Propaganda - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Public Debate


I like to engage in vigorous debate. (When I say debate here, I do not necessarily mean formal debate, as in, two teams operating under specific rules. I mean any expression of different ideas, possibly spread over many years and conveyed with many different media.) Even if the subject is not particularly important, I always find debate an interesting intellectual excercise (i.e. fun). When the subject is inherently important, when we are discussing serious political or social issues, then, of course, debate is more than an intellectual game, it can dramatically affect our future.

Which is why I am disappointed with the generally poor quality of debate in this country today. So much of what you hear and read displays faulty logic, unsupported assumptions, and blatant propaganda.

In this article I summarize some debating techniques which are seriously flawed enough to justify the title "propaganda".

By the way, I try to use real-life examples to make clear what I'm talking about. Let me hasten to add that I am not trying to take a stand here on the ideas discussed in these examples, only on the debating tactics. (The fact that someone uses invalid arguments to defend an idea does not make the idea wrong.) I suppose it is inevitable that most of the people whose debating tactics I criticize are, in fact, people with whom I disagree -- like anyone I tend to overlook the faults of my friends -- but that honestly is not the point.

Recourse to authority

I heard a sermon on the radio a few months ago in which the minister made a number of claims which were highly questionable. He preceded every one with a statement such as, "Dr Jones, the world's leading expert on ...". He must have cited a dozen people in a row as the "world's leading expert" on one subject or another. I found myself asking, What makes these people the world's leading experts on these subjects? Was there a contest that they won, or is that just your opinion? Or do you just call them that because they happen to agree with you?

One should always be suspicious of an argument whose weight relies on the fact that some authoritative person said so. Even if it is someone who deserves great respect, he could be wrong. Let's look at the evidence, not the speaker.

The Bandwagon

Everybody agrees that such-and-such is true, so it must be so. The rational reply is, Maybe everybody is wrong. Like the classic interchange, Son: "But mom, all the other kids are doing it." Mother: "If all the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff?"

A frequent use of this technique today is the opinion poll. "70% of Americans agree that ..." So what? If the point is simply to tell us the current score on who is winning some debate, this is valid. But frequently you hear such statistics quoted as a reason why we should join that particular side.

When Jimmy Carter was president, he was pushing his "national energy policy", the idea that the federal government should take a more active roll in deciding how energy was produced and used. He gave a number of speeches trying to whip up support in which he constantly repeated the statement, "The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have a national energy policy". I don't know if it was true or not, but even if it was, so what? Like the classic mother, Americans should have replied, "If all the other countries in the world become oppressive dictatorships, should we become an oppressive dictatorship?"

Lately I've seen a technique which is kind of a cross between the recourse to authority and the bandwagon: the "all the experts agree" argument. Frequently the propagandist will blithely announce that all the experts agree on the important point and then immediately go on to unimportant point on which they disagree. This makes it sound more balanced, and gives the impression that the debate is over these minor points while the big issue has been settled.

For example, after President Clinton's election he held a conference of economists to propose policy. At the conclusion of this conference, I heard a news report where one of Clinton's advisors solemly announced that all the economists present agreed that a tax increase was necessary, the only disagreement was over how much. But of course, there are many economists in the country who would disagree strongly with that idea. They simply weren't invited to the conference.


Science has proven to be an incredibly powerful tool for advancing knowledge. It is certainly valid to bring relevant scientific facts into a debate.

Let's understand that "science" refers to the knowledge gained by experimentation and observation. Science is powerful because, by definition, its results have been tested and shown to be valid. But, probably precisely because science has proven so useful, you frequently here all sorts of things being called "science" that are not scientific at all.

One popular propaganda technique is to use the word "science" or scientific language to describe a non-scientific idea. (When I use the term "non-scientific" here I do not necessarily mean "false", just that the idea is not subject to true scientific analysis. For example, if someone says "Shakespeare was a great writer", that statement may well be true, but there is no scientific experiment I could perform to prove it.) Karl Marx called his theories "scientific socialism", despite the fact that he had not performed any experiments to validate them. Public figures frequently use scientific-sounding words like "parameters", "matrix", or "interface", frequently in sentences that demonstrate that they have no idea what these words mean. But it sounds "scientific". And of course there's the ever-popular, "computer analysis proves that ...". Hey, I can write a computer program that will give you any result you want. With enough effort, I could even use valid data in the algorithm somewhere.

Another variation is to attribute an opinion to a scientist. For example, consider these two statements:

"Dr Jones, the noted biochemist, has performed a series of experiments which prove that chemical XYZ, found in many food items, may cause hepatitis if taken in sufficient quantites"; and

"Dr Jones, the noted biochemist, says that the government should regulate the amount of chemical XYZ that may be present in foods".

The first statement is a statement of scientific fact. (It may be subject to rebuttal, of course.) The second statement is not science: it is a socio-political idea that happens to be held by a scientist. Even if it was proven that XYZ is a health risk, there are many conceivable ways to deal with the problem, ranging from an outright ban on the chemical to allowing people to make their own decisions on the matter.

Unsupported assumptions

I frequently hear speakers make completely unsubstantiated statements as if they were fact, usually with some bold introductory phrase like "It is well known that ..." or "Of course science has proven that ...". It is particularly popular to use statistics this way. If you make an assertion boldly enough, people frequently just take it for granted that it must be true. For example, during the 1960's people who were trying to legalize abortion frequently quoted the statistic that 50,000 American women died each year of illegal abortions. Bernard Nathanson, the founder of NARAL, later admitted that they had simply made the number up because it served their cause. (The number from the Center for Disease Control for 1972 was actually 39.)

Many cases are not this blatant, of course. Frequently a debator honestly believes that what he is saying is true. It's just that it's an assumption he started with, not something that has been proven.

Ad-hominem attacks

If you can't rebut your opponents argument, attack his character. If we are discussing foreign policy, the fact that one of the debaters is a child molestor is completely irrelevant, and tells us nothing about the validity of his views on foreign policy.

This is not to say, of course, that a person's character is always irrelevant. If we were planning on hiring this person to be a kindergarten teacher, the fact that he was a convicted child molestor would surely be highly relevant.

One of my favorite examples of this was a television program where the reporter was interviewing two men, one a politically active minister whom I will call Smith, the other a representative of a liberal political organization whom I will call Jones. (I don't remember their real names.) At one point Jones said that Smith was "intolerant" and "racist" and "anti-Semitic". Smith replied that Jones was "demonstrating his religious bigotry". Whereupon the reporter jumped in and said, "Really now, Rev Smith. Let's skip these ad hominem attacks. Can't you reply to the charge?" I had to laugh, for it sounded to me like Smith and Jones statements were of pretty much the same tone: "racist" and "bigot" are pretty similar accusations to hurl. So why was Jones' attack a "charge" that demanded a serious reply, while Smith's statement was an "ad hominem attack" and a low blow? I guess it all depends which side you're on.

Well, this is, of course, not a complete catalog of propaganda techniques, but it's a start. I'll probably add to it over time. Feel free to email me with techniques or examples that you think would be worth including.

© 1995 by Jay Johansen


Mr Dionisio Oct 13, 1995

You might try popping in to alt.politics.homosexuality sometime. :) I'm beginning to think of it as THE home for "But God says...". (Perhaps the "quoting experts" category should have a sub-category.)

Liked it by the way.

Jay Johansen Oct 14, 1995

His brief comment brings up a complex issue. A Theist (by which I mean, someone who believes in God, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, whatever) could well reply that relying on an expert is moved into an entirely different category when the expert cited is God, as God is infallible, or at least, a LOT smarter than any human expert.

The problem with this, from a debating point of view, is that some people do not believe in God. Before such a person will be convinced that he should do something because God says so, he would first have to be convinced that there really is a God to say anything. Similarly, even among people who do believe in God there is wide variation in belief of what he has, in fact, said. To take the most obvious example, Jews do not believe that the New Testament is really the word of God, and neither Jews nor Christians accept the Koran. Thus, while a quote from the New Testament may be very persuasive to a Christian, it would be largely irrelevant to a Jew.

In short, in any debate you must establish a common ground of agreement before you can go on to discuss your differences. I am a born-again Christian. When I am discussing issues with other born-again Christians, I rely heavily on the Bible to back up my arguments, because we are both coming into the discussion agreed that this is an authoritative source. I don't recall ever having presented an argument before a group that I knew to be predominantly Jewish, but if I ever do I might well rely on Tanak (Old Testament) quotes. But when I am speaking to an audience of mixed religion, I rarely use the Bible because many will not find this persuasive. (Actually, I could probably get away with using the Bible more than I do, as the vast majority of Americans respect the Bible a great deal, even if they do not concede it the level of authority that we born-again types do.)

ManuelFrom Mar 24, 2015

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