Mark Twain once famously said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Twain wasn’t praising lies with this comment, of course, but modern-day conservatives seem to think he was dishing out advice instead of damning the practice of dishonesty. Conservatives have figured out a neat little rhetorical trick: One lie is easy for your opponents to debunk. Tell one lie after another, however, and your opponent’s debunkings will never catch up. By the time the liberal opposition has debunked one lie, there’s a dozen more to take its place.
Science educator Eugenie Scott deemed the technique the “Gish Gallop,” named for a notoriously sleazy creationist named Duane Gish. The Urban Dictionary defines the Gish Gallop as a technique that “involves spewing so much bullshit in such a short span on that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it.” Often users of the Gish Gallop know their arguments are nonsense or made in bad faith, but don’t particularly care because they are so dead set on advancing their agenda. Unfortunately, the strategy is so effective that it’s been expanding rapidly in right-wing circles. Here are just a few of the most disturbing examples of the Gish Gallop in action.
1. Creationism. It’s no surprise creationists inspired the coining of the term Gish Gallop, as they have perfected the art of making up nonsense faster than scientists can refute it. The list of false or irrelevant claims made by creationists, as chronicled by Talk Origins, numbers in the dozens, perhaps even hundreds, and more are always being spun out. Trying to argue with a creationist, therefore, turns into a hellish game of Whack-A-Mole. Debunk the lie that the speed of light is not constant, and you’ll find he’s already arguing that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. Argue that it’s unconstitutional to put the story of Adam and Eve in the science classroom, and find he’s pretending he was never asking for that and instead wants to “teach the controversy.”
“Teaching the controversy" is a classic Gish Gallop apology. The conservative wants to make it seem like he’s supporting open-minded debate, but instead he just wants an opportunity to dump a bunch of lies on students with the knowledge that they’ll never have the time and attention to carefully parse every debunking.
2. Climate change denialism.This strategy worked so well for creationism it makes perfect sense that it would be imported to the world of climate change denialism. Climate change denialists have many changing excuses for why they reject the science showing that human-caused greenhouse gases are changing the climate, but what all these reasons have in common is they are utter nonsense in service of a predetermined opposition to taking any action to prevent further damage.
Skeptical Science, a website devoted to debunking right-wing lies on this topic, has compiled a dizzying list of 176 common claims by climate denialists and links to why they are false. Some of these lies directly contradict each other. For instance, it can’t both be true that climate change is “natural” and that it’s not happening at all. No matter, since the point of these lies is not to create a real discussion about the issue, but to confuse the issue so much it’s impossible to get any real momentum behind efforts to stop global warming.
3. The Affordable Care Act. It’s not just science where conservatives have discovered the value in telling lies so fast you simply wear your opposition out. When it comes to healthcare reform, the lying has been relentless. There are the big lies, such as calling Obamacare “socialism,” which implies a single-payer system, when in fact, it’s about connecting the uninsured with private companies and giving consumers of healthcare a basic set of rights. In a sense, even the name “Obamacare” is a lie, as the bill was, per the President’s explicit wishes, written by Congress.
But there are also the small lies: The ACA funds abortion. Under the ACA, old people will be forcibly euthanized. Obamacare somehow covers undocumented immigrants. Congress exempted itself from Obamacare (one of the lies that doesn’t even make sense, as it’s not a program you could really get exempted from). Healthcare will add a trillion dollars to the deficit.
The strategy of just lying and lying and lying some more about the ACA has gotten to the point where Fox News is just broadcasting lies accusing the Obama administration of lying. When it was reported that the administration was going to hit its projections for the number of enrollments through healthcare.gov, a subculture of “enrollment truthers” immediately sprang up to spread a variety of often conflicting lies to deny that these numbers are even real. It started soft, with some conservatives suggesting that some enrollments shouldn’t count or arguing, without a shred of evidence, that huge numbers of new enrollees won’t pay their premiums. Now the lying is blowing up to the shameless level, with “cooking the books” being a common false accusation or, as with Jesse Watters on Fox, straight up accusing the White House of making the number up. Perhaps soon there will be demands to see all these new enrollees’ birth certificates.
4. Contraception mandate.The ACA-based requirement that insurance plans cover contraception without a copay has generated a Gish Gallop so large it deserves its own category. Jodi Jacobson of RH Reality Check chronicled 12 of the biggest lies generated by the right-wing noise machine in just the past couple of years since the mandate was even announced. It is not “free” birth control, nor is it “paid for” by employers. The birth control coverage is paid for by the employees, with benefits they earn by working. The mandate doesn’t cover “abortifacients,” only contraception. No, birth control doesn’t work by killing fertilized eggs, but by preventing fertilization. It’s simply false that the prescriptions in question can all be replaced with a $9-a-month prescription from Walmart, as many women’s prescriptions run into the hundreds and even thousands a year. No, it’s not true that the contraception mandate is about funding women’s “lifestyle”, because statistics show that having sex for fun instead of procreation is a universal human behavior and not a marginal or unusual behavior as the term “lifestyle” implies.
5. Gun safety. The gun lobby is dishonest to its core. Groups like the NRA like to paint themselves like they are human rights organizations, but in fact, they are an industry lobby whose only real goal is to protect the profit margins of gun manufacturers, regardless of the costs to human health and safety. Because their very existence is based on a lie, is it any surprise that gun industry advocates are experts at the Gish Gallop, ready to spring into action at the sign of any school shooting or report on gun violence and dump so many lies on the public that gun safety advocates can never even begin to address them all?
A small sampling of the many, many lies spouted by gun industry advocates: That guns prevent murder, when in fact more guns correlates strongly with more murders. That gun control doesn’t work. That gun control is unpopular. That any move to make gun ownership safer is a move to take away your guns. That a gun in the home makes you safer when it actually puts your family at more risk. That guns protect against domestic violence, when the truth is that owning a gun makes abuse worse, not better. Even the standard line “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a distracting bit of dishonesty, since most gun deaths aren’t murders but suicides.
How do you fight the Gish Gallop, when trying to debunk each and every lie is so overwhelming? There are a few tactics that help, including creating websites and pamphlets where all the lies can be aggregated in one place, for swift debunking. (Bingo cards and drinking games are a humorous version of this strategy.) A critical strategy is to avoid lengthy Lincoln-Douglas-style debates that allow conservatives to lie-dump rapidly during their speaking period, leaving you so busy trying to clean up their mess you have no time for positive points of your own. Better is a looser style of debate where you can interrupt and correct the lies as they come. I’ve also found some luck with setting an explicit “no lies” rule that will be strictly enforced. The first lie receives a warning, and the second lie means that the debate is immediately terminated. This helps prevent you from having to debunk and instead makes the price of participation a strict adherence to facts.