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Debate and Misinformation

Understanding Rhetorical Devices and Logical Fallacies

Psychology and Philosophy are fascinating fields of study which are concerned with understanding how human beliefs are formed and reinforced. Whether you are conservative, liberal, pro-Trump, pro-Choice or a passionate 'flat-earther' - every belief system is build on a person's individual logic. The rise of social media has shown how 'echo chambers' and hive-minds can contribute to intensifying and radicalising belief systems.

If you find yourself lost in the maze of (mis-)information, try to analyse the content that you are reading in terms of

  • Style and rhetorical devises: Is the language appealing to emotions? manipulating? generalising? nuanced?
  • Logical fallacies: Is the argument made sound or is there no argument and just a tool to distract /attack

You will find rhetorical tricks and manipulation on both sides on the coin (e.g. pro trump and anti trump), so try to pick the side with the most sound argumentation and language.

1. Pay attention to language

2. Pay attention to logical fallacies


a) Ad hominem: attacking the person instead of their argument

This is a very common and (unfortunately) increasingly popular strategy that is nothing more than a distraction scheme. A distraction away from criticisms - it's much much MUCH EASIER to defame/critisise the opponent than actually address the arguments that were brought forward. I could list countless examples here, but do not want to make this post about Trump - it's just a guideline to analyse argumentation styles.

b) Paralipsis or Apophasis

This one is interesting because it uses a tongue-in-cheek way to bring an opinion across. It's the ultimate 'passive-aggressive' rhetorical device because you are pretending to omit something, but you are actually mentioning it :)

For example, in 2009 (wayyyy before covid-19), Michelle Bachmann, a Republican congressional representative, made a comment about the outbreak of swine flu:

    I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s 
    that the swine flu broke out (...)
    under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. 
    And I'm not blaming this on President Obama. 
    I just think it's an interesting coincidence.

She uses paralipsis to suggest the Democrats are bad at containing the swine flue while simultaneously mentioning that she is not blaming President Obama. But why mention the coincidence if it was not for blaming him?

Paralipsis= A figure of speech in which one pretends to ignore or omit something by actually mentioning it

The next fallacy is very intuitive and is often 'instrumentalised' by conspiracy theorists to argue for their favour:

c) Argumentum ad populum or "bandwagon fallacy"

A proposition must be true because many or most people believe it. If many believe so, it is true

So if someone says: America is exceptional because a lot of people believe America is the greatest country in the world --> it's fallacious. You can bring 100 other reason why the US is a great country, but this one is not a solid argument. What this fallacy is also saying: if a lot of people follow me and my argument, it has a lot of value and must be true. So popularity (crowds, opinion polls, ratings, votes) becomes the main sign of value. It's quite sad that many people need guidance of popularity to make decision. But as Emmanuel Kant' once said: Sapere aude - Dare to think for yourself.

d) Argumentum ad ignorantiam - "a lack of contrary evidence"

The fallacy of appeal to ignorance is when a lack of evidence for one thing leads you to claim that another thing must be true, without interrogating other reasons for the possible invalidity of the other thing. Example: There might be logically sound arguments for using coal or believing in God, but these are not them: "Science has not definitively shown that the Big Bang ever happened, therefore God exists".

    It can't be proved that climate change is due 
    to fossil-fuel emissions, therefore we should 
    carry on using coal.

Want more ? Here is an excellent video of 15 logical fallacies committed in 3 minutes of speech by a prominent politician.