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The Paper Chase

When strong evidence for a specific and falsifiable claim is presented, the response is a barrage of article and paper recommendations on larger and related questions instead of conceding the point of contention. It may be considered a type of slothful induction.

(I’ve been seeing this rhetorical move in my own conversations, and this incipient primer on this evasion will grow as I gather public examples.)


Eugenie Scott, then executive director of the National Center for Science Education, accused American creationist Duane Gish of this rhetorical technique in which a speaker lists a string of falsehoods or misleading items so that their opponent will be unable to counter each one and still be able to make their own counterpoints.

Donald Trump is probably unaware that he’s an avid practitioner of a debating method known among philosophers and rhetoricians as the Gish Gallop. Its aim is simple: to defeat one’s opponent by burying them in a torrent of incorrect, irrelevant, or idiotic arguments. Trump owes much of his political success to this tactic—and to the fact that so few people know how to beat it. 

Let’s take as an example the first televised presidential debate of the 2020 election campaign. The Fox News host Chris Wallace invited Trump to deliver a two-minute statement. And he was off:

So when I listen to Joe [Biden] talking about a transition, there has been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign … We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught ’em all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office. He knew about it, too. So don’t tell me about a free transition. As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster. A solicited ballot, okay, solicited, is okay. You’re soliciting. You’re asking. They send it back. You send it back. I did that. If you have an unsolicited—they’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud. They found ’em in creeks …

And so on, until the end of the second minute, when Wallace attempted to break in and end the monologue. He tried five times before regaining temporary control.

The Atlantic (2024)


Elsewhere, I’ve called something like the Paper Chase The Rodeo Clown Fallacy. It falters into illogic not in virtue of being a false target (straw man, red herring), but by being an ever changing and ever elusive target. That is, it evades logic. Just as the horns of an argument are about to make their point, some guy in a clown suit yells, “Look over here!” This clown may be a legitimate target in his own right, but the problem is that there will forever be another rodeo clown ready to distract with a giggly, “Yeah, but what about that garishly dressed man yelling over there,” so no falsehood ever get gored.