Essay:Better rhetoric through bullshitting

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Essay.svg This essay is an original work by Nebuchadnezzar.
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The deadliest bullshit is odorless and invisible.
—William Gibson (attributed)

Here I want to list some bullshitting techniques that go beyond the basics like fake experts and glittering generalities. These can be more subtle framing techniques that tend to mix and match various fallacies that I have yet to be seen defined beyond my pet terms for them, or specific instances of fallacies and propaganda tactics that rely on common tropes. Suggestions are welcome. (Also a work-in-progress.)

Appeal to security clearance[edit]

A form of appeal to authority where any "factual" claim can be made without having to back it up because you have a higher security clearance than your audience and thus have access to intelligence you can't show them.


Argument by parable[edit]

This is essentially a way to get away with making a number of consecutive arguments by assertion while being unaccountable to any empirical data. The name is fairly self-explanatory: Simply construct a morality tale in which each step of the way relies on an untold number of unspoken assumptions but is still very plausible. The conclusion can then be accepted because "it's just common sense." This tactic is probably most heavily abused in pop psychology and pop economics.


  • This piece by Walter E. Williams called Understanding the Liberal Mind is a prime example. There are numerous implicit assumptions in every part of his argument, but the most egregious is his characterization of money as "certificates of performance." By his own logic, Paris Hilton is one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time and I have "served my fellow man" when I find a fiver on the ground.

Bait 'n' shift[edit]

The "bait 'n' shift" is a debating tactic that takes quite a bit of premeditation. It's something of a mixture between a declarative form of JAQing off and moving (shifting) the goalposts. This is a two-step process. First, you take a common talking point on your "side" of the argument. Usually it's a fact, statistic, or quote taken out-of-context. It's important that it isn't outright false, though. This is the "bait," which is injected into a debate without much context and will likely only be recognized by those who are familiar with the talking points. The other debater(s) then have to take the bait. If they say something like "Yes, and your point is...?" they have failed to take the bait and you need to bullshit your way out of it by hitting them with a line like "the facts speak for themselves." When they do take the bait, they will almost always make an argument against the larger context of the talking points the fact or statistic is connected to. When this happens, you have achieved victory, because you can declare them to be beating up on a straw man and then you can shift the goalposts away from your original non-argument. This also allows you to appear to have the moral and rhetorical high ground. Once the technique is properly mastered, it can be repeated such that you can trap your opponent in an endless cycle of bullshit, turning it into a Gish Gallop. It also works well with the uncertainty tactic, making it a denialist favorite.


  • Alice: Carbon dioxide emissions are causing an increase in global temperatures.
  • Bob: You know, over 95% of the atmosphere is water vapor and it is the most powerful greenhouse gas. (This PRATT is the "bait.")
  • Alice: A common denialist talking point! It says nothing about total climate sensitivity and the amplification of water vapor's positive forcing caused by CO2. It's just an out-of-context statistic. (Alice has taken the bait and associated Bob with global warming deniers.)
  • Bob: Denialist? Are you calling me a denier? I'm nothing of the sort. I never said man has no effect on climate! I'm merely saying you're overestimating the effects of CO2 on climate. This is the problem with you environmentalists, always so rigid in your ideology that anything that goes against your alarmist predictions is dismissed as denialism! Why can't we have some balance in the debate and try to just simply look at the facts? (Bob now takes the moral high ground with straw man accusations while ironically straw manning Alice's rebuttal, with some green-baiting thrown in for good measure.)
  • Alice: No, I'm pointing out that you're parroting a denialist talking point. What's your point?
  • Bob: I'm simply saying that there are all kinds of factors that affect climate besides CO2. Now take the sun, for instance... (Bob has successfully shifted the goalposts by moving the topic to solar irradiance, a separate topic from water vapor. The bait 'n' shift is complete.)

"Just a few bad apples" defense[edit]

The inverse of overgeneralization. Acts perpetrated by individuals can be written off as isolated incidents and those people are just a "few bad apples."


Token concern trolling[edit]

This is, rather obviously, a combination of tokenism and concern trolling as well as an appeal to authority. Unlike the regular concern troll, the token concern troll works to undermine a certain group from outside that group while claiming to identify with it. Another common spin on this is that the token concern troll will have claimed to have an "epiphany" or undergone a "conversion" to the other side. This is then used by "the other side" to tout the token concern troll as more "objective" and peddle their ideology to the group that the token belongs (or formerly belonged) to as well as a wider audience. It also lets the group the token concern troll is trolling for paint its enemies as "closed-minded" for not accepting the trolls "relevant criticisms."