Manipulative tactics are those that can get people into believing something without giving any reason to think the belief is true. Informal fallacies are errors in reasoning that are often used as manipulative tactics, but sometimes we can use a manipulative tactic without actually committing an error in reasoning. Although informal fallacies are only one type of manipulative tactic, philosophers often treat all manipulative tactics as though they are fallacies. Just about every type of manipulative tactic has a corresponding fallacy. I will give examples of various manipulative tactics and corresponding fallacies. I hope to help make it clear that the difference between fallacies and potentially nonfallacious manipulative tactics is generally not important enough to worry about. Some people might defend a manipulative tactic by insisting it’s “not actually fallacious,” but that reply would usually miss the point.
Rational argumentation is persuasion based on having good reasons to believe something made explicit, and rational arguments are generally respectful as a result.
On the other hand manipulative tactics are generally considered to be inappropriate ways to persuade people to believe something. They are generally disrespectful. People generally use manipulative tactics to get people to believe something based on poor reasoning rather than because it’s what they should actually believe. A manipulative tactic is not necessarily an argument (or argument-like reasoning). No one has to actually tell you why you should believe something. Instead, it can be considered to be a “logical booby trap”—something that is likely to cause other people to think fallaciously.
On the other hand fallacious reasoning must have premises and a conclusion. Of course, not all fallacious arguments are explicitly made and we are often expected to fill in the blanks ourselves.
Types of manipulative tactics
Also known as “cherry picking” and “selective evidence.” One-sided information is provided to give us the misleading impression that the information we have is sufficient to jump to a certain conclusion.
Consider that the news often talks about the bad things Muslims do in foreign countries. This gives us the impression that Muslims are bad guys. However, the news could instead keep talking about bad things done by Christians. That might give people the impression that the Christians are bad guys. The problem is that people are likely to reason about things based on having limited information and jump to conclusions based on their ignorance. Muslims also do good things, but such an idea is unlikely to shape public opinion concerning Muslims when it’s never mentioned.
One-sidedness is also a fallacy—to conclude something based on limited information when crucial counter-evidence has been left out. The media could have explicitly argued the following:
- Muslims do lots of bad things.
- Therefore, Islam probably motivates bad behavior.
The problem is that people from every group do bad things, and it would not be a good reason to assume that their group affiliation is the cause of their bad behavior. Even so, almost no one would explicitly argue this way. The one-sidedness fallacy would be pretty useless if it only applied when people give such explicit arguments. The one-sidedness fallacy is mainly worth learning about because we are likely to try to use one-sided manipulative tactics against us rather than because explicitly one-sided arguments are often presented.
2. Red herring
A red herring is a distraction (often from counter-evidence or an objection). It’s often used to change the subject. For example, a politician who is asked about his thoughts on invading other countries (and has unpopular thoughts on that topic) is likely to change the subject and say something like, “Well, what’s really important to me is making sure more people have jobs, and I know how to do it.” Sometimes red herrings also deflect criticism by shifting people’s attention to a negative characteristic of an opponent.
The red herring is also considered to be a fallacious type of argument. A more explicit version would be:
- Carla argues that all whales are mammals because they are warm-blooded, unlike fish.
- However, Carla also argues that the moon is made of green cheese based on a dream she had.
- Therefore, Carla’s argument must be poorly reasoned.
This argument is clearly more explicit than a person would likely ever present in real life. The conclusion (Carla’s argument must be poorly reasoned) would almost certainly only be implied because the argument sounds so much less persuasive when it’s spelled out explicitly. What we call the red herring fallacy is almost always a manipulative tactic rather than an explicit argument. Even so, we could generally say that a red herring fallacy is often implied by the manipulative words used by a person.
3. Ad hominem
Ad hominems are disparaging remarks, which are generally used the same way as a red herring.
Consider the following illustration:
John argues, “We know whales are fish because they are all warm-blooded.”
Carla then asks, “But all fish are actually cold-blooded.”
Then John says, “Carla wants to tell us what fish are like, but I saw her smoking marijuana an hour ago.”
The ad hominem in this case is meant to turn the audience against her and perhaps even reject her argument out of hand as a result. However, there was no explicit argument. Even so, we might think that the manipulative tactic used by John was meant to somehow be a reason to reject her argument—perhaps the conclusion that was implied is “Carla’s argument must not be well reasoned.” Such a conclusion made explicit could make John’s use of the ad hominem much less effective because it doesn’t sound quite right when made explicitly. His use of the ad hominem will likely be much more effective when no explicit argument is actually made. I think it’s clear that this is also true of fallacious ad hominem arguments generally. They are meant to distract us and turn us against someone.
4. Appeal to force
The appeal to force is persuasion based on a threat. For example, certain beliefs have been heretical and people who say heretical things have been put to death. This type of persuasion tells people what they are supposed to believe, but it’s much more likely to cause them to just keep their mouth shut. Even so, such a threat of force could give people the false impression that everyone agrees that certain views are wrong in addition to silencing the opposition (which could lead to one-sided thinking).
The appeal to force is also known to be a logical fallacy, but it is unlikely to directly persuade anyone to believe anything. Even so, it is clearly a manipulative tactic that can be used to silence opposition and perhaps even win a debate as a result.
5. Loaded language
Also known as “doublespeak.” Loaded language is used give people a certain attitude or assumption. For example, we call innocent people that our military kills “collateral damage,” but innocents killed by our enemies are called “massacred innocent civilians.” This gives the impression that the innocent people killed by our military don’t matter much (and were unintentionally killed), but it makes it sound like the killing of civilians by our enemies is so much more horrific and unjustified. This is likely to soften the blow and prevent people from opposing the military involvement.
Loaded language is also known as a fallacy. An explicit example is the following:
- Some job creators will hire fewer employees if we raise taxes on them.
- We shouldn’t do anything that could reduce the number of jobs out there.
- Therefore, we shouldn’t raise taxes on job creators.
In this case ‘job creator’ is being used as a synonym for rich person. This term leads to an equivocation between rich people and those who actually create jobs. It is assumed that taxing rich people will literally cause a drop in the number of jobs that are available.
The example above is unlikely to ever be explicitly given, and I expect no loaded language fallacies to be used in such an explicit way precisely because it is so much less persuasive. In this case talking about taxing job creators might be enough to get people to jump to the conclusion that taxing them could reduce the number of jobs.
6. Shifting the burden of proof
When in a debate, people have the burden of proof to argue for their controversial assertions (which is pretty much any assertion the opposing side disagrees with). Whenever a reasonable objection is raised against one side of the debate, it has the burden of proof and it is expected to respond to the objection. Some people try to illegitimately shift the burden of proof away from themselves and towards the opposing side.
Consider the following illustration:
Tina says, “We know God exists.”
Mark responds, “Why should I agree with that?”
Tina then says, “We should agree that God exists unless we have a good reason to think he doesn’t exist!”
In this case Tina has attempted to shift the burden of proof off of her position (that God exists) and onto the person who questions the existence of God.
Shifting the burden of proof is also a type of fallacy. A more explicit example is the following:
- We should assume unicorns exist unless they are proven not to exist.
- We know of no proof that unicorns don’t exist.
- Therefore, we should assume unicorns exist.
Shifting the burden of proof is also much less persuasive when it’s explicitly spelled out, so we shouldn’t expect that to happen very often.
There’s no major difference between manipulative tactics and fallacies
I see no good reason to worry too much about whether someone uses any of the above manipulative tactics in the form of a fallacious argument rather than merely by presenting certain manipulative information. Why? First, because the manipulation is the same either way and that’s the reason that they are worth mentioning now and then. Second, because there is no clear line between a fallacious argument and a manipulative tactic. Fallacious arguments are almost never spelled out explicitly and the conclusions are often only implied. Manipulative tactics are similarly not made to look like explicit arguments, and they are also made in the hopes of causing other people to think fallaciously.
The distinction between manipulative tactics and fallacies is often blurred. For example, logic teachers talk fallacies found in advertising, even though they are mainly about manipulative tactics.
Accusing people of using fallacies
We should be careful in how we accuse others of using manipulative tactics or fallacious arguments for the following three reasons: (1) I suspect many people who use manipulative tactics do so unintentionally, (2) many times we think people are using manipulative tactics who aren’t even trying to use persuasion, and (3) there’s always a chance of believing arguments are fallacious that aren’t really fallacious in the first place. (This is one reason we should try to be charitable—to try to interpret the arguments of others in a way that might make the arguments stronger than they really are rather than weaker than they really are.)
A while back Stephen Bond wrote about how people often wrongly accuse others of using fallacies, such as the ad hominem fallacy. I agree that probably happens quite a bit. However, Bond also says,
[I]f you can’t demonstrate that your opponent is trying to counter your argument by attacking you, you can’t demonstrate that he is resorting to ad hominem. If your opponent’s sarcasm is not an attempt to counter your argument, but merely an attempt to insult you (or amuse the bystanders), then it is not part of an ad hominem argument.
Actual instances of argumentum ad hominem are relatively rare. Ironically, the fallacy is most often committed by those who accuse their opponents of ad hominem, since they try to dismiss the opposition not by engaging with their arguments, but by claiming that they resort to personal attacks. Those who are quick to squeal “ad hominem” are often guilty of several other logical fallacies, including one of the worst of all: the fallacious belief that introducing an impressive-sounding Latin term somehow gives one the decisive edge in an argument. (The Ad Hominem Fallacy Fallacy)
Bond is making it sound like ad hominems must be explicit and don’t count when they aren’t, but I don’t agree with that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad hominem used as an explicit reason to reject an argument (or statement). Moreover, ad hominems could be used as a manipulative tactic, and I suspect they are very commonly used that way. When people use manipulative tactics, I think we can legitimately call it out.