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The “Baghdad Bob” Fallacy

This post is one in a series I had hoped to have done years ago, a reality I reflect on in a previous installment on what I call the Scaffolding Fallacy.  The basic idea is that there exist breakdowns in rational thinking that are not strictly logical.  They might be tactical (ie, designed simply to win an argument, insult, or berate), exercises in self-deception, or reflective of an overall mindset or attitude.  In other words, they are not ‘formal’ logical fallacies, and so it is perhaps not a surprise that they don’t appear in the logic books (as far as I know).  Since nonetheless they exist, it seems worthwhile to expound on them.

If you don’t know who “Baghdad Bob” was, you were probably born after 1995.  This hapless fellow was the public relations face of Iraq during the American invasion.  As the Americans pressed in closer and closer, Baghdad Bob declared on the newscasts denying that the Americans were anywhere near, and even losing.  The most entertaining moment was when ol’ Bobby declared that Americans were nowhere close to Baghdad, while on the split screen they were showing American tanks right outside Hussein’s presidential palace–not very far from where Bob was transmitting from.  I seem to recall that you could actually hear American tanks in the background in some of his broadcasts.  Fun stuff!

But you can’t blame the man, really.  All it shows is that he feared more about what Hussein would do to him than he feared what the Americans would do to him.  He probably made the right move, really, given his predicament.

Calling it the “Baghdad Bob” fallacy does not cover the entire fallacy.  It covers this part:  “This is not what happened, this is not happening, this is not the case, this is not true, you are not telling the truth about it, you have mischaracterized it, I deny it is even the case; I deny it, I deny it, I deny it.”

It also covers the part where the evidence mounts that what they are denying actually IS the case.  Baghdad Bob was able to get away with his conduct while the battle was far off, perhaps even convinced it is true.  But, as the sounds of battle drew closer, the assertions become increasingly dubious.  Finally the dam breaks, and the evidence is undeniable to everyone and even Bob can’t make it work…  “There are no American soldiers in Iraq!”  And then American soldiers frogmarch poor Bob into custody, and even the stubborn Baghdad Bob concedes the state of affairs is not at all how he has represented them, and, more to the point, it actually IS the case that how others represented matters IS TRUE.

That is where the reference to Baghdad Bob breaks down.  The people engaging in the fallacy I am describing arrive at the point where they are being frogmarched by the evidence, and then proceed to not only accept the reality of the true narrative, but shrug it off as no big deal.  They might even go further.  After having totally denied something over and over again, when it becomes impossible even for them to deny it further, they endorse and embrace the thing in question.

This raises the obvious question: If it was ‘no big deal’ and it ends up being something you are even willing to endorse and embrace, why fight against it for hours, or even days?

This is similar in some respects to the scaffolding fallacy.  But in the scaffolding fallacy, people arrive at a position and remain at it, even after all of their evidence for that position has been swept away.  In this fallacy, after their evidence has disappeared, they accept that the state of affairs is different, concede the evidence, but then casually dismiss it.

I’ve encountered this fallacy numerous times.

One of my favorites remains the atheist who argued with me for DAYS about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.  Eventually, I built the case to the point where he felt compelled to concede every bit of it as almost certainly true .  This is with him denying the veracity of my statements over and over again, and only with great reluctance accepting them as factual.  One can imagine the amount of effort I had to pour into this conversation in order to document my assertions well enough to win his complete concession.  And then came the Baghdad Bob fallacy:  he dismissed it all as not very important, because all it meant was that Jesus was abducted by aliens.

I kid you not.

Another favorite example is the atheist who argued with me tooth and nail about what evolution ‘is,’ ferociously contesting every one of my assertions.  Finally, I began replying to him with direct quotes by leading evolutionists, but without telling him I was quoting anyone at all.  I knew the material so well, it was very easy to match what he was saying with direct rebuttals from various respected evolutionists.  Naturally, he argued with each and everyone of them, insisting all the while that I didn’t know anything about evolutionary theory as it REALLY was.  I don’t remember all the people I quoted, but I’m sure we had a little bit from folks like Richard Dawkins in there, or some Stephen Jay Gould.  But most of it came from Ernst Mayr’s book, “What Evolution Is.”  In particular, I remember retorting to something he said about micro vs macro evolution with quotations from Ernst Mayr’s book.   And of course, since Mayr was making the exact same argument I was making, but this poor lad didn’t like the ramifications, he rejected that, too.

It was not long after that that I finally revealed what was going on.   Astonishingly (at the time; today I recognize that this kind of thing is typical), he stopped arguing with me about ‘what evolution is’ and instead said that he didn’t even know who Ernst Mayr was, and if he didn’t know who he was, he must not be anybody.  Finally, he must have done a little research, because his argument suddenly shifted to, “Yes, Mayr said that, and yes, evolution is as you have presented it, but Mayr went on to accept evolution, so what’s the point of arguing about it?”

Again, this is a guy who contested every little thing I said over the entire exchange and hadn’t even heard of Mayr until I mentioned him.  All that stuff we were arguing about were things he thought were important… until suddenly, when completely refuted, they weren’t important at all.

In yet another example, I had a fairly drawn out battle with an atheist about cepheid stars.  He made a point, which I did not dispute, but which I said did not prove what he was trying to say, because it was still based on a particular assumption.  Assuming the thing you are trying to prove is an actual logical fallacy, you see.  Finally, thoroughly miffed that I stuck to my guns, he produced a scientific paper on cepheid stars and submitted it to me as though the matter was fully settled.  So, I read the paper, and in the paper itself, which HE had produced, the authors of the paper explicitly pointed out that they were making the EXACT assumption that I said that he was making.

At which point, he did not speak to me again for almost 10 years.  Granted, we did not get the final part of the fallacy in this particular exchange, but it came pretty close.

Ok, so that’s basically the fallacy.  A person denies, denies, denies, then admits it all, but dismisses it as irrelevant, or unimportant.

Like its close cousin, the scaffolding fallacy, the Baghdad Bob fallacy is wearying to the extreme, as the fallacy is only committed after someone else (usually, me) has made a concerted effort to produce evidence and documentation to support a particular proposition, only to discover at the very end that notwithstanding the snarky dismissal of that proposition and all the evidence provided for it, once the evidence for the proposition has ‘frogmarched’ its way into their head, none of it really mattered to them at all.

Now, I ask you, dear reader: if you regularly found that after long, long, long exchanges and debates about what the real state of affairs is (on whatever topic is at hand),  with rebuttals made strenuously throughout and answered equally strenuously, the person now dismisses what you are contended as meaningless or worthwhile or even goes further and endorses it, how willing would you be to continue to participate in such exchanges?

Not very willing, I would suppose.

I have mentioned once or twice people ‘endorsing’ the viewpoint they mocked as false and ridiculous but did not give any examples of that.  There has been more than a few of these, as well.  I have encountered this in conversations about guns, abortion, marriage, etc.  For example, in a conversation with someone about abortion it was hotly contested that abortion had ‘population control’ implications.  There was no fighting me tooth and nail in this particular conversation, it was a pretty genteel affair.  But, after pushing back gently on my assertion and having me defend my assertion convincingly (also gently), he went from completely denying that what I said was true to accepting it as true and endorsing it.  At this point, he challenged me to think about the over-population of the African continent, and wondered what I would propose to do about it if we did not promote abortion there.

This is a man who had flatly denied that there were no ‘population control’ implications to abortion who, after totally denying that there were, endorsed using abortion as a population control method–in Africa, at least.

I’m sure you’re wondering the same thing that I was:  was he ever actually against using abortion as population control, or was it more the case that he accepted it all along but knew that it was socially unacceptable to say such a thing in public?  The same guy seriously inquired of me as to why I would not abort a child diagnosed with a birth defect… ie, my daughter… so I am not sure  he cared so much about what was perceived as socially unacceptable.  At any rate, I don’t have an answer to that.  He and I never met again.  I tell the anecdote only to explain what I mean when I say someone contesting your assertions only to turn around at the end and embrace them.

If you’ve encountered this or the scaffolding fallacy in action, you probably are left scratching your head.  What the heck is going on in their heads?  I really can’t answer that, but I do have some theories, and the above anecdotes I think give clues.

Taking the Ernst Mayr and cepheid star anecdotes as illustrative, I notice that in both of these cases, the person involved was basically, at bottom, ignorant.  Take the cepheid star guy.  I think I can see how it went down.

He wanted to make an argument which he believed was safely unassailable.  He didn’t personally know that it was unassailable.  Rather, he just assumed that since the ‘smart people’ presented it as unassailable, by golly, it certainly must be true beyond all dispute!  And then I had the audacity to dispute it.  Figuring that it was not possible that I could be right (after all, I’m not one of the ‘smart people’), he went at me for awhile on it until finally he realized that I was not going to be cowed by bald assertions and airs of superiority.  He went hunting on an atheist website, saw an article where his own bald assertion and air of superiority was reflected which referenced an article in a scientific journal.  WITHOUT ACTUALLY READING the journal article, he flung it at me.

Except… I do read journal articles.  I mean… surely he doesn’t think the mere flinging of something counts as an argument, does he?  Surely he expected me to READ the thing he sent me?  But, beyond that, I do not confine myself to popular science books or TalkOrigins.  Whenever possible, and as I have time, I go straight to the journals for information and data.  Why?

Well, in part it is because I want to know what I’m talking about.  I want to be genuinely informed.  I’m also very interested in hearing the other side, in their own words.  (Regardless of topic).  You have to be careful with stuff filtered through the assessment of others.  But more substantially, I CARE ABOUT THE TRUTH.

I’m pretty sure that at rock bottom, that’s really the thing that separates me from them.  I want to know what is real and what is true–actually.  If it flies in the face of what I want to be real and true, too bad.  But I think a lot of people just want to win an argument or gain power for themselves.  What is true and real is irrelevant in that quest, as the goal is only to get the other person to accede to them, not to persuade them.  It isn’t that they will purposefully utilize falsehoods in their quest (although they might), just that the truth of whatever the matter at hand is is not really the thing they are ACTUALLY concerned about.

The Ernst Mayr thing is a variation on the same thing.  Basically, you had a guy who knew almost nothing but did not know he knew almost nothing.  I don’t remember anymore what I said that set him off, but it probably had something to do with my rejection of Darwinism.  WELL, we can’t have doubters of DARWINISM running around unopposed, can we?  Where would science be if we allowed people to doubt it?  I mean, really!

My guess is the lad’s knowledge of Darwinism consisted in a chapter he read in 10th grade biology class combined with his general sense that “It must be OBVIOUSLY true since it is OBVIOUSLY the case that all the smart people believe it.”  So, he set out to dismantle my arguments, believing that along the way the evidence he would need to make his case would be easy to find and present, only to discover that things were not nearly as simple as he expected it to be.

I think this is really at the back of a lot of times when these fallacies are in play.  You’ve got someone who has a prior belief in something, it is reinforced by the perception that ‘the smart people’ also have that belief, so OBVIOUSLY it must be true, so there is no danger in making bald assertions about it because you are confident that if ‘the smart people’ believe it, it must be because it is so.  And then someone pushes back.  You can’t just retract what you said, because you didn’t merely say it, but you conveyed the fact that you think the other person is an idiot for their views, so you are duty-bound to make SOME kind of defense.  By the time you learn that the other guy is not an idiot, and worse, WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG, you’ve realized you need a line of escape.

In the ‘scaffolding fallacy’, that escape is to maintain your position as it is, perhaps by succeeding in finding new supporting evidence, since the other evidence failed you.  In the “Baghdad Bob” fallacy, the escape is to concede it all but dismiss it as trite, or even as an uncontroversial position which perhaps you are happy to embrace.

These fallacies are bad enough when manifested individually, but when a whole culture does it, dangers lie at all sides.  The danger of the ‘mob’ is real.  If you can get a bunch of people to arrive at a position and remain at that position, even as the evidence beneath it shifts, is repudiated, and/or replaced with new evidence, once you’ve got them in a particular direction, the course is set.  Which is fine, I suppose, if it is the course you wanted, but not so fine if you discover that its a collision course.  (Assuming you didn’t want a collision course; maybe you do.) Or, if you can get a bunch of people to arrive at a position which they know, or eventually discover to be false, or resting on other grounds, they may say, “Collision course, you say?!?  FULL SPEED AHEAD.”  (Which again I suppose is only a problem if you think collision courses are to be avoided)

People who think they can control the mob are just asking for trouble, especially when it turns out that they themselves are the mob.

A contemporary example of this, and its dangers, was the incident at last years March for Life.  Initial reporting would have had us believe that a young white man snidely regarded an old American-Indian with disdain and contempt.  The audacity!  And then we were told the American-Indian was a veteran!  Oh, how they swooned, then.  People who look down on ‘those kind of people’ in other contexts (“hicks!  hayseeds! war-mongers!”) clutched their hands to their chest and with tearing of cloaks and gnashing of teeth, “Oh, what a travesty!  A MAGA wearing teenager (read: a racist) insulted a… a… veteran!”  If you’re wondering what it sounded like, the cries from our thoroughly objective, un-biased, non-prejudicial, media sounded just like this.

Now, if it was the scaffolding fallacy in play, it would have gone down like this:

Scaffolding Fallacy

  1.  Conservatives are racists.
  2. Behold a white MAGA hat wearing boy smirking at a minority!
  3. Proof! Conservatives are racists.
  4. Oh, he wasn’t smirking?  And it was the American-Indian in the wrong?  And THAT guy lied/over stated his military service?
  5. Ok, I guess that this incident didn’t actually happen, and the reporting was presumptive (read: wrong).
  6. But conservatives are still racists.  See incident [fill in the blank]

And maybe you could excuse this if it were a ‘one off’, but if every incident in question actually turns out to be as false and fabricated as this one was, a reasonable person would reconsider their premise.

Well, a man can dream.

“Baghdad Bob” Fallacy

  1.  Conservatives are racists.
  2. Behold a white MAGA hat wearing boy smirking at a minority!
  3. Proof! Conservatives are racists.
  4. Oh, he wasn’t smirking?  And it was the American-Indian in the wrong?  And THAT guy lied/over stated his military service?
  5. Ok, I guess that this incident didn’t actually happen, but there was nothing wrong with the reporting.   It is perfectly fine to malign and denigrate someone, potentially torpedoing his livelihood in the future or even his life, regardless of whether or not it was true.  Because, TRUMP.    Well, as the CNN motion to dismiss put it:  “Although CNN ran editorial content calling Sandmann a racist, courts have repeatedly held that “racist” is a subjective label that’s not defamatory because it can’t be proven true or false”  WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN YOU RACIST MOFOs!”
  6. Oh yea, and conservatives are racists.

 

There are still people who believe the reporting was fully justified, but I think of more concern are the people who saw the initial reports, were given a definite impression, jumped on the viral bandwagon, and then missed the memo that it was all fabricated.  Imagine that scenario writ large at the societal level… tens of millions of people given information that is later revealed to be false or totally out of context, and then never updated with what really happened.

Oh yes, these fallacies have consequences.  With many more to come, I fear.  But the worst part of it is that the very nature of the fallacies suggests that its pointless to try to correct the record.  Assuming people even care about what is true anymore (a dubious prospect), if all they are going to do is swap in new evidence to support their views or accept things happened in a particular way but then double down on it, what’s the use in talking with them?

Actually, the wisest course might be to put as much distance between them and you as you can.

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2 comments

    • Gary on September 16, 2019 at 11:13 pm

    Dear Conservative New Testament scholar or apologist,

    Would you kindly answer the following three questions:

    1. Do you agree with this statement by conservative NT scholar Richard Bauckham:

    “The argument of this book [“Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”]–that the texts of our Gospels are close to the eyewitness reports of the words and deeds of Jesus–runs counter to almost all recent scholarship. As we have indicated from time to time, the prevalent view is that a long period of oral transmission in the churches intervened between whatever the eyewitnesses said and the Jesus traditions as they reached the Evangelists [the authors of the Gospels]. No doubt the eyewitnesses started the process of oral tradition, but it passed through many retellings, reformulations, and expansions before the Evangelists themselves did their own editorial work on it.” p. 240

    2. If you agree with Bauckham’s statement that “almost all recent scholarship” believes that the texts of our Gospels are NOT close to the eyewitness reports of the words and deeds of Jesus, do you believe that this scholarly consensus is due to an objective evaluation of the evidence, or due to a bias against the supernatural, as some conservative Christian apologists allege (see here)? (If you believe that Bauckham is wrong regarding the scholarly consensus on this issue, would you kindly provide supporting evidence.)

    3. If you believe that the scholarly consensus on the authorship of the Gospels is due to a bias against the supernatural, how would you explain the fact that most Roman Catholic scholars and many moderate Protestant scholars, who every much believe in the supernatural and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, also reject or question the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels? (see here)

    Thank you very much,

    Gary

    • Anthony on September 24, 2019 at 9:33 am
      Author

    I found Gary’s comment in my spam filter. He appears to have posted the same thing on other websites, too. I’m not going to build content for someone else’s website, so I’m not going to reply. I ‘approved’ it for my own entertainment. I don’t take it as offered in ‘good faith.’ Theoretically, I could be shown otherwise.

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