Sunday, January 01, 2006

Propaganda: A Handy Guide

Happy New Year. To bring in the new year, I want to post something I just came across on Usenet. I am unaware of the author, but it was posted by someone simply identifying himself as "Makz." Here it is:

Everyone and every organization has an Agenda, or reason for what they doand say. When evaluating news, try and figure out why the information is being presented as it is. Does the writer of an article have an interest in one side or another of the issue presented? The editors who write a paper's editorial are also responsible for selecting which news articles are published. Is someone calling attention to a problem also using the problem as a springboard into the spotlight? Try and determine what is gained by the presenter. Are they selling something? Trying to influence your vote?

Example: Advertising-supported media (lots of websites, newspapers, television channels) get money from advertisers to show advertising. Advertisers will pay more if their message reaches more people. So there is pressure to present information in such a way which draws people.

Logical Fallicies

Often in the news "arguments" are presented which, when examined rationally, make no sense. A few "facts" are presented and then a conclusion or call to action is stated. But upon examination, the facts don't support it. Often there has been one or more Sins of Omission committed which, if rectified, render the argument nonsensical. All the other problems described on this page also apply.


Names have power. You react differently if told about a "controversial" budget amendment than a plain old budget amendment. Be aware of what names and labels are given to subjects in a story. This is often used in The Numbers Game to make a study match the Agenda of the presenter. Some studies considered 18- and 19-year-olds "children." This made the number of "children" who did something or suffered some fate vastly inflated. But it let the presenter make an Appeal to Emotion to "do it for the children."

Appeal to Authority

Have you ever read an article where it said "experts say..." or "according to experts,..."? Who are these unnamed experts? Do they really exist? Are they so well known that stating their names would tip you off to the Agenda of the writer? You can't evaluate an unknown expert's statement unless you're an expert in the field under discussion. But you can always choose to ignore it.

There is also the danger of celebrities/authorities making statements in an arena where they have no experience. Does the person really have an understanding of the issues involved, or are they just using their fame to push their Agenda?

Appeal to Emotion

Read this section for the children; you'll be glad you did. :-) If faced with two competing arguments, try and see which is mainly based on emotional appeals, and which is mainly based on real fact and reason. It is important to get past the emotional parts of an argument to see if the solutions proposed are warranted and if the solutions would really have the desired effect.

Sins of Omission

What word is missing from sentence? Unfortunately, sins of omission are much harder to detect in real life. When something relevant is left out of a story, it can change the impact significantly. The omission can be either intentional or unintentional, but to be aware of it you either have knowledge about the subject or use Primary and Multiple Sources. Omission is a big problem in The Numbers Game.

Diminutive Dismissals

Don't waste your time reading this boring section. If someone does not want others to read a certain book, see a certain movie, etc. he may dismiss it with a gross oversimplication or outright lie about its contents. Be aware of short dismissals of things which give little or no information about the thing. If it is so bad, how did it get produced?

The Numbers Game

Did you know over half of all people who drank water will die? Statistics and numbers seem to be more often misused than not in the news. There are twice as many as one thing to keep in mind about them:

1) Statistics are based on studies. You cannot judge the study without understanding how/when/where the study was conducted, what the Labeling of things in the study means, what Sins of Omission were committed, and among other things, was the study conducted correctly?

2) Numbers also depend on Labeling of terms, but also on the psychological power of raw numbers. As of this writing, America has a population of over 281,000,000. Keep this in mind when people start shouting how something caused 10,000 deaths or 50,000 injuries or whatever.

How can you judge statistics and other numbers? It is hard to judge statistics, given you need so much more information than you will have available. You can, however, simply ignore them. It can help to judge raw numbers by figuring out what it means in percentage terms. My calculator says 50,000 / 281,000,000 is about 0.018% of the population. Is that sufficient to justify new legislation or whatever call to action is being pushed?
One other thing that I think is important to consider is that virtually everyone uses the techniques listed above from time to time. It's a side effect of being human and imperfect. Logic and cold reasoning are hard, and we have busy lives and limited resources. Sometimes we need to take shortcuts. This applies to individual bloggers as much as to (if not more than) major media outlets. However, this doesn't change the fact that none of the items mentioned above constitute valid reasoning. I guess this is a good illustration of how the quest for truth is really a never-ending struggle. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep struggling.

Just some food for thought to get started in 2006. Hopefully this year will not suck nearly as much as recent years have.


At 3:39 PM, Blogger Phyl said...

The "appeal to authority" and "appeal to emotion" are exactly the sort of thing that Ayn Rand used to call the "Argument From Intimidation." Interestingly, people on her side of the ideological fence are the people who I've seen use these horrible "arguments" the most.

Their efficacy comes from people not wanting to appear stupid or to deny the "authority." So they rush to agree with the conclusion, not even examining it most of the time, because they've been intimidated into feeling that if someone with "authority" thinks this way, why, it must be something that carries weight. No matter how stupid it is.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger cke said...

Yay! Phyl posted a comment! Phyl posted a comment!

Okay, enough of that. :)


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