A Gush Gallop

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

No. That's not a typo, but my title is inspired by the rhetorical tactic called the Gish Gallop, for which I'll prevail upon Wikipedia to summarize below:

His debating opponents said that [creationist Duane] Gish used a rapid-fire approach during a debate, presenting arguments and changing topics quickly. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, dubbed this approach the Gish Gallop, describing it as "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." She also criticized Gish for failing to answer objections raised by his opponents. The phrase has also come to be used as a pejorative to describe similar debate styles employed by proponents of other, usually fringe beliefs, such as homeopathy or the moon landing hoax. [links and notes omitted]
I'd go so far as to add to the above definition by including even factual information that is being misapplied to marshal an argument. The intent of a Gish Gallop is to give the impression that one has an unassailable case for one's position.

What I would call a "gush gallop" is a little bit different. The speaker and his audience both seem willing to check reason at the door in the hopes that some unrealistic goal is within grasp. There may even be a paucity of points proposed by this kind of galloper. But that doesn't stop him from promising the moon, and that he (or people he knows) can deliver it through some kind of underpants gnome logic. I got the idea for this term when I read a skeptical account, by an expert on pharmacological research, about an effort to cure Alzheimer's on an impossible schedule:
... If Bill Gates is thinking about a cure for neurodegenerative disease in ten years, he'd better have a bottle of a great drug candidate in his pocket right now, because time's-a-wasting. In fact, that timeline is absurd. It's going to take ten years in the clinic just to see if anything works against Alzheimer's. And that's not because we don't have "innovative leadership"; that's the pace at which Alzheimer's disease develops in human tissue. Giving speeches will not help. A human brain can make of Gates' editorial what it will, but the neurons themselves are immune to calls to dream big and seize the future. [emphasis in original]
Both tactics can seem plausible due to intellectual division of labor: We can't all be experts on everthing. That said, laymen aren't off the hook, either. We must be careful about whom we take as experts and why, and seek out dissenting opinions, both as part of the process of integrating what we hear with our other knowledge. On top of this, phony experts will be loathe to make your job any easier, while real experts will often have better things to do than refute every hack they know about.

-- CAV


JJZ said...

Thanks. Until now i didn't have a word for what Bill McKibben did when he debated Alex Epstein.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for mentioning that debate, which I knew about, but haven't had a chance to view.

I'll leave the link below for anyone else who might be interested: