The Gish gallop is a rhetorical technique which involves overwhelming your opponent with as many arguments as possible, with no regard for the relevance, validity, or accuracy of those arguments. For example, a person using the Gish gallop might attempt to support their stance by bringing up, in rapid succession, a large number of vague claims, anecdotal statements, misinterpreted facts, and irrelevant comments.
This technique is widely used in debates on various topics, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the Gish gallop, and see how you can respond to those who use it.
Understanding the Gish gallop
At its core, the Gish gallop focuses on overwhelming one’s opponent in a debate by bombarding them with as many arguments as possible. Because the Gish galloper focuses on the number of arguments at their disposal rather than on their quality, the arguments which are used are often dubious, inaccurate, or irrelevant to the discussion.
The Gish gallop is frequently used by proponents of pseudoscience when they attempt to criticize various scientific findings. Despite the inherent logical issues associated with this technique, it remains in use for two main reasons:
- It’s far easier to raise numerous unsubstantiated points than it is to refute them properly. Accordingly, the Gish gallop technique is often successful at overwhelming those who are committed to proper scientific discourse, especially if they are unfamiliar with this type of argument.
- People generally prefer short and simple arguments, which are easy for them to process. The Gish gallop contains a large number of such arguments, which often offer a more compelling explanation than the complex scientific explanations needed in order to refute them.
When implementing this technique, the Gish galloper will often use a pre-concocted list of arguments, which are easy to fire off rapidly. Accordingly, if the person they are arguing with the Gish galloper manages to successfully refute a certain argument, the Gish galloper simply moves on to the next item on their list.
This means that the Gish galloper always appears prepared, with additional arguments that they can use in order to support their stance. Furthermore, it means that the use of the Gish gallop often appears to successfully discredit the opposing stance, because a person is unlikely to be successful at refuting every single point presented against them during a Gish gallop.
Note: the Gish gallop is generally considered to be a rhetoric technique, rather than a logical fallacy per se. However, it generally relies on various forms of fallacious reasoning, and can be considered fallacious in itself when someone assumes that just because a certain stance is backed by a lot of arguments, then that means that this stance is correct, even if those arguments are mostly invalid.
History of the Gish gallop
The Gish gallop technique is tradionally known by other names, such as argument by verbosity, proof by verbosity, and shotgun argumentation. It was given its current name by Professor Eugenie Scott, who was the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Specifically, Professor Scott used the term ‘Gish gallop’ in order to describe the debate technique of Duane Gish, a Young-Earth creationist, by describing it as a format where “the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate”.
Examples of a Gish gallop
As we saw so far, a Gish gallop consists of a collection of various problematic arguments, which includes any combination of the following:
- General unsubstantiated claims that are difficult to refute. For example: “I saw that they recently published several papers in prominent journals which disprove global warming, so clearly scientists don’t believe that it’s happening anymore, if it ever did”. This sort of vague statement is difficult to refute, since there isn’t a single concrete piece of evidence here that you can debunk directly, and because it’s hard to disprove that such papers have been published. This means that you have to rely on indirect evidence regarding the scientific consensus on the topic.
- Anecdotal statements with little to no scientific value. For example: “you keep saying that there is a global warming going on, but my town got a lot of snow just last week”. This is an anecdotal piece of information, which purports to disprove global warming, despite the fact that it is meaningless from a scientific perspective (since large amounts of snow in one area don’t disprove global warming in any way).
- Intentional or unintentional misinterpretation of truthful facts. For example, a Gish galloper might say that “there is still a lot of debate and disagreement in the scientific community regarding whether or not there is global warming”. The truthful fact here is that there is an ongoing discussion regarding various aspects of global warming, and that there are a few scientists who disagree with the idea of global warming. However, the reality is that the vast majority of scientists agree that we are undergoing some form of significant global warming, which is why the above statement misrepresents the truth.
- Outright lies. For example: “the majority of scientists don’t believe that there is global warming”. This is false, since as we saw above, the majority of scientists do believe that there is global warming.
- Truthful statements that are either irrelevant to the discussion, or which don’t provide meaningful evidence. For example: “it might be true that the climate is changing now, but Earth’s climate has also changed many times in the past”. While it’s true that the Earth’s climate has changed many times in the past, this doesn’t invalidate the fact that research shows that we are currently experiencing a man-caused global warming, on a different scale than anything that occurred naturally before.
- A refutation of statements that no one has actually made. For example, if one person says “there is an increase in overall temperature averages across the planet”, the Gish galloper might reply with “it’s wrong to say that this is the first time in the history of Earth where there have been changes in the overall climate”. Even though the Gish galloper’s argument is refuting a statement that no one has made, it may appear to some people as if the Gish galloper has successfully refuted their opponent’s argument.
- Statements that involve a lot of unnecessarily technical jargon, or which require esoteric scientific knowledge in order to refute. For example: “global warming was debunked by a study by Schmittner et al. which assessed the impact of future anthropogenic carbon emissions by examining the equilibrium of climate sensitivity with regards to the ECS2xC point, and specifically by calculating the posterior probability density functions of climate sensitivity using Bayesian inference, which examined the likelihood of the observations ΔTobs given the model ΔTmod(ECS2xC) at the locations of the observations”. This is an unnecessarily complex way of summarizing the findings of the study in question, and discussing it in this way helps hides the fact that the study’s findings are misrepresented here, which discourages people from trying to refute this point.
- Self-referential statements, which are supported by previous statements made by the Gish galloper. For example: “there is a lot of scientific disagreement on the topic of global warming, since, as I showed earlier, we just experienced record snowfalls in some parts of the country”. Using their own previous arguments as evidence helps the Gish galloper pretend to have a lot of supporting proof for their stance, and helps them chain their arguments together, even if the initial premise of these arguments is wrong.
- Slightly-modified versions of previous arguments, which are simply used in order to increase the total number of arguments that the Gish galloper appears to have at their disposal. For example, if the Gish galloper starts by saying “you claim that there is global warming, but there was a lot of snow in New York last month”, they might later follow with “if there is global warming, then it would be difficult to explain why there were record snowfalls on the East coast a few weeks ago”. Both arguments are similar versions of the same anecdotal information, and neither provides meaningful evidence against global warming.
How the Gish gallop technique is implemented
The Gish gallop plays a role in various types of discussions. In live debates, for example, the person using the Gish gallop will usually just fire off numerous points rapidly, in an attempt to overwhelm their opponent, or in an attempt to “score” more points than them, by listing as many arguments as possible.
Furthermore, if the opponent of the Gish galloper manages to successfully refute one or several of their arguments, the Gish galloper will usually just counter this by saying “yes, but…” and move on to the next point on their list, in an attempt to wear their opponent down.
In online discussions, the Gish galloper will often just list a large number of sources that supposedly support their stance, without actually verifying that they do so. The person using the Gish gallop in this case will usually just search for the relevant keyword that applies to the discussion, and then list everything that they find without checking that those sources actually support their point.
For example, someone erroneously claiming that yoga is a cure for terminal cancer might list various papers that contain the relevant keywords as if they support this viewpoint, such as the paper “Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors“. However, a closer inspection of this paper will show that it simply suggests that practicing yoga could potentially lead to minor improvements in the physical and mental wellbeing of cancer patients, and that it doesn’t actually propose that yoga could be an effective cure for cancer.
This method works because the majority of users won’t bother tediously going over the list of sources in order to confirm that they support the stance proposed by the Gish galloper, and most people will just see the large list of sources and assumes that they are valid and relevant. If the Gish galloper’s opponent wants to show that these sources fail to support the purported view, then they will usually have to tediously go over a significant portion of these sources, which takes much more work compared to just finding them.
How to counter the Gish gallop technique
As we saw so far, it’s relatively difficult to counter the Gish gallop technique successfully, because of the asymmetry between the small amount of effort required to produce multiple weak arguments and the large amount of effort and expertise required to refute them. However, this does not mean that there is nothing that you can do if you want to counter someone using a Gish gallop.
Below are the possible techniques that you can use in order to counter the Gish gallop technique successfully. Different circumstances will call for the use of different techniques, based on what you believe will work best:
- Full rebuttal- this consists of going over every point made by your opponent, and refuting each of them individually. While this is often considered to be the proper way to respond to an opponent’s argument, in the case of a Gish gallop this is very difficult to accomplish. Furthermore, this sort of a rebuttal is made more difficult by the fact that if even a single point is not refuted properly, the Gish galloper will likely focus on that, and claim that it invalidates the entire refutation attempt.
- Sample-based rebuttal- this consists of selecting a representative sample of your opponent’s arguments, either randomly or based on some criteria, and then refuting only those arguments. While this method is simpler than the full rebuttal, it suffers from similar issues, since it will generally require more work on the part of the person refuting the arguments, and since a single incorrect refutation will be used in an attempt to invalidate the entire refutation attempt. Furthermore, the Gish galloper will often accuse you of cherry picking specific arguments to refute, and can always respond by drawing the attention back to arguments that weren’t addressed in this rebuttal.
- Thematic rebuttal- this consists of identifying the overall theme of your opponent’s argument, and arguing against that, instead of focusing on the individual points made during the Gish gallop. This method is relatively effective, since it allows you to address your opponent’s arguments in a valid way, while at the same time taking away the advantage that the Gish galloper gets from being able to pile on multiple irrelevant arguments. Note that you can either try to formulate your opponent’s theme for them, or ask them to do it for you. Asking them to explain their overall argument by themself can be beneficial, since it makes it harder for them to claim that you misunderstood them, while also allowing for a more constructive discussion.
- Grouped-point rebuttal- this is similar to a thematic rebuttal, but instead of arguing against your opponent’s overall theme, you divide their various arguments into distinct groups, each of which consists of related arguments, and then address each of these groups separately.
- Best-point rebuttal- this is also similar to a thematic rebuttal, but instead of arguing against your opponent’s overall theme, you try to address only their strongest piece of evidence. Here too, you can either identify such evidence yourself, or ask your opponent to do so. The problem with this technique is that even if you successfully refute their strongest evidence, the Gish galloper might simply fall back to the next argument on their list, which you haven’t addressed.
- Worst-point rebuttal- this consists of refuting only the weakest pieces of evidence included in the Gish gallop, in order to discredit your opponent’s overall argument. Doing this has the same issues associated with it as the best-point rebuttal.
Overall, the most effective techniques tend to be the thematic rebuttal and the grouped-point rebuttal, which allow you to address your opponent’s arguments properly, while also taking away the advantage that they gain from using the Gish gallop.
Regardless of which technique you end up choosing, you can generally benefit from also calling out the use of the Gish gallop explicitly, especially if you need to explain why you’re not providing a point-by-point rebuttal.
When doing this, you need to show how your opponent is using this debate technique and explain why it’s problematic, which is best accomplished by demonstrating how your opponent is attempting to use a large number of weak arguments. In particular, you will benefit from highlighting a few egregious arguments used by the Gish galloper, and showing how they are representative of your opponent’s overall stance.
Keep in mind that you can also choose to disengage from the debate entirely. This can be the best option, for example, in cases where you have a one-on-one debate with a person who is well aware of what they are doing, meaning that nothing that you say will make a difference. If such a debate is taking place in front of a crowd, you can call out the use of the Gish gallop as we saw above, and use that to explain why you are choosing to stop the debate.
Other considerations when countering the Gish gallop
The strength of the Gish gallop technique lies in the fact that it frames the course of the debate, and creates the appearance of credibility and control. Because this framing gives an inherent advantage to the Gish galloper, your best course of action is to avoid playing their game in the first place.
This means that, if possible, you shouldn’t let the other person establish this type of argument. Instead, stop them as soon as they start firing off multiple invalid arguments, and start refuting those arguments immediately. Of course, this may not be a viable option in some cases, such as in online discussions.
If your opponent already used the Gish gallop, one thing you can do is ask them to defend specific pieces of evidence that they provided.
Since the arguments used in a Gish gallop are generally weak or invalid, the Gish galloper will often struggle to justify them. This is further compounded by that fact that people using this technique often only have a superficial understanding of what they are saying. Accordingly, doing this takes away the Gish galloper’s inherent advantage, and shifts the burden of proof back to them.
For example, if someone claims that the fact that it snowed a lot yesterday means that there is no global warming, you can ask them to explain their rationale, and why they believe that this counts as sufficient proof against climate change.
That is, don’t try to explain why their arguments are wrong yourself, but rather ask them to justify why their arguments are right. The more incorrect arguments the Gish galloper presents, the more difficult it will be for them to defend those arguments later on.
Summary and conclusions
- The Gish gallop is a debate technique that involves someone attempting to overwhelm their opponent by using as many arguments as possible, with no regard for the relevance, validity, or accuracy of those arguments.
- This technique is often effective because it’s easier to make multiple unsubstantiated arguments than it is to refute such arguments properly, and because people generally prefer simple explanations, which are easy for them to process, over complex scientific refutations. As such, the Gish gallop is frequently used by proponents of various pseudoscientific theories, in order to support their stance during debates.
- The Gish gallop will usually include a combination of unsubstantiated claims, anecdotal statements with no scientific value, misinterpretations of truthful facts, outright lies, truthful statements that are irrelevant to the discussion, statements that involve unnecessary technical jargon, self-referential claims, slightly modified versions of previous arguments, and various logical fallacies.
- To successfully counter a Gish gallop, you can either provide a full rebuttal, a sample-based rebuttal, a thematic rebuttal, a grouped-point rebuttal, a best-point rebuttal, or a worst-point rebuttal, though a thematic rebuttal or a grouped-point rebuttal are usually the best options. Keep in mind that these rebuttals can often be supplemented by calling out the Gish galloper explicitly, and that in some cases, it’s best to simply disengage from the debate with them entirely.
- Another thing that you can do is shift the burden of proof back to the Gish galloper, by asking them to justify some of the arguments that they made, instead of trying to explain why these arguments are wrong yourself. Because the Gish galloper’s arguments are generally invalid and because their understanding of these arguments is often superficial, the Gish galloper will generally struggle to justify their stance when questioned about it.