Thursday, 15 December 2016

Guerrilla Wordfare and Asymmetrical Rhetoric

     There is a rhetorical strategy known as the "Gish Gallop", named for the creationist Duane Gish who uses it in his debates against evolutionists. In a typical public debate, each side is allotted some fixed amount of time for an opening presentation (say, 15 minutes) and then there's time for rebuttals and questions and perhaps some more informal back-and forth. The Gish Gallop is when you use your alloted time to give a very brief summary of a host of superficially plausible individual claims that each seem to support your position. The key is the sheer number of claims (not their actual validity), and the limited time available to the opponent to rebut them. While any one claim (for example, "Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics!") can be addressed and fully rebutted by anyone who actually understands these things, the trouble is that these things are actually pretty complicated subjects (worthy of Nobel prizes), and the full explanation takes a fair bit of time. So even if your opponent does manage to decisively demolish any one claim (no small accomplishment in only 15 minutes), there's little time left to address any of the others, and so they are left standing by default.

     The parallel with asymmetrical warfare is clear. Asymmetrical warfare is so-called because the sides are vastly different in their conventional capabilities; one side is typically a nation-state with a properly trained and equipped military, while its opponent (usually a non-state actor) lacks these assets, and thus resorts to sabotage, assassination, guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and other low-budget approaches. Since they cannot field a proper army to take and hold territory, their objective is rather to make it costly and difficult for their opponent to control the territory it does hold. And instead of standing and fighting in a pitched battle, they launch a raid here, a raid there, and melt away into the hills/jungle/alleyways to go strike somewhere else. The conventional army is then forced to either chase them all over the place, spreading itself thin and never fully securing anywhere, or prioritize the objectives to secure and the objectives to leave undefended.
     Expert knowledge is like a conventional army in the sense that it's very expensive to acquire. It's overwhelmingly powerful at establishing claims in a straight up fight, but not particularly agile; it takes a lot of preparation to bring its arguments to bear in a convincing way. If the expert knowledge is given the time to develop its position, point by point, logical inference by logical inference, the only thing that can have a chance against it is another expert with better evidence and sounder reasoning. And in the end, in a proper battle of experts, the odds are usually pretty good that the Truth (or something closer to it than we started with) will prevail.
     But all of this takes time and effort. That's why the Gish Gallop works so well against it; it does not afford the audience the time to understand all the complexity and nuance in a difficult subject like evolutionary biology, and instead throws out loud and easy-to-digest slogans more aimed at raising doubt than positively convincing anyone.

     Professional obfuscators, like Gish, often rely on these sorts of tactics to prevent ideas they don't like from securing a hold on mental real estate. It is easier to destroy than to create, and it is easier to spread doubt than to explain. The tobacco industry invested heavily in generating a whole lot of noise intended to cast doubt on the idea that cigarettes are addictive and harmful, but they never had much hope of establishing the idea that cigarettes are good for you. It was a holding action, as are the current efforts to cast doubt on climate change or evolution.
     These are professional guerrilla rhetoricians, and they choose these tactics for a reason. But the other thing about asymmetrical rhetoric, just like asymmetrical warfare, is that since it is available to anyone, with or without professional training, you find a lot of ill-trained amateurs using it clumsily because they just don't know any better. Like the pathetic loser who poses for heavily-armed selfies before shooting up a restaurant, or the 2nd Amendment patriot who imagines himself effectively resisting government tyranny with scattered small arms fire, they are overly impressed by their own machismo and firepower and naively expect others to be simply overwhelmed by it. And so, when you argue with them, they will tend to madly fling out every argument they can think of without bothering to consider whether the arguments are consistent with one another, whether they're plausible or well-supported, or even whether they actually support the claim.
     The result is a debate that gets nowhere, especially if it's between two people who argue the same way. He says abortion is murder and causes cancer and encourages irresponsible promiscuity and she fires back with stop trying to control women and what about cases of rape or incest and some other arguments that completely fail to hit their targets because he's moved on to how many people want to adopt newborn babies. It's the equivalent of two rival gangs or religious sects or feuding clans just exchanging retaliatory blow after retaliatory blow; at best they may win by sheer attrition, but they can establish no positive claim to any other objective this way.

     I have been in countless arguments like this, and I've found that the best way to resolve the problem is to pick some point in contention, and focus only on that until it is either resolved or rendered irrelevant. Your opponent will probably keep bringing in other side issues, but you must not chase those yet. If the issue at hand is whether or not abortion is murder, then focus solely on why it is or why it isn't; this may require a discussion of whether or not the fetus should be considered a human being, but if you get distracted by arguments about respect for autonomy of the mother, you'll not be able to secure the question of whether it's murder. If you both end up chasing each other around, claiming temporarily undefended hills and then running to recapture the one your opponent has just left, you'll both be exhausted and frustrated and no closer to resolving the argument. So pick a hill, and either seize it and deny it to the enemy, or abandon it and adopt a strategy that doesn't depend on support from that hill anymore. Leaving it unoccupied just means he can run up it, fire a few harassing potshots at you from it, and run away again.

     Against unskilled amateurs, it's a good way to win arguments. It's a little tougher when you're facing a practiced Gish Gallop in a formal setting. There, what you need to do is make very clear to the audience what the tactic is, and expose its illusory power. Force a decisive pitched battle, instead of chasing guerrillas all over the place.
     "Ladies and Gentlemen, you've just heard a very impressive number of claims intended to make you think the theory of evolution is dangerously flawed. Each of those claims sounds pretty persuasive, if you don't look at it too closely, and that's the trick. All of them together seem overwhelming. But science is not simple. It took very smart people many years of hard work to figure these things out, and if my opponent can whip together 20 or so claims like this in 15 minutes, it's only fair to assume that someone who's been working on the problem for decades might have thought of it, too, and found an answer. And they have. Every single one of my opponent's examples is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of what scientists actually are talking about. I could use up my full 15 minutes here and maybe explain one or two of these points in sufficient detail to convince you. My opponent might even generously concede that, okay, that point was mistaken, but what about all the others? And I'd have no time left to address any of them.
     "I assure you, all of these arguments have been addressed, but I simply do not have time to answer them all here. And so I would like to challenge my opponent to pick the single most powerful, most persuasive one of the many points he's brought up, and I will refute it. If I can do so, I'd suggest to the audience that it is only our limited time here that prevents me from effectively refuting all of the others."

     Throughout history, guerrilla warfare has been good at one thing: making it hard for an invader or government to hold onto territory. By itself, it's pretty bad at seizing and holding territory of its own, because it's all about disrupting rather than establishing order. And in the same way, guerrilla wordfare is just peachy for preventing yourself from being convinced by your opponent. If all you want to do is hold onto the opinion you have unchanged, then that's a fine way to close your mind up to new insights. I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that, but you're welcome to try to convince me.

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