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Teaching the Fallacy of Argument by Repetition

This article discusses argument by repetition, also known as the fallacy argumentum ad nauseum, and exhorts teachers to instruct students to recognize it.
Some fallacies are not perpetrated by a single arguer but instead are oft-repeated claims that have been stated with such repetition that they are assumed true. When an arguer uses such a claim, it’s often accompanied by a call to action or used as evidence for another claim. Closely related to begging the question, the use of a claim assumed true because of its repetitive nature is a form of argument ad nauseum, which is just as it sounds—the argument has gone on so long, it makes us sick to keep arguing.

There are a number of examples of the fallacy of repetition, and a conscientious teacher will help students to question every controversy that is treated as fact. Specifically, students should search for words such as “there is no real question any more that…” and “because [insert unsubstantiated claim], we need to take action.” These are especially common in political and social discourse of a scientific or religious nature. A few common examples are listed here.

Superbowl Violence
Ask a domestic violence victims advocate what day has the most incidences of domestic abuse, and it’s likely the response will be Super Bowl Sunday. This has been suggested for years. In 1993, NBC news quoted the argument as though it were fact, and a reporter at the Washington Post actually investigated the claim. The reality is there is not any evidence whatsoever that this is the case. It’s a myth. Many advocate groups immediately removed the claim from their literature. Futures Without Violence, an organization dedicated to preventing domestic abuse, actually indicated reasons why the myth was harmful rather than helpful to the cause. Their article rightly explained that the poor argument delegitimized the real, daily problem of domestic abuse. Nonetheless, as recently as the 2011 Super Bowl, the claim has been repeated in reputable news organizations such as the Durant Daily Democrat.

Creation and Evolution
This topic is another in which debate is dismissed by repeated claims. Very little real argumentation occurs. Evolutionists tend to claim “evolution is now accepted as fact” and refuse to address arguments by creationists while creationists tend to claim “evolution is just another faith, not science” and refuse to address arguments by evolutionists. It’s unfortunate because there are wonderful arguments on both sides that would lead to a real debate on the issue and understanding between the polarized sides. Instead, the argument by repetition tends to degenerate the discussion into an eventual ad hominem battle. Creationists are anti-science know nothings. Evolutionists are religious nuts, just religious about their failed theory.

Often, real arguments are dismissed in favor of the ad nauseum strategy. For example, in her August 24th Column, Ann Coulter discusses the issue of evolution, presenting real arguable claims. (The column does include a number of ad hominems and personal attacks as well.) Response for the most part was repetition of the original claim. In a discussion on Politics, one poster wrote:

Conservatives seem to believe they know so much better than those who have done years of research and who do not speak without that kind of evidence to back what they submit.

The deniers of science may maybe occasionally serve in a useful way to blow a whistle on improper scientific conclusions, but I'd put my money on expert science rather that shoot-their-mouth conservative opiners.

This response came despite the fact that Coulter’s entire column claimed to rely on science, not faith, disproving evolution. There was real argumentation possible and ad nauseum ruled instead. Arguers could have attacked her actual arguments but instead they attacked the very idea of disagreeing. As happened here, the refusal to accept an ad nauseum claim often becomes the basis for an ad hominem attack. This situation is often reversed, with Creationists responding to proponents of evolution in the exact same manner. The claim itself is the evidence, and repetition of the claim provides the proof. It’s fallacious on both sides of the argument.

Fallacy by repetition is one of the most common fallacies historically. Most urban legends are simply regularly repeated claims. Hitler used this method extensively to convince an entire nation to exterminate millions, even as he accused the British and their allies of the same behavior. Stereotyping and racism are largely natural outgrowths of this fallacy. If you call a race of people violent or lazy or dirty often enough, the repetition instills it into the collective consciousness of the listeners. Students should learn to challenge assumed truths in a logical manner. If the assumed truth is indeed true, the exploration of the argument will reaffirm it. If it is not true, the student will have come to that conclusion through critical thinking rather than ad nauseum intimidation.
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