Audio Version (June 2020):
When we are deciding how strong or weak an argument is, we can look out for common argument problems, often called fallacies. It can be empowering to learn to recognize these common problems; we may start to see them all around in advertisements, conversation, as well as in the readings we do in college or in professional settings. Attaching a label to a particular kind of argument weakness can help us recognize that pattern of weakness elsewhere. The label "fallacy," however, is just the starting point for discussion. The point is not to slap the label on with a cry of "Gotcha!" but to be able to recognize and understand the problem readily. In an assessment of the argument, we can then explain what the problem with the reasoning or assumptions is. Here we will look at four categories of problems: leaving something out, assuming a connection, assuming we can generalize, and distorting a counterargument.
Arguments That Leave out Something Important
Sometimes writers deliberately leave things out that might hurt their argument, and sometimes they genuinely have not thought of them. Either way, when we assess an argument, we need to check for any relevant exceptions. There are several common patterns to recognize where arguments leave out a key possibility.
Is there a plausible case that would make the argument invalid? We can test for this, as we tested for assumptions, using the scenario test:
Just because [reason] that doesn't mean [claim] because it could be that...[scenario].
We can also ask if the reason itself has an exception. For example, take the following argument:
The First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech to all Americans. Therefore, schools cannot restrict what teachers say in the classroom.
Certainly, the First Amendment does say that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." However, U.S. courts have recognized many exceptions to this freedom. For example, most people know that doctors are not allowed to discuss confidential patient information without permission. Many also know that no one is allowed to call for immediate acts of violence. Teachers may not tell students to go out and shoot the president. "Hate speech" is also prohibited: a teacher does not have the right to spout racial slurs. Another exception that applies to this case is not so widely known: the First Amendment does not apply when a person is working for an employer. Unless there is a local law protecting employee's speech, an employer can tell employees what they are and are not allowed to say on the job. So the claim above is in fact false.
Limiting the Options
Sometimes a reason asserts that there are only two or three options, when in fact there may be others. This is often called a false choice or false dilemma fallacy. If the writer is arguing for something that obviously has downsides, they may present it as the lesser of two evils. However, we should always ask whether those two are really the only options. For example, consider the following argument:
Americans are faced with a choice: either we open our borders or we turn our backs on the needs of desperate people. Therefore, the only ethical course is to open our borders.
There are other ways to try to help desperate people. As a country, we give billions in direct aid and security assistance to struggling countries every year and could conceivably give more to the countries migrants are escaping. Other possible options would be to establish refugee camps at the border, or to allow people to enter the U.S. temporarily but not permanently. These options may or may not be good ones, but the point is that the way this argument has presented the choice as an either/or is misleading.
A question might seem like a moment of openness, an admission that we don't know everything. But the way we frame a question can limit the options without admitting it is doing so. Such a question is often called a loaded question. If we reframe the example from the previous section as a question, it would be a loaded one:
Can we justify turning our backs on the needs of desperate people? There is no justification for such selfishness. The time has come to open our borders.
The question implies that allowing people in is the only way to help them. The argument should try to prove that explicitly, by explaining why other attempts, such as direct aid in people's countries of origin, will not help enough.
Sometimes even a seemingly open-ended, unbiased question can be critiqued because the fact of asking the question implies that there is some good reason to ask it. We commonly assume that it’s only appropriate to ask a question when there’s some doubt about the answer. So a writer asking a question is implying that it’s a reasonable question to ask, that the answer is not certain. Some arguments exploit this fact, again to plant beliefs in listeners’ minds that they otherwise wouldn’t hold. For example, the cover of the July 1, 2016 issue of Newsweek asks the question, “Can ISIS Take Down Washington?” The cover is an alarming, eye-catching shade of yellow, and shows four missiles converging on the Capitol dome. The simple answer to the question, though, is ‘no, of course not’. There is no evidence that ISIS has the capacity to destroy the nation’s capital. But the very asking of the question presumes that it’s a reasonable thing to wonder about, that the answer might possibly be ‘yes’. The goal is to scare readers (and sell magazines) by getting them to take such a threat seriously.
If an argument predicts that something will happen, we must ask ourselves how certain that outcome is. Could things turn out differently? An argument may present a possible chain of events as if it is inevitable or highly probable. Arguments that predict a slippery slope, a chain reaction leading to disaster, are particularly suspect. How slippery is the slope really? How likely is the disaster? Are there factors that could stop the chain reaction?
People who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds sometimes claim that legalizing same-sex marriage will put the nation on a slippery slope to disaster. They argue that allowing gay marriage will lead society to allow other forms of relationship that are clearly immoral. Famous Christian leader Pat Robertson, on his television program The 700 Club, made this argument:
We haven’t taken this to its ultimate conclusion. You’ve got polygamy out there. How can we rule that polygamy is illegal when you say that homosexual marriage is legal? What is it about polygamy that’s different? Well, polygamy was outlawed because it was considered immoral according to Biblical standards. But if we take Biblical standards away in homosexuality, well what about the other? And what about bestiality? And ultimately what about child molestation and pedophilia? How can we criminalize these things, at the same time have constitutional amendments allowing same-sex marriage among homosexuals? You mark my words, this is just the beginning of a long downward slide in relation to all the things that we consider to be abhorrent.
This a classic slippery slope fallacy; he even uses the phrase ‘long downward slide.' The claim is that allowing gay marriage will force us to decriminalize polygamy, bestiality, child molestation, pedophilia—and ultimately, “all the things that we consider to be abhorrent.” He asserts that only respect for Biblical standards prevents us from legalizing those practices, and if we signal that those standards are not authoritative by legitimizing same-sex marriage, we will have to legalize the rest as well, leading to utter chaos.
There are genuine slippery slopes out there—unstoppable causal chain reactions. But this isn’t one of them. In the first place, Biblical standards are not the justification for our laws. Religious standards are expressly forbidden, by the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, from forming the basis of the legal code. Pat Robertson's argument puts the Bible forth as the only standard and ignores any other possible bases for law. Laws are also based on the ideas of preventing harm, protecting privacy, and equal rights for all. Robertson also ignores the forces that are likely to block any attempt to legitimize other taboo behaviors. While many behaviors are outside the norm, some are more stigmatized than others. Some, such as child molestation, cause undeniable harm. Others, such as bestiality, are far more deeply stigmatized than same-sex relationships. In addition, the law treats animals differently from humans, so the arguments that justify same-sex marriage may well be useless to justify bestiality.
Fallacious slippery slope arguments have long been deployed to resist social change. Those opposed to the abolition of slavery warned of economic collapse and social chaos. Those who opposed women’s suffrage asserted that it would lead to the dissolution of the family, rampant sexual promiscuity, and social anarchy. Of course, none of these dire predictions came true; the slopes simply weren’t slippery.
Doubtful Cause (Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc)
If an argument claims that one thing happened first and caused another thing to happen, we should ask ourselves whether the first thing was really what pushed the second to occur. Could something else have caused the second event? Perhaps a third factor was the cause of both. Or perhaps the first event contributed to the second, but other factors did as well. Maybe chance is at play, and there is no link between the two events at all.
Very often in everyday life, if something happens, we look for a cause in something that happened right before it. If I take a sip of coffee and a moment later I feel nauseous, I may conclude that the coffee caused the nausea and that if I drink more, I will feel worse. This may very well be the case, or it may not. Could it be that I drank too much beer and that caused the nausea? Perhaps the beer made me feel sleepy, and that is why I tried the coffee. In that case, the beer is what led to both the coffee and the nausea. There could even be a still earlier event that played into things: what if I drank the beer because I was feeling so nervous the night before a job interview? Maybe it is actually the anxiety, not the beer or the coffee, that is making me nauseous. Or maybe I am getting the stomach flu. If I want to fix the nausea, I will want to go over everything I know about its possible causes, including how my body has responded in the past to alcohol, coffee, stress, and anxiety. We can see how difficult it can be to get a sharp picture of the exact role of each factor in causing an event.
Whenever an argument assumes that one thing caused another just because the first thing happened before the second, we should question that reasoning. Once you look for this fallacy, often called "post hoc ergo propter hoc" or "doubtful cause," you will see it everywhere, including on the news and in reputable academic settings. One example lies in the way we evaluate the performance of presidents of the United States. Everything that happens during or immediately after their administrations tends to be pinned on them. But presidents aren’t all-powerful; they don’t cause everything that happens during their presidencies. In October 2015, U.S. News & World Report published an article asking (and purporting to answer) the question, “Which Presidents Have Been Best for the Economy?” It had charts listing GDP growth during each administration since Eisenhower. But while presidents and their policies might have some effect on economic growth, their influence is certainly swamped by other factors. Similar claims on behalf of state governors are even more absurd. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence—of Wisconsin and Indiana, respectively—both pointed to record-high employment in their states as vindication of their conservative policies. But some other states were also experiencing record-high employment at the time: California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Washington. Yes, they were all controlled by Democrats. Maybe there’s a separate cause for those strong jobs numbers in differently governed states? Possibly it has something to do with the improving economy and health of the job market in the country as a whole.
Using Missing Information as a Reason
This fallacy sounds ridiculous when described but is more subtle in practice. If an argument points to some lack of information as a reason to believe something, we should be skeptical. Could there be information or an explanation that we haven't yet found? This fallacy is often called appeal to ignorance. It comes in a variety of closely related forms. It will be helpful to state them in absurd schematic fashion first, then elucidate with more subtle real-life examples.
The first form can be put like this:
Nobody knows how to explain this phenomenon.
Therefore, my crazy theory about it is true.
That sounds silly, but consider an example: those “documentary” programs on cable TV about aliens. You know, the ones where they suggest that extraterrestrials built the pyramids or something. How do they get us to even consider that crazy theory? By creating mystery! By pointing to facts that nobody can explain. The Great Pyramid at Giza is aligned with the magnetic north pole! On the day of the summer solstice, the sun sets exactly between two of the pyramids! The height of the Great Pyramid is one one-millionth the distance from the Earth to the Sun! How could the ancient Egyptians have had such sophisticated astronomical and geometrical knowledge? Why did they, careful record-keepers in other respects, apparently not keep detailed records of the construction of the pyramids? Nobody knows. Conclusion: a being more advanced than humans must have built the pyramids.
In other words, there are all sorts of surprising facts about the pyramids, and nobody knows how to explain them. From these premises, which establish only our ignorance, we’re encouraged to conclude that we know something: pyramids were not built by humans.
Another form this fallacy takes can be put crudely thus:
Nobody can prove that I’m wrong.
Therefore, I’m right.
The word ‘prove’ is in all-caps because stressing it is the key to this fallacious argument: the standard of proof is set impossibly high, so that almost no amount of evidence would constitute a refutation of the conclusion.
An example will help. There are lots of people who claim that evolutionary biology is a lie: there’s no such thing as evolution by natural selection, and it’s especially false to claim that humans evolved from earlier species, that we share a common ancestor with apes. Rather, the story goes, the Bible is literally true: the Earth is only about 6,000 years old, and humans were created as-is by God just as the Book of Genesis describes. Using missing information as a reason is one of the favored techniques of proponents of this view. They are especially fond of pointing to “gaps” in the fossil record—the so-called “missing link” between humans and a pre-human, ape-like species—and claim that the incompleteness of the fossil record vindicates their position.
But this argument is an instance of the fallacy. The standard of proof—a complete fossil record without any gaps—is impossibly high. Evolution has been going on for a LONG time (the Earth is actually about 4.5 billion years old, and living things have been around for at least 3.5 billion years). So many species have appeared and disappeared over time that it’s absurd to think that we could even come close to collecting fossilized remains of anything but the tiniest fraction of them. It’s hard to become a fossil, after all: a creature has to die under special circumstances to even have a chance for its remains to do anything than turn into compost. And we haven’t been searching for fossils in a systematic way for very long (only since the mid-1800s or so). It’s no surprise that there are gaps in the fossil record, then. What’s surprising, in fact, is that we have as rich a fossil record as we do. Many, many transitional species have been discovered, both between humans and their ape-like ancestors, and between other modern species and their distant forbears. Whales used to be land-based creatures, for example; we know this (in part) from the fossils of early proto- whale species with longer and longer rear hip- and leg-bones.
Sometimes skeptics of evolution put it even more simply: nobody was around to witness evolution in action; therefore, it didn’t happen. This also involves an unreasonable standard of proof since evolution takes place over such a period of time much longer than a human lifetime.
A final form of using missing information as a reason can be put crudely thus:
No evidence has been found that X is true.
Therefore, X is false.
Absence of evidence can, in fact, tell us something useful. It may be a reason to doubt the conclusion even if it doesn't disprove it. During the 2016 presidential campaign, reporter David Fahrentold took to Twitter to announce that despite having “spent weeks looking for proof that [Donald Trump] really does give millions of his own [money] to charity...” he could only find one donation, to the NYC Police Athletic League. Trump has claimed to have given millions of dollars to charities over the years. Does this reporter’s failure to find evidence of such giving prove that Trump’s claims about his charitable donations are false? No. To draw such a conclusion relying only on this reporter's testimony would be to commit the fallacy.
However, the failure to uncover evidence of charitable giving does provide some reason to suspect Trump’s claims may be false. How much of a reason depends on the reporter’s methods and credibility, among other things. In fact, Fahrentold subsequently performed and documented in the Washington Post on 9/12/16 a rather exhaustive unsuccessful search for evidence of charitable giving, providing strong support for the conclusion that Trump didn’t give as he’d claimed.
There are times when a lack of evidence can provide strong support for a negative conclusion. For example, despite multiple claims over many years, no evidence has been found that there’s a sea monster living in Loch Ness in Scotland. Given the size of the body of water, and the extensiveness of the searches, this is pretty good evidence that there’s no such creature—a strong inductive argument to that conclusion. To claim otherwise—that there is such a monster, despite the lack of evidence—would be to commit the version of the fallacy whereby one argues “You can’t prove I’m wrong; therefore, I’m right,” where the standard of proof is unreasonably high.
One final note on this fallacy: it’s common for people to mislabel certain bad arguments as appeals to ignorance; namely, arguments made by people who obviously don’t know what the heck they’re talking about. People who are confused or ignorant about the subject on which they’re offering an opinion are liable to make bad arguments, but the fact of their ignorance is not enough to label those arguments as instances of the fallacy. We reserve that designation for arguments that take the forms canvassed above: those that rely on ignorance as a reason to support the conclusion.
Restating the Claim as the Reason
Has the writer actually given us any reason at all to believe the claim? Sometimes a reason given is not really a reason at all, just a repetition of the claim itself in different words. In effect, the writer asks us to believe an idea because of that very same idea. This is called circular reasoning or "begging the question."
For example, consider the following argument:
Anyone born in the United States has a right to citizenship because citizenship here depends on birth, not ethnicity or family history of immigration.
The idea that “anyone born in the United States has a right to citizenship” and the idea that “citizenship here depends on birth” are really one and the same. We still need a reason to accept this focus on birth as the determining factor.
Here is a more ornate example: “To allow every man unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the state; for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty, perfectly unlimited, of expressing his sentiments.” This is a classic example, from Richard Whately’s 1826 Elements of Logic. Replacing synonyms with synonyms, this comes down to “Free speech is good for society because free speech is good for society.”
It's worth noting that circular reasoning is often not deliberate. In reaching to explain the reason for a deeply held belief, a writer may end up summarizing that belief again in a way that feels intuitively appealing. They may not realize that anything is missing. Other times the writer may knowingly perform this sleight of hand, hoping the reader will not notice. In either case, the argument lacks foundation.
Arguments That Assume Too Much Connection or Similarity
Ignoring Important Differences
Many arguments rely on a similarity between two things, usually referred to as an analogy, to conclude that if something is true for one, it will be true for the other. But things that are similar will also have differences, and so for any such argument we need to ask whether there are any differences significant enough to change the outcome. Are the two things really similar enough to justify the conclusion? If not, we have what is often called a false analogy fallacy.
For example, consider the following argument:
People have a First Amendment right to express opinions by donating money to political candidates, so corporations should also have that right.
This is a summary of the decision the Supreme Court came to in the landmark 2010 decision Citizens United vs. FEC. It depends on an analogy between corporations and people, an idea called "corporate personhood" in legal terms. Chief Justice Roberts argued, essentially, that the First Amendment applies to groups of people, such as corporations, as well as to individuals. Now, is this a fallacy? In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens argued that the constitution was intended to apply to "We, the People," not corporate entities. He listed the key differences that led him to conclude that: “In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”
As we can see, Justice Stevens thought that this was a case of false analogy, but Chief Justice Roberts disagreed. Introducing the fallacy label here does not resolve the debate but it may help to clarify where the disagreement lies.
We can also think of the slippery slope arguments as committing the fallacy of false analogy. We saw above that Pat Robertson's argument about gay marriage depended on a comparison between gay marriage and other forms of relationship such as polygamy and bestiality, but most would argue that key differences between these categories would lead to different legal treatment. The differences would stop the slide down the slope. Faulty arguments can often legitimately be classed under different fallacy labels.
Changing the Meaning without Warning
You are probably aware that one word can have slightly different, related meanings. For example, "law" can refer to scientific laws, such as the law of thermodynamics, or to rules established by governments. As we read arguments, we should be able to assume that the arguer is not going to change from one meaning to another without warning us. A change in meaning, whether intentional or not, can lead to an unjustified conclusion. This is called equivocation.
For example, consider the following paraphrase of an example found on fallacyfiles.org:
No medical professional should be allowed to intentionally harm a human. What is a fetus if not human? How, then, can anyone dispute that abortion is wrong and should be illegal?
There may or may not be legitimate reasons to oppose legal abortion. However, the above argument does not hold up because it depends on a sleight of hand, a shift from the idea of a human, meaning a human being, to the adjective "human," which can apply to anything with human cells and DNA, including hair and toenails. We can tell that the above argument is faulty if we substitute "fetus" for "hair" to construct a similar argument:
No medical professional should be allowed to intentionally harm a human. Surely our hair and fingernails are human, not animal. Therefore cutting hair and nails should be illegal.
The question any argument about abortion needs to resolve, of course, is whether a fetus can be considered a human being, not whether a fetus has human cells.
Distracting from the Real Issue
We commit the red herring fallacy if we attempt to distract the audience from the main thread of an argument, taking things off in a different direction. The diversion is often subtle, with the detour starting on a topic closely related to the original—but gradually wandering off into unrelated territory. The tactic is often, but not always, intentional: if the arguer is not comfortable arguing about a particular topic on the merits, they change the subject to an issue about which they feels more confident, and pretend to have won the original argument.
The red herring fallacy gets its name from the actual fish. When herring are smoked, they turn red and are quite pungent. Stinky things can be used to distract hunting dogs, who of course follow the trail of their quarry by scent; if you pass over that trail with a stinky fish and run off in a different direction, the hound may be distracted and follow the wrong trail. Whether or not this practice was ever used to train hunting dogs, as some suppose, the connection to argument is clear.
Politicians use the red herring fallacy all the time. Consider a debate about Social Security—a retirement stipend paid to all workers by the federal government. Suppose a politician makes the following argument:
We need to cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age, or both. As the baby boom generation reaches retirement age, the amount of money set aside for their benefits will not be enough to cover them while ensuring the same standard of living for future generations when they retire. The status quo will put enormous strains on the federal budget going forward, and we are already dealing with large, economically dangerous budget deficits now. We must reform Social Security.
Now imagine an opponent of the proposed reforms offering the following reply:
Social Security is a sacred trust, instituted during the Great Depression by FDR to insure that no hard-working American would have to spend their retirement years in poverty. I stand by that principle. Every citizen deserves a dignified retirement. Social Security is a more important part of that than ever these days, since the downturn in the stock market has left many retirees with very little investment income to supplement government support.
The second speaker makes some good points, but notice that they do not speak to the assertion made by the first: Social Security is economically unsustainable in its current form. It’s possible to address that point head on, either by making the case that the economic problems are exaggerated or non-existent, or by making the case that a tax increase could fix the problems. The respondent does neither of those things, though; they change the subject and talk about the importance of dignity in retirement. I’m sure they are more comfortable talking about that subject than the economic questions raised by the first speaker, but it’s a distraction from that issue—a red herring.
Perhaps the most blatant kind of red herring is evasive: used especially by politicians, this is the refusal to answer a direct question by changing the subject. Examples are almost too numerous to cite. There’s an old axiom in politics, put nicely by Robert McNamara: “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.”
Arguments That Generalize without Enough Evidence
If an argument claims a general idea based on limited evidence, we will always want to ask whether the evidence is sufficient. If it makes a generalization based on one or two anecdotes or solely on the writer's own experience, it can be considered a hasty generalization. How do we decide when the evidence is enough? The science of statistics addresses this question in very specific, technical ways that are worth learning. Often, however, an intuitive assessment will be enough. We all probably already guard against this fallacy when we search online for products that have been reviewed many times. Clearly one five-star review could be a fluke, but 2,000 reviews averaging 4 1/2 stars is a more reliable indicator of quality.
People who deny that global warming is a genuine phenomenon often commit this fallacy. In February of 2015, the weather was unusually cold in Washington, DC. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma famously took to the Senate floor wielding a snowball. “In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, ‘You know what this is?’ It’s a snowball, from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable.” He then tossed the snowball at his colleague, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who was presiding over the debate, saying, “Catch this.”
Senator Inhofe commits the hasty generalization fallacy. He’s trying to establish a general conclusion—that 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record, or that global warming isn’t really happening. But the evidence he presents is insufficient to support such a claim. His evidence is an unseasonable coldness in a single place on the planet, on a single day. We can’t derive from that any conclusions about what’s happening, temperature-wise, on the entire planet, over a long period of time. That the earth is warming is not a claim that everywhere, at every time, it will always be warmer than it was; the claim is that, on average, across the globe, temperatures are rising. This is compatible with a couple of cold snaps in the nation’s capital.
A particularly damaging example of the hasty generalization fallacy is the development of negative stereotypes. Stereotypes are general claims about religious or racial groups, ethnicities and nationalities. Even if we do have evidence that a certain trait is more common among people of one ethnicity, we still cannot assume that a particular individual of that ethnicity will have the trait.
If an argument describes counterarguments, we have to wonder whether it gets them right. Often, a writer may be tempted to summarize the other side in a distorted way, to exaggerate the counterargument in order to make it easier to disprove. This goes by the name of the straw man fallacy. For example, consider these two exaggerated descriptions of political parties’ positions:
Democrats want completely open borders.
Republicans want to kick all immigrants out of America.
This fallacy involves the misrepresentation of an opponent’s viewpoint—an exaggeration or distortion of it that renders it indefensible, something nobody in their right mind would agree with. You make your opponent out to be an extremist, then declare that you don’t agree with their made-up position. Thus, you merely appear to defeat your opponent: your real opponent doesn’t hold the crazy view you imputed to them; instead, you’ve defeated a distorted version of them, one of your own making, one that is easily dispatched. Instead of taking on the real person, you construct one out of straw, thrash it, and pretend to have achieved victory. It works if your audience doesn’t realize what you’ve done, if they believe that your opponent really holds the crazy view.
Politicians are most frequently victims and practitioners of this tactic. In 2009, during the debate over Obamacare, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin took to Facebook to denounce the bill thus:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Bureaucrats euthanizing Down Syndrome babies and their grandparents? ‘Death panel’ and ‘level of productivity in society’ are even in quotes. Did she pull those phrases from the text of the bill? In fact, she didn’t. This is a complete distortion of what’s actually in the bill; the non-partisan fact-checking outfit Politifact named it their “Lie of the Year” in 2009. Palin is not attacking the actual bill; she’s confronting a made-up version, defeating it easily, and pretending to have won the debate. But this distraction only works if her audience believes her straw man is the real thing. In this case, many did. Of course this is why these techniques are used so frequently: they work.