Propaganda & Deception
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By Chip Berlet
Flaws of Logic, Fallacies
Investigative reporting and progressive research
took a detour during the probe of the Iran-Contra affair. Because the
executive branch was engaged in a coverup, and Congress refused to demand
a full accounting, speculation about conspiracies blossomed. There certainly
are conspiracies afoot in the halls of government and private industry.
Documenting illegal conspiracies is routinely accomplished by prosecutors
who present their evidence to a judge or jury. The burden of proof can
be high, as it should be in a democracy. Journalists frequently document
conspiracies, and their published or broadcast charges can be tested
against standards of journalistic ethics and sometimes in court in cases
of alleged libel and slander.
Coverage of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories
in recent years, however, routinely violated common journalistic practices
regarding second sourcing. A theory that cannot be documented, or for
which there is only one source of questionable credibility, is a rumor...not
With so much political and journalistic confusion
it is useful to remember that academia has produced a long list of useful
tools and techniques to evaluate the logical and conceptual validity
of any argument regardless of political content or viewpoint.
Useful rational standards by which to judge
the merits of any statement or theory are easily found in textbooks on
debate, rhetoric, argument, and logic.~1 These
books discuss which techniques of argumentation are not valid because
they fail to follow the rules of logic. There are many common fallacious
techniques or inadequate proofs:
the volume, increasing the stridency, or stressing the emotionalism of
an argument does not improve its validity. This is called argument by
exhortation. It is often a form of demagoguery, bullying or emotional
does not imply causation. If Joan is elected to the board of directors
of a bank on May 1, and Raul gets a loan on July 26, further evidence
is needed to prove a direct or causal connection. Sequence can be a piece
of a puzzle, but other causal links need to be further investigated.
in one or more elements does not establish congruence in all elements.
Gloria Steinem and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick are both intelligent, assertive
women accomplished in political activism and persuasive rhetoric. To
assume they therefore also agree politically would be ludicrous. If milk
is white and powdered chalk is white, would you drink a glass of powdered
does not imply agreement, hence the phrase "guilt by association"has
a pejorative meaning. Association proves association; it suggests further
questions are appropriate, and demonstrates the parameters of networks,
coalitions, and personal moral distinctions, nothing more. Tracking association
can lead to further investigation that produces useful evidence, but
a database is not an analysis and a spiderweb chart is not an argument.
The connections may be meaningful, random, or related to an activity
unrelated to the one being probed.
in an activity, or presence at an event, does not imply control.
in activity does not imply joint activity and joint activity does not
imply congruent motivation. When a person serves in an official advisory
role or acts in a position of responsibility within a group, however,
the burden of proof shifts to favor a presumption that such a person
is not a mere member or associate, but probably embraces a considerable
portion of the sentiments expressed by the group. Still, even members
of boards of directors will distance themselves from a particular stance
adopted by a group they oversee, and therefore it is not legitimate to
assume automatically that they personally hold a view expressed by the
group or other board members. It is legitimate to assert that they need
to distance themselves publicly from a particular organizational position
if they wish to disassociate themselves from it.
alone are not conclusive evidence. Anecdotes are used to illustrate a
thesis, not to prove it. A good story-teller can certainly be mesmerizing-consider
Ronald Reagan-but if skill in story-telling and acting is the criteria
for political leadership, Ossie Davis would have been president, not
Ronald Reagan. This anecdote illustrates that anecdotes alone are not
conclusive evidence, even though most progressives would think that Davis
would have been a kindler, gentler president than Reagan or Bush.
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