An anonymous member of the studio audience has decided to illustrate some of the behaviors that are common among those who care little for reason and truth. These illustrations include rhetorical flourish and verbal slight-of-hand that has the same effect as the magician's skill at distracting somebody from that which they wish to conceal.
A sophist is a person who seeks to use facts about the psychology of belief to manipulate others – often to their own disadvantage. A sophist is not a good person. He does not have desires that people generally have reason to promote. Instead of a love of truth, he has a love of manipulating others through deception – of being a type of political con man. This type of political con-man is responsible for a great deal of the suffering we see around us.
I wish to begin with the informal fallacy of as hominem tu quoque. This is a common practice where a person accused of a wrongdoing looks around for somebody else that they can accuse of the same wrong in order to disarm the critic. Ultimately, the person using this fallacy wants to create a diversion – a way of saying, "Let's not talk about my wrongdoing – let's talk about that person over there."
Annonymous provided us with an example of this in the folldowing:
Lastly, I would humbly point out that the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee endorsed Michael Moore's fraudulent "Fahrenheit 9/11"...which side has a culture of lies?
Which is an excellent example of, "Let's change the subject and talk about something else, quick!
Too often, the critic easily falls for this ruse and allows the conversation to get sidetracked. Soon the debate has moved on to the question of whether "that person over there" did anything wrong, and the question of whether the accused is guilty of any wrongdoing has now been forgotten. This has the same effect as letting the accused get away with whatever wrong he did, because the question of its wrongness is no longer being addressed. The accused, in this case, has deflected blame.
This is a useful tactic because, if the accuser does not accept the bait – if he does not fallow the sophist into this irrelevant distraction, then the sophist uses this fact to claim that the accuser is 'picking on' the accused.
Imagine having Ted Bundy on trial when the defense attorney mentions “Son of Sam,” precipitating a new discussion on the crimes of the Son of Sam while Ted Bundy walks out the door, ignored.
That type of defense is the same type of defense being employed here by bringing up the 9/11 conspiracy theories. The fool, in this case, is the prosecutor and the judge who allows the discussion to get derailed – who fails to object to the statements on the basis that they are irrelevant to the current discussion.
The fact remains that there is a politically potent culture that is all too eager to accept the wildest fictions from 'creationism' to the denial of global warming to facts about American history to claims intended to justify an attack on Iraq to claims about Obama’s birth and religion – a number of convenient fictions that support policies that are massively destructive in the real world.
The second example of sophistry that I want to bring to the fore is found in the entirely unwarranted focus on the piece of minutia concerning the number of people who believe that Obama is a Muslim. This is presented as if it is the central pillar on which the whole argument is built, and that if it can be disproved the whole argument falls down to the ground.
This is a lawyer's trick – a piece of rhetoric that is important to a person who cares more about the psychology of belief than about what is true. Criminal defense attorneys know that if they can create a shred of doubt on one small and substantially unimportant fact, that they can then plant a seed of doubt in the jury’s mind and thus get them to vote that their (guilty) client is not guilty. They go after the minutia, then exaggerate its significance as a way of manipulating the jury.
In fact, the focus on this minutia here is carried out as if the readers themselves are the jury – and the task is to get them to vote that the (guilty) accused is not guilty rather than to determine if a stated proposition is true or false.
One can debate the question as to whether 17% of Republicans believing that Obama is a Muslim is a significant percentage. But it does not change the fact that there is a politically powerful culture that is in the habit of accepting a long list of absurdities on matters ranging from human evolution to climate change to the legitimacy of invading another country.
Anonymous made the comment:
17%?! That's your evidence for suggesting there's some kind of epidemic of irrationality and dishonesty permeating the Republican Party?
The first point is that if 11% of the overall population, and 17% of a substantial segment of the population, had swine flu the term that would be used would have been much more severe than 'epidemic'. Particularly if the disease were as deadly and costly as the culture of fiction and nonsense has been.
If I were to list 100 absurd beliefs that the members of this culture of fiction and nonsense have adopted, there must necessarily be one that is the least widely accepted. The rhetorical trick described above would be to find this necessary fact and to focus all attention on it, as if it is representative of all of the facts. But it is not representative of all of the facts. In fact, the Sophist picked it precisely because it is not representative of all the facts. He picked it because it is an extreme example – the last widely accepted absurdity on a long list of widely accepted absurdities. This makes the maneuver fundamentally dishonest.
Yet, here again the sophist does not care about truth. The sophist cares about manipulating people through by applying elements of the psychology of belief. He shows this over and over again by engaging in behavior that a person with a love of truth would avoid, and only the person with a love of manipulating others through sophistry would embrace.
The fact remains that there is a segment of the population that embraces a culture of fiction and nonsense that includes such things as young-earth creationism, denial of evolution, denial of global warming, acceptance of fictions justifying the invasion of Iraq, false claims about Obama regarding the pledge of allegiance, his religion, and his birth, and who are now gullibly accepting nonsense about health care reform. This culture has inflicted a great cost on us today and will cost our children even more. The answer is not to surround people with messages of fear from all directions, but to tackle the moral failings of this culture of fiction and nonsense directly for the morally reprehensible qualities that it has.