The instruments of the Academy have been designed to promote discovery of a factual and authoritative view of the world, and we should recognize that many of its members are working hard to do just that, recognizing the limitations of human knowledge.
Unfortunately the traditional ideas of academic discourse and freedom have come under some attack of late, while a growing minority who believe that their cause warrants them breaking the rules, will actually intentionally mislead you. Most are simply passing on the story from someone else who misled them using one of the methods discussed below. Therefore, this post is not about assigning bad motives to people — always assume the best, and always engage someone as they present themselves. If they present themselves as an open-minded thinker, then approach them as such, and call them on it when they fail to be. This post is about helping you identify when you are being misled and how.
There are, however always those within any group more committed to an agenda than to the truth. In the Academy, just as in the world, there are those who deny the one real and obvious answer, and look for any alternative. Some answers to questions are ruled out of the discussion a priori or before evidence is even gathered. This can lead to a phenomenon something like “We know the answer to 2+2 can’t be 4, so what could it be”? In other words, the obvious answer is considered false for personal or metaphysical reasons, therefore we have to keep looking for an alternative answer — which we may never find. For example a psychologist might believe that discipline of children is bad, therefore no problem that your child has could be attributed to lack of discipline.
The first major sign of being misled is the use intimidation. A simple example is in rhetoric like “every thinking person believes X.” When you hear this kind of thing, it’s a kind of intimidation isn’t it? Be forewarned. They are actually trying to get you NOT to think, and just accept what they are saying. This is an attempt to appeal to your pride. You wouldn’t want to be a non-thinking person would you? A closely related approach is demonization of alternatives. It’s one thing to critique an argument, even severely, but it’s entirely different to make the alternatives seem immoral, stupid, etc. Usually textbooks at least will avoid these very obvious techniques , but professors and peers may use them. If you see this in a text, or hear it from someone, it’s a red card. The basic thing you need to know is that if someone is trying to intimidate you, they are trying to keep you from the truth. The truth speaks for itself.
Most of the ways you will be misled are subtle because they are designed to be. A blatant error is easy to detect. Therefore, the actual facts you are presented are almost always facts. The issue is in how the facts are assembled. You will find that this works in both news media and in academic information. Here are several areas to watch for.
- What is presented. By choosing which facts to present, a very different portrait comes out. This can be either by which people are presented, how much space they are given, or what facts about the people presented. Take the “founding fathers” of America. There are a lot them. It is easy to promote a viewpoint by giving more space and emphasis to the ones that most represent your point of view, and ignoring or downplaying others.
- Assignment of cause and effect. The causes and effects of anything are usually complex. Therefore by assigning a cause or effect, you control the meaning of the event. This can be done implicitly by saying something like “After the American Revolution there was widespread poverty.” If you say this, it makes it sound like the primary result of the American Revolution was poverty. Or as a cause: “As taxes increased, so did civil unrest.” In this way the only cause for the unrest is supposed to be the taxes. By assignment of cause and effect you manage the story, which is the ultimate goal. If you fail to connect the dots, or connect the wrong dots, it is misleading.
- Use of labeling. Nobody wants to adopt a view that is considered extreme. Labeling is a way to make one group seem like outsiders and others seem mainstream. Scientist Michael Ruse argued against Christian William Dembski. This factual isn’t it? But Michael Ruse is presented as mainstream by being called a scientist, while Dembski is presented as biased by being labeled Christian.
- Selection of “experts.” A text that sounds neutral can mislead you by using non-neutral “experts” to make its real points. When combined with labeling techniques this is especially effective. “‘Evolution is fact’ said director Michael Ruse. Christians such as Dembski counter this claim. ” Now the article is making the point that Evolution is a fact, while seeming to remain “unbiased.”
- Inventing a controversy. For example, labeling someone “embattled” can actually make them embattled, whether they are currently or not. “Embattled President Obama fought off harsh criticism.” The author or his friends may be the only one criticizing the President, but nevertheless, he’s now under fire. The more we promote the “embattled” state of the president, the more embattled he actually becomes.
- Ignore opposing views. This is the opposite of inventing the controversy. By ignoring the opposition you create the appearance that something is undisputed.
- Misrepresenting the scale. Similar to the invented controversy, we can misrepresent the relative scale of a problem. “Homelessness is widespread in the United States” is a true statement, but it conveys something that may be misleading. Perhaps it’s actually trending downwards. Or perhaps by comparison to other countries the situation in the United States is much better.
- Equivocation. This is one of the most common, and not hard to detect once you understand it. Basically it equates two things that are not at all comparable. “Hitler and Kennedy both had a cult of personality” is a complete misrepresentation because it equates Hitler’s state enforced cult, with people that loved Kennedy, and furthermore makes Kennedy seem similar to Hitler, which is not the case!
- Unanswered Criticism. The problem with severe criticism is not any individual critique, it is the net effect which communicates that “there is nothing good about X.” Instead of presenting the other positives about whatever it is, or the we are barraged us with negative facts.
All of these methods are used in combination to make good seem evil and evil seem good. By exalting that which is bad and tearing down that which is good, the two become reversed and we find ourselves fighting on the wrong team. There are many more “logical fallacies” and In fact, most of these techniques overlap and can be used in combination. You can study the rules of argumentation and rhetoric to learn even more but I wanted to show you some of the most basic ways that those who are appearing to be completely reasonable and factual can totally mislead you.