Donald Trump: Acting Base (Rate)

Having taken a look at fallacies on display in a couple of Joe Biden campaign spots, it’s time to see if his opponent may have also broken a rule or two by committing formal or informal fallacies in some of his video ads.

Before digging in, I should note that Trump’s campaign videos were a bit harder to analyze than Biden’s, likely because the Trump commercials I looked at seemed more concerned with leaving viewers with a series of impressions, rather than articulating a cohesive argument. This may reflect the nature of the candidate whose communication style makes him hard to follow, but it might also represent evolving communication norms which – for better or worse – seem to be dominating a YouTube age of fast images and short attention spans.

Given that it doesn’t take much time to commit a fallacy, let’s find one in this sharp attack ad the Trump campaign ran to generate controversy over Joe Biden’s alleged refusal to admit he relies on a teleprompter (coupled with various fumbles he is supposedly making while trying to deal with the technology his campaign denies he uses):

To begin with, we should be suspicious of any persuasive communication that strings together clips likely shot at different times and in different circumstances to try to create a coherent story. Various looping effects, designed to highlight embarrassing moments, also indicate that the evidence being amassed to prove a point might be questionable, or might be choreographed to sway the viewer to accept something that has not been proven.

And what is the ad trying to prove? This brings us to the central fallacy of this campaign spot: an informal fallacy called appeal to fear. Like all appeals to emotion, appeals to fear are not illegitimate in all cases, especially since there are real things in the world to be afraid of. But we should become suspicious if the thing we are supposed to fear is communicated through innuendo, rather than honestly and directly.

What is the Trump ad asking us to be afraid of? While no one speaking in the ad says these words (which I suppose gives the campaign deniability), any reasonable viewer watching the spot would be left with the impression that the ad accuses Biden of being mentally enfeebled (likely due to age), which results in him requiring a teleprompter to carry on normal conversations, a tool which still doesn’t prevent him from constantly screwing up.

While asking voters to consider the mental state of a candidate is fair game, stitching together low moments and presenting them as proof of serious accusations you aren’t willing to say out loud indicates an appeal to something other than reason. And while tone isn’t everything, the ad’s mocking presentation (especially given the seriousness of the implied charge) also makes this ad as a whole an appeal to bad emotion (fear), i.e., a fallacy.

This second ad, while still impressionistic, gives us a bit more to work with, including a fallacious claim that President Trump’s decisive action on coronavirus prevented American deaths from climbing into the millions.

That claims comes about twelve seconds in when cable show host Wolf Blitzer asks a guest if COVID deaths could climb to two million, to which that guest answers “Yes,” (albeit as part of another awkwardly edited clip).

This could be considered another example of the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (after, therefore caused by) fallacy mentioned last time whereby the president is claiming that since the number of American COVID deaths is just ten percent of that two million (so far, anyway), therefore Trump deserves credit for this far lower number.

But a more significant error is the argument’s reliance on a single stunning number: two million potential American COVID deaths, as a basis of comparison to reality. This is a form of base-rate fallacy in which a questionable or self-serving number anchors a presentation of success or failure. For example, comparing this year’s sales numbers only to the worst sales year in the company’s history (vs. more recent better years, or averaging many years) is a way to “cook the books” to make this year look better than it might be.

So where did the two-million potential death figure in the Trump ad come from? And is it an appropriate base rate?

That number came from a UK study published in March, just as the scale of the pandemic was dawning on Americans, which claimed the USA was at risk of 2.2 million COVID deaths if the country could not contain the virus. Unsurprisingly, such a frightening number took hold among American journalists covering an unfolding pandemic story when hard data was in short supply.

The problem with that huge number is that it was a prediction of what might happen in the US if absolutely nothing was done by anyone (individuals or leaders at any level of government) to prevent the spread of the disease.

With typical British understatement, the paper’s authors refer to this scenario as “In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous change to individual behavior.” But here on earth, the notion that no one would do anything for months as a deadly virus ransacked the nation is so absurd that treating the result of such imaginary indifference (2.2 million dead) as our base rate sets a ridiculously low bar for success.

Now it may be that the dire, worst-case scenarios in that report were meant to persuade others to take the virus threat more seriously. But, as described here, ignoring inaccurate or inflated statistics during normal times because they might serve a social good can turn around and bite you in abnormal times.

I suspect that the UK researchers who wrote the original paper on the topic did not expect to see their number anchoring a fallacious claim in a Trump TV ad. While they may have no ability to make him stop doing so, those of us exposed to arguments that use 2.2 million potential deaths as a base rate have the responsibility to not let those who rely on fallacious arguments put one over on us.

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