Filed under “Critical Thinking”

January 14, 2008

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Propagandists

With the first major Presidential primaries already behind us, the election year is officially under way. This November, the President, Vice President, one third of the Senate, and the entire House are up for election. Between now and then, we’ll see dozens of debates, thousands of ads, and hear mixed messages from various groups, pundits, candidates, their former co-workers, their third grade teachers, former lovers, and anyone else who can be pulled out of the woodwork to support or tear down a politician. So I figure this is a good time to review the 7 Common Propaganda Devices that were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) way back in 1937 and see if we can find them in use today.


The IPA used this term to describe virtuous words that mean different things to different people, but are used in such a general way that you can project your own meaning into the speaker’s words. So when people talk about freedom, strength, Democracy, or patriotism, you are likely to assume they think of those words the same way you do.

In 2008: It’s almost like this Mitt Romney ad was made just to demonstrate use of glittering generalities:

Remedy: When you hear someone speaking in glittering generalities, the IPA recommended that you stop to ask whether or not the idea being pitched is really a good one, or if it’s just being sold to you through association with words you like. If you take those words out of the equation, is the substance of what’s left still any good?


“Name calling” is a technique where someone uses words to link a person or proposal to a negative or emotionally charged symbol. The idea is to get you to reject the person due to the association with the symbol rather than actual evidence, which may or may not be there. Words like flip-flopper, radical, terrorist, and even liberal are contemporary labels that might qualify as name calling.

In 2008: The Annenberg Political Fact Check recently reported that e-mails have been circulating calling Barack Obama a racist and a radical Muslim. Neither claim seems to be supported by evidence, but aims to associate the Senator with negative views of racists and Muslim extremists.

Remedy: The IPA recommended that when you hear name-calling, you should stop to consider what the name means, whether or not it is being legitimately applied, and what the person or idea’s merits are without the name.


There are institutions and objects that you have positive associations with, so politicians try to appear with symbols of those institutions in the hopes that you will transfer your positive associations onto them. For example, by standing in front of American flags or next to a cross, a candidate hopes that your positive associations with those symbols will be transferred to them. Transfer can be used for positive associations or negative associations, depending on the symbol and intent.

In 2008: Mike Huckabee’s Christmas campaign ad featured a bookcase in the background which resembled a cross. There was some debate in the media over whether or not the cross was a subtle but deliberate attempt at using transfer. Of course, Governor Huckabee’s statement in the ad that “what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ” is a much less subtle attempt to further align himself with the church.

Remedy: The IPA suggests that when you notice transfer in use, you ask what the merits of a person or idea are without the transferred associations, and whether or not there is a legitimate connection between the person or idea and the thing from which the person is attempting to transfer some association.


The IPA pointed out that sometimes citing a qualified source is a good way to emphasize a legitimate idea. But you should consider whether or not the source being cited is really qualified to make judgments about a particular issue.

In 2008: Barack Obama has received endorsements from Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Will I Am, and Jessica Beil. Hillary Clinton has Magic Johnson, Jenna Jameson, and Rob Reiner in her camp. Kevin Bacon endorses John Edwards. Bo Derek, Adam Sandler, and Kelsey Grammar have all come out for Giuliani. Chuck Norris has got Mike Huckabee’s back. Mitt Romney has the support of both Osmonds. And John McCain is endorsed by, um, Wilford Brimley. (source)

Remedy: The IPA recommended that, when considering endorsements like these, you ask what makes the individual qualified to be an expert on the subject in question. Does Oprah know what’s best for the country? Does Kelsey Grammar have more insight than you do? The IPA suggested that you should consider the merits of the person or idea without the testimonial.


The “Plain Folks” technique is at work whenever a speaker promotes the idea that he or she is “of the people,” just an Average Joe despite the fact that he or she may go home to a mansion at the end of the day.

In 2008: John Edwards is fond of pointing out that he is the son of a mill worker. Several candidates have eschewed a suit and tie on the campaign trail in favor of a sweater and blue jeans. And Mitt Romney perfectly illustrates the technique in this campaign ad showing him as just a regular family guy. He does dishes, just like you!

Remedy: When you see examples of the Plain Folks technique at work, try temporarily ignoring the candidate’s personality, and just think about his or her ideas. Do they still sound good?


“Stacking the deck” is a gimmick used by magicians where a deck of cards appears to be randomly shuffled but is in fact arranged in a specific way. The IPA borrowed the term to describe a technique where only one side of a topic is favored, or another side is ignored or played down.

In 2008: Fox News is accused of having a right-wing bias, selectively reporting on issues that support a right-wing agenda. Similarly, PBS is accused by some of having a left-wing bias . And Ron Paul supporters have been shouting that the entire mainstream media has an anti-Ron Paul bias, downplaying his successes in the campaign.

Remedy: It can be difficult to recognize card stacking, because the viewer does not always know what other arguments are being ignored. If you don’t know about Ron Paul, for example, you wouldn’t know that he isn’t being represented in some discussions of the candidates. But by seeking out different media outlets with various viewpoints, you can get a more well rounded view of the issues.


The idea behind the Bandwagon technique is that, since everyone else is doing it, so too should you. There is a bit of showmanship involved in hyping the bandwagon, filling halls with supporters, playing music to get everyone excited, and waving colorful banners. Often the appeal is directed towards groups that already share a common tie based on religion, race, gender, etc. Studies have shown that the bandwagon effect really does work in elections. In the current race, the media reports poll results consistently, telling us who women are voting for, who blacks are voting for, who Christians are voting for, etc.

In 2008: The New York Times reports today that Barack Obama is increasingly being viewed as being electable among Democrats. In fact, the Times reports that “The percentage of Democrats who say he would be the strongest candidate against the Republicans has more than doubled in a month.” If enough Democrats hear that their fellow Dems feel this way, we may expect his electability rating to increase even more, based on the bandwagon effect. In a similar vein, there is sometimes an underdog effect at work, also. Many people want to vote for the winning team, but others like to throw support to the underdog. And the recent New Hampshire primary showed that the declared front-runner doesn’t always win anyway.

Remedy: The IPA recommended that, when you notice the bandwagon effect, you stop to consider whether or not you should support an idea or candidate regardless of the fact that others do. Does the person or idea really serve your individual and collective best interests?

These 7 techniques were identified by the IPA 70 years ago, but other techniques could be mentioned in this context including the use of fear, a technique employed to great effect in recent years. More information on propaganda techniques can be found at

Previously: Idea: Approve of more than just “This Message.”

November 8, 2006

Interview: Andrew Brody of the Princeton Review LSAT Podcast

(The third in a series of occasional interviews with people I find interesting or who work on interesting projects.)

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t the LSAT a test of some sort? Why should I care about a test, and why on Earth is there a podcast about it? And why would a podcast about a test be worth listening to? I’ll tell you why. The LSAT is the Law School Admissions Test, focusing on logical and analytical reasoning. Finding logical flaws in arguments is an essential skill for a lawyer, so LSAT scores are a major factor in law school applications. But logic and analytical reasoning are important in everyday life, too. The same skills that lawyers use to recognize or pick apart bad arguments in court can be used by all of us to recognize flawed logic in the media, around the office, in advertisements, and among our acquaintances.

Princeton ReviewThat’s where the podcast LSAT Logic in Everyday Life comes in, hosted by Andrew Brody of the Princeton Review, a leading test preparation company. Each week, Andrew picks a topic that’s been hot in the media and analyzes the arguments involved from a strictly logical viewpoint. He emphasizes that it’s important to put aside preconceived notions and biases, and look strictly at the argument itself to determine its validity, whether we agree with it or not. Each podcast, at just about 8 or 9 minutes long, is engaging and entertaining, and teaches you to retrain your brain to recognize flawed logic.

Andrew was nice enough to answer a few questions for Ironic Sans.

I find the podcast applicable to everyday life, even though I don’t plan on taking the LSAT. Is it intended for a wide audience? Or is it intended specifically for LSAT test takers?

The podcast is intended for anyone who is interested in critical thinking. It was designed to gently help students studying for the LSAT start to see the world around them like one big LSAT question, but, as it turns out, the large majority of listeners are not currently studying for the LSAT. I think it is appealing to people who are skeptical and who believe that issues are much more complex than politicians, pundits, journalists, and advertisers would have us believe.

How do you decide on topics for the LSAT podcast? Who writes them?

I write and produce the podcasts. I try to choose topics that are the ‘hot topics’ of discussion for that week, the types of topics that people can’t help but overhear discussion about. Every now and then I’ll choose a more esoteric topic because I think it’s a good example of flawed logic.

Even the most logically-minded person must, from time to time, find him or her self lapsing in logical reasoning. Do you have an example of a time you realized you weren’t being logical in your daily life?

Where should I begin? Unlike, say, the laws of physics, the laws of logic can be broken at will. I say on the podcast that the first rule of LSAT logic is to not get emotionally involved in the subject matter. Usually, logical lapses come when there is an emotional interest at stake.

When you’re having a discussion with someone in your daily life, and they aren’t being logical, what’s the best way to point that out in plain terms to someone who might not know what “ad hominem” means, without coming across as a pompous know-it-all?

Good question. I think that many ‘arguments’ in daily life arise over different opinions of what constitutes good evidence. In other words, you’ve read your book and I’ve read mine, and we’re both going to believe what we believe because the book we read backs it up. This doesn’t usually make for a good discussion. An interesting discussion comes when people are looking at the same book and drawing different conclusions. I think the least pompous way to confront another person’s logical lapse is to call attention to assumptions that people make in their arguments that they usually don’t even realize they’ve taken for granted, instead of referencing high-falutin names of logical flaws.

Do you have a favorite text on logic that you recommend as a good introduction?

Yes. Crimes Against Logic, by Jaymie Whyte, is an excellent, easy-to-read introduction to logic, especially with a focus on logic in the media. My favorite part is the discussion on the logic of “well, i’m entitled to my opinion.”

I think it’s never too early to teach logic. Do you recommend any resources for teaching logic to kids?

Children can learn to think critically and logically from their parents. Giving honest answers to the endless “why’s” is a good start. Answering, “because I say so” seems to me to be a very harmful thing to say to a child in terms of their intellectual development.

Are there situations where logic doesn’t apply?

Logic and religion have a pretty contentious relationship. Religion is all about taking certain truths for granted, on faith.

Are there situations where you see logic not being applied, and wish it would be?

Yes. That’s what the podcasts are for.

What is your background?

I graduated magna cum laude from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service, and I was a “Culture and Politics” major. I have taught and tutored the LSAT since I graduated, and I currently work for the Research and Development department at The Princeton Review. I never attended law school, although I was accepted at NYU Law School. I chose to defer and then dropped enrollment.

And finally, what did you score when you took the LSAT?

The last time I took the test was in December of last year. I scored a 180. It may seem immodest to reveal a perfect score, but I am a teacher, and I took the test exactly as I teach it, so it’s obviously important for me to score well.

Thanks, Andrew! All episodes of the podcast can be heard at the Princeton Review’s website and you can follow that link to learn how to subscribe via iTunes.

July 19, 2006

Idea: A “Critical Thinking” section on the SAT

The College Board, which administers the SAT test, periodically makes changes to the SAT format. Most recently, they eliminated the analogies section and added an essay section. Well, I have an idea for a change that I’m very excited about. It would have profound implications, I think, if the College Board added a “Critical Thinking” section to the SAT.

Critical Thinking skills are among the most important skills a person can have, but they aren’t taught very much in school. I’ve racked my brain trying to think how Critical Thinking could be made more important to students and educators. Making it an SAT category would go a long way.

Every university would want students that score high in that section. And it would fit perfectly in test prep courses, too, because the types of questions on the test would be easy to study for. Just learn the basic forms of valid arguments and common fallacies, and learn to identify them in context. And as an added bonus, if you study well enough to answer the Critical Thinking questions on the test, you can apply Critical Thinking to real life, too.

I’ve come up with a few examples to illustrate how I imagine the section. Different kinds of questions would test a student’s knowledge of basic argument and fallacy forms, and their ability to identify them. I’m not a test writer, and I’ve never taught Critical Thinking, so there may be problems with these examples from either perspective, but this is the basic idea:

1) If Tom is a cat, he is a mammal. Tom is a cat. Therefore, Tom is a mammal.

This statement follows the argument form:

a) modus ponens
b) modus tollens
c) straw man
d) begging the question
e) none of the above

2) In a double-blind study of 2000 men, 60% found Brand X medicine effective in alleviating their headaches.

This statement shows:

a) Brand X is effective because a majority of men’s headaches were alleviated when they used it.
b) Brand X is ineffective because 2000 people are not statistically significant
c) Brand X is effective because double-blind studies are always accurate
d) Brand X is ineffective because only men were tested
e) There is not enough information to know whether Brand X is effective

3) On the planet Syllo, there are Frebats and Lidgemonts. It is well known on Syllo that all Frebats are Twacklers. Betty lives on Syllo. Betty is a Twackler. Therefore, Betty is a Frebat.

The conclusion “Therefore, Betty is a Frebat” is logically sound.

a) True
b) False

4) The “false dilemma” fallacy is sometimes called:

a) the black or white fallacy
b) the bifurcation fallacy
c) the false dichotomy fallacy
d) all of the above
e) none of the above