Guest post — “Aristotle and Fake News: Why understanding rhetoric illuminates credible arguments”
It’s hard for me to remember the time before the internet became such a pervasive part of daily life. I work online to earn money, watch Netflix to relax, scroll YouTube for advice on anything from personal finance to cooking, and read push notifications from my favorite news outlets to keep up-to-date. I’m part of the generation in which proper computer use was taught in school. Our digital literacy began with typing classes in grade school, then turned to learning about the dangers of Wikipedia in high school, and, by the time I was in college, people used the internet to write class papers more often than physical books in the library.
But one area where I think our digital education was lacking is in determining how to spot a ‘credible’ source.
Sure, people have always known that anyone can say whatever they want on the internet, and we’ve all heard that it’s important to question what you read before accepting it as fact. But very little was actually said about how to determine if something is credible, or what to do if you come across websites with suspect information. If anything, this was further confused in college, where only peer-reviewed academic articles were considered credible — a wealth of information that, by and large, you lose access to after graduation.
One solution to this problem is to review how audiences are persuaded in the first place. By understanding how arguments are created, it can be easier to recognize flaws in logic, or failures in the speaker’s character. I’m talking about Aristotle, and his three modes of persuasion: pathos, logos, and ethos. You likely touched on these in school when studying persuasive writing and political speeches, but I don’t think nearly enough emphasis is placed on how methods of persuasion can influence perceptions of credibility, the spread of viral stories, and belief in factually unsound statements. Although all three modes are equally vital for a strong, sound argument, we as human beings are predisposed to focus on some factors more than others. I believe with the rise of misinformation, it’s more important now than ever before to understand exactly how we are influenced by persuasion, and what our weaknesses are in recognizing good arguments.
Let’s start with the easiest, pathos. Pathos is an appeal to an audience’s emotion, whether negative or positive. This encompasses both evoking a particular emotion from an audience, as well as invoking that emotion as justification for a certain behavior or action. There’s a strong connection between emotion and persuasion: in fact, there’s evidence that people naturally include more emotionality in their language when they are trying to be persuasive, even if they are specifically advised against doing so. Perhaps appeals to emotion are frowned upon as unscientific or misleading, but they’re pervasive for a simple reason: appealing to emotion works. In 2012, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that the most emailed New York Times articles were ones which prompted emotional responses, especially if the emotion was positive or associated with high energy, for example, anger or anxiety, as opposed to sadness. A study in 2016 found that when people are forced to make quick decisions about an object, they are more likely to rely on their emotional response to the item rather than objective information. A person is more likely to quickly classify a cookie as something positive because it makes them happy, while with more time for consideration, they may classify it as is negative because it’s unhealthy. Finally, a metanalysis of 127 previous studies concluded that appeals to fear were nearly always effective at influencing an audience’s attitude and behavior, especially when the proposed solution is seen as achievable and only requires one-time action.
We know that people use emotion to make quick judgements, can be strategically influenced by arguments which appeal to emotion, in particular, fear, and are more likely to share articles which elicit emotion. These are all strong evidence that emotion is an integral part of how humans perceive and interact with the world. The problem with pathos is that if used without logos and ethos, the proposed solution to a problem may not be very effective, and there’s no guarantee that the problem being addressed is even real. For example, in 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield purported to have found a link between autism and vaccines. There is no such link, but the report garnered enough fear to spark the anti-vax movement which is now responsible for the reemergence of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough. Fearmongering about marijuana in the 1930s lead to the drug being outlawed in 1937 and classified under the strictest designation by the Controlled Substances Act in 1971, despite contemporaneous recommendations from within the U.S. government to decriminalize its use. What’s more, there’s evidence that decisions made during stressful situations are less logically sound than decisions made in calm situations. The lesson? People suffer when pathos alone prevails.
Logos is usually framed as the antidote to pathos. An appeal to logos is an appeal to logic: cold numbers, rational solutions, statistical significance. In theory, this sounds great. The problem is, the human brain isn’t wired to think purely logically: we have trouble conceptualizing large numbers, we seek patterns in random smatterings of data points, we’re quick to claim causation where chance or other variables are involved, and we’re easy victims of logical fallacies. Even among the scientific community, there are plenty of examples of seemingly logical, scientific arguments that turned out to be bad science. A paper published in 1971 asserted that women’s periods will “sync up” if they spend enough time together. Although this is still widely believed today, it has been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community. More pressing, the idea that low-fat diets are an effective way to lose weight without any regard to sugar consumption was introduced to the American consciousness in 1967, sponsored by representatives of the sugar industry. This no doubt altered the standard American diet and likely contributed to the rise in obesity across the U.S. (although the culpability of the sugar industry is up for debate). Even with good intentions, scientists can make mistakes: In 2018, scientists tried to replicate 21 previously published social science experiments, but only got the same results for 13, all with a weaker correlation than in the original studies. While it’s important that scientists review and revise their original conclusions, correcting common misconceptions is difficult once a myth has entered the popular consciousness: Think you’re immune? Check out this infographic.
What’s more, without pathos and a focus on morality, seemingly “logical” solutions can be plain cruel. This is demonstrated beautifully in Jonathan Swift’s satirical A Modest Proposal, in which eating children is proposed as a rational solution to poverty in Ireland. Decisions made with a total disregard for emotions shouldn’t be our gold-standard for sound reasoning, and an argument lacking in pathos can be just as bad as one lacking in logos.
If appeals to both pathos and logos can lead to mistakes in reasoning, where does that leave modern thinkers in their quest for credible arguments? The answer lies in Aristotle’s third mode of persuasion, ethos. Today, ethos is sort of a fuzzy idea; it means both having knowledge about a topic and establishing yourself to your audience as a credible speaker, two things that don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Aristotle himself split the idea into three parts: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill. Good sense, or phronesis, comes from having experience in one’s field, especially with a track record of rational, moral decision making. Good moral character, arete, is gained by practicing virtuous behaviors until they become habits. Finally, goodwill, eunoia, is earned by convincing the audience of one’s knowledge and intentions.
Having ethos is vital to a sound argument. In fact, Aristotle grants only three reasons for unsound arguments to exist: either the speaker is wrong due to lack of good sense, the speaker is lying due to lack of moral character, or the speaker is silent, because they don’t care if the audience hears good advice. The problem is, it’s difficult for readers to judge the ethos of a speaker, particularly over the internet. Unlike pathos and logos, the root of ethos comes from outside the argument itself: the audience must know the speaker’s experience (good sense) and moral character to avoid falling for unsound advice. To make matters worse, if a speaker wants to persuade an audience, they will go through the trouble of appearing credible whether they are offering sound advice or not, they. Today, that can mean anything from verbally assuring the audience of their credibility and good intentions, to selecting appropriate clothing for a given situation, or even hiring a web-designer to make sure content looks clean and professional: all things which index competence in the modern world. But the appearance of credibility alone isn’t enough to judge a speaker as credible.
Where does that leave us? Finding reliable, credible information can seem daunting at first: emotions cloud our judgement, but logic is uncertain. We often must know if a speaker has reliable experience in a field without ever having met them. However, with a little practice, I think we can all improve our sense of what’s credible and what’s not. To that end, I offer the following advice: First, after hearing an argument or statement — be it online or in person — consider your own position to the piece. How did it make you feel? Does it confirm what you want to be true? Do you have any stake in the events at play? All of these factors cloud judgement, so take extra care when evaluating an argument. Second, consider the logic of the piece. Does everything make sense? Do the numbers add up? Does it align with a wider context, or does it seem out of place? If the argument does not make sense logically — and you have enough knowledge in the field to judge it appropriately — then it probably isn’t sound. Finally, consider the position of the speaker. Do they have experience with the topic being discussed? Do they have a history of honesty? Do they benefit from your support of their argument? If more information is needed to answer these questions, then do some digging. Look to others with more experience in the field to help determine if the speaker can be trusted. If you can’t find enough information to make a solid judgement, consider the source not credible.
And when in doubt, err on the side of caution: given that Rhetoric was written in the 4th century B.C., speakers have had a loooooong time to develop ways to manipulate audiences, whether intentions are pure or not!
Alvergne (2016). “Do women’s periods really synch when they spend time together?” The Conversation: Academic rigour, journalistic flair.
Aristotle, Rhetoric: Book II. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts.
Berger and Milkman (2012). “What Makes Online Content Viral?” Journal of Marketing Research. 49(3): 192–205. For a summary, see: Tierney (2010). “Will You be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” The New York Times.
Rocklage, and Fazio (2016). “On the Dominance of Attitude Emotionality.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2): 259–279. For a summary, see: Markman (2016). “Emotion Dominates Fast Choices,” Psychology Today.
Tannenbaum et. al (2015). “Appealing to fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories.” Psychological Bulletin, 141(6), 1178–1204.
“The Science Facts about Autism and Vaccines” Healthcare Management Degree.net.
Originally published at www.hussainather.com on January 29, 2019.