Cutting through Political BS to Find the Truth

Cutting through Political BS to Find the Truth

  1. Determine what sources to use
  2. Remove labels from arguments
  3. Beware of simplistic solutions
  4. Don’t repeat or share information which doesn’t pass this smell test
  5. Make sure you understand the issue from all perspectives


Determine what sources to use

Judging from numerous comments I hear and read, I have to say that many people - if not most people - begin and end their search for the truth with this step. The first and only question to be answered seems to be “Who can I trust to give me the truth?” Since this is where people tend to go, I’ll start here. What sources should you use?

Finding the right sources of information is an important step in a quest for the truth, but I would argue that it is the least important step of the five steps listed above. I would go further, and say that the question of finding good sources of information will take care of itself if you follow the other four steps. The logic behind the arguments, and not the source of the arguments, is what is important.

When you focus on which sources to use – and, by implication, which sources not to use – you run the risk of falling into one or more of the numerous traps awaiting you. Many people tend to use sources which they know will confirm their own viewpoints. Many “news” sources – whether they are print, TV, radio, or internet sources - are in reality propaganda machines designed with the sole purpose of catering to people looking for confirmation bias. These sources are not interested in giving you the whole story.

Confirmation bias can take the form of “this is the other side of the bias from other sources” or “everybody else is not telling you the truth”.

You will not find the truth if you rely on biased sources for information. On the other hand, you can’t dismiss sources for the sole reason that the sources themselves are biased. The fact that a source is known to be biased is enough to eliminate it as a primary source of information, but is not in and of itself a reason to reject all arguments from that source. As they say, even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.

What about using fact-checkers as sources? These are sources which do the research so that you don’t have to research the claims yourself, and then they draw their own conclusions. The conclusions from these sources are not – by themselves - valid arguments. In other words, “because Snopes said so” is not a valid argument. There are many reasons a rational person might disagree with some of the conclusions of fact-checkers. Perhaps the conclusions do not logically follow from the evidence presented; perhaps the fact-checkers didn’t consider all of the available evidence; perhaps the fact-checkers misinterpreted the claims being analyzed; perhaps the fact-checkers demonstrate a lack of knowledge in the subject matter. A fact-checking site can provide useful pieces of evidence, but it is only one source. The evidence and logic used, and not the conclusions alone, are relevant to an argument.

Perhaps you are confused by what I have said so far. I haven’t said which sources to use. For the most part, I’ve used this section mostly to point out some traps for truth-seekers to watch out for. Using a search for the “right” sources as the only method for determining the truthfulness of reporting doesn’t work very well. That’s why I added four more steps to the process.

Remove labels from arguments

I consider this to be the most important step in the process of cutting through political BS and arriving at the truth. It is also a difficult step to apply on a consistent basis.

When I speak of labels, I am referring to names used as substitutes for concepts or procedures, when concepts and procedures are more nuanced than the names (labels) imply. If different people could have different views as to the nature of a concept or procedure, then its name is a label which likely adds BS rather than truth to an argument. This includes the views of those who disagree with you, even if you insist that they are wrong.
If the specific terminology used in an argument changes the implications of the argument, even though the underlying facts are the same, then that terminology is a label that adds BS to the argument.

Most of us have always used labels as part of our normal language, without realizing that our choice of words changes the implications of what we believe to be true. This makes it difficult to recognize labels in arguments.
Words which reflect political or philosophical tendencies are labels. Names for religious affiliations are labels. Names for economic philosophies are labels.

I am not saying that labels are things to avoid. Labels don’t always imply something negative. Labels can be useful tools for understanding someone’s general point of view. However, when the choice of labels used in political arguments determines the conclusions to be drawn – when the specific choice of words is more important than the concepts behind the words – then the conclusions are political BS.

Labels make it easy for us to make straw man arguments without realizing it. They also make it easy for us to buy into the straw man arguments that others make.

Whenever implications from the language used in an argument form the basis for the conclusion of the argument, the straw man fallacy is committed. If the language used makes a difference in the conclusion, it is a logical fallacy.

A number of common fallacies of logic are committed through the use of labels.

How do you see through political BS when arguments include labels?

If the conclusion from the argument is a label, then you can reject that argument completely. There is no valid argument present.

For example, “that’s socialism!” is not a valid argument for rejecting an argument for a specific economic policy. Socialism is a label, and judging the argument on the label does not address the merits of the specific policy. In order for such an argument to be valid, it would have to establish specific negative outcomes of socialism, and show that the policy in question would indeed result in those same specific outcomes.

If an argument includes a label as a premise rather than as a conclusion, remove the label from the argument and see if the argument still holds up. If necessary – and if possible – replace the label with words which convey the specific implications of the label. After doing so, does the argument still address the issue at hand? Does the conclusion follow logically? If it isn’t possible to restate the argument without labels and still have the argument follow logically, then the argument itself is BS.

In addition to labels enabling obvious logical fallacies to occur, labels create miscommunication and contribute to political polarization. Many political arguments, including those over hot-button issues, remain unresolved because each side argues from a different set of labels or from different interpretations of the same labels. The same points of contention get argued ad nauseam, with nothing new added to the discussion. Often, such polarization takes the form of an either-or logical fallacy.

We can’t resolve hot-button issues because everybody is viewed as belonging to one of two opposite positions (the labels). Room could exist for a consensus on many of the details, but the details become irrelevant as long as only two opposing positions are acknowledged.

Beware of simplistic solutions

Unless a proposed solution to a political problem includes an analysis of all costs and benefits, then it is not likely to be a rational solution. If a proposed solution indicates a lack of understanding of the details being discussed by experts, then it is not a rational solution. If a proposed solution is a shoot-from-the-hip reaction rather than a well-thought-out plan, then it is not a rational solution. We may find simplistic solutions somehow appealing in a complex and frightening world, but simplicity doesn’t add rationality.

Don’t repeat or share information which doesn’t pass this smell test

Here is my smell test. If a piece of information doesn’t sound true, don’t share it. Watch out for red flags to indicate a failure of the smell test.

If you believe all the headlines in the National Enquirer, then you flunk the smell test. Let’s face it. If a story is big enough to make instant headlines as a world-changing event, we would know about it from sources other than a tabloid magazine.

By the same token - regardless of what you think of the mainstream media - some stories simply would not be ignored if they were true. If you find a major news story which is only reported by a single partisan source, the lack of widespread reporting should be a red flag to indicate something is likely wrong with the story. Perhaps the story is completely false; perhaps the details have been taken out of context in order to make you think the story is bigger than it really is. But if it really is big news, you would be finding out about it from sources other than one individual partisan source. Yet I see people share such stories on social media all the time. These stories keep fact-checkers busy.

I would suggest that if you see a “big” story from a partisan source - but not from any other source - do some research before sharing the story. Verify the story first. Otherwise, you are contributing to a misinformed public.

And, of course, watch out from stories originating from satire sites. You only make yourself look foolish when you share such stories as if they were real.

Make sure you understand the issue from all perspectives

Don’t judge others. Isn’t that what our religious leaders tell us? If you base your political positions on what people on one side say about the motives of people on the other side, then you are doing nothing more than passing judgment.

“The other side is evil.” Really, do people on the other side admit that they are evil? Of course they don’t. Find out what the perspective is from all sides before you decide. You cannot possibly be searching for the truth if you only listen to what one side of an issue has to say about it.

If you aren’t looking for the truth, you will believe the BS.

Jerry Wyant