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Logic and rhetoric
“”If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!
|—Albert Einstein, commenting on the book 100 Authors Against Einstein|
The Gish Gallop (also known as proof by verbosity) is the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort. The Gish Gallop is a belt-fed version of the on the spot fallacy, as it's unreasonable for anyone to have a well-composed answer immediately available to every argument present in the Gallop. The Gish Gallop is named after creationist Duane Gish, who often abused it.
Although it takes a trivial amount of effort on the Galloper's part to make each individual point before skipping on to the next (especially if they cite from a pre-concocted list of Gallop arguments), a refutation of the same Gallop may likely take much longer and require significantly more effort (per the basic principle that it's always easier to make a mess than to clean it back up again).
The tedium inherent in untangling a Gish Gallop typically allows for very little "creative license" or vivid rhetoric (in deliberate contrast to the exciting point-dashing central to the Galloping), which in turn risks boring the audience or readers, further loosening the refuter's grip on the crowd.
This is especially true in that the Galloper need only win a single one out of all his component arguments in order to be able to cast doubt on the entire refutation attempt. For this reason, the refuter must achieve a 100% success ratio (with all the yawn-inducing elaboration that goes with such precision). Thus, Gish Galloping is frequently employed (with particularly devastating results) in timed debates. The same is true for any time- or character-limited debate medium, including Twitter and newspaper editorials.
Examples of Gish Gallops are commonly found online, in crank "list" articles that claim to show "X hundred reasons for (or against) Y". At the highest levels of verbosity, with dozens upon dozens or even hundreds of minor arguments interlocking, each individual "reason" is — upon closer inspection — likely to consist of a few sentences at best.
Gish Gallops are almost always performed with numerous other logical fallacies baked in. The myriad component arguments constituting the Gallop may typically intersperse a few perfectly uncontroversial claims — the basic validity of which are intended to lend undue credence to the Gallop at large — with a devious hodgepodge of half-truths, outright lies, red herrings and straw men — which, if not rebutted as the fallacies they are, pile up into egregious problems for the refuter.
There may also be escape hatches or "gotcha" arguments present in the Gallop, which are — like the Gish Gallop itself — specifically designed to be brief to pose, yet take a long time to unravel and refute.
However, Gish Gallops aren't impossible to defeat — just tricky (not to say near-impossible for the unprepared). Upon closer inspection, many of the allegedly stand-alone component arguments may turn out to be nothing but thinly-veiled repetitions or simple rephrasings of the same basic points — which only makes the list taller, not more correct (hence; "proof by verbosity"). This essential flaw in the Gallop means that a skilled rebuttal of one component argument may in fact be a rebuttal to many.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Types
- 3 Why it's a problem
- 4 How to respond
- 5 Examples
- 6 Argumentum ad tl;dr
- 7 Abusers of this technique
- 8 See also
- 9 External links
- 10 References
“”On the radio, I have been able to stop Gish, et al, and say, "Wait a minute, if X is so, then wouldn't you expect Y?" or something similar, and show that their "model" is faulty. But in a debate, the evolutionist has to shut up while the creationist Gallops along, spewing out nonsense with every paragraph.
Creationists are fond of it; see "101 evidences for a young age of the Earth and the universe" or the various lists of creationist scientists. Sam Harris describes the technique as "starting 10 fires in 10 minutes".
Gish Gallops can be sorted into spoken and written types. Both have different advantages and disadvantages (for both the Galloper and the Gallop-ee).
In spoken debate
The formal debating term for this is spreading. Because debates are timed, the technique arose as a way to throw as much rubbish into their speaking time as possible, leaving an opponent no choice but to ignore multiple ones. In response, some debate judges now limit number of arguments that a debater can make as well as time, and opponents and moderators often try to keep people on topic as closely as possible. However, in places where debating judges aren't there to call bullshit on the practice (like the Internet, or where creationists control the environment) such techniques are remarkably common. Any audience whose consciousness isn't quite raised to the technique may mistake it for a vast breadth of knowledge on a subject.
As Gary Fine put it in Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture:
It is now common for negative teams [against the topic of the debate] to attempt to win [debate] rounds by "spreading" their affirmative [for the topic of the debate]: presenting as many arguments as they can in their constructive [opening] speeches in the hopes that their opponents may not answer one argument ("drop it"), leaving it on the flow [a chart of arguments made within the debate] for the judge to base the[ir] decision on. Negative teams have the advantage of being able to focus on selected affirmative arguments, while, in general, affirmative teams must respond to every negative argument. Some negative teams present a dozen different arguments with numerous subpoints, none well developed, but each an argument to which the affirmative team must respond. Many debaters understandably feel that this strategy is unfair and 'a scare tactic'. In the process, the round becomes filled with arguments that are not fully developed, teams talk past each other, and the round becomes hard for judges (and opponents) to flow [fill in that chart of arguments made in the round].
For inexperienced live debaters, in the public or academic setting, spreading can be a difficult tactic to respond to. The Gish Gallop in particular relies on making numerous points that are difficult to follow individually, often on a sufficiently wide variety of points that an opponent likely will not have the working knowledge of every subject touched on required to respond to it. The most effective (or in some cases only) way to respond to it is to press through the fog of bad presentation, following these points individually so that they can be lumped together based on their respective, individually weak arguments and then dismantled in groups, and maintain as a broad knowledge base for situations where research can't be easily consulted. On the whole, most of the difficulty of dealing with it is due to the learning curve — it can definitely be overcome with practice.
In written debate
“”Cite a giant wall of text, or a three hour long [Y]ou[T]ube video, and then claim it as irrefutable proof.
When they ask for the relevant excerpt, whine about how it's not your job to do the research for them.
When they go through the video and start explaining why the video is wrong, accuse them of cherry picking [...] because they aren't addressing the "important" arguments.
When they ask you what the important arguments are, insist that it's not your job to do the research for them.And... repeat.
In written form, a Gish Gallop is most commonly observed as a long list of supposed facts or reasons, as a pamphlet or green ink web page, with a title that proudly boasts the number of reasons involved — see the examples below. The individual points must also be fairly terse, so that each point individually can be easy to refute. Writing a single paragraph or two to refute, say "How come there are still monkeys?" is easy enough. But combined, a Gish Gallop might run to the same length as an essay of several thousand words, as each point requires in-depth deconstruction, refutation and evidence, whereas the initial assertion needs to be just that, an assertion.
This provides insight into the motives of the Galloper. By using a quantity of arguments as a quality itself, a Gish Gallop tries to create the illusion of authority and weight of evidence. It is effectively style over substance. If brevity and ease of understanding were the aim then they would be better off with a smaller number of points, like "the best five reasons" or "the top ten arguments" as opposed to lists of hundreds. If, on the other hand, the aim was a coherent and thorough argument (as suggested by the word count), then the purpose would be best served by using the thousands of words expended in the Gallop to make a full essay, with each point expanded and elaborated on to ensure it was thoroughly argued.
For example, in "77 Non-religious Reasons to Support Man/Woman Marriage," the overall word count is around 2,300 — the size of a substantial essay that would include references, quotes, definitions, asides and thoroughly unpacked terms. Yet the list of reasons itself contains no such things — it is mostly repetitive points on the same vague theme masquerading as separate reasons. Citations aren't given, reasons aren't expanded upon, they are merely left hanging despite the word count being available. In short, the point is not to provide "77 reasons" but to provide "77 reasons."
To supporters, the illusion works, but those who disagree with the Galloper's points often find the repetitive assertions and non-explanations tedious.
Why it's a problem
“”A fool throws a stone into a well and it requires a hundred wise men to get it out again.
“”They muddy the water, to make it seem deep.
|—Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra|
The Gish Gallop is often used as an indirect argument from authority — as it appears to paint the Galloper as an expert in a broad range of subjects (in which case it may take several actual experts in multiple fields to properly debunk the Gallop) or with an extensive knowledge of an individual one. Simultaneously it presents opponents (in spoken debates) or refuters (in written, Internet-based ones) as incompetent bumblers who didn't do their homework before the debate. Such emphasis on style over substance is the reason many scientists disdain public debates as a forum for disseminating opinions.
Use of poor evidence
It is often successfully combined with the "point refuted a thousand times" (PRATT). The Gallop must consist of as many points as possible, and even old and worn out arguments are useful in overwhelming the respondent and bamboozling the audience. The technique also takes advantage of the one single proof fallacy, since if a respondent only manages to refute 99 out of 100 points there is still one point that proves the Galloper correct. The Galloper takes to heart the advice (commonly misattributed to Joseph Stalin) that "quantity has a quality all its own."
Effort involved in refutation
“”The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.
|—programmer Alberto Brandolini|
Refuting a Gish Gallop is hard. Not because it's a well-formed argument that forces you to reconsider your worldview in a new light, a process taking critical thought over a long span of time. Not at all. It's hard because there's so fucking much to refute. Every claim probably requires at minimum one Google search, a writeup of what was found, and a link to the source. Conversely, making the claim only requires one of those steps: the writeup itself. And if the Gish Gallop itself seems to have some substance, this process becomes much harder: each claim's evidence must be thoroughly debunked. As such, the debunker must understand both the claim and why it's bullshit. The claimaint need only understand the claim itself.
All of this is compounded once further if the Gish Galloper chooses to respond to the rebuttal. The Galloper need only win on one issue to claim victory. Thus, they can attack where their evidence is strongest and/or their opponent's evidence is weakest and thus distort the debate. Even though the rebuttal has won on the vast substance of the debate, the Galloper can play up any failures of the rebuttal as "critical flaws" or "central failures" that make everything else invalid. As such, the rebutter must either (1) make their initial rebuttal so ironclad that it cannot be debated, which is incredibly time-consuming, or (2) fight an unfair second debate after they have already exhausted themselves while winning the first debate.
And worst of all: when the first Gish Gallop is completely rebutted, the Galloper may simply produce a second Gish Gallop, repeating this whole process once more.
Psychologist Brian Earp once described how a hypothetical researcher, Lord Voldemort, could swamp the scientific literature in favor of a certain medical procedure. As he wrote:
A similar phenomenon can play out in debates in medicine. In the case of Lord Voldemort, the trick is to unleash so many fallacies, misrepresentations of evidence, and other misleading or erroneous statements — at such a pace, and with such little regard for the norms of careful scholarship and/or charitable academic discourse — that your opponents, who do, perhaps, feel bound by such norms, and who have better things to do with their time than to write rebuttals to each of your papers, face a dilemma. Either they can ignore you, or they can put their own research priorities on hold to try to combat the worst of your offenses. It’s a lose-lose situation. Ignore you, and you win by default. Engage you, and you win like the pig in the proverb who enjoys hanging out in the mud.
Avoidance of introspection
Let us assume that the Galloper is Galloping in good faith. They genuinely believe every word of the nonsense they spew. It may be that they recognize that they cannot weave their ideology into one coherent mass -- that it is flawed and has contradictions. But they are too invested to ever let it go. The Gish Gallop -- spewing out a point and then quickly moving on -- might be a preservation mechanism in the face of facts you don't like. As Ryan Mackey writes in The Great Internet Conspiracy:
Debunkers and skeptics have long held that the Gish Gallop is a tactic designed to frustrate opposition and create the illusion of controversy, which it certainly does. However, the behavior may also be a cause rather than a symptom. The rapid change of topics also allows a conspiracy theorist to avoid an undesirable topic or uncomfortable fact before it leaves any lasting impression, moving on instead to ground that feels safer until that too is abandoned, and so on.
If this is one’s response to any and all criticism, we have every reason to expect some holes and inconsistencies in one’s recollection. Short-term memory fades. We sometimes need to apply special practices to remember things. The Gish Gallop is the exact opposite, a technique not to remember, a means to permanently avoid or repress something we wish to forget. Hence we may argue with a conspiracy theorist endlessly, finding ourselves retracing old ground with nauseating consistency.
Misuse of statistics
Not only may the arguments contained within the Gish Gallop misuse statistics, but the case for the Gish Gallop itself may make fallacious use of statistics. For example, in Conservapedia's cp:Counterexamples to Evolution, the claim is made that "even if there is merely a 10% chance that each of these counterexamples is correct... then the probability that the theory of evolution is true is less than 1%". This is flawed logic in at least two ways. For one, probabilities given for arguments almost certainly emerge fully formed from a rectum, and could be much lower (e.g. zero). In addition, calculations such as the one described assume that all the probabilities are completely independent, which is untrue for practically all Gish Gallops, given that all the arguments are related to a common theme.
How to respond
There are several ways to rebut a Gish Gallop:
- Gish Rebuttal: Go toe-to-toe and rebut every individual argument. This is the most difficult method (since every point is in contention). Potential pitfalls include the fact that if the rebuttal features even one error, the Galloper can seize on that (see "Single Flaw Rebuttal") and claim all rebuttals are similarly flawed. Extensive and authoritative take-downs may also strain the attention span of the audience. Even the best arguments are worthless if they are never heard.
- Small Sample Rebuttal: Select a portion of their arguments (first 10, random 10, etc.) and rebut that. This is the second most difficult method (since many points are in contention). This has the benefit of casting doubt on the quality of the Galloper's remaining arguments as being similarly flawed. It is also less likely to drain the attention of the audience than a point-by-point analysis. But, it also leaves the rebuttal open to accusations of cherry picking, and still requires more effort in rebuttal than the Gish Galloper used in the first place.
- Overriding Theme Rebuttal: Attempt to identify an overriding theme or essential fact that unites some or all of the points of the Gish Gallop, and attack that. The advantage of that is that it can attack several arguments at once by undermining the premise of them all. It is also most likely to force the Galloper to engage in debate because they are more likely motivated by some emotional or logical core of beliefs than by any one of myriad facts in the Gish Gallop.
- Best Point Rebuttal: Ask the Galloper to select and summarize the "best" proof and debate that. This is one of the easier methods since only one point is debated and the burden of proof is shifted to the Galloper. It is also more likely to result in a collaborative discussion that could change minds because it forces the Galloper to consider what is actually important to them, rather than seeing right or wrong as an abstract quantum of proof. However, this method depends on the Galloper actively engaging with the rebuttal and putting effort in to defending their arguments, which is generally antithetical to the Gish Gallop in the first place. The Galloper can avoid engaging by arguing that all the other points are good enough to win, in effect accusing you of asking for one single proof).
- Single Flaw Rebuttal: Select the weakest argument the Galloper presents, rebut it, and call it a day. This is the one of the easiest methods, since it's necessarily the easiest-to-rebut argument. But it leaves any rebuttal open to the charge that the it lacks the apparent authority or effort of the Gish Gallop.
- Fallacy Namedropping: Say that it's a Gish Gallop and walk away. This method is unlikely to change any minds. However, because the point of the Gish Gallop is to make opponents waste time and energy playing a game on the Galloper's terms, the best move may be to not play.
The strength of the Gish Gallop is in its ability to create the appearance of authority and control. The Galloper frames the debate and forces opponents to respond on their terms. The Galloper wins by making the point that their opponents have failed to disprove their arguments sufficiently or completely enough for their satisfaction. Their goal is not to win on the facts, but to minimize the time and effort they need to expend to achieve maximum apparent credibility, while ensuring that opponents expend maximum time and effort in rebuttal for inconsequential gains. They want to drop a bomb into your lap and run away, telling you it can only be disarmed when they say it is, and that it isn't their job to tell you when it's disarmed.
Defeating the Gish Gallop is about putting the bomb back into the Galloper's lap, or at least tricking them into staying in the room with you while it ticks down. Success depends on re-framing the debate to put the Galloper on the defensive. Make them elaborate on their points and to reveal potential weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge. Get them to assign value to their own arguments so that they cannot later claim that any successfully rebutted points were unimportant. Find ways to tie the Galloper's credibility to the viability of one or all of their points such that the Galloper feels compelled to engage and defend. If all else fails, shift the debate away from the Gish Gallop so they can no longer rely on the apparent mountain of proof to support their position.
The following are some prime examples of the "Gish Gallop." They are usually characterized as "lists," titled "100 reasons why..." or similar. Thus, the points raised in the Gallop are often very short and non-specific. It takes a lot of effort to fully refute everything and it is far easier for the Galloper to add another question than it is for the respondent to formulate a suitable answer, which is the point behind the tactic.
- 200 Evidence-Based Reasons NOT To Vaccinate, by alternative medicine website GreenMedInfo
- One of the most notorious anti-vaxxer Gish Gallops out there.
- 100 Authors Against Einstein
- Published in 1931, this was an attempt to discredit the theory of relativity by weight of numbers alone — although "100" authors was an overestimate. Because of the simple errors and straw man nature of the work — not helped by the brevity of the entries — Hans Reichenbach described it as "unintentionally funny," and Einstein observed that "if [he] were wrong, one would have been enough"!
- Top 11 Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Power, by prominent anti-nuclear organization Nuclear Information and Resource Service
- Once Amory Lovins manufactured some arguments against nuclear power in the early 1970s, this tactic became the anti-nuclear power argument.
- 200 Proofs Earth is Not a Spinning Ball, by Flat Earther Eric Dubay
- Reconsidering Climate Change
- Given 70 points and presented in a 110 Mb Powerpoint file, this was referred to by Skeptical Science as a "climate 'Gish Gallop' of epic proportions."
- Ask Darwinists, by Muslim creationist Harun Yahya
- 25 mostly meaningless questions, some of which are just the same thing repeated for a different example. They're not terribly difficult to answer, and in most cases the best response is simply "so what?"
- 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe, by Christian creationist organization Creation Ministries International
- Yep. 101 evidences. Countable nouns be damned! Trying to refute this work takes time, a lot of time. Years, in fact. But that's the point! Under the principle of falsifiability, only one piece of evidence is needed.
- Scientific Facts in the Bible: 100 Reasons to Believe the Bible is Supernatural in Origin, by Christian creationist Ray Comfort
- Ray Comfort habitually attempts to Gallop through as many "facts" as possible, in order to overwhelm the casual reader
- 50 Reasons to Believe in God
- Ponatahi Christian School's list of reasons they teach creationism
- 29 points in total. But once you realise that the first two points allow them to pick and choose what science to believe in "just because," there's not much point in continuing further down the list.
- Questions college students should ask science professors, by Uncommon Descent
- Just 16 questions need so much background knowledge in so many different fields it is unlikely that any single person can answer them all without background research.
- A Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military, by the Family Research Council
- This continuously-expanded list contains 66 (!) very brief descriptions of so-called persecution of Christians. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has an excellent response.
- 77 Non-religious Reasons to Support Man/Woman Marriage, from the Eagle Forum
- Raging Against Self Defense: A psychiatrist Examines The Anti-Gun Mentality, by Sarah Thompson of the "Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership"
- A pseudoscientific Gish Gallop dressed up to look like a journal article, complete with reference to The Talmud ("If someone comes to kill you, arise quickly and kill him."). How can you argue with THAT?
- 100 reasons that climate change is natural, from the Daily Express
- 100 reasons, each reason with about 20 words in it. To pick one at random: "6) Significant changes in climate have continually occurred throughout geologic time" doesn't actually prove anything!
- 276 strange coincidences of 9/11, from NC911Truth.org
- 276! Usually it's the ink that's green, not the background.
- The whole silly flood story, from the anti-YEC, pro-science Skeptic Report
- Some good points thrown in alongside some absolutely wretched illogic and nonsense in a rambling list.
Argumentum ad tl;dr
A related distraction technique involves swamping an opponent in long-winded screeds of text to artificially inflate the appearance of depth and quality of information presented. In an argumentum ad tl;dr, the actual content of several paragraphs can be summed up in a sentence or two. While the Gish Gallop floods an opponent with many, but relatively short points, argumentum ad tl;dr flings text walls so massive and impenetrable that even
Victor Hugo Marcel Proust would blush. Both tactics, however, have exactly the same purpose: to bury and obfuscate the core points that need to be discussed under a quantity of superfluous information. A user might well think that these techniques show that they know what they're talking about, but in the end they act simply as distractions. Note that both are different (but not mutually exclusive) from argumentum ad nauseam, which bolsters the apparent credibility of the argument simply by repeating the same thing over and over and over and over again.
For example, Jason Lisle's blog posts and "research paper" about the anisotropic synchrony convention prattle on endlessly about relativistic physics, hiding the fact that his fundamental assumptions were, to say the least, a little far-fetched. Similarly, engineer Dewey Larson has written numerous books on his theories about matter, going on for pages and pages about the need for critical thinking and letting evidence fit hypotheses, when what he actually proposes in these weighty self-published tomes can be summed up in one sentence — a sentence that he doesn't get to himself for at least 3-4 chapters.
Abusers of this technique
- Donald Trump
- William Lane Craig
- Dinesh D'Souza
- John Hawkins has made a career out of this technique
- Scott Huse
- Alex Jones
- Christopher Monckton
- Dennis Prager (See Still the Best Hope)
- Ray Comfort
- Ben Shapiro
Cousins of this technique:
- Fractal wrongness
- Ham Hightail
- Just asking questions
- One-way hash argument
- Proof by intimidation
- Gish Gallop: When People Try to "Prove" Things By Using Overwhelming Nonsense, at Effectiviology
- How Not To Argue With Creationists, by Jim Lippard
- Debating Creationists: Some Pointers, two articles at TalkOrigins
- Gish Gallop section in the great book, Debunk It! by John Grant
- "Debates and the Globetrotters", Talk.Origins
- Snowball, D., 1994: Theory and Practice in Academic Debate: A Reference Guide. California State University, Fullerton.
- You can hear some mind-boggling examples here.
- Proverbs, Maxims and Phrases of All Ages
- Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen
- The 'bullshit asymmetry'
- A climate 'Gish Gallop' of epic proportions, Skeptical Science
- No! Not the list of stumpers again, Pharyngula