Rhetorical Martial Arts Part B: Tactic #13 Appeal to False Authority
Futurescapes21C (c) All Rights Reserved 2019
Posted April 6, 2019, rev. April 20, 2019
I don't "jump" to conclusions, I arrive at them slowly and often painfully, sometimes after decades of digging and reflection. One is that conservatives, traditionalists and the common sense majority have been beaten into submission and sidelined in the culture war by neoliberal activists and their political enablers. Dissenters or resisters, as we might refer to ourselves, have for the most part been waging ineffectual rear guard actions. While there are no doubt several reasons for this state of affairs, the most obvious has been an inability to counter the relentless bombardment of lies, weaponized language and deception. Let's face it; we have been losing the war of words. Given that dissenters now find themselves struggling to retain the basic right to express an alternative view, it's clear we have no choice. We must fight back.
Our resistance begins with learning some rhetorical self-defence. In the process of countering the assault on things we hold dear, we can also elevate the calibre of political discourse. But we must first recognize the kinds of logical fallacies being brought against us daily. This week, I am examining tactic #13, Appeal to false authority.
Tactic #13: Appeal to False Authority
It was just a hunch on my part that those smooth-talking individuals who sold miracle elixirs under the big top at the medicine shows of the 1800s prefaced their name with “Doc” or "Doctor" (Somebody). For a moment I wondered if I was being too cynical, so I checked the Wikipedia entry for Medicine Show, and it confirmed my hunch:
“Each show was run by a man posing as a doctor who drew the crowd with a monologue.” The entry also noted that, “Most shows had their own patent medicine (these medicines were for the most part unpatented but took the name to sound official) (1).
That's not one but two deceptions designed to enhance the sale of "snake oil." And while it may sound like an amateurish chapter from the past, I can assure you it isn't. The theft of authority and its abuse in order to sell credulous citizens snake oil in various forms has continued unabated since the days of the wild west shows.
In the forties, medical doctors wearing white coats promoted their favourate brand of cigarettes to the public. Yup, according to a 1946 ad, “More doctors smoked Camels than any other brand.” So they must be good for you, right? As the author explains, while this was at a time before the negative effects of cigarettes were understood, “tobacco companies used doctors’ authority to make their claims about their cigarettes seem more legitimate. (Ironic eh?) (2) Today, advertisers leverage the trappings of the medical profession with actors posing as dentists or dental technicians in settings designed to look like dental offices in order to sell us a particular brand of toothpaste or electric toothbrush.
It’s not just advertisers who hijack authority. We frequently hear about Job applicants who bolster their resumes with unearned degrees and imaginary achievements. Some go so far as fabricating their entire professional identity. (Remember the movie, based on a the life of Frank Abagnale, Catch me if you can, starring Leonardo de Caprio.(3)
Combatants in the culture war aren't shy about using the fake authority tactic in order to advance a claim or crush opposition. Too often, political ideologues are guided by the simple rule, "The end justifies the means." And if the end is defeating the arguments of their opposition, then so be it. But why the fake authority trick? The simple answer is, “it works.” People in Western society at least, are generally inclined to trust others (without demanding proof). We're also conditioned from birth to be respectful of those in authority and obey. So it’s not surprising that the unscrupulous exploit those tendencies to their advantage. Often it only takes the mere mention of authority to achieve compliance. That's why today's telephone scammers tell the prospective victim that they are an inspector with the RCMP or an official with the Canada Revenue Agency and gullible citizens go running for their wallets and credit cards.(4)
We live in what I call the Age of Deception and fakery abounds. So failure to develop a BS detector capable of alerting you to the fake authority ploy can be your ruin. It’s not just the authority of the medical profession that being hijacked and abused for personal or political gain. Our opponents (sometimes in ignorance and sometimes deliberately), may tap the authority of respected historic figures, sports or entertainment personalities, the media, academics, economists, religious figures, “science,” or "statistics." Or, in other circumstances, they may cite the authority of NASA, the CDC, the UN, the Federal Reserve Board or the Bank of Canada in order to impress or prevail in a political contest. I will simply say that none of the above should be granted a pass simply because of who or what they are. Each and every claim to the authority of these entities warrants scrutiny.
Sometimes the fake authority cited is the nebulous "royal they” as in, “They say…” or the royal “we.” As I was writing this, I encountered a reader's discerning response to use of the royal "we" in an unproven and unsupported assertion regarding the incidence of “hate speech.” The statement was, “We’re seeing a lot of ignorant hate speech lately.”
The reader summed up the tactic as follows: “(A) Time honoured NPL (NLP*) domination strategy of the fascist at heart.” (March 30, 2019) * Neurolinguistic programming. It depends on who made the statement of course, but there's a good chance in today's context is propaganda for unquestioning minds.
The same scrutiny should be applied to other, similar unsupported assertions like:
“We’re seeing a lot of “racism” lately.
“We’re seeing a lot of Islamophobia lately.”
“We’re seeing a lot of anti-semitism lately.”
None of the above assertions should be taken at face value for a several reasons. First, we have no idea who "we" is. And second, we have no idea as to how much is "a lot" and how the incidence is defined or calculated. Information war activists intentionally use broad or contorted definitions of such things as “racism,” Anti-Semitism" and “islamophobia (a conflation of meanings at the best of times.) A second is that self-inflicted hoaxes in each of these categories are common.(5) Will Reilly, a Kentucky State associate professor challenges to popular notion of a surge in hate crimes in the US. Reilly observes:
“Almost all of that surge is due to the simple fact that in 2017 the number of police departments reporting hate crimes to the FBI increased by 1,000,” says Reilly. “The surge narrative is pretty dishonest.”
Reilly studied 409 hate crimes reported over the last five years that received media attention. “In major cases, almost all of them have been hoaxes,” ... “The number of hate crime hoaxes actually exceeds the number of convictions. The majority of these high-profile incidents never happened.”(6)
There may be something darker behind this. If you hear government leaders repeatedly pushing the surge in "hate crimes" line, there's a good change that they have an ulterior motive. Such false "facts" can provide a convenient justification for political initiatives designed to further constrain free speech. (See the importance of using repetition in propaganda.)(7 )
On other occasions, authority is hijacked with generalized appeals to “research” pseudo science, and “statistics.” When it comes to the latter, the lament of British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli in the 18th century is noteworthy:
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
Disraeli seems to be saying that statistics can mislead us even more than outright lies.(8) Sometimes, it's a case of misinterpreting (for political purposes) what the research data is telling us. Professor, Janet Mertz and her co-researchers examined the number of male and female participants in the International Math Olympiad over the previous 20 years. Mertz found that about 95% of the top math students of virtually every country were male. She concludes however that "math performance differences between males and females were overwhelmingly due to culture rather biology, and that at the very high end, women had just as much math ability as men." Perhaps the fact that the Mertz's research was undertaken in an attempt to debunk a comment to the effect that men may be better at math than woman tells us something. (9)
Sometimes it's a matter of statistical ignorance and in other cases it's deliberate. How many of us have been told that "women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns -- for doing the same work"? Here's what academic, Christina Hoff Summers has to say about this deception:
"No matter how many times this wage gap claim is decisively refuted by economists, it always comes back. The bottom line: the 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure or hours worked per week. When such relevant factors are considered, the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing."
Summers attributes the refusal of these myths to die to, among other things, "advocates who depend upon 'Killer stats' to galvanize their cause and a lot of statistical illiteracy among journalists, feminist academics and political leaders." At some point, blissful or self-imposed ignorance is no longer an acceptable excuse however.(10) That said, as one college professor explains in an essay in Quillette, academia produces an abundance of ignorant self-appointed experts and is contributed to the current situation wherein questioning the popular tenets of climate change theory is viewed as heresy. For the author, this runs counter to the role of the educator.
"At yet another campus event intended to alert our students to the threat of climate change, the speaker, an earth-science faculty member, expressed at the outset his irritation at being challenged on occasion with skeptical questions when he had spent decades educating the public on this matter." (Translation, "Don't question me.") (11)
For a case study in the abuse of “science” as a refuge for those with things to hide, see the Monsanto Papers.(12) Let's just say that there’s nothing “scientific” about:
Don't get me wrong, citing supporting evidence for an observation or an argument is perfectly legitimate. Researchers do it all the time. I often support my tweets and arguments with news stories, articles and reports on the subject of my tweet. And I recommend you do the same when you have access to supporting documentation or analysis. The problem lies in creating the appearance of authoritative support for your proposition when it's lacking. That's a cheap tactic.
Today’s social justice warriors and their ANTIFA friends, however, don’t even trouble themselves with seeking support for their claims however. Their in-your-face profanity and accusatory style of combat doesn't reach the standard of civil debate. Nor does it demonstrate any appreciation for long-standing democratic freedoms afforded citizens under the law or the basic courtesies of political discourse. Leftist zealots assume the role of judge and jury and then toss those they convict of contrived crimes to social media mobs. It's precisely the opposite of the kind of open, rigorous and respectful civil debates we should be having at at turbulent time in our history.
The job of the critic and discerning debater or culture war dissenter is to flag the abuse of authority, and where appropriate, counter the faulty assertion. There are a number of clues which discerning eyes and ears will detect. The tip-offs include:
Vague generalizations and attributions: “scientists" or “studies show…” (which scientists? which studies?)
“Inexplicable sudden departures from long-standing principles, practices” and understandings
“Attempts to subordinate facts and evidence to emotion and personal opinion” with lots of hyperbole, hyperventilating and profanity
Passive voice: “It’s been shown that….” (by whom?)
Bold, screaming headline assertions followed by weak supporting text using conditional words like “may,” ”could,” or "potentially"
Convenient turns of phrase like: “The science is settled,” or “scientists have spoken” (no it's not-- ever)
Conflating correlation and causation and cherry picking of statistics
Inappropriate extrapolation from a single narrow finding to a much wide set of subjects and applications
A determination to scrub minority report findings
Eagerness to villiainize critics or dissenters
Robotic repetition of PR talking points irrespective of the questions posed
Disinterest in serious investigation or scrutiny
Other attempts to to spin bullshit into gold
American Democrat House Representative, Tulsi Gabbard was treated to the latter courtesy of an MSNBC interview following the formers trip to Syria during the wr in that country.
Interviewer Kasie Hunt: “There have been reports that the Russian apparatus that interfered in 2016 is potentially trying to help your campaign. Why do you think that is?” (Presumably, she is asking Gabbard to explain why she thinks the US election-disrupting Russians are now aiding her campaign.)
Journalist, Caitlin Johnstone, in analyzing the exchange, notes that Hunt used an "obscene NBC smear piece which cited the discredited ... firm, New Knowledge, (in order) to paint Gabbard as a favorite of the Kremlin."
Gabbard countered asserting that the article by New Knowledge had been thoroughly debunked, something journalist Caitlin Johnstone confirms.
Interviewer Hunt, not yet satisfied that she had sufficiently damaged Gabbard's reputation, continued to defend the article as evidence of Gabbard's Russia connection. Gabbard again countered the accusation with the following tweet:
"MSNBC defended @nbcnews fraudulent "report" which was based on a "discredited cyber security firm recently kicked off Facebook for unethical MEDDLING of a state election.” Shameful 'journalism.'" (13)
Gabbard offers the appropriate response to those trying to smear her using false authority. Similarly, the discerning debater will force their accusers out into the open and their fake sources into the sunlight for public evaluation.
In summation, neoliberal ideologues are working hard to impose their curated narratives on the mainstream. The most zealous have demonstrated that in the process, they are willing to subordinate common sense, reason, biology and long standing principles and practices. Critics must counter with well-supported arguments, clarity and equal intensity if they are to prevail. As the axiom of my parents generation goes, “Forewarned is forearmed.” You have been warned, and now you can anticipate and be prepared to counter the assault. I'll say it again. It's the Age of Deception. So, nurture your inner skeptic, keep your BS meter turned on "high" and never submit to appeals to false authority.
1. Medicine Show, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medicine_show
2. When cigarette companies used the authority of doctors to push cigarette smoking, History, September 13, 2018
3. Catch me if you can, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch_Me_If_You_Can
4. A scam warning from Canada Revenue Agency, Consumer Protection BC https://www.consumerprotectionbc.ca/2014/03/a-scam-warning-from-canada-revenue-agency/
5. Hate crime hoaxes are more common that you think, Quillette, February 22, 2019
6. Finley: America's hate crime surge is a hoax, The Detroit News, April 6, 2019 https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/columnists/nolan-finley/2019/04/07/finley-americas-hate-crime-surge-hoax/3374192002/
7. How liars create the "illusion of truth," BBC Future, October 26, 2016
8. Lies, damned lies and statistics, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lies,_damned_lies,_and_statistics
9. Meritocracy: Dangerous cancer statistics, The Unz Review, An Alternative Media Selection, March 16, 2013, http://www.unz.com/runz/meritocracy-dangerous-cancer-statistics/
10. 6 Feminist myths that will not die, Time Magazine, http://time.com/3222543/wage-pay-gap-myth-feminism/
11. When a question of science brooks no dissent, Quillette, April 1, 2019
12. Monsanto Papers, Baum, Heland, Aristai, Goldman
13. Tulsi Gabbard is driving the MSM bat shit crazy, Medium, February 6, 2019,
For the better part of the last four decades, I have been encouraging people and organizations to anticipate the shape of their futures and plan accordingly. It can be daunting, but it can also be immensely practical. It can be as practical as using a set of binoculars to scope out a distant slope when hiking or winterizing your car before winter’s onslaught. Organizations that develop foresight capabilities are, among other things, creating a kind of organizational radar. This enables them to integrate discernible elements of tomorrow into today’s strategies and decisions.