RHETORICAL TRICKS

Rhetorical tricks are informal and misleading ways of making arguments.


Rhetorical "tricks" are often presented as reasoning, but in reality seek to confuse arguments or to appeal to people's biases. There are many examples of rhetorical tricks. Below are a small number of examples:

1) Tricks to confuse arguments.


A) Red Herrings (distractions added to argument).

Example: Overwhelming evidence from across the natural sciences support the hypothesis that human activity is substantially changing the climate (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014).

Red Herring: "It’s a snowball, and that’s just from outside here, so it’s very, very cold out, very unseasonable.” -- James Inhofe, (R-OK), 2014.

* Weather is a red herring in arguments about climate because weather is a local phenomenon and climate is global.


B) Argument from ignorance (we can't prove something so it isn't happening)

Example: Overwhelming evidence from across the natural sciences support the hypothesis that human activity is substantially changing the climate (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014).

Argument from ignorance: "I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.” -- Scott Pruitt, 2017

* There are always things we do not know. However, being ignorant in some respects does NOT mean that we do not have enough information to be very confident that human activity is changing the climate.


C) Shifting burden of proof (if you can't prove I'm wrong, I'm right)

Example: The fact that there are Muslim terrorists does not mean that all Muslims need to prove that they are NOT terrorists (Pew Research Center, 2017).

Shifting the burden of proof: "But the silence in the face of extremism coming from the best-funded Islamic advocacy organizations and many mosques across America is absolutely deafening. It casts doubt upon the commitment to peace by adherents of the Muslim faith." -- Mike Pompeo, 2013.

* Shifting the burden of proof changes the debate from a presumption of innocence (i.e. not supporting terrorism) to a presumption of guilt.

2) Tricks to appeal to biases


D) Ad hominem (attacking the speaker)

Example: Donald Trump proposes to build a wall on the U.S. Mexico border

Ad hominem attack: "Donald Trump is morally unfit for office" -- James Comey.

* The personal character of politicians does not necessarily relate to their policy positions.


E) Appeal to authority/history

Example: The United States prints the slogan "In God we Trust" on currency, and states "one country, under God" in the pledge of allegiance.

Appeal to authority/history: "There is of course nothing in the decision reached here that is inconsistent with the fact that school children and others are officially encouraged to express love for our country by reciting historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence which contain references to the Deity or by singing officially espoused anthems which include the composer's professions of faith in a Supreme Being, or with the fact that there are many manifestations in our public life of belief in God." -- Aronow vs. United States, 1970.

* The Supreme Court argues that a historical privilege for religious statements justifies continued privilege for religious statements.


F) Appeal to the masses (everyone can't be wrong)

Example:Widespread opposition to the Vietnam war.

Appeal to the masses: "And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support." -- Richard Nixon, 1969.

* Politicians frequently argue that mass support for them justifies their policies.

There are many rhetorical tricks. Learning about rhetorical strategies is interesting, and can be helpful for identifying weak arguments.