In debate strategy, there are assertions, counter-assertions, framing, reframing, rebuttals, and undermining. Then there’s the Gish Gallop, also known as “proof by verbosity,” “baffle them with bullshit,” or, latterly, the “Trump Tirade. “
This fallacious tactic seeks to drown an opponent “in a flood of individually weak arguments.” (In the case of Donald J. Trump, with outright lies.) The technique is named for Duane Gish (1921-2013), who managed, despite having earned a PhD in biochemistry from UC Berkeley, to define himself as a Young Earth creationist. (He was at one time the vice president of the Institute for Creation Research.) The American anthropologist Eugenie Scott, who was for many years the director of the National Center for Science Education, coined the term “Gish Gallop” in the 1990s to describe the “presentation of misconception after misconception” in public forums. (From 2011, here’s an example of a climate-science Gish Gallop.) Scott did not engage in unstructured public “debates” with creationists, preferring instead written debates that allow “the opportunity for documentation and references, impractical in oral debates.”
Via Adelaide (New Zealand) Climate News.
In July 2016, Steven Andrew (“DarkSyde”) wrote in the Daily Kos that Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee, had perfected the Gish Gallop, “leaving media overwhelmed in trying to correct his many whoppers”:
The Gish Gallop is an effective debating technique when used in front of laypeople who don’t know the facts, or believers who simply don’t care. Trump is not the first politician to use it effectively, and he probably won’t be the last. But Trump has elevated rapid-fire lying to angry mobs to heights not seen in presidential politics since the days of George Wallace.
Canadian historian and blogger Jonathan Crowe writes that the Trumpian strain of Gish Gallop is particularly pernicious:
Donald Trump’s variant of the Gish Gallop substitutes weak arguments with scandals and outrage, any one of which would normally be a political career-ender. But because Trump generates as many outrages in a day as most politicians do in a year, his political career stays alive. How? Because he presents too many targets for his opponents to get any purchase against a single one, and they exhaust themselves. It’s the political equivalent of a bed of nails, where the sheer number spreads the pressure out so that no single outrage can stab you and give you tetanus.
Rather than attempting to rebut each argument, writes Crowe, opposition activists must first choose their goal:
It’s not time for some game theory, it’s time for some Gene Sharp. He has literally written the book on nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes. Several books and pamphlets, actually: they’re available for download from his organization, the Albert Einstein Institution. You should read them. Not only are they full of methods for opposing an authoritarian regime, but they collectively hammer away at a single point. You have to have a strategy.
RationalWiki lists several cousins of the Gish Gallop technique. Watch for them in political speech of all kinds:
- Fractal wrongness (“the state of being wrong at every conceivable level of resolution”)
- FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt)
- Ham Hightail (named for Kenneth Ham, another creationist, it “consists of hurtling from point to point, ignoring all contrary evidence, and blithely regurgitating the Bible whenever evidence is required”)
- Just asking questions (also known as JAQ-ing off)
- PRATT (Point Refuted a Thousand Times)
- One-way hash argument (similar to a soundbite)
- Proof by intimidation