etc. trick they can think of to prevent the truth or logic from prevailing. When I am not in authority over the debate in question, I leave. When I am in authority, as at my Facebook wall, I delete the post in question and may block the poster from posting in the future. Debates that I participate in are searches for the truth and nothing else. If you try to lawyer—win, rather than figure out the truth—either I’m leaving or you are.
47. Insufficiently-supported slippery slope or domino argument. The slippery-slope or domino argument says that doing A will inevitably lead to B where B is agreed to be bad. The famous domino theory from the Vietnam war era gives examples of both.
It said that the countries of Southeast Asia were like dominoes therefore the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists would mean all the other countries in the vicinity would subsequently fall. In other words, we must fight on because it’s not just South Vietnam that is at stake but the whole of Southeast Asia and beyond. Anti-war types scoffed that it was nonsense. In fact, both sides turned out to be partly right. After South Vietnam fell to the Communists, so did adjacent Laos and Cambodia (The Killing Fields), but the countries west of those two—Thailand and Malaysia—did not fall to the Communists, nor others sometimes identified as South Vietnam dominoes: Indonesia, Singapore. Those asserting a slippery slope must provide evidence that the case in question more resembles, say, Laos than Thailand.
The notion that registration of guns will inevitably lead to confiscation of guns—in the only country with the Second Amendment—is another example of this.
48. Reversing cause and effect or confusing correlation with causation. People sometimes say that A caused B when in fact B caused A. For example, opponents of global warming say that the miniscule rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the 20th century did not cause the world to warm slightly, the warming caused the rise in carbon dioxide.
I do not know the details enough to debate that, but it is obvious than at least one side is reversing cause and effect. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a phrase I learned in logic class in college and it stuck in my mind. It means “After which therefore because of which” in Latin. It is a well-known logic fallacy. Another similar phrase cum hoc ergo propter hoc means “with which therefore because of which” means almost the same thing.
It can also be stated as coincidence is not causation. A famous cultural example of this is in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. In that movie, a woman visits a small town. While she is there, the birds in the town suddenly start attacking the people. Briefly, there is talk that since it never happened before she came, she must have caused it.
50. Attempts to ban ad hominem attacks. Saying ad hominem attacks are not allowed is invalid as a blanket statement. Conflicts of interest are generally required to be disclosed when they might affect the objectivity of a person giving expert opinion or sitting in judgment.
Facts that impeach a witness are always admissible in court and the Federal Rules of Evidence are a great set of rules designed to prevent intellectually-dishonest debate tactics. To impeach a witness means to prove he or she has not always been truthful. Ad hominem attacks are perfectly legitimate, honest debate tactics when the Federal Rules of Evidence permit them and the nature of the attack is pertinent to the topic.
The aversion to ad hominem attacks is a manifestation of what George Bernard Shaw was talking about in his statement that “All professions are conspiracies against the laity,” That is, professions often ban criticizing fellow members of the profession, even in writing in their codes of ethics, and regardless of the merit or relevance of the criticism. Such ethical canons should be repealed. The libel and slander laws entirely take care of the problem to the extent that it should be taken care of. Moron professionals think the ban on ad hominem attacks has a moral basis. No, it doesn’t. Indeed, if it immoral—a conspiracy of silence for economic reasons.
51. Tu quoque or appeal to hypocrisy. This says your argument is wrong because you have previously spoken or acted inconsistently with it. For example, if a person whose body mass index is 27 says that for good health you should keep your body mass index below 25, they are correct. The fact that they have not complied with that medical advice is irrelevant to whether it is correct advice. Tu quoque is Latin for “you, too.”
52. Denouncing refusal to compromise per se. This is a recurring theme today by Democrats with regard to any issue where Republicans do not vote the way the Democrats want. Splitting the difference is not morally superior to sticking to your position. If that rule prevailed, shrewd negotiators would always make extreme demands such that splitting the difference would give them everything they really wanted.
The valid question is what is the right thing to do and the answer should be arrived at based on facts and logic. The starting position of any participant in the debate is irrelevant. There is no debate “law of gravity” that says it is wrong to refuse to move closer to your opponent’s position.
Some legislative issues, like approving a budget, require changing the proposed bill until it garners the required number of votes. But most legislative proposals that do not garner enough votes can merely be dismissed as having failed to pass. There is no law that says all proposed laws should pass or that any particular percentage of them should be. Again, if there were such laws, partisans would simply game the system by proposing numerous, extreme, throw-away laws to force the opposition to vote in favor of the remaining proposed laws to meet the required minimum passed percentage.
Also called Argument to moderation (Latin: argumentum ad temperantiam; also known as middle ground, false compromise, gray fallacy and the golden mean fallacy) is an informal fallacy which says the truth is a compromise between two opposite positions.
53. Argumentum ad antiquitatem. Saying some practice is right because “it's always been done that way.” Or has been done that way for a long time. That is irrelevant as to whether it is right or not.
54. So what? This is a universal, all-purpose put down. It implies that the evidence you just submitted was irrelevant. It tries to put you on the defensive by demanding you prove the relevance of what you just said. It contains no facts or logic, just a conclusory accusation.
If the evidence present is irrelevant, you are welcome to say that, but be prepared to prove it with facts and logic. In a court room, the lawyer whose question is accused of being irrelevant can usually get the objection overruled by saying “goes to impeach the witness” or “inconsistent with a prior statement” or whatever other legitimate evidence the information in question provides.
Who cares? is another variation of this, implying no one but the speaker. Prove it.
55. Conclusory statements. This is a conclusion statement masquerading as evidence to prove the conclusion in question. You don’t prove a defendant is guilty by merely saying he’s guilty.
56. Sour grapes. In an old fable by Aesop, a fox noticed a bunch of grapes hanging on a vine. After several failed attempts to reach the grapes, he gave up and insisted that he didn't want them anyway because they were probably sour. It means putting down something and spinning it as less of a failure when the real source of the negative spin is because the speaker can't have it or tried to get it and failed.
57. Rejecting a best practice on philosophical grounds. Different people have different philosophies about how to do things. But best practices are best practices. For example, the best practice for treating a simple bone fracture is to set it so the bones are aligned and connected in the normal healthy position then put a cast on it for three weeks or so. A doctor who rejects that saying his “philosophy” is to do nothing and let nature take care of it is nothing but an incompetent who is committing malpractice.
58. Claiming an intellectually-dishonest debate tactic is okay because the person using it is not debating you. If I say X is true, and you say it is not, you are debating me.
59. Claiming to “disagree” with non-opinion statements. Users of intellectually-dishonest arguments often claim they just disagree and they are entitled to do so in all cases.
In libel law, there is a distinct line between opinion and statements of fact. Indeed, proving to the court that what you said was mere opinion—like a restaurant review—means the defendant wins the case.
But if the contested statement is one of fact—like Jones is a convicted felon—when, in fact, Jones is not a convicted felon—the defendant loses the case. Claiming it was just his opinion that Jones was a felon won’t work as a defense.
Neither facts nor logic nor conclusions reached using facts and logic and containing no errors or omissions can be “disagreed” with. The debate opponent must show the error or omission in the other’s facts or logic. Anything else is intellectually-dishonest and therefore invalid.
60. Nothing new. When Teddy Kennedy ran for President, his killing of Mary Jo Kopechne the night of the Apollo 11 moon landing came up. “Nothing new,” dismissed his aides. Nothing new was needed. He was the scum of the earth and the Kopechne killing was a large piece of evidence that proved that.
Obama dismissed Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 3/15 as “nothing new.” There’s nothing new in 2+2= 4, but that doesn’t mean that 2+2 = 5. The question is whether the accusation being dismissed as old is accurate and relevant to the current topic. There is no statute of limitations in debate.
61. You commit [insert dishonest debate tactic here] all the time. Fox News gets this accusation all the time—lying is what they are accused of. I get name-calling and such accusations occasionally. My response is the same as Fox’s. Give me an example so we can set the record straight. None is forthcoming. The “logic” of it seems to be if you say “all the time,” you are thereby absolved from having to prove the accusation. In fact, if it is so frequent, it should be easy to come up with an example. The fact that you cannot come up with even a single one proves the accusation is false.
62. False choice. Your opponent says there are only two choices: A and B, and since A sucks, you have to agree that B—his choice—is the best choice. Obama did this with the Iran nuclear weapons negotiations alleging the only alternative was war and war was out of the question. In fact an Israeli-style air attack was also a choice—the best one.
Wikipedia has an excellent article on this. It’s under another name: “false dilemma.” Here is their first sentence:
A false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, false binary, black-and-white thinking, bifurcation, denying a conjunct, the either–or fallacy, fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, the fallacy of false choice, the fallacy of the false alternative, or the fallacy of the excluded middle) is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option.
I have been hit with the black-and-white argument throughout my adult life invariably when I refuse to sign a false document or something that nature. See my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms.” The accusers are persons who do sign the false documents and they have rationalized that it’s okay—a “gray” area—to assuage their cognitive dissonance. I invariably say it’s not okay, which implies the other person has been living a lie. Uh, yeah, that’s exactly what you’ve been doing. The West Point cadet honor code when I was there said “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal.” In other words, those behaviors are “black.” If you believe there is no such thing as black and white morally, you are at the wrong website.
There is a more comprehensive list of intellectually-dishonest debate tactics at http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html. And others at http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/fallacies.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies. I also recommend Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection kit which says:
Baloney Detection Kit
Warning signs that suggest deception. Based on the book by Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World. The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities"). There are examples of this at http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/.
- Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours
Since 1990, I have had my own Real Estate B.S. Artist Detection Checklist. A reader sent this additional URL:
No doubt the bad gurus reading this will immediately go to those sites to memorize all those new, useful, con-artist techniques.
Many intellectually dishonest debate tactics are variations of negative pregnants. A negative pregnant is a statement that seems to deny something, but when closely examined only denies a narrower question that was not asked. The classic example would be the question, “Did you murder Jones?” followed by the answer “I did not shoot Jones.” Although the answer is phrased in the negative—“I did not”—it contains or is pregnant with the opposite implication: “Yes, I killed him, but at least I didn’t do it with a gun.”
In most cases, the person responding is trying to seem like they are saying no, when in fact they are not saying no to the actual question that was asked, meaning they must be saying yes. They are changing the subject of the question in order to answer a question the answer to which does not make them look as bad as the answer to the actual question that was asked would. This is what is generally being referred to when a person—Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, I’m looking at you—is accused of “parsing” words. It is a favorite lawyer trick and both Bill and hillary are graduates of Yale Law School.
Roughly speaking, you could reasonably reply to all negative pregnant answers by saying, “So you admit you really agree with me and you’re trying to hide that fact by dishonestly seeming to disagree without really addressing the actual question?”
During Watergate, this was called a “non-denial denial.” The Wikipedia entry on that starts with
“Non-denial denial is a statement that seems direct, clearcut and unambiguous at first hearing, but when carefully parsed is revealed not to be a denial at all, and is thus not untruthful. It is a case in which words that are literally true are used to convey a false impression; analysis of whether or when such behavior constitutes lying is a long-standing issue in ethics. London's newspaper The Sunday Times has defined it as "an on-the-record statement, usually made by a politician, repudiating a journalist's story, but in such a way as to leave open the possibility that it is actually true."
Here is an email I got and my response:
I enjoyed reading your page on dishonest debate tactics. It did seem, however, to get more stridently political as it went on. It was, ultimately, somewhat impeached by the fact that at times it seemed to be engaging in a debate with a straw man, itself, or at least with an empty chair. It also assumed facts not in evidence in several places, including some facts very much in dispute. It might serve your purpose (more honest and well-reasoned debate) better to strike the argumentative language and let the document stand as an excellent explication of all the ways ANYONE can engage in deceptive argument, and not just the left.
Not happening. There is no straw man or empty chair. Each point in the article is a response to the many debates I have at my Facebook wall and elsewhere. When I spot a new one that is used by multiple people, I add it. I generally do not use examples in the article to keep it streamlined as an easy reference.
Among the recent pattens I have noticed watching TV and at my wall is the debate between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians is not as symmetrical as the libs would have us believe. Your “ANYONE can engage” is a perfect example of this line that I reject. What people “can” do is not the issue. What they habitually do is.
I have seen comedians on TV explain that they make fun of conservatives more because they laugh at it, but liberals go road-rage nuts when they are made fun of.
Similarly, liberals are socialists who want to boss the rest of us around. Starting with those immoral positions forces them to use intellectually-dishonest debate tactics more often than their opponents who are essentially in favor of free markets and liberty. Most liberals are Fabian Socialists, that is, stealth socialists pretending they are not socialists. When your fundamental nature is stealth or dishonesty, it is no surprise that you are forced to use many, if not exclusively, intellectually-dishonest tactics.
I refuse to get into the political suck-up mode of ritualistically saying both sides are equally guilty, which is tactic # 36.
And unlike most people, and apparently you, I do not live my life like some amateur politician constantly trying to maximizing my popularity with the most people. See my web article http://www.johntreed.com/Your-four-best-friends-from-high-school.html.
Your “strident” accusation, which is name calling, reflects nothing but the chronological nature of the list. I started it years ago then have added one or two items a year over the ensuing years. During that period, media outlets with different perspectives have proliferated making comparisons between the various debate tactics used, and the various groups like liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, much easier to isolate and recognize.