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Political Obfuscation

Thinking Critically about Public Discourse

THE 2016 GENERAL ELECTION, like those before it, provides an example of how public officials can obscure discourse with five common techniques: utilizing dangling comparatives, using “average” in a misleading manner, fear mongering, offering anecdotes as evidence, and using euphemisms and dysphemisms. This article is designed to provide citizens with the tools to recognize and combat such obfuscation.

1. The Dangling Comparative

When one encounters a dangling comparative, he or she should always ask “Compared to what?”

According to Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, authors of UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, a dangling comparative “occurs when any term meant to compare two things—a word such as ‘higher,’ ‘better,’ ‘faster,’ ‘more’—is left dangling without stating what is being compared.”1

In 2004, a George W. Bush television advertisement claimed “[John] Kerry supported higher taxes over 350 times.”2 This claim seems to suggest that Kerry voted to increase existing tax rates on numerous occasions. In fact, he did not.

Note that the word higher is a dangling comparative. The utilization of this dangling comparative allowed President Bush to use instances in which Senator Kerry voted to retain and even reduce current tax rates as evidence that the latter supported “higher taxes.”

Imagine a situation in which John Kerry voted against a Republican proposal to cut the tax rate from 20 percent to 10 percent. Did he vote for “higher taxes”? It depends on whether one compares his vote to the Republican proposal or the current tax rate. If one compares Kerry’s vote to sustain a 20 percent tax rate to the plan to cut the tax rate to 10 percent then he could be accused of supporting “higher taxes.” But if one compares his vote to the current tax rate he did not vote for “higher taxes” at all. He simply voted to maintain the existing rate of 20 percent.

Likewise, suppose Democrats put forth a competing plan to reduce the current tax rate of 20 percent to 15 percent. If Kerry voted for the Democratic tax plan did he vote for “higher taxes”? Again, it depends on whether one compares his vote to the existing tax rate or the proposal put forth by the Republicans. If one compares Kerry’s vote to reduce the 20 percent tax rate to 15 percent he clearly voted for a tax cut. But the Bush campaign actually counted comparable votes as support for “higher taxes” because Kerry could have voted for the lower 10 percent tax rate suggested by the Republicans. Remarkably, the use of the dangling comparative can turn a vote for a tax cut into a vote for a tax increase.

Republicans, of course, do not have a monopoly on using the dangling comparative to obfuscate the facts. In 2001, the Democratic National Committee produced a television advertisement that featured a young girl holding up a glass and asking “May I please have some more arsenic in my water, Mommy?”3 The message was that President Bush wanted to put “more arsenic” in drinking water than was currently allowed. In fact, he did not.

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About Skeptic

DECEPTION IN CANCER TREATMENT SPECIAL ISSUE: The Cancer-care Industry’s Marketing is Among the Most Deceptive on the Consumer Landscape. SPECIAL SECTION: Classic Skepticism: The Amityville Hoax at 40; Alien Sulls: Do the Mysterious Rhodope Skull and Adygea Skulls Belong to Aliens?; The Real Meaning Behind the Nazca Geoglyphs; Clown Panics: Sightings of Mysterious Clowns Rattle Nerves ARTICLES: The Case for a Galactic Defense System; Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?; Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?; Luck and Regression to the Mean: One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment; Political Obfuscation: Thinking Critically about Public Discourse. COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Anti-Aging Claims: The Fountain of Youth is Still Only a Legend, by Harriet Hall, M.D.; The Gadfly: Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better? by Carol Tavris REVIEWS: “Three books about the Salem Witch Trials and their legacy: The Witches: Salem, by Stacy Schiff; In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, by Mary Beth Norton; America Bewitched: America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem, by Owen Davies JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Mammoth Mysteries! Part Two, by Daniel Loxton