There’s a name for Trump’s technique to overwhelm the public with a stream of tiny lies

A barrage.
A barrage.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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We’re entering a new era of rhetoric. We hear daily that we’re living in a “post-fact” reality where politicians and press secretaries spout obvious falsehoods, yet emerge unscathed—or even victorious. So it may be some comfort to know that this tactic of overwhelming the public with lies has historical roots—and has been overcome before.

The “Gish Gallop” is a well-established method of outmaneuvering rhetorical opponents with an overwhelming onslaught of dubious arguments. Also known in debate circles as “spreading,” its curious name is an homage to Duane Gish, a biochemist and creationist who used it to great effect in evolution debates through the 1980s and 1990s.

The Gallop works by leveraging two basic tendencies in human reasoning. First, it’s easier and faster to make a false claim than it is to disprove one. Second, if an opponent fails to disprove every single one of the spurious statements you state, you can claim victory on the leftovers.

Formal debates often discourage this tactic with rules limiting the number of points a presenter can make in a certain period of time. In the modern media landscape, we’re not so lucky: Televised debates, radio panels, and talking-head opinion shows are the Gallop’s natural habitat. This is because charismatic speakers can make falsehoods entertaining—Gish was a masterful showman by all accounts—whereas careful refutation is about the most boring thing on earth. And which would the entertainment networks rather supply their audience with?

The tactic is so effective that it can be applied to almost any argument, provided you invest enough time and confidence into your points. Build up a long stack of artfully worded statements, and even an absurd supposition like “The earth was created in 11 minutes by the Flying Spaghetti Monster” demands a serious response. Here are a few of the most common elements of such a stack, used to explain the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

  • Unsubstantiated claims that are difficult to disprove: “Numerous studies have confirmed that the core of the earth resembles a meatball”
  • True statements that are irrelevant to the initial claim: “The noodle is so universal, it has an equivalent in almost every cuisine on earth”
  • Intentional misinterpretations of familiar facts: “Many islands are the result of volcanic eruptions—a functionally similar process to the extrusion of pasta”
  • A refutation of arguments that no one is actually asserting: “The popular idea that the earth was created by an enormous Easy Bake oven assumes the prior existence of ovens—a human invention”
  • Self-referential statements: “11 minutes is exact amount of time it takes to properly cook dry spaghetti, and this is reflected in the Earth’s creation time”
  • Slightly modified restatements or combinations of previous “facts,” in order to increase their number: “Why would both noodle and meatball morphologies be so constant in earth’s geology if they weren’t a part of its creation process?”

The argument is ridiculous, but it’s easy to consume. Meatball-core planets and lava dribbling like noodles are fun to think about; explaining why they’re wrong is a chore.

There are a few ways to push back against a Gallop, and none of them are easy. The first step is to simply be aware of it as it’s happening: Has the speaker shifted rapidly from point to point? Are there frequent restatements of suspiciously similar ideas? Recognizing and organizing these fallacious arguments together makes it easier to knock them down in fewer steps—but it’s still a drag. For this to work, however, you have to want to recognize a Gallop, so it’s only effective for the open-minded.

Reframing the argument is more effective. A skillful debater can essentially ignore the list and focus in on a single coherent counter-argument that is difficult to debunk by its very virtue—done well, this can make the Gallop look frivolous by comparison. The problem today is that the respondent has to be prepared, as interesting as the Galloper, and receive the same amount of attention—all circumstances that are scarce in the era of Facebook and the modern news cycle.

The more fundamental meta-tactic is to change the ground rules. Just as in a debate, where we have the option of limiting the number of points a speaker can make, we can create online formats designed to discourage Galloping. For example, the rising prevalence of real-time fact-checking is an encouraging step in this direction. But this can only have significant impact, if viewers and readers actively support the platforms that employ these methods with their eyeballs and subscriptions.

For now, the best we can hope for is an educated audience, and if we’re diligent, a hunger for genuine debate that matches our hunger for zingers and soundbites. In an era when the Gallop has become the preferred tactic of the nation’s highest office, its more than just a rhetorical exercise.