Let’s open with a scenario.
Have you ever found yourself out in the world, either over a coffee with some acquaintances, at your computer browsing the web, or even tuned into the news, and heard an argument that’s simply left you flabbergasted and reeling for air?
Not only was this argument complete nonsense, but a whole array of nonsense bundled together with often shallow half-truths that was so knee-deep in the bullshit that you felt totally unsure where to even begin when refuting it?
Well my friend, you were probably the victim of a Gish Gallop.
What is a Gish Gallop?
A Gish Gallop is a rhetorical tactic used by bullshitters whereby the speaker unleased a rapid-fire succession of spewed nonsense and non-truth which bears a passing resemblance to fact and seemingly plausible scientific certainly; often the galloper benefits from a commanding nature / appearance of authority when making such claims. (For more information, be sure to check out the rather insightful article found in Rational Wiki about this tactic).
Gish Gallopers (henceforth, just Gallopers) inherit their title from a certain Duane Tolbert Gish, the original Galloper after whom the tactic was named. The recently passed-away Gish was a prominent Young Earth Creationist. As the president of the Institute for Creation Research and the author of numerous books he was a prominent voice in attempting to make creationism a science. That of course should not be confused with Gish having made any prominent scientific claims to his conjectures, just that he attempted to masquerade them as science.
While I could probably unleash a good rant about what science actually means (hint: not the creation of the universe as many people seem to think), I’ll keep those words store for another.
Ultimately, it’s irrelevant whether Gish understood the meaning of the word science or not since he never actually employed the scientific process in a credible manner to get his point across. Instead, he resorted to the rhetorical technique he’s now known for, and galloped his arguments into the public spotlight.
So, why am I even bothering to talk about a rhetorical tactic used by some wily Young Earth Creationist?
Well, recently the Gallop has been brought to international attention and fame thanks not only to prominent Galloper Donald Trump, but also by journalists and academics refuting this tactic. However, the Gallop doesn’t only exist in debates and then to be refuted in news and articles, but has enjoyed widespread usage from a place none other than the internet.
From my own experience, it seems quite clear that the internet is quite literally filled with Gallopers. Their claims come in all shapes and sizes, and pertain to all matters of life (and sometimes death).
Often, Gallops appear in the form of conspiracy theories such as those by New World Order believers and 9/11 Truthers, but also from a variety of religious groups (not-just Christians, here’s looking at you India) and, perhaps most notably, snake oil advertising for “health” products.
Why do bullshitters deploy this tactic?
For starters, it’s easy, almost.
Sometimes, it seems to be a casual defense mechanism that gets deployed when we don’t know what we’re talking about, or don’t have enough time to prepare ourselves.
For instance, have you ever been put on the spot when faced with a tough question and just found yourself spouting whatever half-truths came to mind to make face? I suspect you’ve probably done a little Galloping yourself.
More importantly, it is also a conscious choice to make during a debate. Not only is it an easy tactic to rely on, but it takes far less effort to deploy than more responsible rhetorical strategies.
In fact, Gallopers don’t even really have to prepare anything.
Remembering that nothing the Galloper says is based in actual face, all they have to do is spout whatever random nonsense they can think of on the spot and make it sound factual.
Plus, on the more insidious side of things, the Gallop has proven to be quite effective. Case in point: Trump got elected.
But in all seriousness, let’s not forget that Gallops get shared all the time through social media. (See, for example, some articles about the most shared content on the web, such as these from Buzz Sumo, Kissmetrics, and Wired and you’ll see how the nature of a Gallop is one that easily lends itself to content that is frequently shared.)
Have you ever read a top ten list about something pertaining to your health or some new superfood? There’s a good chance it was just a bunch of Gallop masquerading as fact.
Have you ever been faced with a wall of text rant decrying everything from the liberal media, to Obama, to climate change, all wrapped up in a grand conspiracy? You guess it, a Gallop.
People have a higher tendency to share lists, or what appear to be concise statements of “fact”, than they do articles from scientific journals, or terse, inconclusive and ultimately nuanced discussions. (Don’t believe me? Look at your recent Facebook feed.)
So not only are they easy to digest, but even when chewed over and examined it’s hard to defend against or even refute a Gallop.
Why is it so hard to defeat this tactic?
In a debate, the burden of proof is often unfairly placed on the shoulders of the Galloper’s opponent, and not the Galloper themselves. Meaning, it’s not up to the person making the claim to be responsible for the veracity of such claim, but by the opponent when they oppose the claim.
Essentially, where most reasonable people are careful when making assertions, and often willing to explain why they believe or accept a certain statement, this tactic gives a free hand to whatever crazy thing whichever nutcase Galloper wants to spout because they are exempted from the burden of declaring why they believe such a thing to be true.
The Galloper thus gains the advantage of not-having to carefully prepare their points or even back them up with credible claims. They simply have to spout nonsense; and nonsense which often takes more words to counter than to claim in the first place.
Because of the rapid-fire succession of bullshit, it is typically unreasonable for the opponent to have the time to refute every single point in a logical manner (and even worse, still have time left to make their own point).
Let’s not forget either that the galloper is not basing their statements in fact; rather, their statements have the character of often being “random things” that came to their mind – easily interchangeable with any other similar statement of non-truth. The slippery nature of the Gallop can often make it difficult to tell what exactly one should be refuting.
Making things worse, even if we are able to hold that snake down, most of us aren’t walking around with an arsenal of refutations in our head at all times.
Therefore, when the Galloper makes insane claims, it can be hard to know how to immediately refute them – again, taking more time. The icing on this shit cake is that if the opponent is unable to answer all or even most of the Galloper’s nonsense, the Galloper is often declared the winner due to the other’s inability to refute several points.
For instance, take a look at the names of a few Gish Gallop style articles spotted from around the web (I’ll list their titles, but won’t bother to link them. If you are curious, just Google them):
- 77 Non-religious Reasons to Support Man/Woman Marriage
- Scientific Facts in the Bible: 100 Reasons to Believe the Bible is Supernatural in Origin
- 276 strange coincidences of 9/11
- 276 strange coincidences to logically reason out?
Yeahhh, maybe next time internet.
Tell me you have the time and the will to go and refute these nonsense articles point-by-point. I certainly don’t.
Should we bother refuting Gallopers?
I recall one session from a few years ago during out PhD methodologies class where a classmate went on a rant about the lack of pragmatism in the department. In essence, he argued that theory is one thing, but practice is another.
In this sense, I agree with him. It’s one thing to be able to spot the Gallop for what it is, but it’s a whole different game to actually do something about it.
And there lies the burden of those of us who respect the scientific process, fact-based arguments and transparency of discourse. How do we fight the forces of nonsense, and should we?
It’s a tough question that I don’t readily have a practical answer for. In a perfect world, I would in fact say, “Yes”, we should combat untruth wherever it tries to assert itself and make the world a safer, more intelligent place.
However, we don’t live in a perfect world where philosopher heroes have all the time in the world to combat the forces of evil speak and gibberish. Most of us have lives that include careers, hobbies and other activities designed to keep us sane.
Does that mean we should never take the time to oppose a Galloper? Not quite.
I’d say the best approach is to pick our fights selectively.
The problem with confronting every Galloper and taking the time to refute their claims is that it suggests that their claim are worthy of the time taken to refute them – which they are not.
Raising pseudo-science to an arena where it can be debated publically alongside real science can lead to people being unable to differentiate truth from fiction.
This is not to say we should let Gallopers have the floor and run all over it, but that fighting every bit of nonsense might have the adverse effect of drawing attention to it – not in the sense of what it is (nonsense) but in what it hopes to achieve (confused and obfuscate).
Perhaps a viable tactic would be to simply refute one or two points, and leave the rest out of the discussion (out of sight and out of mind) and make the argument a micro battle and not an all-out war of attrition.
One could also attempt to place the burden on their shoulders, by simply asking “Sources?” This would cause them to go digging if they have the energy, or end it if they don’t.
Of course, a quick Google search will likely provide them with a source (everything one can imagine lives somewhere on the internet), but you could call attention to the publication itself (“What were the credentials of the peer-reviewers?”, “Was it double-blind or single blind?”, “What institution are they associated with?”) or the argument (“Which piece of empirical evidence do you think best backs up their claims?”, “What part of the article do you think lacks nuance?” or even just “TL;DR Can you spell out their argument and evidence in two sentences?”).
Nevertheless, in spite of all that I just said about selectively choosing our fights, there is one type of Gallop which I feel moderately compelled to argue against whenever I see it: when a Gallop is used to market snake oil.
The dreaded Snake Oil Gallop
Snake Oil Gallopers are probably some of the most vile and casually malicious people I can think of – and I don’t use those words lightly.
I say vile because they are using a weasel-like tactic to promote what is essentially garbage, and malicious because promoting snake oil can actually be very harmful.
Remember: snake oil salesmen are not just greasy scoundrels looking to make a cheap buck at the expense of others; they can also create serious danger and promote serious health hazards.
Being able to convince people to avoid seeking proper medical attention and instead leaving their fate up to whatever oil they wish to peddle on that particular occasion is not just and inept, but arguably evil in the grand scheme of things.
How can I spot a Snake Oil Gallop?
Snake Oil Gallops, like other Gallops, come in all forms. But despite their diversity, they have a few common characteristics that make them easy to spot.
First, they tend to be long and rambling. Rather than carefully choosing their words and exhibiting clear signs of thoughtful copy edit, Gallops tend to skew good grammar in favour of making an assertive point as quickly as possible.
If they don’t follow the wall of text approach, they often seem to rely on bullet points and quick listicle style delivery.
Second, their claims are obviously dubious and not-backed up by any hard facts, just statements masquerading as fact.
Facts have a tendency to be verifiable (it’s what differentiates them from the unsubstantial). Many facts can be (and have been) empirically verified, whether in a lab, out in the world, or using any other scientifically sound mean. Some facts can also o a certain extent be rationally gauged according to their argument and structure. Gallops tend to ignore both of these approaches.
To demonstrate, let’s look at one example I recently came across (it was sent to me over Whatsapp of all places, after it was passed from person to person for quite some time I expect).
In the example below, I’ve abridged some of the bullshit and made it more legible (was originally in very explicit second-language English), but the gist of the Gallop remains the same:
Japanese scientists have recently concluded that drinking 4 cups of warm water a day is 100% guaranteed to:
-Reduce one’s average require sleeping time by one hour
-Cure all of digestive and bowel cancer
-Prevent common colds and the seasonal flu
On the other hand, drinking cold water:
-Causes people to sleep an average of 2 more hours each night
-Causes intestinal cancer
-Increases one’s chance of getting diabetes by 140%
-Makes one 50% more susceptible to catching the flu and a common cold
We can see how the basic structure of the Gallop plays out. It makes a bullshit statement, and then follows through with a barrage of non-facts (in this case, two statements and two barrages).
What I find interesting about this one, is the use of some added elements designed to further obscure truth and trick the reader:
Statement of “proof”
The gallop begins with a claim to authority and a statement of “proof” which validates all that follows. Of course, these scientists are not mentioned, nor is their study, nor when it was undertaken, nor how it was peer reviewed. We are not even given a single source for this claim, making it as dubious and muddy as everything else that follows.
Given the exclusion of such fact-checking 101 basics, why would people believe this without questioning? My guess is the inclusion of both “Japanese” and “scientist”. We often stereotypically equate “Japanese”, among other Asians, with suprahuman levels of scientific prowess. Adding scientist to their title only makes this gallop sound MORE authentic.
My favourite part of this gallop was that it had the audacity to declare that all the bullshit was not just guaranteed to make a difference, but “100% guaranteed”. Oh wow! You don’t say? That’s unbelievable!
Actually, it is. I’m not sure how many things in existence are 100% verifiable and guaranteed (even the seasons changing is probably only 99.9% because maybe the universe will explode before spring sets in).
In this case, the Gallop wouldn’t be any more or less factual if you replace “100% guaranteed” with “magically guaranteed”. It seems that the old adage “too good to be true” is probably worth bearing in mind when we see impossible statements like this.
We cannot deny that one of the main reasons people believe things like this is that they want to believe it. Even if parts of it cause skepticism or even a small little trace of doubt, the potential benefit of believing it and taking it to heart are simply too good to pass up. Reverses diabetes? Yes, please. Cures cancer? Who doesn’t hope for that?
Adding to this, the negative claims about something other than the miracle snake oil only act to further drive people towards the product being pushed.
Instead of rationally asking how the temperature of the water we drink could possibly make such a ridiculous difference, we’re stuck with thoughts like “Shit, how much cold water do I drink every day? Is that why I feel so sluggish in the mornings?”
Christ, where does this leave us?
It might seem that we’ve worked ourselves into a pickle or that we’re fighting an uphill battle (we are) but don’t let despair get to you.
Galloping would appear to be en vogue at the moment, but nothing lasts forever. That’s not to say we should sit back and let it pass, but even as we might be entering into a new age of untruth we should bear in mind that no age lasts forever.
Still, it never hurts to think pragmatically, so I’ll send us off with four practical points worth considering for us non-Gallopers.
Firstly, and I say this as more as a belief than a fact, but larger societal change begins with oneself. In a sense, one should take the plank out of one’s own eye before taking the speck (or often the plank too, in this case) out of our neighbour’s eye.
As Gallopers often assume the moral high ground, steeling oneself against the claims we level at others is a must.
Second, the willingness to critically examine even our own viewpoints is essential. As educated, rational adults with some basic critical thinking skills at our disposal, we shouldn’t treat our views or knowledge as dogma. Views can change based on facts and new data, as can our knowledge. Therefore, we should be beholden to facts and not the other way around.
It’s perfectly normal for our views to change over the course of our lives. Honestly, who would want to spend the rest of their post-teenage years thinking Punk Rock was the only “good” music out there?
But in all seriousness, as long as our views and opinions are at least partially grounded in fact (and not feeling), we’re in the clear.
Third, to avoid appearing arrogant, we should be willing to apply the same measures for truth in our own believes and acceptances as we do others.
Descartes once remarked something along the lines of “you don’t know something unless you know you know it.” (Okay, just Google it, I’m too lazy to go digging through the books on my shelf.) It’s a bit of a twisty phrase, but one worth bearing in mind. Don’t accept something as known or truthful just because it “feel right”. Go out and learn about it yourself.
Do we accept climate change, but have never read a single published article or investigative piece about it? We probably should. Do we accept the validity of evolution, but never read a text laying out the evidence or even Darwin’s wonderful monograph? Maybe it’s time to get started.
I suppose it’s tied to the first point in that just because something is asserted to be factual or truthful, we should probably take it with at least one grain of salt and until we have reason to assume otherwise.
Fourth, I’m not going to be so bold as to declare “thou shalt not Gallop”, but at the least I can say is try not to Gallop at the dinner table this holiday season. Just have another glass of wine and enjoy the holidays. There’s always time to argue later.