Duane Gish, 1921-2013, populariser of the Gish Gallop.

Creationist Duane Gish died on Tuesday, aged 92. He was famous for his debating skills in favour of creationism, particularly his technique of drowning the opponent in such a torrent of half-truths, lies and straw-man arguments that the opponent could not possibly refute every falsehood in real time. Eugenie Scott of the NCSE blessed this with its now-common name: the Gish Gallop.

Duane Gish

Duane Gish and his rug.

The formal debating jargon term for this is spreading. It arose as a way to throw as much rubbish into five minutes as possible. In response, some debate judges now limit number of arguments as well as time. But in places where debating judges aren’t there to call BS on the practice, such techniques are remarkably common.

The evolution of living organisms is a large and complex subject, and even professionals cannot study more than a small part of it during their whole careers. While making a creationist statement is quick and easy, convincingly refuting it takes time, regardless of how inaccurate the statement is. Since many real-time spoken debates involve a three quarter hour presentation with a half hour rebuttal, correcting all the creationist misinformation under these conditions is difficult or impossible. Generally creationists are more than willing to debate when the debating rules favour them in this way.

The Gallop is an indirect argument from authority, painting the galloper as an expert in a broad range of subjects and the opponent as an incompetent bumbler who didn’t do their homework before the debate. Such emphasis on style over substance is the reason many scientists disdain public debates as a forum for disseminating opinions.

It is often successfully combined with the point refuted a thousand times — even old and worn out arguments are useful in overwhelming the respondent and bamboozling the audience. The technique also takes advantage of the one single proof fallacy, since if a respondent only manages to refute 99 out of 100 points there is still one point that the galloper can claim proves them correct.

In responding to the Gallop, where possible it is best to narrow the debate down to a single topic and then explain it through to its logical conclusion. This also prevents the common creationist tactic of suddenly changing the subject when uncomfortable. It is also important to challenge creationists whenever they make unsupported claims.

Mitt Romney used the tactic in the first 2012 presidential debate against Barack Obama, to the point where leftist news sites linked to RationalWiki’s article to explain what he’d been doing.

In written form, a Gish Gallop is most commonly observed as a long list of supposed facts or reasons with a title proudly boasting the number of reasons involved. The individual points will be fairly terse; but combined, they may run to the length of a multi-page essay running into thousands of words. A Gish Gallop tries to create the illusion of authority and an incredible weight of evidence by sheer quantity alone, without quality to back it up. To supporters, the illusion works — quantity has a quality all its own.

A famous example is One Hundred Authors against Einstein. Published in 1931, this was an attempt to discredit the theory of relativity by weight of numbers alone. Because of the simple errors and straw man nature of the work — not helped by the brevity of the entries — Hans Reichenbach described it as “unintentionally funny”. As Einstein noted:

If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!

Argumentum ad tl;dr, a related distraction technique popular on the bottom half of the Web, involves swamping an opponent in long-winded screeds of text to artificially inflate the appearance of depth and quality of information presented. Quite often, the actual content of several paragraphs can be summed in a sentence. The point is to bury and obfuscate the core points that need to be discussed under a quantity of superfluous information. The text-producing bioweapon will then claim that any misconception you didn’t answer, you must be conceding.

If a written Gish Gallop or tl;dr is noteworthy or comprehensive enough, it can be useful and educational to fully refute it. Age of the earth: 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe is an attempt at a written Gish Gallop by Don Batten of Creation Ministries International. The RationalWiki rebuttal is a tour of creationist tropes and the scientific and historical refutations of them, useful for discussions you find yourself in with creationists.

Adapted from Gish Gallop on RationalWiki.org. Reproducible under Creative Commons by-sa 3.0.

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