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6 Ways to Spot Liars and Fools

2011 June 29

Some people are dishonest, some are just plain stupid and lots write articles and provide commentary.  Inevitably there’s going to be some intersection between the three sets.

However, since media charlatans often come with impressive titles, adoring fans and fast facts, it’s easy to get taken in.  We simply can’t check every assertion that’s thrown at us.
Nevertheless, even the most accomplished frauds leave behind telltale signs.  They use rhetorical devices that give them away and, with a little foreknowledge, are not hard to spot.  With that in mind, here’s my guide to the most common modus operandi employed by fools and liars.  When you see them coming, be on your guard!

1. As Everybody Knows….

In these tumultuous times of war and strife, it should be obvious that people have a hard time agreeing on anything.  Nevertheless,  “as everybody knows…” remains a favored opening for bullshit arguments.  It is also what logicians call begging the question, or taking for granted precisely what is in dispute.

A common example is that “everybody knows that budgets are moving to digital.”  As I’ve explained in an earlier post, budgets are moving surprisingly slowly to digital and the shift seems to be coming almost exclusively from newspapers.  Nevertheless, the “everybody knows” device is amazingly effective in getting people to stipulate facts not in evidence.

Incidentally, as a foreigner in emerging markets, I’ve often been subjected to the “everybody knows” trick.  I sometimes say, “well I don’t know, so does that make me stupid or just a non-person.”  That’s usually effective in shifting the burden of proof back where it should be – on the person making the argument.

So don’t get taken in.  Whenever you hear “everybody knows,”  what follows is bound to be a load of crap.

2. Some People Say…

“Some of those in traditional media believe that nothing ever changes.  I, however, am more realistic and believe that we should prepare for the future.”

Oh, isn’t that nice for you?  Those old fuddy duddies really must have their heads in the sand.  I hear about such people a lot, but I’ve yet to actually meet anyone who believes that nothing ever changes.

There are those, like the Ad Contrarian and me, who like to point out uncomfortable facts, like that digital makes up a small amount of marketing budgets, trendy new stuff is often ineffective, traditional media companies continue to be extremely profitable and so on.

That doesn’t mean nothing changes, but simply that change is never simple. So whenever you hear “some people say,” expect to hear a classic straw man argument, where somebody is contriving to build up a straw man, beat him to hell and then declare the point made and the argument proven.

3. A Coincidence?  I Don’t Think So!

About a year ago we were hearing many versions of this argument:

“If social media marketing wasn’t more effective than TV, then Pepsi wouldn’t have dropped the Super Bowl to spend $20 million on their socially driven Pepsi Refresh project.  Therefore social media must be more effective than TV.”

This is a classic case of what’s called affirming the consequent, where an implied conclusion is used to prove a premise.  It seems to have a strange logic to it, which makes it hard to catch, but always takes this form:

If P, then Q;  Q. Therefore P…


Successful marketers use successful practices, a successful marketer just employed a certain practice, therefore it must be successful.

This, of course, ignores all other causes that could end in the same result.  Pepsi might have just been doing an experiment ($20 million is actually a very small part of their budget), or they might have just been doing something foolish (their spots on the Super Bowl were quickly snatched up by other successful marketers).

I picked this particular example for its delicious irony.  As everyone now knows (see how I did that!) Pepsi’s market share took an enormous hit following the Refresh project.  Social media advocates, of course, then rushed to point out (quite rightly) that the decline could be attributed to a number of factors.  Gotta love it!

4. History Tells Us…

One of the most common rhetorical devices is the somber-faced “history tells us” line. This is usually followed by an appeal for posterity in the place where an intelligent argument would normally go.  Invoking history gives weight to an opinion because it suggests that a particular point of view has been time and battle tested.

There are two problems with this line of reasoning.  Firstly, history doesn’t tell us anything.  We interpret it, unless, of course, you have Benjamin Franklin and his friends continually whispering in your ear.  If that’s the case, then you should be seeking professional help.

Secondly, invoking history is a prime example of an induction fallacy.  There’s nothing that says that the future can’t be entirely different than the past (and that’s often the case). As Nassim Taleb likes to point out, every swan is white until you see a black one and every turkey is happy until Thanksgiving day.

5. Shifting Criteria

Somebody recently sent me an AdAge article which contained this delightful passage.

Print is facing declining circulation and, especially in newspapers, a rapidly aging demographic; radio ad sales are off sharply, while at the same time the once-promising satellite radio subscription model has proved endlessly unprofitable; TV, after getting past the “fragmentation” issue that was the obsession of the 1990s, has been covered by the huge black storm cloud that is DVR penetration.

See what he did?  He predicts the demise of each medium using a different criterion.  Even if his facts are right (and I certainly don’t stipulate that they are), every business has a mix of good and bad news. You can always cherry pick facts to support your argument and dismiss any facts to the contrary.  This is sometimes known as confirmation bias.

Of course, he wasn’t writing an article for our general intellectual edification, he was selling something.  He wasn’t quite clear on what it was or how it would work, but from the woeful misunderstanding of the marketplace displayed in his article,  I strongly suspect he will have to cherry pick some more facts in order to make it appear successful.

6. Extrapolating Off The End Of The Curve

A headline in a recent Wall Street Journal article blared “TV Networks See Key Audience Erode”  and then led the article with:

Fewer young people watched TV on traditional sets over the past television season, the second consecutive year of decline as viewers face a proliferation of ways to watch TV shows.

Hmmm.  It would seem like TV is in for some trouble unless you stop and think about it for a second.  Why has TV been declining for only two years and not five or ten?  Is that when the “proliferation of ways to watch TV shows” started?

Surely not.  It is more likely the decline is due to the fact that TV viewership has recently been at all time highs in both the US and UK.  Moreover, TV viewership remains above the historical average.  In proper context, the current situation looks a whole lot more than a reversion to the mean than anything else.

We never did hear much about the unprecedented levels of TV viewership when Pepsi dropped out of the Super Bowl to go on their social media adventure. Funny that!

Don’t Be A Victim!

Wherever you look, rhetorical fallacies abound and it’s easy to get taken in.  Sometimes the mistakes come honestly, but often the sophists know exactly what they are doing, so you need to be on your guard.

One great way to equip yourself is by reading Jamie Whyte’s excellent book, Crimes Against Logic.  He gives a wonderful and insightful account of how falsehoods and half-truths are often dressed up to appear authoritative.

Of course, some people say that nobody reads books anymore, but history tells us otherwise and if you want. I can find some facts to prove it (that’s what Google is for). After all, I was reading a book just yesterday and that can’t be a coincidence…

– Greg


20 Responses leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011

    Nice job, Greg.

  2. June 29, 2011

    Thx Bob. As you know, I’m a big fan!

    – Greg

  3. Stephen White permalink
    June 29, 2011


  4. June 29, 2011

    Gotta have some sometime:-)

  5. June 29, 2011

    Haven’t read your piece, yet. But one thing struck me.
    You seem to be a more fuller version of Jim Carey!
    Check your profile photo with the Jim Carey ‘Liar Liar’

  6. June 29, 2011


  7. June 30, 2011

    I have not blogged much myself, but I wonder if I have been guilty of any the above! Either way, since reading your post this morning, I have certainly been able to tidy up my rss feed!
    I enjoy your blog very much Greg. Always a great read, thanks.

  8. June 30, 2011

    Nice and timely & totally get where you are coming from Greg as usual. Think all of us fall foul of at least one of those six at some point. Question – what is a way forward given this situation of an industry fueled by ‘manipulation’ ? Are we, in arguing a case for change or strategic realignment, supposed to:

    1 – use so-called hard facts and statistics (which can be game’d easily)?
    2 – base decisions on only present day, now, at this moment, because every thing else is just fantasy and future gazing?
    3 – be transparent and frame everything as ‘opinion’, trend guesswork etc:?

    Also think it a little hard calling this ‘fraud’ or ‘stupidity’ & the people who ‘colour’ their presentations as charlatans – to me it is the roles we play in society, some get it right some get it wrong and the emperors clothes analogy, will expose all in due course?

    Another aspect I think worth mentioning is self perpetuation – those entrenched and working full time in an area of the media who delude themselves into thinking nothing is changing, pay a team full of statisticians to make it so, and even suggest their industry is healthy & growing strong – that is the way of the bubble about to burst…?

  9. June 30, 2011


    I think we all do it sometimes. Nobody’s perfect:-)

    – Greg

  10. June 30, 2011


    Very good points! I think a lot has to do with humility. All of the social media marketing jackasses chose to completely ignore decades of accumulated wisdom. Rather than think seriously about the issue, they caricatured the “traditional media world” and really thought that they were the first ones to take consumer sentiment seriously.

    Social media will live on, but they’re dying out as the best social practices are being co-opted by people with other skills like content creation, market analysis and so on.

    I completely agree with your first point about our common propensity to simply get it wrong. I even wrote a post about it in a previous post:

    Once you take into account our limited access to information, the influence of our social circles, our genetic predispositions, cognitive biases and all the rest, it’s hard to get a fix on how much of our thoughts are our own.

    I’m not as sure about the second point. I’ve never met anyone who truly thinks nothing will change, but rather think it’s an issue with value networks and disruptive innovation. Everybody has people they need to keep happy, suppliers, customers, etc. Usually, when something truly new comes along it doesn’t work well enough to satisfy the existing value network.

    That’s why truly disruptive innovations take hold in light and non-consumers. Once it gains traction there, it gets better and starts to migrate upwards.

    Funny enough, I just wrote a post about exactly that, which should be out in a few weeks.

    Thanks for a great comment!

    – Greg

  11. Willow Aliento permalink
    June 30, 2011

    Great piece! Reminds me of things old-fashioned editors would pick out in a piece of opinion masquerading as journalism.

    The writers who do fall into those habits I have heard summed up as “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” It goes with the territory of vox popping the characters propping up the local bar for a ‘survey of public opinion” who all appear as “a source who did not want to be named”.

    without sound, balanced, digging for facts, journalism runs the risk of becoming more popular entertainment than an actal reflection of current affairs which delivers on the ‘public’s right to know’.

  12. June 30, 2011

    Thanks. “Surveys” and “sources” are great examples.

    – Greg

  13. June 30, 2011

    Hi Greg–longtime reader, first time commenter! This is good advice for any writer since these seem to permeate various media outlets. I can’t say I’ve been perfect in my writing, whether personal or professional, but you provide a good overview of how *not* to sound like you’re full of it or just making facts up.

  14. June 30, 2011

    Thanks Krista! I think we all use them (at least some) from time to time. What’s really important is honest intent.

    However, if you find yourself having to use them, it’s a good idea to check your own facts.

    – Greg

  15. July 1, 2011

    I applaud your advocacy of accuracy, but everybody knows Monty Python were ahead of their time and surely it’s no coincidence that their next movie will be in 3D?

  16. July 1, 2011

    Surely not:-)

  17. July 1, 2011

    Thanks for the book tip. I have teenage daughters and need all the help I can get.

    Change is tough. For example, I mostly buy e-books now. Kinda sad. The temptation to huck a book at a sibling (or other appropriate target) still exists, but it’s fiscally illogical to throw an e-reader. I propose e-readers come with several hundred pounds of free remainder books to ease the transition.


  18. July 1, 2011

    Alternatively, they could just learn how to fight.

  19. March 23, 2012

    Greg, I love the end of your article. I work in sales and I have to admit I am guilty of using some of these devices. In my defense…I always believe it myself. You ruined my sales pitch. LOL

  20. March 23, 2012

    I think we’re all a little guilty sometimes:-)

    Have a great weekend!


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