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Strawmen and slippery slopes: how to spot politicians tinkering with the truth

By Susan McDonald
illustration of political debate
‘Some politicians use fallacies all the time, all use them some of the time.’ Photograph: TarikVision/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As a magician’s audience suspends its disbelief, in Australia’s parliament you aren’t allowed to call someone a liar. But in the real world people say it out loud; they don’t trust politicians. That’s depressing, particularly in the middle of an election campaign when voters are about to exercise their democratic right.

Aristotle had his doubts about democracy. He knew persuasion – the language of our politics – has a much lower evidence bar than the rigorous logic used in science; you can persuade people merely by “seeming to prove” a truth. Fast-forward to the US political strategist James Carville’s boast: “Truth is what you can make the voter think it is.”

We’re getting better at recognising the bald-faced lie – the one that instantly fails the pub test. But other ways of tinkering with the truth are harder to spot. Cue fallacies: believable arguments based on false reasoning.

Some politicians use fallacies all the time, all use them some of the time: to deflect and distract and to win arguments, rather than deal head-on with difficult policy issues.

Here are seven fallacies (a far from exhaustive list) to watch out for.

Strawman

The strawman strategy is to set up a distorted, easily refuted, version of your opponent’s position and attack that instead. So Labor is soft on China, says the Coalition when it’s criticised over the Solomon Islands deal. And a policy debate with a teal independent turns instead to their links to Simon Holmes à Court. In both cases the strawman argument is set up to deflect.

The converse is steelmanning: dealing directly with the issue, even helping your opponent build their best argument, and then demolishing that. It’s the soundest way to argue if you really want to come up with a constructive solution to a problem (and if you manage to find a politician who prefers to steelman, vote for them quickly before they change their mind!).

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

As London mayor, Boris Johnson was upfront about using the “after this, therefore because of this” fallacy when discussing the effects of the city’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc – we’ve won the cricket, the rugby and qualified for the World Cup. Can I claim them as an Olympic benefit? I don’t know, but I’m going to try.”

Political parties take credit for anything positive that happens on their watch and slam others for anything negative that happens on theirs. So the Coalition takes credit for low unemployment and is blamed by the opposition for the rise in inflation and interest rates.

But correlation doesn’t equal causation.

False dilemma

If a politician says you’re either with them or against them, don’t take the bait. They’re painting a situation in black and white when there are many shades of grey: think pandemic policy framed in zero-sum terms as a choice between health and the economy, or the claim climate change action will necessarily hurt jobs. (The already mentioned Solomon Islands strawman does double time as a false dilemma).

Such framing oversimplifies complex issues into two mutually exclusive choices, when there are actually many possible policy responses.

Slippery slope

This type of argument has been employed in debates on assisted dying and asylum seeker policy. It posits a certain course of action will lead to a (hypothetical) extreme result, and it’s often accompanied by an appeal to fear (see below) rather than evidence.

Labor has used this strategy to claim the Coalition will expand the cashless welfare card to pensioners. And both sides of the federal integrity commission debate have employed the slippery slope fallacy – one to argue about the danger to our democracy if politicians aren’t held accountable, and the other to warn of the threat posed by “kangaroo courts”.

Appeal to fear

Scare campaigns have worked before – Mediscare in 2016 and “death taxes” in 2019 – and may again. We’ve heard this time that Labor’s changes to the safeguard mechanism will be a carbon tax by stealth, that the independents are threats to national security, and again that the Coalition will weaken Medicare. Even without evidence, such claims fall on receptive ears.

Voters are susceptible to fears that play into stereotypes. If the Coalition is viewed as stronger on the economy and security and Labor is trusted more on health and education, arguments that fit into those biases are an easy sell.

Cherrypicking (AKA ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’)

Selectively using data that supports your proposition – and ignoring what doesn’t. Examples are the claim by the Coalition that Australia’s carbon emissions have fallen by 20% and Labor’s assertion that Australia’s debt is higher than it has ever been.

Both claims are disingenuous, as they omit to mention critical caveats about the data.

Ad hominem

Targeting Scott Morrison’s religion, calling the Greens “woke warriors” and independent candidates “anti-Liberal groupies” or suggesting Anthony Albanese is hypocritical to own an investment property are all ad hominem attacks on a person or group, rather than the argument they are putting forward.

So is calling the Guardian “a trashy publication”. It’s a lazy distraction, and mean-spirited.

Such fallacious arguments only weaken political debate. But much of the time they go unnoticed, and are likely to fall under the radar of any official truth-in-advertising or integrity accounting.

The only thing a voter can do is learn to recognise them and avoid falling for them. You might not be able to keep the bastards completely honest – but at least you won’t be taken for a mug.

• Susan McDonald is a news producer for Guardian Australia and a freelance writer

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Dive Deeper:
Federal election: Penny Wong, Marise Payne clash over relationship with Solomon Islands, China — as it happened
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Labor's Foreign Affairs Shadow Minister Penny Wong clash in a debate at the National Press…
An oddly civil election debate, before Dutton finds a warship-shaped dead cat
The foreign policy debate between Marise Payne and Penny Wong was the most civil and constructive exchange of the election…
PM strikes empathetic tone as vote looms
One week out from the election, the coalition has unveiled a program to get more students involved in sport, while…
Kevin Rudd attacks ‘idiot’ Peter Dutton over ‘hairy-chested’ comments on China
Former Labor PM says if China wanted a reset with Australia he ‘could not think of a dumber thing to…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Were minor parties the big winners? 3 experts on the final leaders' debate
Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese faced off in the third and final leaders’ debate on Wednesday night on the Seven…
Campaign comes alive as Morrison stakes his reelection bid on cutting wages
Finally there’s a real difference in policy: Labor says lift the minimum wage, the PM says that’s ‘economic vandalism’.
Get all your news in one place