Monday, July 14, 2008

Political tricks

Politicians have always been experts not just at outright lies, but also at clever mind games such as push polling , straw man arguments , weasel words ( want some examples?) and the politics of fear. It's important to be aware of these methods as awareness and understanding of how they work is the best way to defend against them.

However, one method that works particularly well - a method related to the politics of fear - is very simple: opinion presented as fact (OPAF).

OPAF is rampant in politics. Often the claims can be subtle or malicious enough to seem true, and a favourite trick is to use exaggerated or embellished evidence that seems to corroborate the claim. In other cases however, the accusation or observation is simply based on strong dislike or even hatred.

It never ceases to amaze me that people take some outrageous claims for granted.

Let's take one random example of a ridiculous claim.

"The XYZ party is a party of drunk drivers".

The chances are such an OPAF is being stated because of one or two news items about members of the XYZ party being arrested for DUI. However, with liberal media being what it is and psychological elements such as the belief confirmation bias , people often lose perspective of quantity. They can begin to truly believe that the actions of two people can represent the actions of two thousand people.

The antidote is simple - ask for genuine evidence that the majority or even a significant portion of the party have been caught DUI. When such evidence cannot be presented, ask why somebody is stereotyping a whole party for the actions of a tiny fraction. In short, simply point out the truth - the accuser is using OPAF.

So how can we take a moral high ground and rise above OPAF? Simple, use citeable, credible evidence whenever making factual claims. Of course, not everything on the net is reliable evidence for use in a debate. However, the wealth of information is such that a credible source relating to almost any topic can be found if the user looks hard enough. Government sources (despite their obvious vested agenda) , the Election Commission web site , broadsheets or Berliners such as The Times or The Telegraph (though again, there is an NUJ vested interest) and scholarly papers are just some examples of credible sources that can be used. Credible sources such as these add value and respectability well over that of OPAF to any educated person.

Of course many other sites - such as my own here - are not neutral. But some non-neutral sites can offer useful links or at least present logical arguments against OPAF. A cognisant person should be able to detect the difference and discriminate accordingly.

Don't forget to cite your sources. At the very least, a mention of the web site (not just a link, but an actual sentence stating the site's name and source) should be used when copying chunks of text or any other situation where he writer could even risk being seen as using plagarism or simply when sources are likely to be scrutinised or queried. For citing academic works such as books, use one of these styles.

Again, a simple link with no description is not enough and would be considered very poor taste.

Using such evidence should help you wade through the murky swamps of politics, but take heart! At least we have a swamp to wade in. Less than half The World's nations live in a democracy and fewer still have a democracy as mature as ours. For all its many faults, the UK political system remains one of the best.

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