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The Gish Gallop Is a Shady Debate Tactic for Winning Arguments

The debate: whether pineapple is a legitimate pizza topping. You're against, I'm for.

After you spend five minutes laying out a reasoned argument highlighting the ickiness of the sweet/savory combo and the gastronomic superiority of pepperoni, it's my turn. I spend my five minutes spewing non-facts, shotgun-style: pineapple will make you lose weight, get promoted, win the lottery, and develop the ability to read thoughts. You get a two-minute rebuttal — what do you do? That confused panic you feel is a result of the Gish Gallop, a sly debate tactic that, in today's political climate, is more relevant than ever.

Related Video: How to Win an Argument on the Internet

"Spewing Forth Torrents of Error"

The Gish Gallop was originally coined by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Its namesake, Duane Gish, was a prominent creationist in the 1980s and 90s who made it a habit of challenging advocates of evolution to public debates and overwhelming them with false statements. Or, as Scott puts it, "spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate."

It's a sneaky tactic, but it works. That's because it's easier and faster to tell a lie than to disprove one. Jonathan Swift once wrote, "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it." When you don't need to worry about accuracy, you can say anything; telling the truth requires careful explanation and detailed reasoning. Once you've successfully volleyed a string of lies, you leave your opponent with the painstaking job of explaining why each one isn't true — and if they don't address every single one, you can claim victory.

How to Conquer It

Of course, as we all know, the Gish Gallop rears its ugly head outside of formal debate, too. It can be hard to counteract all the false facts we're subjected to every day. But there are ways.

According to Quartz's Carl Alviani, it helps to reframe the argument by focusing in on the most outlandish and difficult-to-debunk lie in the list. You can also change the ground rules, says Alviani. "Just as in a debate, where we have the option of limiting the number of points a speaker can make, we can create online formats designed to discourage Galloping. For example, the rising prevalence of real-time fact-checking is an encouraging step in this direction."

But fact-checking only has power if audiences pay attention to it. That's where you come in. If you read or hear something that doesn't sound right, check up on it. Find multiple sources that attribute their information. If it's wrong, tell your friends. Misinformation is easy to spread, but with some hard work, the truth can come out.

For more ways to determine the truth, check out "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload" by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 17, 2017

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