Thursday 24 May 2012

Gish Gallop’s Gladly, Glibly Gestated Gullibility

One of my greatest pleasures is the discovery that I’m wrong. It’s a liberating experience, a reminder that knowledge is both a motorway and a cul de sac. Tolkien said, ‘the road goes ever on and on’. For me, the road is discovery. Certainty is a dead end.

Jelly babies are what I miss most as about being vegetarian. There are no meat free alternatives that give the flavour and texture that I once enjoyed whilst pondering which colour to eat first, whether to decapitate or amputate its legs. See me lingering by supermarket sweets: it’s a safe bet that I’m reading ingredients to see if beef gelatine has been replaced by a viable alternative. Many would suggest that I stop being a veggie.  In some ways they’re right: there are sound moral reasons to eat meat.

How does this connect to the Gish Gallop? Why do I accuse its proponents of being gladly glib?  In what manner does it gestate gullibility?

Born in 1921, the eponymous Professor Duane Gish is the youngest of nine children and was a biochemist. I’m not touching on his opinions as it’s enough to say that Gish has an entertaining internet presence. Nor am I accusing him of dishonesty or insincerity; merely criticising his dubious debating strategy that is honed for ignorant propaganda instead of promoting education. This arrogant method claims certainty, thereby undermining its own assertions.

The best debates are both entertaining and educational opportunities for the audience to learn about the subject and scrutinise skilfully developed thoughtful arguments.

The arena of a formal debate has a statement that is ‘proposed’ by one side and ‘opposed’ by the other. A poll may be taken to establish any polarity of opinion before discussions begin. Within a predetermined time limit, each participant has opportunity to put their case forward. A shorter period is allowed for responses or expanded arguments. Often there will be audience questions before a vote is taken. This determines who wins the debate.

At school, I learnt that a good debater would be competent at presenting either side of the proposal. I could present either view with the proposal ‘Vegetarianism is the only moral choice,’ despite not being persuaded by it.

In putting my argument forward, I’d define vegetarian, moral and diet, then explain any premise of my standpoint and present a small number of facts or examples from which my conclusions follow. I’d expect, or hope, that my opponent would demonstrate similar deference to the subject and our audience whilst being vigorous and honest in their presentation. Neither of us would obfuscate.

There are a number of ways in which I could show contempt for, or distrust of my audience. One underhand game plan would be that for which Duane Gish is famed, a cowardly method because it distorts the lens of scrutiny that is the event’s purpose.

Professor Gish is famed for his rapid fire technique. In quick succession he’ll list twenty, thirty, sometimes forty or more assertions and misrepresented facts. An example within the vegetarian sphere might be: “what about veal calves, foie gras, dairy cattle, abattoirs, animal executions by bleeding, battery farmed chickens, murder of male chicks, rings through bulls’ noses, decalcified bones, branding of cattle, slavery of farm animals, murder of dolphins, depletion of fish stocks, extinction of ancient breeds, cruelty of halal and kosher foods, selective breeding creating deformities, the second law of thermodynamics, overcrowded pastures , increased cases of measles, genetic engineering, forced breeding, fox hunting, badger baiting, grouse shooting, fur trade, poaching, angling, loss of the Gaul, obese youngsters, big pharma, skinny models”. This is a Gish Gallop that consumes less than a minute to utter yet such a rant undermines the purpose of a debate.

Can you count, let alone give a considered response to, all the points within that diatribe? I counted thirty one and, despite being its author, would be challenged to respond.

Several items on the list scream out for clarification of their meaning or relevance to the topic. The second law of thermodynamics refers to increasing disorder within ‘closed systems’ more commonly known as entropy.   In the context of the proposal, it’s a colourless herring, included only so that its stench can befuddle the opponent and, more disappointingly, misdirect or confuse the audience. There are at least two layers of ignorance in such a method: the Galloper’s lack of knowledge and its implicit rudeness.

Consider how you would craft a courteous response to such a rant. Even if you’d prepared for, or had prior understanding of, each point much of your time would be consumed by addressing them all in a robust manner.   The Gallop’s capacity to snare or trip an opponent is something the wise debater will be ready for, but I’ll explain why I describe the Gish Gallop as ‘gladly glib’, first.

If I talk with you about jelly babies, you’ll sacrifice my respect if you go into a Gish Gallop.

Is it a cliché to observe that the person pointing one finger has three others directed back at them?

The Gish Gallop aims to drown the opponents’ presentation or argument in a ‘perfect storm’.   It’s a theatrical device applied to intellectual endeavour. To avoid being exposed and the Galloper's case floundering, its forceful delivery is crucial. Therefore the Galloper often calls on their charisma or stage presence to perform the role of contented satisfaction in their arguments. They imply their opponent is ill-equipped, under-prepared or otherwise beyond hope of winning the day.

This is why we see the ‘Gish Gallop Gladly, Glibly’ presented to the audience. Let us not mistake it for anything other than the mask it is. If the Galloper’s case were of any substance this intellectually redundant device would not be in their arsenal.

The last element of my title is a bold claim. I’m contesting that those who are duped into credulity for the Galloper’s argument will be misinformed.

My reasoning is that accepting a flawed method of critical thinking will inevitably undermine competency in other spheres where a clear mind is necessary. There are a number of arenas in which the Gish Gallop is used as a marketing tool. Astrology, for example, is wholly disconnected from the disciplines our species needs to cross the road, negotiate a peace or design space craft explorations. Similarly, advertising that includes statutory claims proceeds to undermine reason with clouded arguments or misrepresented facts. How often do we see products eulogised by photoshopped beauties above small-print disclaimers beginning ‘seventeen out of nineteen women’?

When we allow the Gish Gallop to go unchallenged, un-exposed, we are degrading our own capacity to evaluate, we have ‘Gestated Gullibility.’

Just as you and I would respond with anger if someone tipped rubbish on our living room carpet, we would be wise to contest those who’d deliver trash into the only place where we can, and do, truly exist: our brains.

We travel through life on the wide, illuminated motorway of our thoughts. It’s here that we experience everything; all our pleasures and sorrows, expectations: positive and otherwise. Why would we drive ourselves into the narrow cul de sac of arrogant certainty that won’t allow itself reasoned enquiry?

Whether the Gish Gallop is used by ignorance, incompetence or malice, any assertions that we accept as a result may gestate into broader gullibility that constricts. More importantly we risk such buffoonery stifling the minds of those we care for or rely upon: our loved ones, oncologists, statesmen, national treasures like the polymath Stephen Fry.

The Gish Gallop is a tool for those who claim certainty against evidence, seek community in ignorance and shut their minds to the beauty of reality.

The Gish Gallop is the sign at the end of the cul de sac.

One question remains. How do I respond to the Gish Gallop?

There was a debate at Birmingham University. Both speakers were courteous and seemingly well informed: not least because such events are part of their professional roles.

I went because I like to gain new insights into views I don’t share. It’s uplifting. Quickly, it was apparent that a Galloper was in the room. It’s hard to find intellectual substance amidst diatribe, so I learnt far less than I would if he’d argued without such posturing.

Later, I contacted the Galloper to be told ‘you don’t understand’. Where was his concern for the audience’s welfare? Why was he taking part if he didn’t want to share or expand understanding? It’s his job to explain!

I respond to the Gish Gallop, especially when ridden in public, with enquiry: forthright, clear and confrontational if necessary.   The only time I don’t expose is if I’m with someone who’d be embarrassed. I see myself as duty bound to challenge the Galloper in the same way as I confront litter bugs, vandals, smokers and other thugs.

I choose to ask the question: ‘what do you believe and why?’ Sadly, the Galloper rarely responds with courtesy, data, explanation or understanding.

This blog post was contributed by Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub regular Rich Wiltshir (@richwiltshir)

1 comment:

Andy said...

Nice one, Richard - an interesting read. :-)
I'd never heard the term "Gish Gallop" before but certainly recognise the signature of bundling red herrings into a discourse whose only purpose is to confuse, conflate and obfuscate. I think I'm canny enough to spot such underhand tactics, and would be immediately antagonistic towards someone using them, but I can certainly see how the unwary could be guiled... :-\