Posts Tagged ‘dark arts’


“Decoys” by V.H. Hatter, CC SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. No endorsement implied.

The Phenomenon

The “fake news” phenomenon plays on highly predictable and prevalent weaknesses in human cognition: confirmation bias, ownership/endowment effects, and belief overkill using messages with high affective valence, usually negative. Emotions of fear, outrage, and suspicion typically are featured, but sometimes positive themes are used too, like appeals to feelings of patriotism or nostalgia for an idealized past. The images selected typically reflect whatever the emotional focus is, or whoever (or whatever, in the case of abstract institutions) is the target of that focus. There is no attempt at truthful communication. Sources are often described rather than named (think pizzagate’s “New York City police detective”, or phrases like “sources close to the Trump family”). Essentially, fake news stories follow the same sort of style as tabloid writing: sensationalistic, unverifiable, and over-the-top claims are made about publicly recognizable figures for money. That’s nothing new. Tabloid journalism has been around since papers started being printed. What’s “new” about fake news is that: (more…)

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The folks over at the blog Less Wrong use the term ‘dark arts’ to refer to the usage of knowledge about heuristics and biases, fallacies, and human rationality generally in a manipulative, destructive or otherwise sinister way.  A recent post there focuses on this manner of using presuppositions:

An excellent way of doing this is to embed your desired conclusion as a presupposition to an enticing argument.  If you are debating abortion, and you wish people to believe that human and non-human life are qualitatively different, begin by saying, “We all agree that killing humans is immoral.  So when does human life begin?”  People will be so eager to jump into the debate about whether a life becomes “human” at conception, the second trimester, or at birth (I myself favor “on moving out of the house”), they won’t notice that they agreed to the embedded presupposition that the problem should be phrased as a binary category membership problem, rather than as one of tradeoffs or utility calculations.

This sort of thing is nothing new to argumentation theorists, of course, but the explicit labeling of such maneuvers as “dark arts” may well be.  Argumentation theorists, rhetoricians, and informal logicians often think in terms of fallacies, mistakes or blunders instead, usually meaning to impute no moral status to such things.  In the main I think this is wise, as highly developed skill at arguing and avoiding fallacies and other such mistakes is rare. That being the case it would be deeply problematic to assume nefarious motives lying behind every fallacy.


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