6 Ways to Spot Liars and Fools
Some people are dishonest, some are just plain stupid and lots write articles and provide commentary. Inevitably there’s going to be some intersection between the three sets.
However, since media charlatans often come with impressive titles, adoring fans and fast facts, it’s easy to get taken in. We simply can’t check every assertion that’s thrown at us.
Nevertheless, even the most accomplished frauds leave behind telltale signs. They use rhetorical devices that give them away and, with a little foreknowledge, are not hard to spot. With that in mind, here’s my guide to the most common modus operandi employed by fools and liars. When you see them coming, be on your guard!
1. As Everybody Knows….
In these tumultuous times of war and strife, it should be obvious that people have a hard time agreeing on anything. Nevertheless, “as everybody knows…” remains a favored opening for bullshit arguments. It is also what logicians call begging the question, or taking for granted precisely what is in dispute.
A common example is that “everybody knows that budgets are moving to digital.” As I’ve explained in an earlier post, budgets are moving surprisingly slowly to digital and the shift seems to be coming almost exclusively from newspapers. Nevertheless, the “everybody knows” device is amazingly effective in getting people to stipulate facts not in evidence.
Incidentally, as a foreigner in emerging markets, I’ve often been subjected to the “everybody knows” trick. I sometimes say, “well I don’t know, so does that make me stupid or just a non-person.” That’s usually effective in shifting the burden of proof back where it should be – on the person making the argument.
So don’t get taken in. Whenever you hear “everybody knows,” what follows is bound to be a load of crap.
2. Some People Say…
“Some of those in traditional media believe that nothing ever changes. I, however, am more realistic and believe that we should prepare for the future.”
Oh, isn’t that nice for you? Those old fuddy duddies really must have their heads in the sand. I hear about such people a lot, but I’ve yet to actually meet anyone who believes that nothing ever changes.
There are those, like the Ad Contrarian and me, who like to point out uncomfortable facts, like that digital makes up a small amount of marketing budgets, trendy new stuff is often ineffective, traditional media companies continue to be extremely profitable and so on.
That doesn’t mean nothing changes, but simply that change is never simple. So whenever you hear “some people say,” expect to hear a classic straw man argument, where somebody is contriving to build up a straw man, beat him to hell and then declare the point made and the argument proven.
3. A Coincidence? I Don’t Think So!
About a year ago we were hearing many versions of this argument:
“If social media marketing wasn’t more effective than TV, then Pepsi wouldn’t have dropped the Super Bowl to spend $20 million on their socially driven Pepsi Refresh project. Therefore social media must be more effective than TV.”
This is a classic case of what’s called affirming the consequent, where an implied conclusion is used to prove a premise. It seems to have a strange logic to it, which makes it hard to catch, but always takes this form:
If P, then Q; Q. Therefore P…
Successful marketers use successful practices, a successful marketer just employed a certain practice, therefore it must be successful.
This, of course, ignores all other causes that could end in the same result. Pepsi might have just been doing an experiment ($20 million is actually a very small part of their budget), or they might have just been doing something foolish (their spots on the Super Bowl were quickly snatched up by other successful marketers).
I picked this particular example for its delicious irony. As everyone now knows (see how I did that!) Pepsi’s market share took an enormous hit following the Refresh project. Social media advocates, of course, then rushed to point out (quite rightly) that the decline could be attributed to a number of factors. Gotta love it!
4. History Tells Us…
One of the most common rhetorical devices is the somber-faced “history tells us” line. This is usually followed by an appeal for posterity in the place where an intelligent argument would normally go. Invoking history gives weight to an opinion because it suggests that a particular point of view has been time and battle tested.
There are two problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, history doesn’t tell us anything. We interpret it, unless, of course, you have Benjamin Franklin and his friends continually whispering in your ear. If that’s the case, then you should be seeking professional help.
Secondly, invoking history is a prime example of an induction fallacy. There’s nothing that says that the future can’t be entirely different than the past (and that’s often the case). As Nassim Taleb likes to point out, every swan is white until you see a black one and every turkey is happy until Thanksgiving day.
5. Shifting Criteria
Somebody recently sent me an AdAge article which contained this delightful passage.
Print is facing declining circulation and, especially in newspapers, a rapidly aging demographic; radio ad sales are off sharply, while at the same time the once-promising satellite radio subscription model has proved endlessly unprofitable; TV, after getting past the “fragmentation” issue that was the obsession of the 1990s, has been covered by the huge black storm cloud that is DVR penetration.
See what he did? He predicts the demise of each medium using a different criterion. Even if his facts are right (and I certainly don’t stipulate that they are), every business has a mix of good and bad news. You can always cherry pick facts to support your argument and dismiss any facts to the contrary. This is sometimes known as confirmation bias.
Of course, he wasn’t writing an article for our general intellectual edification, he was selling something. He wasn’t quite clear on what it was or how it would work, but from the woeful misunderstanding of the marketplace displayed in his article, I strongly suspect he will have to cherry pick some more facts in order to make it appear successful.
6. Extrapolating Off The End Of The Curve
A headline in a recent Wall Street Journal article blared “TV Networks See Key Audience Erode” and then led the article with:
Fewer young people watched TV on traditional sets over the past television season, the second consecutive year of decline as viewers face a proliferation of ways to watch TV shows.
Hmmm. It would seem like TV is in for some trouble unless you stop and think about it for a second. Why has TV been declining for only two years and not five or ten? Is that when the “proliferation of ways to watch TV shows” started?
Surely not. It is more likely the decline is due to the fact that TV viewership has recently been at all time highs in both the US and UK. Moreover, TV viewership remains above the historical average. In proper context, the current situation looks a whole lot more than a reversion to the mean than anything else.
We never did hear much about the unprecedented levels of TV viewership when Pepsi dropped out of the Super Bowl to go on their social media adventure. Funny that!
Don’t Be A Victim!
Wherever you look, rhetorical fallacies abound and it’s easy to get taken in. Sometimes the mistakes come honestly, but often the sophists know exactly what they are doing, so you need to be on your guard.
One great way to equip yourself is by reading Jamie Whyte’s excellent book, Crimes Against Logic. He gives a wonderful and insightful account of how falsehoods and half-truths are often dressed up to appear authoritative.
Of course, some people say that nobody reads books anymore, but history tells us otherwise and if you want. I can find some facts to prove it (that’s what Google is for). After all, I was reading a book just yesterday and that can’t be a coincidence…