Conflation, confusion and conditioning.
Much time is spent on the web categorising the fallacious arguments alarmist use into classical debating errors with impressive Latin names. That’s all good stuff as far as it goes, but the propagandists use a number of shady techniques which because they rely more on group psychology rather than a structured argument, don’t quite fall neatly into any formal debating sin. I’d like to discuss the most powerful one they most commonly employ – conflation.
Conflation means the mixing up of two or more ideas or terms which might at face value appear to be about the same underlying thing. It’s often used quite deliberately by propagandists, simply because by getting someone to agree that an obviously acceptable idea is actually good, and then subtly grafting on to it another idea which the same person might not agree with, they in effect finesse any argument or inhibit one.
At a low level – what other – it’s often used by climate alarmists, who’re in the habit of switching seamlessly between the terms global warming, climate change and weather, depending on nothing more than which one will have a greater topical impact. You really do have to keep your eye on the pea.
It’s most commonly used in politics, where what I call the presentation idea is injected with a payload idea. An example of this presentation /payload technique would be getting a person to agree it’s an honourable thing to volunteer to defend their homeland and then interpreting that as being willing to invade other countries to achieve political aims they might not approve of.
When someone expresses a single idea, it’s easy to both evaluate and respond to. Where they’ve mashed several ideas together, any response is necessarily more complex. First, you have to recognise conflation is occurring, then point out to them that’s what they’re doing and finally formulate a response which usually takes the longer and more finicky form of I agree with that bit, but not the other bit. By the time you’ve done all that, they’ll have tried to rush the discussion on to something else.
The insertion of the payload idea is often done using a malformed syllogism, which could be easily mistaken for the real thing. If you aren’t familiar with what a syllogism is, it’s a line of reasoning of the following general form – If X is the same as Y, and Y itself is the same as Z, it follows therefore that X must be the same as Z.
An obvious example of its abuse looks like – Apples are the same as Pears, Pears are the same as Oranges, therefore Apples are Oranges. It’s the fudging of the first two equivalences you’ve got to keep an eagle eye out for and that’s commonly done by omitting or inferring the second one. What can make it extremely difficult to spot is that sometimes the last two equivalences are dropped completely, because they’re operating on your subconscious. We’re not talking about formal logic here, but deep and repetitive conditioning to induce a viewpoint.
It’s usage is pervasive by the alarmists in the climate wars and it nearly always uses what I’d qualify as a positive presentation idea. Here are some examples thereof using syllogism abuse by dropping or inferring the second equivalence, but I’ve appended the refutation.
While everyone would naturally agree that stopping a factory belching out environmentally harmful pollution is a good thing, that’s no mandate to regulate the trace gas CO2, which is not a pollutant. While all would agree that alleviating poverty around the world is a good thing, it’s not concurring to a global redistribution of wealth, because there simply isn’t enough wealth in the world to make a significant dent in global poverty. Regulating occurrences of rapacious Capitalism is a decent thing, but it isn’t a consent to de-industrialise the developed world, since that would destroy any wealth generation.
I’m sure you can add your own favourite presentation / payload conflation couplets.
Negative conflation, which is used mainly in attack propaganda, is employing a negative presentation idea to deliver a desirable payload idea. For instance, Stephen Lewandowsky used a negative presentation idea in a subsequently retracted paper, which was that climate skeptics had been scientifically classified as conspiratorial, reactionary and psychologically disturbed individuals. Reconstructing the shattered propaganda syllogism and expressing it explicitly; skeptics are deranged, you’re a skeptic, therefore you’re deranged. The implicit and unexpressed payload idea is of course that the last thing you’d want to be known as is a skeptic.
Attack propaganda, as its name suggests, is nothing more than aggression against opponents but it also serves the useful purpose of scaring any of your own fellow travellers, who may be having doubts, to stay on side.
When used skilfully, explicit conflation very often goes unnoticed by those on whom it is being practised, but even when they do happen to have vague doubts about the payload idea, it does tend to mute objections, if not suppress them entirely. It takes a strong personality not to hesitate expressing reservations with a subtly conflated idea, which everyone else around you appears to think is obviously a good idea.
In passing, it’s worth noting that nearly all alarmist propaganda targeted at children and young adults makes heavy use of positive conflation, since it exploits their naturally larger need for acceptance by their peer groups.
Perhaps the most subtle and yet always unnoticed use of both positive and negative conflation is exploiting people’s political leanings to bounce them into the alarmist camp or at least to exert a subtle pressure to keep them in it against what’s often their vaguely troubled judgement. It’s also used to inhibit any criticism by people of a different political persuasion.
Before continuing this line of argument, I’m obliged to touch on my own politics, since this article is about an infowar technique and I don’t want it to be perceived as a right-winger indulging in a subtle bit of left bashing. I’m neither committed to the left or right, to the extent that my voting choices at national level vary depending on how well or not the current administration is doing or how credible the opposition are looking. I am a pragmatist when it comes to mainstream politics. If you allow yourself to become seriously committed to a particular left or right-wing party, they tend to ignore you since your vote for them is already in the bank, and in effect you’ll have ceded the choice of the next government to the first time or floating voter.
On balance and given the absence of any real political choice because of the modern phenomenon of most mainstream parties fighting for the middle ground, I’ve most often voted against the current government, irrespective of their political stripe, since I believe it keeps them on their toes. Big rolling majorities tend to lead to abuses of power and are rarely good for democracy. That makes me a tactical floating voter and as any polling analyst will tell you, that’s the demographic which so often decides who’s going to win an election.
It’s a personal thing, but I find it easier to come to a sound view on particular issues when I think about them outside the constraint of having to fit the conclusion into a uniform political philosophy. In the round and adding up my views on various things, I suppose I would be positioned slightly left of centre.
In a previous article, I expressed the opinion that large swathes of the environmental movement had long ago been subverted for their own ends by various parties whose common politics were heavily left of socialism. Add into that mix a mainstream media which though not as deeply left-wing, still leans predominantly in that direction, and you’ve got a very handy symbiotic relationship, which is exploited by alarmist propagandists to good effect. A read through the Climategate emails shows the scientists involved funneling press releases to advocate journalists who could be relied upon to impart the desired spin.
It was a natural step to extend the traditional but simplistic stereotypes used by the left to flatter themselves and depict their right-wing opponents in a bad light. For instance, let’s do some conflation on the following cliché. Only left wingers really care about the poor and downtrodden, because it’s right wingers who keep them poor and have a financial motive to always exploit them ruthlessly.
A positive conflation of this is simply that caring not only about needy people but by extension the environment they live in is of course what every true left winger will naturally do. A negative conflation is that if you question the means by which caring about the environment is to be achieved, then your left-wing credentials are somehow suspect. In a similar way, right-wingers often hesitate to criticise environmental policy, since they feel that might appear to confirm their opponent’s cliché of them being ruthless exploiters of the Earth.
The impression being planted in minds is that left wingers are not supposed to be critical of things environmental, which is why in point of fact so very few of them raise any objections. This inhibition can be further reinforced by another conflation making use of inter-party tribalism; right-wingers always want to exploit the environment ruthlessly, and therefore if a left-winger is critical of anything about environmentalism, they’re in effect helping out their natural political enemy.
If you’re partial to the slightly academic exercise of examining alternative history scenarios, it’s interesting to speculate on which childish stereotypes the right might conflate if they’d instead subverted the environmental movement and had an equally incestuous relationship with the mainstream media. Let’s do some conflation on one of their favourite clichés; right wingers believe in free markets and left wingers are against them.
A positive conflation would probably be something along the lines of; caring for the environment by creating things like a green enterprise sector and carbon trading markets, would simply be doing the wealth generation that every true right-winger believes in. The negative conflation, and you’re probably ahead of me on this one, would be that if you questioned the financial viability of a green sector or the effectiveness of carbon trading, then your right-wing credentials would be somehow suspect. After all, only a left-winger would be against creating sunrise industry sectors and new financial markets.
I’ve often seen people of a leftward persuasion preface a valid objection to an aspect of environmental policy, with an almost unconscious apology for what they were about to say. By the same token, I’ve just as often heard people compelled to say that even though they were right-wing, they still cared about the environment.
That’s a sad state of affairs but it’s an unconscious acknowledgement of how deep the conflated political conditioning goes, and is one of the barriers that people of either persuasion struggle with when trying to discuss environmentalism as an issue which should stand or fall on its own merits. Unpicking that almost tribal mix of environmentalism and politics is impossible at this stage but as climate alarmism sticks stubbornly at the bottom of voter’s concerns, it’ll become irrelevant as it continues to slide off the political agenda and therefore lose political influence.
Conflation is a deceitful but powerful technique in any discussion and this article has barely scratched the surface of how it can be utilised. Given the limitations of a blog, completeness has to be sacrificed to achieve some clarity and the deeper dive into the subject is left to the reader.
When applied in infowar, conflation is used to subtly mix up not only ideas, but people’s politics and their self-image. What makes it an insidious evil is that it makes heavy use of unexamined clichés and stereotypes, which are themselves rarely true, and the payload idea is so often an unspoken psychological one aimed at conditioning people.
Related articles by Pointman: