As Orwell and many others have recognized, language plays a key role in influencing our thought. Propaganda is often spread using certain words and expressions or using them in a certain way.
A list of logical fallacies, also known as informal fallacies (formal fallacies refer to syllogisms, and are more like mathematical equations). Common examples are the straw man, ad hominem, and the argument from authority.
Here, rather than focusing on well known fallacies, I want to identify more specific types of propaganda that are currently popular in the mainstream media and among academics and journalists. These are expressions that may sound logical and high-minded if you don’t examine them carefully. They are generally used to criticize people dismissed as “unscientific,” or anyone who questions current dogma on major issues. What’s notable about these expressions is that they aren’t necessarily wrong or illogical per se. Rather, they are used in a particular manner to belittle and intimidate opponents.
Conspiracy Theory and Conspiracy Theorist
The term “conspiracy theory” is repeated so often that it’s easy to overlook that it’s practically meaningless the way it’s generally applied. It’s an example of words people mindlessly repeat without considering their meaning.
The problem is, everyone is a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracies are everywhere; this is not controversial. In fact, the term “conspiracy” is commonly used in law. The legal definition of conspiracy is when two or more people plan to commit an illegal act.
So everyone knows that conspiracies are not only real but commonplace. You’re only called a “conspiracy theorist” if you believe in conspiracies that go against official dogma. There’s even a conspiracy theory that the term itself was invented by the CIA. Whether that’s true or not, the term is used as a way to dismiss someone, usually without closely looking at their argument. As such, it can be considered a subcategory of ad hominem.
People who use “conspiracy theory” as a derogatory term are behaving in a programmed manner, repeating a trigger phrase they’ve heard many times. Since just about everything illegal and nefarious is a conspiracy, they are actually objecting to the kind of conspiracy you believe in –or that you’re open to considering; normies have trouble distinguishing between these two.
Even mainstream media and historians admit that many conspiracy theories are real. The implicit idea is that you shouldn’t believe any of them until it’s sanctioned by an official source.
Pareidolia technically refers to seeing patterns where there are none. This term was created to describe a specific type of misperception, such as seeing faces in natural phenomena such as cloud formations. The Rorschach test is based on the notion that the patterns people see in random inkblots reveal important aspects of their personality or repressed emotions.
For a good example of how mainstream pseudo-rational thinkers try to dismiss all “conspiracy theories” as pareidolia, see:
Note how they try to impress readers by invoking science and using a scientific and possibly medical-sounding term like pareidolia. The article’s subtitle defines the term as “the tendency of our brain to impose patterns on random data such as an image in an inkblot or a cloud.” However, conspiracies seldom deal with random data. It’s a verbal trick to events unfolding in the realms of society, politics, and economics. Referring to someone’s beliefs as pareidolia also implies that they suffer from a delusion or mental illness.
Transferring the concept of pareidolia from the visual world to the societal makes it far more vague and subjective. We can argue, for example, whether the Face on Mars was really created by an alien civilization or whether it’s just people imagining a face out of a rock formation.
But when it comes to seeing patterns and making connections between, say, political and corporate figures, dismissing it as pareidolia is often disingenuous. After all, powerful people often meet and plan together. There is plenty of overlap between high-ranking members of various governmental, corporate, financial, media, and other powerful institutions. There are connecting links, so the data isn’t random. Whether it’s a bona fide conspiracy or not may be open to debate, but few conspiracy theories are akin to seeing faces in clouds.
Consider a popular “conspiracy theory” that many US presidents and other influential figures are current or prior members of powerful policy-making organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Bilderbergers, and the Trilateral Commission. It’s actually well documented that there’s a great deal of overlap between public figures in politics, finance, and media, and CFR members.
The Historical Roster of Directors and Officers, published by the CFR itself, lists members such as David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, Bill Moyers, Richard B. Cheney (Dick), George Soros, etc.
So it’s hardly a mental disorder to see connections. Skeptics may respond, “so what?” and claim these links are normal and benign. The point here is that the links do exist.
Anecdotal evidence is based on anecdotes, stories, or individual cases, as opposed to scientific or academic studies. The whole notion is fairly recent. A great deal of pre-modern science, from Aristotle to the Renaissance, would probably be dismissed today as anecdotal.
Of course, it’s often valid to be skeptical of anecdotal evidence. It’s closely connected to the next term on our list, “correlation isn’t causation.” I can drink a cup of coffee and have stomach flu an hour later. This doesn’t mean the coffee was the cause. Anecdotes need to be scrutinized with caution.
That said, large numbers of “anecdotes” are more convincing, even if they aren’t conducted by the formal rules of modern scientific studies. To dismiss the claims of thousands of people simply because they don’t have the proper credentials is elitist and not very scientific.
For a mainstream analysis of why we shouldn’t be taken in by anecdotal evidence, see:
It’s worth noting that the author of the above article focuses on the supposedly fraudulent health benefits of wheatgrass juice. Yet he doesn’t present any evidence but merely quotes an authority who explains why wheatgrass juice can’t be effective. The implication is obvious: we should trust the words of experts above our own experience.
I managed to dig up a piece in the Washington Post that comes to the defense of anecdotal evidence. A quote from the piece, by Carlos Lozada, states: “the danger in scorning the anecdotal is that science gets too far removed from the actual experience of life…”
Correlation Isn’t Causation
This one, related to anecdotal evidence, is interesting because it is true when taken literally, yet can still be used as a propaganda tool. Two things, events, or variables may be correlated without one causing the other. If I eat at a certain restaurant and get sick, attributing it to food poisoning may or may not be valid. However, if 10 people ate at the same restaurant and got sick, the idea of food poisoning becomes a lot more compelling.
Suppose that, instead of a restaurant, we’re talking about a widely dispensed medication where many users report side effects. A pharmaceutical company, journalist, or government official could dismiss the claims as being unscientific until or unless a formal study is done. However, common sense might dictate that you listen to “anecdotes” and pay attention to correlations regardless of official findings.
What’s interesting about Occam’s Razor is that it’s completely unscientific. It states that the simplest explanation is usually correct. That’s it. The problem is, simple is often subjective and can end up meaning no more than accepted or conventional wisdom.
To use a controversial example, so-called conspiracy theorists often talk about the destruction of Building 7 on 9/11. This building, never hit by a plane, collapsed in a manner similar to the two main towers. The mainstream explanation is that the building was hit by debris and collapsed. Objectively speaking, is this really the simplest and most straightforward explanation?
Although anyone who questions the official 9/11 narrative is instantly dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, some extensive research, especially on Building 7, has been conducted by engineers and academics. See, for example, A Structural Reevaluation of the Collapse of World Trade Center 7.
I’ve also heard people use Occam’s Razor as a way to discredit UFOs and supernatural phenomena. Recently, of course, the military has released UFO files and the whole topic is being rethought and legitimized. That’s the point. When UFOs were assumed to be the realm of crackpots, Occam’s Razor would tell you that it’s more logical to assume an unidentified flying object is a plane. There’s no logic at work here; simply conventional wisdom. As UFOs become more accepted by sanctioned authorities, it no longer seems as farfetched to believe in them.
So Occam’s Razor isn’t based on objective ideas of simple but is always tied to prevailing norms. Here’s a case where I can actually use a mainstream media outlet, The Atlantic, to support my case:
Just Because It Sounds Reasonable Doesn’t Mean It Is
These are just a few common examples of how logical-sounding terms can be used as tools to manipulate us. In all these cases, it’s not that these tools are completely useless or intrinsically deceptive. We shouldn’t blindly believe anecdotal evidence or mistaken correlation for causation. The important BUT here is that sometimes anecdotes reveal important truths and correlated variables may indicate causation. And countless conspiracy theories are true.