Recently, I read a book called, Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation by John Grant (Zest Books 2014). I don’t agree with everything the author espouses but I do agree with the need for us to rise above the world of misinformation that is pervasive these days on the internet. And Christians, sadly enough, are as guilty – sometimes even more guilty – of misrepresenting and misinforming news and facts. Often, the more controversial the issue, or the bigger the stakes, the more likely or tempting it is for Christians to resort to exaggerating or stretching the truth a little, maybe leaving some facts out so as to give false impressions without actually flat out lying. To that end, Grant’s book – Debunk It! – lays out some strategies to arm ourselves to detect such misinformation when we see them.
In this post, I want to lay out some tactics of deceptive arguments – false argumentation – that are (whether intentionally or not) often used to make claims sound actually true or logical. Sad to say, I have read many some Christian books, especially in folk apologetics – i.e. apologetics, the art of rationally defending the faith, done by less than professional specialists – who have employed these disreputable tools for the sake of winning an argument for the faith! I think Christians should do better. Now, some militant atheists resort to the same tools to discredit Christianity but Christians should not stoop to that same level of argumentation. Christians who believe that truth-telling is an important spiritual virtue should do better than rely on dubious misinformations and rhetorical methods that do not advance truth but only score points to win an argument. Speaking the truth in love is not speaking to win at all costs. So, here is a list of some of those tactics of deception drawn from Grant’s book.
Straw Men and Ad Hominem Attacks
A “straw man” (hence the photo of scarecrows on this post) is an attack NOT on a person’s real beliefs or claims but on a false or stereotyped version of them. And, of course, it is easy to bring down a straw man! That’s the whole point. You simplify or reduce the opponent’s argument into a shell of what it actually is, then poke holes at it, giving the impression that you have truly vanquished the opponent’s position. But in reality you have only vanquished a straw man of your own making. The opponent’s position might be far more nuanced and complex than what you are actually claiming it to be, and not so easily taken down.
For instance, in the Creation-Evolution debate, evolutionists often think that all creationists do not allow for any form of evolution at all. Hence, they bring up their proofs for evolution within various species, e.g. different birds, or canines, evolving. But most creationists account for what they call micro-evolution – evolution within species, e.g. different varieties of dogs. It is macro-evolution – evolution across species, one species evolving into another, e.g. from ape-like ancestor to human – that some creationists are against. Hence, proofs or arguments for evolution within a species do not actually refute creationism. Of course, there are arguments for macro-evolution too, but the point is that attacking creationism by proving micro-evolution is a straw man attack.
Now, creationists are also guilty of straw man attacks on evolutionists too. But, for now, I just need to illustrate the principle and having one example is sufficient.
Ad Hominem is Latin for “against the man” where the attack ignores the right or wrong of the argument and instead focuses on the person’s character or other failings that are irrelevant to the argument. For instance, instead of arguing if atheism’s arguments are valid or not, Christians could drag up examples from history of atheist atrocities, e.g. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and cite that to discredit atheism. Of course, atheists do the same thing often enough to Christians by dragging up atrocities that Christians have done. These are not really valid arguments as the failures of Christians and atheists are not necessarily a logical result of their respective beliefs.
A version of this ad hominem argument is the guilt by association tactic. “Hitler was an atheist, therefore all atheists are bad.” “Westboro Baptist Church are Christians, therefore all Christians are judgmental freaks.” It is a version of stereotyping and labeling. These are purely emotional tactics, not logical arguments. And, frankly, uncharitable tactics that are just untrue.
Now, a person’s character or actions can be relevant to his/her arguments/claims in certain cases. For instance, if a man is arguing that he is not a racist, then exposing his membership in the KKK will be relevant to refuting him. That would be an example of a character failure that is relevant to the arguments. But exposing that he cheated on his wife, for instance, is not really relevant to his claim of being a non-racist. It is simply mud-slinging to prejudice people against him.
Quote Mining and Cherry Picking
Quoting words or sentences out of context can make them sound or mean something entirely different than originally intended. Hence, it is unethical to quote mine or cherry pick quotes from opponent’s arguments to make them sound ridiculous or false. Atheists do this to the Bible often. In fact, Christians tend to quote mine the Scriptures too to defend certain doctrinal positions or justify their actions, rather than looking at Scripture’s teachings as a whole! But Christians also tend to quote mine atheists in order to create “straw men” positions that they can then conveniently tear down.
For example, Grant gave a famous quote mining from the creationist crowd, who made use of the following quote from Charles Darwin to suggest that Darwin himself couldn’t see how natural selection can produce the human eye:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. (Origin of Species, 1859; quoted in Debunk It! pp 49-50)
But this is only the first part of a longer passage where Darwin goes on to say that though it is hard for us to imagine, it is actually not implausible for an eye to evolve. Here’s the rest of the passage:
Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. (Origin of Species, 1859; quoted in Debunk It! p. 50)
Regardless of good intentions, it is unethical for Christians to quote mine Darwin to suggest he was saying something totally opposite of what he meant to say in context!
This is a form of debate where people overload you with so many “facts” to support their case that you either could not keep up with all the facts, and probably unable to fact check all of them, or that you become overwhelmed and you don’t know where to begin refuting. And that’s probably the reason for the tactic – to give the impression of having an insurmountable volume of evidence that he must be right. This tactic often works in live oral debates – not so much in written form where opponents can take their time to write a response.
Again, Christians have been guilty of this too. Creationist Duane Gish, according to Grant, employs this tactic so often that it was called The Gish Gallop, where Gish will reel off a long list of “facts” in quick non-stop succession. But when some evolutionist looked through videos to fact check his list, they were found to be not as substantial as it might first seem.
The Plural of “Anecdote” Is Not “Evidence”
Speaking of facts and evidence, one must also discern the difference between real evidence and anecdotal evidence. Grant’s humourous but correct phrase that the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence” points to how sometimes people pile on anecdotal stories after another as if that will really prove their point. It may or may not. Anecdotal stories need to be verified in order for them to count as evidence or proof. Just because many people reported having supernatural or religious experiences, for instance, does not mean that the supernatural is true. Have any of those experiences been properly investigated and documented as real or plausible? Or are they just unverifiable stories?
Argument from Authority
This is also sometimes known as proof by intimidation, using some obscure authoritative source (usually scholarly) that no one really heard of to back up your points. Sometimes, certain sources are obscure for a reason! Sometimes, those sources might not be even real, where deceivers are counting on people not fact checking the source. Or, they are obscure because their theories or findings are discredited.
Now, of course, there are proper sources and experts out there. So, this tool can be used either wisely or unethically.
Shifting the Goalposts
This is a tactic where they constantly shift the burden of proof. For instance, creationists might argue, where are the transitional fossils of species C that is supposed to be between species A and B? And when evolutionists eventually found a fossil that is species C, creationists then argue, “Well, that’s not good enough! You need the transitional fossils of species D that’s between A and C too to prove that macro-evolution happens!” That’s called shifting the goalposts. It’s really not fair and a sign of refusal to admit when you are wrong.
Children of God or Children of the Father of Lies?
These are some of the tactics Grant identified in his book. I believe these tactics serve not to promote truth but to misinform and to deceive. In effect, employing these tactics are tantamount to lying. We need to arm ourselves with enough discernment and knowledge to be able to identify these tactics when they are used and not be fooled by them. But, as Christians especially, we should not be tempted to employ these tactics either in our own attempts at arguing for the gospel and our causes.
In John 8:44, Jesus called the devil, “the father of lies” because lying is “his native language”. As Christians, then, we cannot resort to bending or stretching the truth, even for a “good cause”. The ends should not justify the means. If we rely on tactics of deception in defending the truth, we are only following in the footsteps of the devil, not in the footsteps of Jesus. What does it profit us, then, if we win the rhetorical battles only to lose our souls to the devil, so to speak? Will God be pleased with victories or with faithfulness?