Gish Gallop: When People Try to Win Debates by Using Overwhelming Nonsense

Gish Gallop

 

The Gish gallop is a rhetorical technique that involves overwhelming your opponent with as many arguments as possible, with no regard for the accuracy, validity, or relevance of those arguments.

For example, a person using the Gish gallop might attempt to support their stance by bringing up, in rapid succession, a large number of vague claims, anecdotal statements, misinterpreted facts, and irrelevant comments.

This technique is widely used in debates on various topics, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the Gish gallop, and see how you can respond to those who use it.

 

Examples of Gish gallops

A classic example of a Gish gallop is a proponent of some pseudoscience, who, during the course of a debate with a scientific expert, bombards the expert with multiple weak arguments, and switches to a new argument each time the expert appears to successfully refute one of them.

Another example of a Gish gallop is a politician who, upon being accused of misconduct, launches into a stream of unrelated and misleading statements in an attempt to give the appearance of directly refuting the accusations.

In addition, examples of Gish gallops also appear in less formal contexts.

For example, someone who wants to support some unfounded stance on social media might use a Gish gallop, by posting a huge list of irrelevant sources that they didn’t actually read. Similarly, someone who is rightfully accused by their partner of acting in an inappropriate manner might reply with a Gish gallop, by responding with a stream of weak arguments to justify their own behavior and shift the blame to someone else.

 

Examples of how the Gish gallop is implemented

Though the Gish gallop is used in the same basic manner in different contexts, the exact manner in which it is implemented can vary.

In live debates, for example, the person using the Gish gallop will usually just fire off numerous arguments rapidly, in an attempt to overwhelm their opponent, or in an attempt to “score” more points.

In online discussions, on the other hand, Gish gallopers often list a large number of sources that supposedly support their stance. In such cases, the person using the Gish gallop will usually just search for relevant keywords that apply to the discussion, and then list all the sources that they find, regardless of whether those sources actually support their stance.

For example, one social media user made a post in support of the idea that yoga can cure terminal cancer. In support of this argument, they listed various papers that contain relevant keywords on the topic, such as the paper “Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors“. However, a closer inspection of this paper shows that it suggests that yoga can lead to certain improvements in the physical and mental wellbeing of cancer patients, but it doesn’t actually propose that yoga is an effective cure for cancer.

The use of the Gish gallop in this manner often works to some degree, since many people won’t bother going over the list of sources in order to confirm that they support the stance proposed by the Gish galloper, and also since many people will just see the large list of sources and assumes that they’re valid and relevant. If the Gish galloper’s opponent wants to show that these sources fail to support the purported view, then they will usually have to spend time and effort going over a significant portion of them, which often takes much more work compared to just finding them.

Note: people who use Gish gallops often obscure the exact sources which they claim support their stance, in order to make it harder to refute their arguments. This is usually done by referring to the source in a vague way that makes it difficult to find, or by referencing a long work, such as a 20-page article or an hour-long video, without stating which part of the work supports their stance.

 

Examples of arguments used in Gish gallops

The following are specific examples of the kind of flawed arguments that Gish gallops generally consist of, based on the context of someone using a Gish gallop when arguing against global warming:

  • Generalized and unsubstantiated claims that are difficult to refute. For example: “I saw that several recently published papers disproved global warming, so clearly many scientists don’t believe that it’s real”. This sort of vague statement is difficult to refute, since, without more information, there isn’t a single concrete piece of evidence here that you can debunk directly, as it’s hard to disprove that such papers have been published.
  • Anecdotal statements with little to no value. For example: “you keep saying that global temperatures are rising, but my town got a lot of snow last week”. This is an anecdotal piece of information, which purports to disprove global warming, despite the fact that it is meaningless from both a scientific perspective as well as from a logical one, since large amounts of snow in one area don’t disprove global warming.
  • Intentional or unintentional misrepresentation of truthful facts. For example “there is a lot of debate and disagreement in the scientific community regarding whether or not there is global warming”. The truthful facts here is that there is an ongoing discussion regarding various aspects of global warming, and that there are some scientists who disagree with the idea of global warming. However, the reality is that the vast majority of scientists agree that we are undergoing some form of global warming, which is why the above statement strongly misrepresents the truth.
  • Outright lies. For example: “most scientists don’t believe that there is global warming”. This is false, since as we saw above, the vast majority of scientists do think that there is current global warming.
  • Truthful statements that are either irrelevant to the discussion or don’t provide meaningful evidence. For example: “it might be true that the climate is changing now, but Earth’s climate has also changed many times in the past”. While it is true that the Earth’s climate has changed many times in the past, this doesn’t invalidate the fact that research shows that we are currently experiencing global warming in a way that is different than in the past.
  • A refutation of statements that no one has actually made. For example, if one person says “there is an increase in temperature averages across the planet”, the Gish galloper might reply with “it’s wrong to say that this is the first time in history where the have been changes in the Earth’s climate”. Even though the Gish galloper’s argument is refuting a statement that no one has made, it may appear to some people as if the Gish galloper has successfully refuted their opponent’s argument.
  • Statements that involve a lot of unnecessary technical jargon. For example: “global warming was debunked by a study which assessed the impact of future anthropogenic carbon emissions by examining the equilibrium of climate sensitivity with regard to the ECS2xC point, and specifically by calculating the posterior probability density functions of climate sensitivity using Bayesian inference”. This is an unnecessarily complex way of presenting the findings of the study in question, and discussing it in this way helps hides the fact that the study’s findings are misrepresented here, which discourages people from trying to refute this point, particularly if they don’t have a strong background in the field being discussed.
  • New versions of previous statements, which are only slightly modified. For example, if the Gish galloper starts by saying “you claim that there is global warming, but there was a lot of snow in New York last month”, they might later follow with “if there is global warming, then it would be difficult to explain why there were record snowfalls on the East coast a few weeks ago”. Both arguments are similar versions of the same anecdotal information, and neither provides meaningful evidence against global warming. Such arguments are used to easily increase the total number of arguments that the Gish galloper appears to have at their disposal.
  • Statements supported by previous statements made in the Gish gallop. For example: “there is a lot of scientific disagreement on the topic of global warming, since, as I showed earlier, we just experienced record snowfalls in some parts of the country”. Using their own previous arguments as evidence helps the Gish galloper appear as if they have a lot of supporting evidence for their stance, and helps them connect their arguments together.

 

History of the Gish gallop

The Gish gallop technique was traditionally known by other names, such as argument by verbosity, proof by verbosity, and shotgun argumentation. It was given its current name by Professor Eugenie Scott, who was the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

Specifically, Professor Scott used the term ‘Gish gallop’ in order to describe the debate technique of Duane Gish, a Young-Earth creationist, by describing it as a format where “the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate”.

 

The Gish gallop and logical fallacies

The Gish gallop is generally considered to a fallacious (i.e. misleading) rhetorical technique, rather than a logical fallacy, since it doesn’t represent a single and specific pattern of flawed reasoning.

Nevertheless, the flawed arguments in a Gish gallop often contain various logical fallacies, such as strawman arguments, which distort an opposing stance in order to make it easier to attack, or appeals to nature, which claim that something is good because it’s perceived as natural or bad because it’s perceived as unnatural.

Furthermore, the Gish gallop is strongly associated with a particular type of fallacious reasoning, and specifically with the assumption that just because a certain stance is backed by a large number of arguments, then that means that it is necessarily correct and preferable to stances supported by fewer arguments, regardless of the validity and relevance of those arguments.

However, note that just because someone has many arguments in support of their stance, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re engaging in a Gish gallop. The quality of those arguments, the reason why they were presented, and the way in which it was done, all matter when it comes to determining whether someone’s overall line of argumentation represents a fallacious Gish gallop or not.

 

Who uses Gish gallops and why

Though the Gish gallop can be used by anyone, this technique is most strongly associated with proponents of pseudoscience, who use it when they attempt to criticize various scientific findings. They use this technique, despite the inherent issues associated with it, for two main reasons:

  • It’s generally easier to raise weak arguments than it is to refute them. Accordingly, the Gish gallop technique is often successful at overwhelming those who are committed to proper scientific discourse, especially if they are unfamiliar with this technique.
  • People generally prefer simple arguments, which are easy for them to process, compared to complex refutations. The Gish gallop often contains such arguments, which offer an explanation that many people find more compelling than the complex scientific explanations needed in order to refute them.

In addition, when implementing this technique, the Gish galloper can often use a prepared list of arguments, which are easy to fire off rapidly, without much thought. Furthermore, if the opponent of the Gish galloper manages to successfully refute one of these arguments, the Gish galloper will usually just counter this by saying “yes, but…” and move on to the next point on their list, in an attempt to wear their opponent down.

This means that the Gish galloper will often appear well prepared, with additional arguments that they can use in order to support their stance. Furthermore, this means that the use of the Gish gallop often appears to successfully discredit the opposing stance, because a person is unlikely to be successful at refuting every single point presented against them during a Gish gallop.

 

How to counter a Gish gallop

As shown above, it can be difficult to counter Gish gallop, because of the asymmetry between the relatively minor amount of effort and expertise required to produce multiple weak arguments, and the relatively major amount of effort and expertise required to refute those arguments.

However, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do to successfully counter a Gish gallop. Rather, there are many techniques that you can to respond to Gish gallops, with varying degrees of success. These include the following:

  • Full rebuttal. A full rebuttal consists of going over every point made by your opponent, and refuting each of them individually. While this is often considered to be the proper way to respond to an opponent’s arguments, in the case of a Gish gallop this is very difficult to accomplish, due to the large number of arguments involved. Furthermore, this sort of a rebuttal is made more difficult by the fact that if even a single point is not refuted properly, the Gish galloper will likely focus on it, and claim that it invalidates the entire refutation attempt.
  • Sample-based rebuttal. A sample-based rebuttal consists of selecting a representative sample of your opponent’s arguments, either randomly or based on some criteria, and then refuting only those arguments. While this is generally easier to accomplish than a full rebuttal, it suffers from similar issues, since it will often require much more work on the part of the person refuting the arguments than on the part of the person presenting them. Furthermore, if you use this approach the Gish galloper will often accuse you of cherry-picking specific arguments to refute, and can always respond by drawing the attention back to arguments that weren’t addressed in this rebuttal.
  • Thematic rebuttal. A thematic rebuttal consists of identifying the main theme (or themes) of your opponent’s arguments, and arguing against that, instead of focusing on their individual arguments. This method is relatively effective, since it allows you to address the core of your opponent’s arguments, while at the same time taking away the advantage that the Gish galloper gets from being able to use multiple weak arguments. Note that you can either try to formulate your opponent’s theme for them, or ask them to do it for you. Asking your opponent to explain their overall theme can be especially beneficial, since it makes it harder for them to claim that you misunderstood them, while also allowing for a more constructive discussion.
  • Grouped-point rebuttal. A grouped-point rebuttal consists of dividing the opposing arguments into distinct groups based on some criteria, and then addressing each of these groups separately. It is therefore conceptually similar to a thematic rebuttal, though its structure is slightly different, since a grouped-point rebuttal tends to involve a greater focus on individual arguments.
  • Best-point rebuttal. A best-point rebuttal consists of addressing only the strongest piece (or pieces) of evidence presented by your opponent. Here too, similarly to in a thematic rebuttal, you can either identify such evidence yourself, or ask your opponent to do so. The problem with this technique is that even if you successfully refute their strongest evidence, the Gish galloper might simply fall back to the next argument on their list, which you haven’t addressed.
  • Worst-point rebuttal. A worst-point rebuttal consists of addressing only the weakest pieces of evidence presented by your opponent. Doing this involves the same issues as the best-point rebuttal, which can be further exacerbated in this case. In addition, this technique can often be problematic, since it can be viewed as a case of fallacious cherry-picking and strawmanning on your part. Nevertheless, it can be reasonable in some cases, especially when you explicitly acknowledge the fact that the argument that you’re addressing is the worst of those presented, and explain why you’re doing it; a notable valid reason for this is that the argument in question forms the core of the opposing stance, and refuting it therefore refutes the overall stance.

Different techniques will work better in different circumstances, so it’s up to you to determine which one is best to use in your particular situation, based on factors such as who is using the Gish gallop, where they are using it, and what your goals are

In general, however, the most effective techniques tend to be the thematic rebuttal and the grouped-point rebuttal, which allow you to address your opponent’s arguments properly, while also taking away the main advantage that they gain from using many arguments as part of the Gish gallop.

In addition, regardless of which technique you end up choosing, you can generally benefit from also calling out the use of the Gish gallop explicitly, especially if you need to explain why you’re not providing a full, point-by-point rebuttal.

When doing this, you should explain how your opponent is using this debate technique and explain why it’s problematic, which is best accomplished by demonstrating how your opponent is using a large number of weak arguments in an attempt to overwhelm you. In particular, you will benefit from highlighting a few particularly weak arguments used by the Gish galloper, and showing how they are representative of your opponent’s overall stance.

Furthermore, another approach that you can choose to use is to focus on presenting the evidence in support of your own stance, rather than on refuting your opponent’s arguments. This can be beneficial, for example, if there’s an audience listening to the debate, who is capable of noticing the issues with the Gish galloper’s arguments, as well as the superiority of the evidence that you present.

Finally, keep in mind that you can also choose to disengage from the debate entirely, in response to the use of a Gish gallop. This can be the best option, for example, in cases where you have a one-on-one debate with a person who is well aware of their use of fallacious reasoning, and have no interest in what you have to say.

Note that, if you do choose to do this, it can sometimes be beneficial to explain why you’re choosing to disengage from the debate. This can be the case, for example, if the debate is taken place in front of an engaged audience.

 

Responding to arguments within a Gish gallop

Above, we saw the approaches that can be used to respond to a Gish gallop as a whole.

In addition, when responding to particular arguments within a Gish gallop, there are certain techniques that you can use to respond effectively to the flawed arguments that the Gish gallop consists of.

For example, when it comes to responding to generalized claims that are difficult to refute directly, you can ask your opponent to clarify their stance, by listing the specific evidence used to support their stance. This means, for instance, that if someone vaguely states that there is support for their stance in the scientific community, you can ask them to specify and quantify what exactly they mean by that.

Another technique that you can use in such cases, when responding to generalized claims, is to show that they contradict the scientific consensus on the topic, instead of trying to deal with the specific, and often unsubstantiated, claims that the Gish galloper has brought up.

Similarly, when responding to the use of arguments that rely on logical fallacies, you can use techniques that are specific to the logical fallacy at hand. For example, when responding to an appeal to novelty, which is a logical fallacy that occurs when something is assumed to be either good or better than something else, simply because it’s perceived as being new and novel, you can present specific counterarguments that disprove this.

Overall, Gish gallops can consist of many types of arguments, each of which is best countered by a range of different techniques. As such, the key thing to remember is that, when responding to a Gish gallop, what matters is not only finding the most effective approach for responding to the Gish gallop as a whole, but also making sure that your response to the individual arguments within the Gish gallop is as effective as possible.

 

Other considerations when countering a Gish gallop

In general, the strength of the Gish gallop technique lies in the fact that it frames the course of the debate, and creates a false appearance of credibility and control. Because this gives an inherent advantage to the Gish galloper, your best course of action is to avoid playing their game in the first place.

This means that, if possible, you shouldn’t let the other person establish this type of rhetoric. Instead, stop them as soon as they start firing off multiple invalid arguments, and start refuting those arguments immediately. However, note that this is not a viable option in some cases, such as in online discussions.

If your opponent already used the Gish gallop, one thing you can do is ask them to defend specific pieces of evidence that they provided. Essentially, this means that, instead of you trying to explain why the Gish galloper’s arguments are wrong, you ask them to properly justify why those arguments are right.

For example, if someone claims that the fact that it snowed a lot yesterday means that there is no global warming, you can ask them to explain their rationale, and why they believe that this counts as sufficient proof against climate change.

Since the arguments used in a Gish gallop are flawed, the Gish galloper will often struggle to properly justify them. This is further compounded by the fact that people using this technique often only have a superficial understanding of what they are saying, as they’re relying on a prepared list of arguments. Accordingly, doing this takes away the Gish galloper’s inherent advantage, and shifts the burden of proof back to them.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The Gish gallop is a rhetorical technique that involves overwhelming your opponent with as many arguments as possible, with no regard for the accuracy, validity, or relevance of those arguments.
  • This technique is used for two main reasons: first, it is generally easier to raise numerous weak arguments than it is to properly refute them, and second, simple arguments are often perceived by people as more compelling explanations than complex refutations, even if those arguments are flawed.
  • Gish gallops usually include a combination of unsubstantiated claims, anecdotal statements, misrepresentations of truthful facts, outright lies, irrelevant arguments, unnecessary technical jargon, and various logical fallacies.
  • To counter a Gish gallop, the best course of action is usually to call out the Gish gallop explicitly, and then respond using a thematic or grouped-point rebuttal, rather than addressing each opposing argument individually, unless refuting a few key points can refute the overall line of argumentation.
  • When responding to a Gish gallop, it is often beneficial to shift the burden of proof back to the Gish galloper where appropriate, and ask them to justify some of the flawed arguments that they’ve made, instead of immediately trying to explain yourself why those arguments are flawed.