Chapter Twenty-One


The most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted. - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Sophistry, as the term is currently understood, dates back to at least the days of ancient Greece. The Sophists developed advanced strategies in debate and rhetoric to win arguments and sway opinions through appeals to emotion or other fallacies, even if they themselves were unconvinced as to the truth of their own position. These skills were taught to students for a fee, and their use became widespread in both litigation and the pursuit of political and economic goals, despite the philosophical opposition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Two and a half millennia later, the art of sophistry is still going strong, and is a primary weapon of the deceiver class. Most of the rhetoric to which we are subjected by lawyers, politicians, advertisers, talk show hosts, and other commentators is not sincere, it is merely propaganda designed to sell a particular point of view. Many of these arguments appeal to our emotions and conditioning, and are often effective in convincing people to adopt positions for fallacious, yet attractive reasons.

When you hear a trial attorney advocating on behalf of his client, do you believe he is anything other than a hired gun, paid to convince you to adopt his client's position? Is there anyone left who thinks our politicians speak to us from the heart, rather than using carefully chosen, professionally scripted words to obtain our support? Do the commissioned salesperson, stock broker, and advertising executive truly have your best interests at heart, or might they simply be telling you what they have been taught you want to hear, so they might pad their bank accounts with your money?

The first step to avoiding the undue influence of paid charlatans is adopting a healthy skepticism toward all forms of rhetoric and advocacy. Assume initially that all statements made by anyone working to sell any product or idea are self-serving and insincere, as this assumption will usually be correct. Especially distrust any attempt to invoke feeling or emotion as part of a sales pitch. Religion, patriotism, duty, fear, love, ego, etc. are all routinely exploited by skilled deceivers. Whenever you feel your heart strings tugged or your emotions manipulated by a speaker, it is a safe bet this response was invoked intentionally.

Learning the tactics of the deceivers is essential for those who wish to avoid falling for their shams. A variety of tactics are used by sophists, but a common technique most share is gaining the mark's trust by word selection, paraphrasing principles the mark has already been conditioned to believe, and using nonverbal gestures, expressions, and postures which have been proven to subconsciously create trust and acceptance.

Most sales pitches begin with attempts to build rapport and trust. We tend to trust people who act and think like us, and seem to share common values. A skilled charlatan will not beat you over the head with his dogma without first learning what you believe in, and finding common ground. Once he has convinced your subconscious he can be trusted, your defenses drop, and the real fun begins. In frauds perpetrated on a mass audience, the sophist will rely upon known cultural beliefs and/or popular opinion polls when crafting his discourse.

A number of specific fallacies have been identified over the centuries, yet are still used with great effectiveness in both macro and micro manipulations. Although it is not necessary to memorize the Latin terminology for recognized fallacies, it is important to understand how they are structured and used, in order to avoid falling under their spell.

The Non Sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”) is a time-tested favorite. An argument qualifies as a Non Sequitur if its conclusion does not follow from its premise. “The people of our country deserve a government responsive to the people, where every man, woman and child is treated fairly. Our people also deserve to be kept safe from criminals and terrorists, and a secure future. If you agree, you should vote for me to represent your interests next election.” The benefit of this “argument” is that the listeners can nod along and agree every step of the way, and hopefully be so enamored by the time the conclusion is reached, they accept it uncritically.

The Straw Man argument is especially effective for those who control the media or occupy bully pulpits. An opponent's argument is inaccurately restated, then the misstated argument is shot down. “Those who favor legalizing drugs see nothing wrong with thirteen year olds buying crack in their junior high schools, but I think we owe it to our nation's young to protect them against predatory drug pushers.” This fallacy has the added benefit of not only creating the false impression of a refutation, but of creating a visceral reaction against the slandered opponent.

The Appeal to Authority fallacy has several popular variants. Appeal to a supposed authority is obviously invalid when the authority cited is not even an expert in the field in question. Your uncle may be a brain surgeon, but does that mean his opinions on economic theories are infallible? Appeals to authority are also useless when the experts in a given field are in disagreement, as I could just as easily trot out an expert to disagree with yours, as you referenced an expert to disagree with my opinion.

Finally, the opinion of a person who has achieved “education” that amounts to indoctrination is less than worthless. The memorization of theological “arguments” while obtaining a PhD in Theology does not legitimize your belief in faith-based garbage; it merely means you have wasted years of your life in the intensive study of dogma.

The inverse of the Appeal to Authority fallacy is the Ad Hominem argument, which is Latin for “against the man.” “Frank says there is no God, but he can't even hold a steady job. His opinions aren't worth anything!” Logical arguments stand or fall on their own merits, they are not more or less true depending upon who advocates or opposes them. Insults or even damaging information about an argument's proponent do not necessarily detract from whatever logical support a proposition may have. Still, it is wise to understand the motives of a person advancing an argument, to avoid being seduced by good-sounding, yet hollow sophistry.

The False Dilemma fallacy is epidemic in our culture. Are you conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, a good pious Christian or an evil, immoral heathen? I received a spam email recently asking who was the greatest talk show host of all time - Oprah or Dr. Phil? The user of this fallacy will set up two or more alternative points of view as if they were the only options, when they are not. Labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” do not encompass the universe of political opinions, and are more useful as propaganda tools than any other purpose. Those seeking ditto-head followers are fond of telling people what each label means and what the followers of each groups believe, as if you must decide which of two camps you fall into, and then must believe A, B, C, and D, accordingly. Those who fall for their ruse can now be told what their opinions are on specific issues by their “leaders.”

The list of recognized fallacies is long, and worthy of further study. Entire books can and have been written upon this subject alone. Appeals to belief, appeals to tradition, faulty generalizations, invalid proofs, appeals to patriotism, red herrings, and a plethora of other illicit tools are also used by the unscrupulous to keep the gullible off balance and under control.

It is also useful to practice recognizing the inherent fallacies in the arguments of politicians, preachers, political commentators, talk show hosts, lawyers, and other deceivers. Large corporations and the power elite control the media and have huge advertising budgets, as well as editorial control over what passes for news coverage. They have been very effective in brainwashing a large segment of the middle class into happily accepting their servitude, and many have been conditioned to accept their platitudes and rhetoric as fact.

But you do not have to be “most people.” You are free to see through the facade of your oppressors, and live life on your own terms. The water's fine, dive on in. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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