Political Obfuscation: Thinking Critically about Public Discourse

Timothy J Redmond. Skeptic. Volume 21, Issue 4. 2016.

The 2016 general election, like those before it, provides an example of how public officials can obscure discourse with five common techniques: utilizing dangling comparatives, using “average” in a misleading manner, fear mongering, offering anecdotes as evidence, and using euphemisms and dysphemisms. This article is designed to provide citizens with the tools to recognize and combat such obfuscation.

The Dangling Comparative

When one encounters a dangling comparative, he or she should always ask “Compared to what?”

According to Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, authors of UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, a dangling comparative “occurs when any term meant to compare two things-a word such as ‘higher,’ ‘better,’ ‘faster,’ ‘more’-is left dangling without stating what is being compared.”

In 2004, a George W. Bush television advertisement claimed “[John] Kerry supported higher taxes over 350 times.” This claim seems to suggest that Kerry voted to increase existing tax rates on numerous occasions. In fact, he did not.

Note that the word higher is a dangling comparative. The utilization of this dangling comparative allowed President Bush to use instances in which Senator Kerry voted to retain and even reduce current tax rates as evidence that the latter supported “higher taxes.”

Imagine a situation in which John Kerry voted against a Republican proposal to cut the tax rate from 20 percent to 10 percent. Did he vote for “higher taxes”? It depends on whether one compares his vote to the Republican proposal or the current tax rate. If one compares Kerry’s vote to sustain a 20 percent tax rate to the plan to cut the tax rate to 10 percent then he could be accused of supporting “higher taxes.” But if one compares his vote to the current tax rate he did not vote for “higher taxes” at all. He simply voted to maintain the existing rate of 20 percent.

Likewise, suppose Democrats put forth a competing plan to reduce the current tax rate of 20 percent to 15 percent. If Kerry voted for the Democratic tax plan did he vote for “higher taxes”? Again, it depends on whether one compares his vote to the existing tax rate or the proposal put forth by the Republicans. If one compares Kerry’s vote to reduce the 20 percent tax rate to 15 percent he clearly voted for a tax cut. But the Bush campaign actually counted comparable votes as support for “higher taxes” because Kerry could have voted for the lower 10 percent tax rate suggested by the Republicans. Remarkably, the use of the dangling comparative can turn a vote for a tax cut into a vote for a tax increase.

Republicans, of course, do not have a monopoly on using the dangling comparative to obfuscate the facts. In 2001, the Democratic National Committee produced a television advertisement that featured a young girl holding up a glass and asking “May I please have some more arsenic in my water, Mommy?” The message was that President Bush wanted to put “more arsenic” in drinking water than was currently allowed. In fact, he did not.

Once again, the word “more” is a dangling comparative. “Compared to what?”

Arsenic gained great fame during the 19th century when it became the substance of choice for several high profile poisoners. Yet, natural traces of arsenic that are found in the Earth’s crust can seep into drinking water and result in several deleterious health effects. Since 1942, the Federal Government’s standard for the maximum level of arsenic in public water systems had been set at 50 parts per billion. In 2001, President Clinton proposed a new rule that would have reduced the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water to 10 parts per billion. The new limit was to go into effect in 2006. Upon assuming the presidency, George W. Bush advised that the amount of arsenic in drinking water be limited to 20 parts per billion. Following a public backlash, however, the Bush Administration decided to uphold the arsenic level tendered by the Clinton Administration.

So, did President Bush initially want “more arsenic” in drinking water? That depends on whether one compares his plan to existing levels of arsenic in drinking water or the yet to be implemented proposal put forth by President Clinton. If one were to compare the presidential proposals then Bush was advocating for 10 more parts per billion of arsenic. If one compares Bush’s proposal to existing regulations, however, he was actually calling for a 60 percent reduction in the level of arsenic in drinking water. Thus, the use of the dangling comparative turned a call for a drastic reduction in arsenic levels into a plan for “more arsenic.”

Jackson and Jamieson contend that the claims of both parties in these examples “may have had a grain of merit,” but “rather than make an honest argument” the Bush campaign and the Democratic National Committee “invited the public to accept gross exaggerations.” This deception is unfortunate because it is absolutely imperative that we discuss matters of import such as tax rates and arsenic levels in drinking water. Yet, those conversations can be derailed if they are not based upon facts, and facts are often maligned by the utilization of the dangling comparative.


When one encounters the term average he or she should ask the question, “Does average in this instance mean typical?”

In his book, How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff presented a scenario: “You, I trust, are not a snob, and I certainly am not in the real-estate business. But let’s say that you are and I am and that you are looking for property to buy.”

Assume that Huff has sized you up and relays the fact that the average household income in his place of residence is $240,000 a year. This secures your interest and you purchase a home in his village. Soon thereafter the two of you meet again. Upon exchanging pleasantries Huff asks you to sign a petition demanding lower property taxes. He argues that such tax relief is necessary because the average household income in the village is only $50,000 a year.

Huff did not lie. He simply took advantage of the fact that there are different kinds of averages in mathematics. As illustrated by the table above, the initial average Huff cited was the mean annual household income while the latter average was the median annual household income.

Yet, while both averages are legitimate, it is clear that they do not equally represent reality. A look at the data reveals that the mean has been highly skewed by a single $1,000,000 household—an outlier dissimilar in value from other households in the village. Thus, while the arithmetic mean is average in a mathematical sense it is not average in the sense that it is typical or commonplace.

The problem is that many people believe the word average means typical. Thus, a politician could reference an atypical mathematical average and voters will assume the value is commonplace. Consider, for example, President George W. Bush’s attempt to generate support for his economic policies. In February 2003, Bush told an audience in Georgia that if his tax plan became the law of the land American taxpayers would “receive an average tax cut of $1,083.”

The President was using the term average to refer to the mean tax cut and the mean tax cut under his plan was indeed in excess of $1,000. However, the mean was skewed by the $24,100 tax cut received by the top 1 percent of tax filers. The mean tax cut was average in the mathematical sense but it was not typical. In fact, according to the Tax Policy Center the median tax cut was only $256 and more than 80 percent of taxpayers would receive less than the $1,083 President Bush seemed to promise.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton was much maligned in June 2015 for soliciting $1 donations from her supporters as the deadline for reporting her campaign’s fundraising totals to the Federal Election Commission approached. The appeal was clearly not designed to raise money. So, what gives?

In previewing its filings the Clinton campaign realized that a vast majority of its donations were considered large, or in excess of $200. This was in stark contrast to reports that 70 percent of Bernie Sanders’ campaign was funded by small donors (the now famous “$27 per person”). As such, the Clinton camp feared it would be plagued by the notion that it lacked broad-based, grassroots support. The campaign decided to combat this narrative by soliciting $1 donations, thereby reducing the average donation to her campaign. Yet again, the mean donation would be average in the mathematical sense. But it would not be typical. Indeed, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, 83 percent of the donations to the Clinton campaign that quarter came from large contributors.

One may be reminded of Mark Twain’s quip that “there are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It is undoubtedly true that statistics can be used to mislead. As the University of Texas at Austin’s professor of mathematics Michael Starbird warns, “While it is easy to lie with statistics… it is easier to lie without them.”

The problem is not that some averages in some circumstances do not reveal what is typical. The problem is that individuals knowingly use those averages in an attempt to deceive. Thus, it is up to voters to be skeptical when they hear a candidate use the word average and to ask themselves “Does average in this instance mean typical?”

Fear Mongering

When voters encounter political messages that seek to engender fear, they should remind themselves of the dictum, “If it’s scary, be wary.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines fear as an “unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, threatening, or likely to cause pain.” The use of fear in American politics has a long, inglorious history.

During the presidential campaign of 1800, for example, the Connecticut Courant maintained that if Thomas Jefferson were to become president “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest would be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed [and] the soil soaked with blood.” Fear mongering is by no means a relic of the past. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson ran the nowfamous “Daisy” ad attacking Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, suggesting that a Goldwater presidency would result in nuclear annihilation.

More recently, in 2004, the George W. Bush campaign produced a television advertisement featuring a pack of wolves. As the predators prowled through the forest an ominous voice stated, “After the first terrorist attack on America, John Kerry… voted to slash America’s intelligence spending by six billion dollars.” The narrator went on to suggest that such drastic cuts “would have weakened America’s defenses” and attracted “those who are waiting to do America harm.” While this dire warning was being issued, the wolves ran directly toward the camera and, presumably in viewers’ minds, into living rooms across the country. According to Jackson and Jamieson, the effect of the “Wolves” advertisement was extraordinary. Indeed, a majority of Americans came to believe that Kerry had voted to cut intelligence spending after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In fact, Kerry voted to increase intelligence spending after 9-11.

Upon closer inspection one realizes that the “Wolves” advertisement never claimed that Senator Kerry voted to cut intelligence spending following 9-11 as it wasn’t even mentioned. Rather, it argued that Kerry voted to reduce intelligence spending after “the first terrorist attack on America.” According to the Bush campaign this attack was the truck bomb that exploded in the parking garage under the World Trade Center in 1993.

In this sense the “Wolves” advertisement did not lie. Senator Kerry did, in fact, propose a bill to cut intelligence spending by 3.7 percent in 1994. It did, however, mislead. Jackson and Jamieson suggest that “many viewers who heard ‘terrorist attack’ automatically thought of September 11, 2001, a terrifying event still vivid in voters’ memories” and drew their conclusion accordingly.

In 2011, Congressman Paul Ryan introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to overhaul Medicare. Soon thereafter a liberal group called the Agenda Project produced an advertisement criticizing the plan. The ad featured the song “America the Beautiful” and a figure, representing Mr. Ryan, pushing a smiling grandmother in a wheelchair. The Congressman, however, veered off the path and up a cliff. The grandmother attempted to stop the wheelchair but her efforts were futile. As Ryan pushed the grandmother off the precipice, text appeared on the screen and asked, “Is America beautiful without Medicare?”

The ad was misleading. While the Republican plan did seek to privatize Medicare, the popular program would have still received government subsidies. More important, the changes would have had no impact on people 55 years and older. Thus, the changes would not affect individuals currently on Medicare or those who would be joining the program over the next decade. Grandma would not have been thrown off a cliff. Yet, according to PolitiFact, the ad “preyed on seniors’ worries about whether they could afford health care.”

The use of fear in political advertising is particularly troubling because that emotion is processed in the amygdala. Stimulation of that area of the brain can temper activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain affiliated with self-control and complex thought and thus significantly impair our ability to “think, decide, and solve problems.”

This, of course, is often the purpose of fear mongering. If a politician can unnerve the electorate, he or she can obscure the facts. And if a politician can obscure the facts he or she may be able to mobilize the public to support policies that the latter will come to regret. For as the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted, “In politics, what begins in fear usually ends up in folly.”


When voters encounter a political message that attempts to utilize an anecdote as evidence, they should remind themselves that “anecdotal evidence” is a contradiction in terms.

In 1998, a study by Andrew Wakefield was published in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet. In the article, Wakefield suggested that the administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to the onset of autism. Yet, the study was fraudulent. In 2006, it was discovered that Wakefield had fabricated data and sought a patent for an alternative to the MMR vaccine just before the publication of his findings. The Lancet retracted the article and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked.

The belief that the MMR vaccine is associated with autism, however, persists. Indeed, it sustains an anti-vaccination movement that continues to be fueled by personal testimonials of parents as well as politicians and celebrities, most famously Jenny McCarthy. In a 2007 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, McCarthy emotionally recalled how when she “vaccinated [her] baby…something happened.” McCarthy detailed how the nurse administered “the shot and soon thereafter-boom-the soul [was] gone from his eyes.” Similarly, during a 2015 Republican primary debate Donald Trump maintained that “we have so many instances [in which] a child had a vaccine and came back and.. .had a tremendous fever, got very, very sick and is now autistic.”

The influence of such stories is widespread. A 2014 National Consumers League poll found that one-third of American parents mistakenly believe that “vaccinations can cause autism.” Indeed, vaccination rates have been decreasing and outbreaks of measles cases in various locales across the United States have been on the rise.

Yet, such testimonials are anecdotal and anecdotes are not evidential. An anecdote is “an account of a particular incident or event.” Evidence, however, is defined as the “body of facts indicating whether a belief or proposition is valid.” An anecdote cannot be proffered as evidence because a “particular incident” is not the equivalent of a “body of facts.” Anecdotes are, by definition, limited in number. Thus, they cannot, in and of themselves, demonstrate that a given event is typical or probable. As such, evidence requires that one examine a representative sample, if not all of the relevant cases. This evidence can be aquired through a properly conducted scientific study.

Fortunately, such studies investigating the purported link between the MMR vaccine and autism have been conducted. The results have forged a growing consensus, from the American Medical Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization, that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Anecdotes have also been a common feature of the debate surrounding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare. In 2014, President Obama delivered remarks on the ACA that included several personal testimonials. For instance, he referred to a California man whose annual health care premiums plunged “from over $30,000 to under $9,000.” He also took note of a “bartender from Pennsylvania” who was able to secure health insurance due to the ACA and, as a result, was receiving treatment for ovarian cancer.

In 2015, House Republicans similarly shared personal testimonials about people’s experiences with Obamacare. Not surprisingly, they offered a different perspective. For example, one man from California described how his monthly premium “doubled from $650 to $1300” while a widow from Georgia wrote that she had “lost [her] insurance coverage” entirely.

Of course, none of these testimonials is evidence of the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act. They are anecdotes, and without the context of a research study there is simply no way to know which stories are representative and which are anomalous.

Anecdotes are surely a powerful rhetorical device. The use of personal testimonials can simplify and personalize even the most complex and abstract issues. However the persuasiveness of an anecdote does not ensure its accuracy.

Euphemisms and Dysphemisms

If a voter encounters a political message that uses a euphemism or dysphemism, he or she should remind him or herself that an issue should not be judged by its name.

In 1946, George Orwell published his now classic Politics and the English Language. The essay is well known for its profound warning that since language can arouse or assuage emotion and the presence or absence of emotion can influence thought, then “language can…corrupt thought.”

A euphemism is “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant.” For instance, the U.S. Constitution labeled people who were enslaved as “other persons,” Nazis called their plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe the “Final Solution,” and militaries refer to the incidental killing of non-combatants as “collateral damage.” A dysphemism is “a derogatory or unpleasant term used instead of a pleasant or neutral one.”

Consider the case of the federal estate tax, “a tax levied on the net value of the estate of a deceased person before distribution to the heirs.” In 1992, the federal estate tax applied to the richest 1.3 percent of Americans. Yet, the heirs to the Mars candy and Gallo wine fortunes organized an effort to repeal the tax in full. To engender public support for their cause the group began referring to the federal estate tax as the “death tax.”

As the political pollster Frank Luntz explained, “The public wouldn’t support [a repeal of the federal estate tax] because the word ‘estate’ sounds wealthy.” Yet, if you call it a “death tax” the repeal would likely achieve the support of the American people because even though “it’s the same tax…nobody really knows what an estate is. But they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die.”

The campaign was remarkably effective. In their 2010 study, Taxing Death or Estates: When Frames Influence Citizens’ Issue Beliefs, Brian Schaffner and Mary Layton Atkinson report that the use of the term “death tax” increased dramatically in the latter half of the 1990s, particularly on the floors of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. More important, Schaffner and Atkinson discovered that this change in rhetoric increased the number of citizens who held the misguided belief that the federal estate tax applied to a majority of American families. This is extraordinary given the fact that the duty was levied on less than one-half of one percent of taxpayers at the time the study was conducted.”

Not surprisingly, individuals who incorrectly believed that the imposition of the “death tax” was widespread were more likely to support its repeal than those who accurately identified its narrow scope. Indeed, Professor John Sides of George Washington University found that a majority of respondents went from opposing the “death tax” to supporting the “death tax” when informed of the facts.

Orwell was right. Language can, under certain circumstances, corrupt thought. Thus, politicians will employ rhetoric that is designed to frame an issue in a way that is beneficial to their points of view. They will utilize euphemisms and dysphemisms in an attempt to arouse or assuage our feelings with the intent of clouding our judgment and securing our support. Yet, as Jackson and Jamieson note, “There’s much more to an issue than a name or slogan can tell us. Judging an issue…by its name…is foolish. [Hence, you must], say to yourself, ‘Okay, that’s what they want me to think. Now what’s the rest of the story?’’

Holding Public Officials Accountable

In Federalist 63, James Madison expressed his concern that the people, “misled by some artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures that they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.” Yet, if voters think critically and apply lessons like those explored above they can hold artful public officials accountable for their rhetoric and avoid the lamentations that Madison believed inevitable. It is difficult work but it is the necessary work of an engaged citizenry.