Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

NOTICE: On the “Gish Gallop” false accusation tactic and fallacious dodge


In a recent comment clipped by GP in the Jerad thread, Keiths has used the rhetorically dismissive term “Gish Gallop.”

Let me cite:

KS: . . . with gpuccio it is sometimes possible to zero in on the crux of a disagreement. You can’t do that with Gish Gallopers.

Now, as I will shortly show, this is a loaded and abusive, name-calling assertion that first seeks to smear a specific person, then to invidiously associate all who are skewered with it, with his alleged rhetorical crimes.

For instance, this is how the so-called Rationalwiki defines:

The Gish Gallop, named after creationist Duane Gish, is the debating technique of drowning the opponent in such a torrent of half-truths, lies,  and straw-man arguments  that the opponent cannot possibly answer every falsehood in real time. The term was coined by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Sam Harris describes the technique as “starting 10 fires in 10 minutes.”

 In short, this term is an accusation of lying, distorting and the like on a wholesale basis, further allegedly in order to overwhelm an opponent and thus prevent answering the flood of falsehoods.

Something is very wrong here, however, even after taking the questionable list of sources cited at face value for the moment, for the sake of discussion.

For, it is well known that to select several examples of actual falsehood or gross error and to expose them normally suffices to ground the conclusion that the party who has actually indulged such a flood of false assertions, is not responsible or credible and should be dismissed.

One slice of such a spoiled cake has in it all the ingredients, and all that.

In short, if the accusation were TRUE, it would be quite easy to overturn such an argument.

It would fail so spectacularly, that it would be rhetorically suicidal.

{U/D 12/07: Am makes himself a poster child for this, here, here and here.}

Provided, the other side of the debate or discussion were in command of the actual facts, not mere ideological talking points and disputable opinions.

So, it is quite plain that there is no real need for such a named fallacy.

And, in the case of Mr Gish, it is well known that he consistently won debates on origins science by focussing on the problem that the fossil record is full of gaps that lead to a want of on-the-ground evidence for body-plan level macroevolution.

{U/D: here is Ken Ham’s summary of the relevant history, and here and here we may see John Morris of ICR on debates. It is to be noted that Creationist spokesmen, for forty years, have actively sought debates, and have had such a long-running pattern of success, that it is the advocates of body-plan level Macro-Evolution by blind chance and necessity who have counselled their colleagues not to participate in debates. As a result, while Gish seems to have taken part in some 300 – 400 debates and Henry Morris some 100, such are reportedly rare today.

I note ICR President John Morris’s summary on the substantial balance of such debates:

much of ICR’s early growth can be attributed to those who attended these [early] debates and were convinced by the evidence.

Most often the creationist’s evidence presented was from the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, the ubiquitous trend of thermodynamics’ second law which negates the possibility of evolutionary development, and the exquisite design and order in the universe, particularly in the living cell, far beyond the reach of mere random mutation and natural selection. The evolutionists usually countered with ad hominem attacks, the appeal to authority, and perceived difficulties in the Bible. When evolution evidence was presented, it was inevitably limited to minor variations “within the kind,” not addressing the origin of basic types at all.

The ICR debaters could tell some interesting stories, such as the time when the evolutionist imitated an ape behind the creationist speaker, or when an evolutionist challenged Dr. Gish to grab exposed electrical wires, or when a photo of fossil specimens were presented (supposedly showing transitional forms) which were not to scale, not in the geologic order found, and augmented with hypothetical drawings. In all cases, the creationists responded with dignity and scientific decorum, sticking to the scientific subject. Often it was this Christian attitude and respectful answers which carried the day. Response forms following many debates invariably affirmed that the creationists had the better arguments. This has led some evolutionists, including Dr. Eugenie Scott and the late Drs. Steven Gould and Carl Sagan to refuse to debate, and recommend that others refuse also. Already in total control of education, they have nothing to gain and much to lose by exposing an audience to the creationist position . . .

The resort to the term “Gish Gallop” should be evaluated in that light. }

That issue on want of actual decisive empirical evidence of body-plan level macro-evolution may not specifically substantiate his specific view, Young Earth Creationism [which he evidently held on different grounds, taking the Bible as he understood it as a testimony from the Creator of the actual origin of life on earth], but it does put a serious and unanswered challenge on the table to actually show that body plan  level macro evolution is empirically substantiated.

And, one does not need to go to Mr Gish to see that this is a problem for those who promote macro-evolution as unquestionable fact, for, here is Gould on the same topic:

. . . long term stasis following geologically abrupt origin of most fossil morphospecies, has always been recognized by professional paleontologists. [The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), p. 752.]

. . . .  The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all. These species appear in the section [first occurrence] without obvious ancestors in the underlying beds, are stable once established and disappear higher up without leaving any descendants.” [p. 753.]

. . . . proclamations for the supposed ‘truth’ of gradualism – asserted against every working paleontologist’s knowledge of its rarity – emerged largely from such a restriction of attention to exceedingly rare cases under the false belief that they alone provided a record of evolution at all! The falsification of most ‘textbook classics’ upon restudy only accentuates the fallacy of the ‘case study’ method and its root in prior expectation rather than objective reading of the fossil record. [p. 773.]

{U/D 12:06 & 13:12:24: Some are doubtless tempted to dismiss the above as quote-mining, so let me add another classic statement from Gould that sets a general context for understanding not only the significance of the above, but why he and others founded an alternative theory that pivots on making the absence of a veritable tidal wave of transitionals seem more explicable, i.e. Punctuated Equilibria:

The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils. Yet Darwin was so wedded to gradualism that he wagered his entire theory on a denial of this literal record:

[here, I flesh out Gould’s allusion to Darwin:] I have attempted to show that the geological record is extremely imperfect [–> c. 1859]; that only a small portion of the globe [–> Europe and North America] has been geologically explored with care; that only certain classes of organic beings have been largely preserved in a fossil state; that the number both of specimens and of species, preserved in our museums, is absolutely as nothing compared with the incalculable number of generations which must have passed away even during a single formation [–> 150 years later, we have 250,0000+ fossil species  on record, millions of specimens in displays and in back rooms of museums etc, and billions more examined across the range of the geological column, across the world, having thoroughly scoured the world’s fossil beds so there is good reason to be highly confident that the samples do give the general pattern and the persistent gaps are real in the face of what should utterly DOMINATE the fossil record if Darwin’s gradualism were the case — transitionals]  . . . these [and other listed] causes taken conjointly, must have tended to make the geological record extremely imperfect, and will to a large extent explain why we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all the extinct and existing forms of life by the finest graduated steps.

He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory. For he may ask in vain where are the numberless transitional links which must formerly have connected the closely allied or representative species, found in the several stages of the same great formation . . .

[Cf. Origin, Ch 10, “Summary of the preceding and present Chapters,” also see similar remarks in Chs 6 and 9.]

Darwin’s argument still persists as the favored escape of most paleontologists from the embarrassment of a record that seems to show so little of evolution. In exposing its cultural and methodological roots, I wish in no way to impugn the potential validity of gradualism (for all general views have similar roots). I wish only to point out that it was never “seen” in the rocks.

Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin’s argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study.” [[Stephen Jay Gould ‘Evolution’s erratic pace‘. Natural History, vol. LXXXVI95), May 1977, p.14. (Kindly note, that while Gould does put forward claimed cases of transitions elsewhere, that cannot erase the facts that he published in the peer reviewed literature in 1977 and was still underscoring in 2002, 25 years later, as well as what the theory he helped co-found, set out to do. Sadly, this needs to be explicitly noted, as some would use such remarks to cover over the points just highlighted. Also, note that this is in addition to the problem of divergent molecular trees and the top-down nature of the Cambrian explosion.)]

Plainly, there is a significant fossil record gaps problem. And it is therefore rhetorically quite legitimate for objectors to Darwinism to highlight it, e.g. as can be seen in a, b, c, d, e, and of course in collections of quotes such as here or here.}

So, the dismissive accusations and name-calling, in the original case, are questionable.

Gish plainly did focus on a major problem with the theory of evolution presented as the explanation of the origin of body plans.

So, that substantiates the point: the alleged fallacy is a polarising diversion and is a fallacy in its turn, as there is a very easy way to rebut an irresponsible flood of falsehoods: pick and — on sound and unquestionable factual evidence — expose several examples and draw the appropriate conclusion.

(So also, I must point to the focal issue with the design theory debate.  As should be well known, for coming on three months, I have given an offer to host a 6,000 word pro-darwin essay that cogently lays out the empirically warranted grounds for the evolutionary materialist account of the origin of life and body plans etc. If such were to be submitted and were sound, it would devastate the design theory inference that on certain signs such as FSCO/I, we may per empirical warrant, infer to design as best causal explanation.  But, surely, if there were a serious case for evolutionary materialism, a full length feature article would be able to effectively summarise and present the evidence and link to more, in ways that would leave little doubt as to the balance on the merits. The failure to take up such an offer to provide a rebuttal case to the design inference freely hosted at a major ID blog, speaks volumes. And indeed, there was actually no need for a formal offer, it could have been done at any time in comment threads or as a post elsewhere with a link made accessible here. [For why I have publicly supported the design theory position, cf. here on.])

In short, the term “Gish Gallop” is an unjustifiable smear term.

It seems at first glance to describe a real fallacy — a persuasive but misleading argument. But, on a closer look, it is a false accusation and smear masquerading as a legitimate descriptive term for a fallacy.

It is therefore appropriate to descriptively term it, a pseudo-fallacy.

It first smears Mr Gish, who has pointed out a major, legitimate and serious issue with the evolutionary account of body plan evolution, whatever problems he may have on particular points, and/or on his personal Young Earth Creationist view.

Second, it is evidently only rhetorically useful in a case where one cannot actually factually and soundly answer even a sample of the points raised by a party on the other side of a debate.

That is, it is a lazy way to get out of actually refuting on facts and cogent reasoning. (Distractive debates over meanings of words that are obvious or easily understood from context of accessible references, or the like — I have in mind here the recent exchanges over the usage of “arbitrary” — do not count. )

Third, it is thus tantamount to accusing someone of being a liar, without having the ability to show that this is actually the case.

However, to act like this would be a plain case of speaking with disregard to the truth and fairness, hoping to profit from one’s assertions or insinuations being taken as true by the naive.

There is a short, three-letter word for doing such, one beginning with the letter L.

So, it is clearly time that those who use the term “Gish Gallop” to dismiss what they evidently cannot or will not cogently answer on sound facts and reasoning, cease and desist.

On pain of so showing themselves to be that which they would throw and plaster upon others. END