This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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3.2. Tools of the Trade

General remarks

It could be beneficial to some readers at this stage to provide a minimalistic enumeration of some of the tactics of propaganda. Some have already been mentioned, for example the moral paintbrush and the scapegoat. Others are simply logical fallacies and are not original to the propagandist but are merely utilized by him on a collective level. Propaganda adopts fallacies and deploys them on a scale never before possible. Thus, we include many logical fallacies within the context of propaganda, in addition to describing some of the psychological tactics specific to propaganda itself. The list is obviously not complete, nor could it be, since the reason can err in an almost infinite variety of ways. The intent is merely to allow the reader to begin to recognize some of the most common ploys used to circumvent or undermine his reason.

Ad hominem

I will mention the ad hominem fallacy first because it is one of the simplest and most popular. We’re all familiar with it, if not in theory then at least in practice. It means to argue against the person or ‘to the man’, and it involves trying to refute an argument by attacking the person who makes it rather than the argument itself.

In popular politics, ad hominem attacks are plentiful, made all the more frequent by the fact that popular politicians are such easy targets for ridicule. Donald Trump, to take a recent example, presented an easy target for outrage due to his antics. Yet, as disagreeable as his personality was to some, it has no bearing on the rightness or wrongness of his policy decisions. And yet policy decisions are complex and the analysis of outcomes takes work. Easier to simply replay an offensive joke made by Trump a hundred times over, and those predisposed to find him repulsive will reject even his most prudent decisions.

That is not to say that personal morality has no bearing on the question of suitability for leadership, but from a rational and even a historical standpoint, there is a distinction between the office and the one who holds it, and the presence of vice in the leader does not necessarily mean that he will not excel where it matters most. We are not arguing that Donald Trump is an example of this apparent contradiction, but some of America’s best presidents have been subject to vice.

Ad nauseam

There is a common saying, that “you can repeat something as many times as you like, but that won’t make it true.” But a well-oiled propaganda machine makes repetition the measure of true, and we find that ceaseless repetition, while it does not actually make a statement true, can give it the appearance of truth.

The problem is largely psychological: we tend to take familiar things for granted as normal. And so a questionable statement, repeated to the point of numb familiarity, ceases to seem questionable.

One significant example of this process took place during the Middle Ages. At that point in history, universal taxation (collected from each citizen by a centralized government) was largely unknown. If the king wanted to wage war, dower a daughter, or buy a new set of armor, he had to go on a “begging campaign” to raise money for his project, and it was possible to ignore him. You had to pay a tax to the local nobility, but you only interacted with the link directly above you in the social chain. In other words, there may have been municipal tax, but no state or federal tax. It was not completely abnormal to pay something to the king, and in a sense his ‘campaigns’ for special funding were normal—but they were normal as an exception.

Then the Hundred Years War occurred. This “war” was actually a series of many short forays, each inevitably requiring a separate “begging campaign”. The handouts became so frequent that by the end of the Hundred Years War that by the time it was over the people were more than accustomed to regularly doling out money to the king. Thus, what we would call ‘the State’ successfully established the first poll-tax. How did he achieve this? By arguing for financial gifts over and over, ad nauseam, until the request no longer seemed questionable.

Appeal to fear

In the novel Dune, author Frank Herbert has his characters repeat a mantra that has stuck with me through the years. It is called the “Litany Against Fear” and its first lines are: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.” A truer word was never spoken. Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, and while not necessarily a negative one, it almost always causes critical thought to suffer. This is why the “appeal to fear” is another popular fallacy.

Appeal to fear is used especially during war, usually in connection with threat of death, extermination, or loss of some important value. Either “the Germans want to destroy us all,” or “President Obama wants to take your guns and enslave your family,” or some other earth-shattering threat. There is no such thing as a small threat. Everything is cataclysmic.

Yet this technique is not limited to just national politics. Anyone who has been through Driver’s Ed has been exposed to it in the form of bloody videos of auto collisions caused by driver negligence, even though, logically speaking, the gore should not in itself be an argument for driver conduct.

This approach, also called ‘fear-mongering’, is even present in advertising. I once saw a pharmaceutical commercial warning viewers to “ask your doctor” about drug X, because disease Y might be upon you this very minute and you’d have no idea until your bones were crumbling beneath you. These tactics may sound a bit silly, but we may assume that they wouldn’t be used if they did not get results.

Reductio ad Hitlerum

This fallacy was named by conservative thinker Leo Strauss and once you become aware of it, it seems so wickedly silly when anyone uses it. Yet it gets results.

It involves “playing the Hitler card,” by claiming that this or that policy is similar to, the same as, or would lead to, a policy supported by Hitler and the Nazis. It tries to trick us into the following fallacious thought process:

Hitler was evil. Hitler supported policy X. Candidate A also supports policy X. Therefore: Candidate A is like Hitler.

The errors are obvious. Similarity in one respect does not imply similarity in all respects. Furthermore, just because Hitler held a certain opinion or policy, it does not logically follow that the opinion is wrong or evil or that the policy is not a good one. Maybe he liked cats. Does this mean that any cat-loving candidate today should be shunned, on the assumption that their preference for cats also implies Nazi-level anti-Semitism? Of course not—and yet we could assemble hours of television footage showing comparisons between some candidate and Hitler. The American Right says Obamacare, abortion, etc., are things Hitler would have done, that support for abortion is equivalent to Nazi genocide. The Left says the same about those who oppose same-sex marriage, that they’d like to round up all homosexuals and execute them.

And it goes on and on, but the underlying principle is simply this: anyone I don’t like is Hitler.

Renaming Vices

Words change with time. This is natural and inevitable. It’s just how language works. But it is also convenient, especially if you can guide and even engineer the change to your sociopolitical advantage.

We find that this is common, especially with words that are morally loaded.

For example, the term “individualism” has come to signify a positive, almost virtuous attitude in our culture; yet there was a time when the term did not exist. It did not need to exist because there was already a word for that attitude: it was called egoism. Yet egoism is laden with negative connotation because it describes the vice of self-centeredness. “Individualism” became popular when society began looking upon egoism as a good thing. Thus, the negative connotations were unacceptable, but rather than strip them from the existing term (egoism), the pejorative was discarded and replaced with something new—hence the birth of “individualism”—which referred to the same attitude but was colored with positive moral undertones.

A similar process occurred with regard to political corruption in America. Bribery is an age-old crime, with harsh punishments traditionally attached to it.

Yet, in the United States, money is the driving force of politics. In a sense, bribery is the lifeblood of the system. What then? The answer is simple. We took the term ‘bribery’, which was obviously despicable in the presence of democracy, and called it something else. We began calling it lobbying, and that is what it is called today, and this explains why no one ever hears about bribery anymore. It is seen as normal and accepted without a thought.

The two examples just mentioned did occur in an organic manner. It would be difficult to pinpoint a group or organization that consciously set out to achieve it, although it obviously benefited certain groups. But we can also mention a third, more recent example, that was unquestionably a matter of well-orchestrated media manipulation.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States found itself faced with unusual problems of an extra-military nature, since it had to fight a war on an enemy that was not a nation. Among other things, this meant detaining people that were not technically members of a military force, and it also brought up questions of interrogation and what was permissible during such efforts. Waterboarding as a technique for extracting information has been around since the 1950s, and probably before that, but it emerged as a moral question for the American public, since by any standard it was a form of torture. And yet, being the ‘good guys’, it was difficult for Americans to admit to themselves that they tortured their detainees. That was something only villains do in the movies. The solution was, again, terrifyingly simple. The media outlets against the practice harped on the term ‘torture’, but the media outlets in favor of it simple started calling it ‘advanced interrogation’, which obviously could mean anything above and beyond normal interrogation, and thus enabled their viewers to virtually justify anything to their conscience without ever having to use the term ‘torture’. After all, enhanced interrogation isn’t torture, it is just interrogation, but harder.

Words will always be changing, but it is a process we ought to watch closely because it indicates moral transformations that may or may not be the result of propagandistic manipulation.

False Dichotomy

“Dichotomizing means pathologizing; and pathologizing means dichotomizing” said Abraham Maslow.

In certain instances, it is true to say that there are two options and no more—that the answer is either black or white. Yet those instances are rare, and most of the time reality provides a colorful bouquet of possibilities, some very good, some very bad, and most a mix of both. You should be automatically suspicious, then, when someone demands that you limit yourself to either left or right, for even at a fork in the road you have more than just two options. It possible, and sometimes wise, to turn around and go back.

The purpose of the “false dichotomy” fallacy is to hide all other alternatives beyond the two options (usually chosen with prejudice and for the purpose of the unflattering contrast) placed directly before you. It is a fallacy of oversimplification.

False dichotomy has expressed itself systematically via the party system in America. As we’ve all been assured, you may choose either the Right or the Left, but if you choose anything else you are wasting your time. History itself refutes this bad logic, but it has proven extremely effective for our two parties as a means of maintaining power, since both of them benefit from this sort of thinking.

The lesser of two evils

A counterpart to the false dichotomy, the lesser of two evils usually follows directly in its wake, reinforcing and solidifying its rationally ‘narrowing’ work. Using the contemporary political situation again as our example, the false dichotomy presents the public with only two options, and then each party can present unsavory candidates and they only have to present the “lesser of two evils” argument in order to convince voters that, rather than insisting on voting for candidates or parties they actually like, they must settle for the one they dislike the least. This tells the electorate that they must not hold out for an acceptable option, but that they must choose the option that is least unacceptable.

The success of this argument comes to the forefront during every election, when our friends tell us (and perhaps we tell ourselves): “I don’t really care for X or Y. Ideally, I’d choose someone else entirely, but I’ve got to be realistic: this country is in trouble and we’ve got to make the best of it. I suppose this fellow here is the lesser of two evils.

And so it happens that the quality of our candidates slowly deteriorates because the parties no longer have to offer anything of substance, anything desirable; they simply have to show that their man is “less evil” than the other, and since they’ve spent months constructing a reductio ad Hitlerum aimed at the opposing candidate, their task is easy.

The maxim of St. Paul, that we must never do evil that good may come of it, is to us quite naïve and unworkable. Today we reap the fruit of our moral compromising.

Common sense

We quoted Mencken above, saying that: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

In case you had not noticed, many of fallacies we’ve mentioned so far involve the oversimplification of reality. Reality is rarely obvious and never simple, especially in our technological, globalized, age where everything is intermingled and travelling at supersonic speed. If there was ever a time when the most complex aspects of human life were easily discernable at first glance (I doubt there ever was such a time), that age is far behind us.

Yet we still wish that our mysterious, often contradictory reality was this straightforward and accessible; and this desire, so strong within us, makes us extremely susceptible to the “common sense” fallacy. This fallacy suggests to us that the answer to a complex problem because it is simple, easy, obvious, and seemingly intuitive, must be correct. It also teaches us to look with suspicion on any solution that intimidates us or exceeds our comprehension. The result is that, because many issues are complex to the point of inaccessibility, anyone who wishes to defend their case must employ oversimplifications, or else have their position rejected, not because it is wrong, but because it is difficult.

Cult of Personality

If you turned the ad hominem fallacy upside-down and inside-out, you would get the Cult of Personality. Instead of refuting an argument by assaulting a person’s character, this fallacy goes the opposite direction by building some person into an idealized, celebrity-hero that is beyond reproach and beyond scrutiny. This idol, who may even have a special title—“Führer” or “Ill Duce” for example, although more commonly just a radio talk-show host—is then used to garner support for a particular position since whatever he says will be accepted by followers without the intervention of the critical reason.

For example, when John Wayne spoke on some political topic, his words carried great weight because of the heroic ideal which he had come to symbolize via his film work and public persona. I, personally, enjoy John Wayne movies, but it is nonetheless fallacious to accept a proposition simply because John Wayne supported it.

The mass media is often a significant component in the cult of personality because it controls who gets the limelight and how much each person gets, and its omnipresence enables the entire population to be incessantly bombarded with portraits, videos, and slogans relating to the hero. For this reason, although the cult of the personality has been present in every age, we can say that this trick is chiefly a modern technique due to the power of technology to build it up systematically. In the past, in order for some person to gain a fanatical following, they would have had to have done at least something to have gained the notoriety. Thus, for better or worse, and even if the reputation was overblown, they were typically acting with some significance. Today, on the other hand, it is conceivable that a cult of personality could be built up around a person that doesn’t even exist—it could be done entirely artificially, using media.

Using the mass media as a vehicle, various regimes have exploited this procedure, from Adolf Hitler to Benito Mussolini to Saddam Hussein.

Demonizing the Enemy

Hitler could not have become who he was without the Jews. As strange as it might sound, they were his greatest asset.

It is not possible to build up such extreme levels of irrational enthusiasm in the people without also, at the same time, fueling an equally powerful force of aggression. Think of small children who are prone to become “over-excited”: it always begins with enthusiasm and laughter, but if allowed to go too far it turns into hysteria, tears, and tantrums. Because masses, in many ways, operate like psychological children, a government which fuels irrational enthusiasm runs this very same risk. Hence, if you are going to build a hero you must also have an enemy, and the greater the worship your hero claim, the greater must be the demonization of the enemy. If your hero is a god-king, the enemy must be represented as the embodiment of evil itself. This is the only way to exploit the enthusiasm while avoiding the aggressions that come with it.

The Jews were Hitler’s ‘other’—the great enemy. This explains much in regard to how so many “normal” people could commit such atrocities against that group. They did not begin that way—but they ended that way through the process of demonization wherein their normal psychological tendencies were exploited and perverted to a political end.

The Scapegoat

Think of “the scapegoat” as the everyday, milder version of the demonized enemy, serving a more symbolic function. This technique exploits the same human weaknesses, but on a subtler level. We may not all reach violent levels of enthusiasm and hysteria, but we all desire self-justification—we all desire a personal entity on which to place blame for our troubles, frustrations, and failures. This desire, subtle as it may be, is what makes us susceptible to the Scapegoat.

For example, if I am struggling to find employment, I might blame immigrants or the president. Now, immigrants may indeed be the reason I am unemployed; but it might also be that I’ve made some bad decisions, or that I have an unpleasant personality, or maybe the economy is just lagging and it is not the fault of any particular group. On a psychological level, however, only one of the former options will satisfy my deep need to find a personal evil. We search for this personal evil and we must find it, even if we must project it onto some person or group. We do this because, the last thing we wish to do is blame ourselves.

This is perhaps one of the main reasons our two-party system survives: They provide one another with a perfect scapegoat. They need each other. They are symbiotic. The Right could not do without the Left, because then they would have no one to blame for everything that goes wrong.

Divide and Conquer

Recently, I saw a political poster on the Internet depicting an American soldier in Iraq. The caption said something along the lines of: “I make less than minimum wage, and a guy who flips burgers thinks he should be paid $12 an hour?” The obvious intent was, of course, to induce disgust at the idea that a burger flipper deserves more than a soldier on deployment, in other words the idea that minimum wage workers deserve higher pay. The implication is that fry cooks have no business asking for more, because then they’d be making more than soldiers, and this seems preposterous.

Now here’s the problem: What if the soldier in the photo is drastically underpaid as well (and it is fairly obvious to most people that he probably is)? If this is the case, then the fry cooks are the natural allies of the soldiers. Perhaps the soldier’s vocation still warrants greater compensation, but that is irrelevant. They have common ground, which is the problem of unjust renumeration for their labor. They would gain much by uniting, but if they can, on the other hand, be made to hate one another as if they were enemies, then they undermine each other or at least focus on one another and not the actual source of the problem that afflicts both groups. Neither can hope to benefit by hating one another.

So we might do well to ask: Who actually benefit from this kind of messaging? Who would benefit by encouraging two large segments of the lower working class to ridicule each other for an injustice suffered by both and for problems that neither of them can fix? Obviously this works to the great advantage of those who write the checks. Logically, one would think that they government or the corporations would be at the center of such complaints. But thanks to the technique of ‘divide and conquer’ or in this case, ‘divide and rule’, the actual power groups can stand comfortably aloof and watch the show. That is not to say that the CEO of some fast-food chain actually created the poster. The poster is not the technique. It is a consequence of the technique. That these groups would create such posters to use against each other is proof that decades of fueling division and training people to think in these terms has been successful.

Flag-waving

We could also call this the “Appeal to Patriotism.” Whether or not a person is sufficiently “patriotic” can be a life or death point in political matters, particularly in nations like the United States where national self-awareness has reached in incredible degree.

Flag-waving is an attempt to win support for one’s position by showing either that a particular person or action is patriotic or that supporting a policy will benefit the nation.  It also works in the opposite direction: If you can prove to Americans that an action is unpatriotic, then you’ve all but handed it a death sentence. How often do we hear the accusation that such-and-such a person “hates America,” in attempts to attach negative associations to that person.

As the name “flag-waving” implies, this technique is usually attached to symbols, such as the American flag or the Statue of Liberty or some other universally recognized image. A politician who appears in a photo with a flag wrapped around his shoulders, or with a flag blowing in the background, this is an attempt to cause the viewer to take all the positive feeling associated with the flag and then, consciously or unconsciously, apply them to the person, even if they may have no rational cause for making such an association.

Managing the news

This involves orchestrating a coordinated effort to present the same few, simple points to a population, ceaselessly and from all directions. It involves incorporating all media formats including newspaper, television and radio. Jacques Ellul called this process “encirclement”; I call it “pulverization by the media.” It is similar to what is called “classical conditioning” in psychology, because it plants and reinforces associations by combinations of the various other techniques, such as ad nauseum.

Adolf Hitler said: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly—it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

The media machines of today have taken Hitler’s advice to heart. The key to this technique is relentlessness: No one must have a moment’s peace in order to find himself in the din.

Slogans, Catchphrases, Clichés

Although we’ve already mentioned this above, it warrants mention again. Bertrand de Jouvenel said that, instead of rational discourse, modern audiences were best reached through,

“Stupid slogans, which come trippingly to the tongue and are a pleasure to repeat, songs which exalt the ‘comrades’ and ridicule the ‘enemy,’ these are the stuff of politics. Mix with it a little doctrine, but only a very little, and reduce it to the simplest propositions.”

The reason people might lean this way is not hard to discern. In a democracy everyone cares about politics, and everyone wants to engage in intelligent political discourse. Yet not everyone can understand and absorb the many complex arguments necessary to refute the hypotheses of their opponents. After all, most of us can barely defend our own opinions.

The answer to this problem occurs almost naturally through a process of reduction: philosophies become “programs,” programs become platforms, platforms become slogans, slogans become catchphrases, and catchphrases become clichés. The story ends with an environment where men talk at one another without speaking and hear without listening. And both participants get to walk away under the impression that they engaged in meaningful conversion.

Virtue Words

Certain words, depending on time, place, and culture, wield an unbelievable amount of power over the minds and emotions of a people. These are usually the words which represent the supreme values of the society. In American society, examples might be words like: “liberty,” “freedom,” or “equality.” There are also vice words which correspond to these: “tyranny,” “slavery,” or “hate.”

The problem is that these words, while surrounded with an almost holy aura, are at the same time extremely vague. If someone says that “freedom is under attack,” everyone recoils in disgust, and yet we do not really know what this means—it could mean almost anything depending on the speaker. What if the speaker is referring to the “freedom to have an abortion”? What then?

But that is the beauty of virtue words: it draws the audience, almost irresistibly over to your side even before they know what exactly you are arguing for, because the response has become a reflex. The words “freedom” and “equality” act as invocations to the modern mind, producing an almost guaranteed effect. After reflection, of course, we may realize that we don’t agree with the speaker after all, but how many of us remember to pause and reflect?

Ideology

Ideologies are what we get when we try to explain reality—which is vast, complex, and mysterious—with a few simple formulas. It is another fallacy of oversimplification, although this one is particular to democracies. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in such societies “the craving to discover general laws in everything, to include a great number of objects under the same formula, and to explain a mass of facts by a single cause, becomes an ardent, and sometimes an undiscerning, passion in the human mind.”

He said that, because we see everyone as equal politically, we also treat everyone as equal mentally. Thus, we act as if we should need no recourse to outside sources in order to understand life’s problems. He says we “would fain succeed brilliantly and at once, but they would be dispensed from great efforts to obtain success. These conflicting tendencies lead straight to the research of general ideas, by aid of which they flatter themselves that they can figure very importantly at a small expense.”

The popular ideologies in America are: capitalism, liberalism, and democracy. Each of these pretends to provide intuitive, simple explanations to overwhelmingly complex problems. But they are rigid and always incomplete. Thus, they create minds equally rigid and incomplete.

Ideology is about taking an idea, perhaps even a very good idea, and making it the measure of all other ideas. It is not about error as such, but about taking a small truth and making it the only truth, the “Big Idea” that displaces every other truth. It has but two rules: 1) The Big Idea is always right; 2) If the Big Idea proves wrong, see rule one.

Multiplicity of ideologies

The reason I stress the importance of understanding what exactly ideology is, is that this is more useful than trying to examine all the shortcomings of the ideologies you’ll bump into.

First and foremost, the problem is that these ideologies change in content or emphasis by time and place and even from individual to individual. Capitalism used to be called Liberalism, and now liberalism means something very different in common use, at least in America. In Europe, it carries yet another meaning. And capitalism itself, although newer, does not mean what it used to. Likewise, Marxism has gone through various developments and had a number of exponents from different countries so that it isn’t correct to critique Marx and assume you’ve critiqued Marxism as it now stands.

Socialism is perhaps the most convoluted at all, with its exponents ranging from very sane to very insane, which is why it was originally condemned by the popes and then later even the most traditional of popes (I’m thinking Benedict XVI) could say that it is now, in some of its contemporary iterations, entirely compatible with Christian doctrine. Benedict said this not because he disagreed with Leo XIII, but because the socialism that presented itself to him was not the socialism which presented itself to Leo. And it is a sign of the prudence of the popes that they are able to recognize such things.

Statistics: Fact or Truth?

Davila said that “statistics is the tool of those who give up understanding in order to manipulate.” When he said this, Davila had recognized that statistics, as form of propaganda, have come to wield too much power in public discourse.

Statistics, in a way, lead inevitably to fallacious thinking. This is because no single statistic carries any truth value in itself: it must be interpreted; and in order to properly interpret any statistic, we usually need a great many more statistics, as well as experience, reasoning skills, and objectivity.

The problem is that because all of those “interpretive” requirements happen in the background, usually without our even thinking about it, we forget that it is even occurring. Because the only part of the process we notice is the “fact,” we operate on the assumption that the fact “interprets itself.” We forget that a naked fact carries no truth with the interpretation, and multiple interpretations are always possible. And so we encounter two problems with statistics—two forms of deception: first, we forget that they always require interpretation; and second, we forget that in order to arrive at a valid interpretation, we usually need more data.

The following two case examples are drawn from modern political conversation, and they illustrate that this deception is used by both sides of the political war.

 Example 1: Planned Parenthood’s Budget

The scenario:

Planned Parenthood is accused by political opponents of being a significant provider of abortion services. Planned Parenthood responds by claiming that, of all the services they provide, only 3% are abortions.

The deception:

The statistic itself is true, but only when the calculations are performed in a certain way. Consider this: Planned Parenthood also administers pregnancy tests. A pregnancy test, as most people know, requires almost no time, no money, does not require a physician, and is minimally invasive. An abortion is a different matter entirely.

However, if we so desire, we can consider a pregnancy test as “1 service” and an abortion as “1 service.” This treats them as mathematically equal, even though no honest person would say they are equal in reality. If we do the math in this manner, Planned Parenthood can administer 97 pregnancy tests and 3 abortions in one hour, and then claim that only 3% of their services are abortions. This is true, mathematically. But realistically?—it is so misleading as to be an outright lie. It is a fact, but it hides the truth.

Example 2: The Tax Burden of the Rich

The scenario:

Politician X claims the wealthy pay a disproportionate and unjust amount of taxes to the government. In support of this claim, he explains that the wealthiest 1% of Americans pay a whopping 36% of the taxes. If we expand this to the top 10%, the group pays almost 70% of the taxes. These figures, it is implied, suggest massively unjust demands being made on rich. We are then told that the lower classes (the bottom 50%) are getting off easy, paying a scant 3.3%.

The deception:

Planned Parenthood was guilty of interpreting data in a misleading way. The politician above, on the other hand, is guilty of a partial presentation of data which, in the end, is equally dishonest because its sets up the listener for a conclusion that does not take into account the whole picture. To see why, we need to incorporate some supplementary data, thus acquiring all of the necessary points of reference.

In addition to the distribution of taxes, let’s also include the distribution of wealth. If we do this, then we see that the top 1% holds 35% of the wealth, and the top 10% holds about 70%.

What about the bottom 50% of Americans, who we are told are getting off easy by only paying some 3.3% of the taxes? Well, it happens that this group holds only 2.6% of the total wealth. So, if by “fair taxation” we mean that each person should pay an equal share of his income, or if we mean that each should pay taxes in proportion to the percentage of total wealth he controls, then it only makes sense that he who has much will pay much, and he who has almost nothing will pay almost nothing.

But these partisan debates do not really concern us here. The point is simply that statistics are, as we encounter them in the media and in popular politics, an instrument of propaganda. Like any other piece of information, they are only useful insofar as we truly understand their depth and are competent to interpret them in light of the whole picture, the relevant historical situation, and the present context. For most of us, this means that statistics are mostly useless and only serve to manipulate our conclusions by giving us the feeling of having based our decisions ‘on the data’.