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Repetition of discredited arguments – parroting PRATT.

April 18, 2012
If you’ve heard it all before, and it sounds simple and clear-cut but feels fishy, it’s probably a red flag.

How to recognise this tactic

In this tactic, people persist in repeating claims that have been shown over and over to have no foundation. Look for slogans, sweeping statements or claims that look as though they could easily be refuted. Those who use this tactic pick arguments that look reasonable at first sight or are popularly thought to be true. This tactic is simply a form of lying, but when you’re not expert in a field, it’s hard to spot arguments that have been debunked by the evidence.


Capt. Occam vs The Prattmaster by ~Agahnim

Why do people use this tactic?

People who use this tactic ignore the fact that their arguments have been falsified (usually over and over), and hope that their audience is unaware . This is usually because they have no arguments that are supported by evidence. They need to resort to erroneous beliefs that may have been current in the past, but are no longer valid.

What’s wrong with this tactic

Repetition of discredited arguments is dishonest. The original perpetrators nearly always know that their arguments have been discredited, but choose to mislead others by ignoring the evidence against them. Unfortunately, the arguments are then often parroted over and over again by those who have been taken in.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

As always, be skeptical. Expect to see evidence, not simply declarations or referrals to the utterances of authority figures. Ask how the arguments fit in with the prevailing views of the scientific community. If they are significantly different, find out why. Do a web search to see if the arguments have been consistently debunked by reliable evidence.

Variations and related tactics

Discredited arguments are sometimes referred to as PRATT – points refuted a thousand times (or previously refuted a thousand times) – hence the ‘parroting PRATT’ label for this tactic.

When it’s used multiple times in quick succession, it becomes a Gish Gallop. In this form, the perpetrators attempt to pile up so many debunked arguments and logical inconsistencies that anyone arguing against them cannot answer them all in the time available.

Examples

  • The anti-fluoridation movement continues to promote discredited arguments against fluoridation of water supplies. The science does not support these arguments. For example, the scare tactic that fluoride is used as rat poison does not hold water. Everything (even pure water) is poisonous in a large enough dose. In 2007, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council conducted a systematic review  which concluded that water fluoridation is both effective and safe.
  • Many creationists repeat discredited arguments. In fact, the Gish Gallop was named after creationist Duane Gish. More sophisticated creationists realise that this tactic is dishonest, and caution their followers against using it. Here’s a humorous look at how it operates from NonStampCollector:
  • As I wrote this post, The Australian newspaper published an article (paywall) by the usual climate-denier suspects (Bob Carter et al) which trots out some well-worn PRATT. Most prominent is the claim that global temperatures have not risen for 15 years, a claim that is easily refuted, and has been many times. The PRATT repertoire of climate deniers is well documented at Skeptical Science. The most prolific advocate of the tactic is probably Christopher Monckton – you can watch videos of John Abraham debunking his Gish Gallops here. (Update 28 May 2012: Skeptical Science reports here on a new Gish Gallop from Bob Carter.)
  • Update 2013/05/08: Skeptical Science now has an excellent resource which lists the popular climate-denier PRATT and offers one-line or one-paragraph rebuttals.

Other relevant articles from Science Or Not?

Classic example of Gish Gallop/PRATT list

Add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Comic: Capt. Occam vs The Prattmaster is by ~Agahnim on deviantART. Used with permission.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
7 Comments
  1. Hi Graham,

    I have never been a fundamentalist Christian. Even in my evangelical days, all I ever asked was for people to be sceptical of those that claim science has disproved the need for God. Now, having accepted that Intelligent Design has its flaws – and having accepted that Christians can and do believe in thesitic evolution (whatever that is) – I am afraid I remain implacably opposed to the likes of Richard Dawkins; who are aggressively atheistic and reject all religious belief as irrational.

    However, even though I dislike evangelical atheists and/or humanists almost as much as I dislike young earth creationists, I remain more sympathetic to the latter – and thus feel just a little uncomfortable when anyone equates climate change denial with denial of evolution… Having said all that, I agree with you that PRATT is a very common tactic – one of which I have been on the receiving end many many times in the last 12 months.

    • Martin,

      I don’t think it could be claimed that I am equating climate change denial with denial of evolution in this post. I’m merely pointing out that the same tactic is used by both camps. As an aside, I definitely would say that denial of evolution and climate change denial are equally reprehensible and damaging, but that’s another story.

      • I was not accusing you of doing so (even though you clearly are); and I am not complaining.

        Your position is entirely understandable; as is the criticism of the obscurantist and anti-intellectual nature of YEC-ism.

  2. It’s strange, I’d actually never heard the term “Gish Gallop” before this post. The places where I’ve debated with creationists, when someone used a large number of PRATTs in rapid succession it was just called a “PRATT list”, which is why that’s what I call it in my comics. I was first introduced to the term “PRATT list” in 2004; do you know whether “Gish Gallop” is a more recent name for this?

    • “Gish Gallop” has been around for as long as I can remember, tetrapteryx, and I’m quite ancient. The term was coined by Eugenie Scott from the NCSE, but I don’t know when – probably in the 1980’s when Gish was fairly active.

      Love the comics.

      • Sandra Duffy permalink

        The Gish Gallop is the method that that debater American Christians always mention likes to use – Craig Evans

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