iSoul In the beginning is reality

Countering false assertions

From the day-long Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 to the proliferation of newspapers in late 19th century long public arguments took place. That gradually declined as radio came in, then television, and public attention became increasingly divided. Sound bites replaced extended speech in the public mind. The power of images replaced the power of words. Public debate is conducted more and more through slogans, banners, and headlines.

In the midst of all this, public assertions are made that are believed by some to be false, or unsupported or poorly supported. How should people respond? The simplest way is to deny them. But a denial repeats the assertion and merely adds a negation. It reinforces the assertion, even as it tries to get a denial through the noise and distractions of daily life. The one making the denial is on the defensive, while the one making the assertion is on the march, calling the shots.

Consider this excerpt from George Lakoff’s Simple Framing:

Carry out the following directive:

  Don’t think of an elephant!

It is, of course, a directive that cannot be carried out — and that is the point. In order to purposefully not think of an elephant, you have to think of an elephant. There are four morals.

Moral 1. Every word evokes a frame.

A frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking. The word elephant evokes a frame with an image of an elephant and certain knowledge: an elephant is a large animal (a mammal) with large floppy ears, a trunk that functions like both a nose and a hand, large stump-like legs, and so on.

Moral 2: Words defined within a frame evoke the frame.

The word trunk, as in the sentence “Sam picked up the peanut with his trunk,” evokes the Elephant frame and suggests that “Sam” is the name of an elephant.

Moral 3: Negating a frame evokes the frame.

Moral 4: Evoking a frame reinforces that frame.

Every frame is realized in the brain by neural circuitry. Every time a neural circuit is activated, it is strengthened.

So the act of denying a false assertion doesn’t accomplish the goal of removing that assertion from people’s minds. More argumentation about it only makes things worse.

While it is impossible to completely remove an assertion from people’s minds, it is possible to neutralize it. Instead of contradicting it by a denial, it is more effective to make a contrary assertion. Since the truth may be complex, some simplification or exaggeration may be necessary in the headline statement so that a contrary is asserted. All this can be qualified in the details to follow, which few people bother with.

Donald Trump, recently elected President of the U.S., takes this rhetorical approach, perhaps excessively. A recent case in point is the assertion by some of his opponents that the Russians “hacked the election” so perhaps Hilary Clinton should have won. The administration of President Obama, her fellow Democrat, has said the election results “accurately reflect the will of the American people.” So there is no case for a recount, but the assertion has been made and some recounts are being pursued by the Green Party, with support from the Clinton team.

What should a politician do to counter this false assertion? A mere statement that there is no basis for a recount and that it is an attempt to cast doubt on the election would only reinforce the frame rather than undermine it. Instead, Trump makes a counter assertion: “millions of people who voted illegally” cost him the popular vote (but not the electoral vote). There is some evidence of this, and because he is the President-elect, the news media headline his assertion. The effect is to neutralize the original assertion.

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