Spotting Logical Fallacies and Propaganda Techniques

Spotting Logical Fallacies and Propaganda Techniques April 3, 2015

CindyKunsmanby Cindy Kunsman cross posted from her blog Under Much (more) Grace

Editor’s note: While this isn’t a traditional NLQ SASBN member posting it bears posting here, if for no other reason than forewarned is forearmed. Even when you leave a harmful theology group the pressure to return and confirm will still be strong. You need to know their tricks. Want to see all these in action so you know what they look like? Try watching the recent HBO documentary on Scientology “Going Clear”

Spotting Logical Fallacies and Propaganda Techniques

The techniques of thought reform as defined by Robert Lifton are based upon a series of logical leaps and informal logical fallacies. Knowing the basics of commonly used fallacies and propaganda techiniques can help reduce the likelyhood of manipulation. Like a good batter can identify the type of ball a pitcher has thrown him as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, a good fallacy spotter can do much the same thing. Here is a list of common propaganda techniques and logical fallacies commonly used by spiritual abusers and cults.


Propaganda Techniques
: A Short List


Ad Hominem – Attack your opponent’s person rather than the argument itself. Literally “against the man”

Ad Hominem Abusive (Sub category of Ad Hominem) – An attack on the character or other irrelevant personal qualities of the opposition—such as appearance—is offered as evidence against their position. Such attacks are often effective distractions (“red herrings”), because the opponent feels it necessary to defend the self, thus being distracted from the topic of the debate.

Hominem Circumstantial (Subcategory of Ad Hominem) -A Circumstantial Ad Hominem is one in which some irrelevant personal circumstance surrounding the opponent is offered as evidence against the opponent’s position. This fallacy is often introduced by phrases such as: “Of course, that’s what you’d expect him to say.” The fallacy claims that the only reason why he argues as he does is because of personal circumstances, such as standing to gain from the argument’s acceptance.


Appeal to Authority – Citing authorities or respected figures to support an argument or to discredit or negate an argument made by an opponent. This effectively thwarts the debate and the argument.

Appeal to Fear** – Fear is used to destabilize people so that they will be more likely to do or believe something that they would not otherwise choose under normal circumstances

Appeal to Force** (Argumentum ad Baculum) – Use of force and threats of force to “win” a debate. (baculum is a walking stick)

Appeal to Ignorance (also Argument from Silence) -An appeal to ignorance is an argument for or against a proposition on the basis of a lack of evidence against or for it. If there is positive evidence for the conclusion, then of course we have other reasons for accepting it, but a lack of evidence by itself is no evidence.

Appeal to Prejudice** – (Also Called Poisoning the Well) Using emotive terms and connotation to attach moral benefit or goodness to the argument. Attach the modifier “Biblical” to that which should not be questioned. “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” It can also be used negatively. “The opinions and unrelated beliefs of a non-Christian cannot really be trusted, even regarding matters that do not relate to morality or Scripture.”

Argumentum Ad Nauseum – An idea is repeated relentlessly until it is accepted. Especially effective when there is a great deal of milieu control.

Argumentum Ad Populum – (also called the “bandwagon” and “inevitable victory”) Persuasion based on social proof

Big Lie – Create a message that is so complex but contains enough truthful elements so that people will not identify all the fictitious and fallacious elements. By the time it is recognized, many of the ideas are a part of the fabric of the debate and widely accepted.

Black-and-White Fallacy** (also called the Either-Or Fallacy or False Dilemma) – Presents information so that there are only two possible choices, one of which is far more appealing than the other. Obsures the difference between that which is contrary vs contradictory.

Common Man – Taking on of the characteristics of the target audience to make the message more palatable

Demonizing the Enemy** – Dehumanize the enemy and remove elements of commonality so that the target is easily dismissed, worthless, and of “non-person” status


Direct Order Simplification of the decision making process so that followers will respond to very simple commands without question or need for additional problem solving

Euphoria Use of emotionally charged and euphoria producing events to perpetuate good feelings and utopian ideals

Flag-waving – Capitalizing on patriotic sentiments to further one’s agenda.

Glittering Generality – The use of positive connotation and vague statements to present an argument as very desirable without evidence to support glittering claims

Intentional Vagueness** (also “Fuzzy Logic”) – Conclusions are not directly stated and the message may be intentionally vague so that individuals may draw their own conclusions, and the speaker does not have to be held directly accountable for the ideas. This works well in concert with other propaganda techniques.

Oversimplification (also “Fallacy of the Simple Cause”) – Very complex processes are described with trite explanations that do not provide a faithful perspective for the target audience. Trite explanations are used to reduce rationales into faulty causalities.

Quoting Out of Context (type of “Straw Man” argument) – Selected quotes are extracted from a passage so that without the full context of the passage, the meaning is greatly distorted.

Rationalization** – Positive and unrelated aspects of something are offered as evidence for an argument’s validity. “But they can’t teach wrong doctrine because they have a lovely family”

Red Herring – (large category of several fallacies) Irrelevant but compelling aspects of an argument are offered as a distraction from the core issues in order to derail the debate.

Redefinition** Assigning new meaning to an old term, but this is a logical boobytrap because of the ease of equivocation and confusing meanings. “He who defines, wins.”

Reductio ad Hitlerum (type of Red Herring – see also Transference) – Suggestion that a popular idea is associated with something deplorable, hateful and unthinkable so that people will react and reject the argument or source of information based on the association.

Repetition– A rhetorical or literary device that is lyrical and gets stuck in one’s mind like an advertising jingle. It is akin to argumentum ad nauseum, but also has literary quality.

Scapegoating** – A single cause or element is identified and vilified as the source of all undesirable circumstances or outcomes. The scapegoat distracts the audience from other possible contributing factors.

Slogans– Short phrases or motto used to make emotional appeals and support ideas. Slogans become “thought stopping” techniques quickly and become communication shortcuts that suspend critical thought.

Steriotyping(also “Name Calling” or “Labeling”) – Reduces people, events, practices or ideas to capitalize on prejudice to evoke fear or distain.

Straw Man** – The Prince of All Fallacies (Subtype of “Red Herring”) – Attempt to refute an opponent’s position, and in the context is required to do so, but instead attacks a position—the “straw man”—not held by the opponent. Argues to a conclusion that denies the “straw man” the arguer has set up, but misses the target. A common straw man is an extreme man. Extreme positions are more difficult to defend because they make fewer allowances for exceptions, or counter-examples.

Testimonial – Reports or testimony from trusted sources are offered, out of context, in support of or for vilification of an idea, person, etc.

Transference** – Projection of either positive or negative qualities to something or someone in order to connote qualities that may or may not be related. It capitalizes on emotional response and is related to “Guilt by Association” and “Reductio ad Hitlerum”

Unstated Assumption**Beliefs are implied or stated indirectly because a direct statement would seem less credible. “Women’s suffrage is outside the prescriptive will of God and Kingdom Architecture.” As a woman and a voter, you now have been told that you are acting outside the will of God and willingly disobedient. Any Christian understands that willful disobedience of God and the Scriptures is sin. The speaker can imply that they have not accused anyone of sinning, skirting accountability; however their inference that voting for women is a sin is understood. 

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Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

Read everything by Cindy Kunsman!

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Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce

13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession by M Dolon Hickmon


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  • Guest

    GREA

  • Friend

    The links give further definitions and examples. Quoting Quiverfull is chock full of these things. It will be fun to analyze them and assign terms.

    Missing is reductio ad absurdum (argumentum ad absurdum): a leap from an idea to its absurd result. My favorite example is that same-sex marriage will cause the human race to die out.

    Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said on “Washington Watch,” “[…] the human race would be extinct within time if it [homosexual activity] were normal. […] Biology says the only way we exist as human beings is that a man and a woman come together and we procreate.”

    Way to go, Tony. Gay marriage somehow leads to an end of heterosexual activity, or childbirth, or to all-gay babies, or something. Not sure I want to know what he’s imagining.

  • John Michael Crofford

    RAA simply shows that something is false because it being true would create a contradiction (the consequences of it being true would be absurd). RAA is commonly used in mathematics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum