Text: Informal Logic (upcoming edition)
How People Use Language to Influence Others and Manipulate People
We are bombarded by information. 100 years ago, unless one lived in a big city, information was available from just a few sources: books and magazines, a local newspaper or two, and maybe a few radio stations. With the development of cable TV, satellite radio, and, of course, the Internet, there is very little difficulty finding information on virtually any topic; indeed, some might say that there is so much information that we have trouble finding the information we need, and knowing that the information we do find is credible. Much of this information is accompanied by advertising; one may sign into a social media site one day, click on an advertisement for a product, and discover that everywhere one goes on the
Internet there are ads for similar products, as well as messages about such products showing up in one's email.
All of this information presents, as indicated, a problem: how to determine what information is both reliable and relevant? Furthermore, with the commercials with which we are inundated, how do we evaluate the claims made? In both cases, we are presented with claims that we need to be able to evaluate.
We also need to be able to recognize when language, or images, are being used to persuade of something on the basis of something other than arguments, evidence, and reasons. P.T. Barnum, the famous 19thcentury showman, was said to have observed "there's a sucker born every minute." We may think that if someone really believes that an energy drink will give one wings, that this person deserves to lose his or her money. But many of us who are not quite that naïve may still be persuaded by advertisements, or arguments, that should not persuade us. Logic, and the careful use of language, can help us focus on the legitimate reasons one should accept a claim, and help us identify when language is being used to "trick" us. (In a later chapter we will see specific logical mistakes, called "fallacies," are used to construct arguments that may also trick us.) Below, we will examine some of the more common ways language is
used, and misused, in order to avoid being convinced that something is the case when, in fact, it is not.
We may not always succeed in doing so, but paying close attention to language, and developing our critical thinking skills, will often provide us with a number of advantages.
In business and advertising, one occasionally hears the phrase "caveat emptor," or "let the buyer beware. This is an old saying, meant to capture the idea that when we purchase something, we should do so carefully. Is the price too good to be true? Does the salesperson seem to be hiding something? Am I being rushed through the purchase, or not being given important information that is relevant? We may trust the seller, or we may not, but if we aren't sure, we are better off being on our guard, and being aware of the various ways people get "taken" when buying some good or service. We are probably familiar with other phrases that remind us of this: "always read the fine print," and "if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is."
If we take information as a commodity, or product, we need to adopt the same approach. Whether we are listening to a political speech, watching a commercial, reading a magazine or journal article, looking at a webpage, or just having a conversation, someone is generally trying to persuade us of something. Just as we wouldn't—or at least shouldn't—buy a car, or a pair of pants, without inspecting them, we shouldn't accept someone's claim without examining it. But, naturally, those making these claims are aware that many of us approach information with a certain degree of skepticism, and they have developed a wide range of techniques to be persuasive. Here we will look at a few of these techniques, in order to be better prepared when we meet them.