On Sophistry and Demagoguery

One of the real threats to our democracy is that when people become hostile to responsible governance, they will only elect irresponsible governance. This is a useful tool for anyone who wishes to act under the cover of irresponsible governance. There are two ways to make people hostile to responsible governance: Convince them that what is responsible is not responsible, or convince them that irresponsible governance is actually more responsible than responsible governance. Both rely on creating the perception that something bad is good, or something good is bad. Almost always, the trick to doing so is to flatter ignorance or justify personal flaws as virtues.

Let’s start with techniques to flatter ignorance. The simplest form of this is just to confidently state something that is provably false but easily believed. The formula follows the format that everything you have is yours because you deserve it and you worked hard for it and earned it either by your labor, your skill, or your ability to make wise choices. There is truth in there, but it is not a true statement. We all have had luck, privilege (or lack thereof), where we started from, and simple market pressures other than skill or wisdom affect how we have gotten what we have or failed to get what others have. We also all know it. Even the most dimwitted of us knows that if we happen to be tall, pretty, fair skinned, or from a rich family, tons of stuff comes our way that nobody else has as much of a shot at. We even know that we make assumptions about the skills and competence of such people that are based solely on our desire to associate with them rather than any objective comparison of their capability. We not only have the science to prove this, we all know it intrinsically, and yet if flatters us to ignore what we know intrinsically about human nature to assure ourselves that we are the exception, and our looks, status, connections and luck are not significant reasons why we have what we do, and those without our advantages have less only because of their inferior merit. This makes it easy to skew our idea of fairness in our own favor. It’s not fair that the poor kid got a scholarship and I didn’t. It’s not fair that the minority kid got admitted to college and I didn’t. It doesn’t matter if that scholarship or that admission still does not give that student a truly equal chance at success as I have for so many other reasons, because my assumption is that we have equal merit if the one metric I look at seems equal. Any argument in favor of my weak position flatters my ignorance because it supports my tendency to believe something that is not true, but would flatter me if it were. Flattering ignorance is also used to justify all kinds of political positions or bigoted beliefs. It is most effective in selling policies that are unfair to someone else but do not affect you at all. By flattering your ignorance about the someone else it is easy to arouse fear or anger, and easier to obscure the crux of the issue. I would not make that choice given my circumstances, so you don’t need that choice regardless of your circumstances.

Another technique used to convince people of falsehoods is a form of sophistry wherein, a false assumption is implied by a compelling narrative. The assumptions could be that two distinct definitions of a word are simultaneously true, even when they are contradictory (e.g. you dust furniture to remove dust but you dust crops by applying dust) or you assume that something can only be one way or another with no gradation between them (e.g. keeping a borrowed pen and embezzling a retirement fund are equal because they are both theft). Other methods of sophistry include appeals to emotion disguised as logic, guilt by association, and just plain intentionally bad math. Flattering ignorance is useful in each of these methods, and they can be used in various combinations. Many of these take a form of Affirming the Consequent or claims that they are Common Sense. I leave it to the reader to follow links to more detailed explanations of how those forms of sophistry are used.

Some examples:

Fox News runs a story every day about an undocumented immigrant involved in a crime. They do not run stories about similar crimes involving the demographics of their viewers, even though such crimes are more common. Then, in the editorial narrative, they claim that undocumented immigrants are a criminal element, implying that they are an increased criminal threat compared to society at large. This is a form of flattery of ignorance called confirmation bias. They add to this narrative the false equivalence that crossing the border without proper documentation is illegal, which proves the criminality of the population. And then apply the bad math sampling error that none of the individuals who were victims of a crime committed by an undocumented immigrant could have occurred if the immigrant had been deported. While this is strictly true, it is as worthless as claiming that no one who is a victim of a crime committed by person named Smith if all people named Smith were deported. If the crime rate among the undocumented is not higher than the general population (it is not), deportation does not affect the crime rate. The narrative, in short, is more false than true, but it is a powerful narrative at inspiring fear and anger, and thus can be used as a motivator when added to a larger narrative such as “you can’t trust people who are not angry about this to look out for you.”

The Tea Party loves anti-socialism rants. The narratives adopted by politicians that rely on the Tea Party base take sophistry to great heights. Nobody with their wits about them actually believes that allowing people to check out a book from a library is the equivalent of sending poets to concentration camps for re-education, but such false equivalencies are the bread and butter of Tea Party narratives about Capitalism and Socialism. The narrative begins by obscuring the difference between dictionary definitions and reality, and implies an all-or-nothing moral judgement based on the false assumption that the labels are accurate and denote Good and Evil. If I were to say to you that the words tall and short are opposite, for example, you would probably agree, but if I told you “at six feet and three inches, John was the short brother of the family”, you would know right away that short and tall can be meaningfully used as relative terms that are only opposite in context. If you ignore the very real difference between the meaning of words like capitalist and socialist in real world context, then you will make false assumptions about both, just as you might about tall and short. For example, Capitalism is more of a free market system than Communism, so discussions about Capitalism v Communism have meaning, but Capitalism is not the same as free market by any means, and treating them as interchangeable is economic illiteracy. A free market is one in which supply, demand, and competition are the forces at play, and no artificial means are used to control them. For example, if you and I both produce chopsticks from bamboo to sell. In a free market, we both compete to get the best deal on bamboo, and compete on quality and price to sell the bamboo. Capitalism is not based on market competition, but on capital (hence the name). For example, if I have an investor who will put up a million dollars to buy futures on all of the bamboo at a price no one can match, I can force you out of business and then have no one competing with me when I sell my chopsticks. That is what the word means. Use capital to increase capital. If there is nothing bought or sold, ever, it is still capitalism if you use capital to increase capital. When Bain Capital did leveraged buy-outs of companies that employed thousands, only to dismantle and sell divisions, consolidate the debt, then file bankruptcy, and putting thousands of people out of work who had been making a profit for the companies, it was not a free market they were using, it was strictly capitalism. Likewise, Socialism is not just a textbook form of government, it is an overall approach to economy. Socialist policies that excel in some areas are not suited to all areas. Fundamentally, all government is socialist, or it is corrupt. A government, fundamentally, does work for the people paid for collectively by the people for the good of the people. No competition, no capital gains. Anyone who uses government to profit is corrupt. It is fundamentally socialist. Only a dimwit would think that no government at all is superior to government whenever the population exceeds that of a clan, and even within a clan, it is the collective that is served and governed. Hence, you cannot be entirely against socialism and be in favor of police and fire protection, public libraries, roads and bridges, a national military, etc. But you can be fooled into forgetting all of that stuff when someone starts comparing a tax supported county hospital to a Stalinist regime if you believe that the mythical superhero Capitalism is the thin blue line between Truth, Justice and Freedom and the chaos that the supervillain Socialism would impose if his evil plans were not vigilantly thwarted.

This all boils down to false simplicity. There is a bit of instruction that was designed to help people do good science. When I say the name, many of you will immediately recognize the name and associate it will a stupid, wrong statement. That stupid, wrong statement is a powerful tool in selling the flattery of ignorance, because ignorance is always simpler than understanding, and reality is just never as simple as the explanations we like to use to describe it. The name is Occam’s Razor. Now, what stupid wrong statement did you associate with it? Hint: it is not only wrong, it is absurd, and never holds up to scrutiny. Let me guess. The statement you have been told is Occam’s Razor is something like “Whenever there are two or more explanations for something, the simplest one tends to be the correct one.” Was that it? Read it. Now think about it. Have you ever heard anything so stupid in your life?

“How does a TV work, daddy?”

“They have a team of wizards at the factory that cast a spell on it”

“Why does the world look flat to me?”

“Because it is flat, stupid!”

You get the idea. The actual Occam’s Razor was never intended to be an axiom of truth, because Occam was not an idiot, he was a Natural Philosopher (scientist). He was giving instruction on how not to be stupid when trying to do science. “When choosing a hypothesis (often misquoted as “theory”), the one with the fewest assumptions is preferred.” Let me break that down. Despite what Sister Mary Constance may have told you about the Scientific Method, a hypothesis is NOT a guess. It is the basis for a test. It does not matter what you think will happen or what you want to happen, but what you are going to test. “If hot water freezes faster than cold water, then by timing how long it takes to freeze samples of water beginning at different temperatures will reveal if that is the case.” Our word “hypothetical” is the same root. If this is the rule, then these will be the results. A bad hypothesis would be “If there are faeries determining the rate at which water freezes, and they don’t like salty things, then salty water will take longer to freeze or not freeze at all.” It has an unnecessary assumption about why water freezes that is not tested by the experiment, so it is a bad hypothesis for that experiment. Since we prefer that we are not wasting time on experiments that do not yield conclusive results, we prefer to limit the hypothesis to one that can be tested usefully.

Now that you recognize how mind-numbingly stupid something can be and still be accepted as true by people who are somewhat intelligent, you can see how someone skilled in presenting absurd arguments as obvious truths can gain quite a following in a population that wants to be convinced of something absurd. If you can get them invested in defending that absurdity, you can bundle ever-increasingly absurd beliefs into a worldview that is deeply distrustful of anyone concerned with reality, especially if they are convinced that the people defending reality have an ulterior motive to do so, regardless of whether that motive is absurd.



About UncleJoe

I'm a middle aged male who has attended a seminary as well as receiving a degree in philosophy from a secular university neither of which would particularly impress you if I said which. I have pondered and puzzled questions of faith and the lack thereof for many years. I don't not claim to be holy, or an expert on everything, simply observant and interested. I'll make bold statements about what I see as the way things are, and you don't have to take my word for it. Call me on it. I am here for the discussion.
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