Arguments whose errors confuse and mislead.

Deceptions are forms of the general error of non sequitur—“it does not follow” (e.g., “the cat is chewing grass, so it must be Thursday”). They can lead to correct conclusions, despite their failure in logic (it might really be Thursday); and they may be intentional, with the arguer knowing exactly what she is doing; or unintentional, with the arguer herself being the first to be taken in. They are, however, different from distractions in that they go through the motions of accepting the rules of argument. The villainy can be just as great, but it is more insidious because it comes in the form, not of sabotage, but of cheating: it deceives because it can seem logical.

One defence against deception is social capital, due to its basis in extended conversation. Intuitive detection of the fake comes only with practice, including seriously-engaged argument—adversarial cooperation—with friends. But with the decline in social capital, the balance of advantage is shifting, to the benefit of deception: the deceiver gets more skilled as he evades detection, and the deceived are more vulnerable to his cant.

And here are other reasons why defences against deception may be weakening:

First, there is deception in the mindset of the institution—the big, bureaucratic producer and regulator; the managerial state. Deception is a natural expression of institutional capture—the absorption of the whole person by the institution and its objectives: he is out of his mind, away from home (Metamorphosis).

Secondly, there is deception in the mindset of the citizen-consumer: deception is embedded in mellifluous talk—sweet talk—the easy sense that it does not matter what you say, but thank you for sharing it anyway. Good communication is taken to be communication which does not make trouble—and there is no reason why it should if, as this sweet-talk ethic requires, we only ever speak for ourselves. If you disagree with my truth, no problem, because it only applies to me. We each inhabit our own truths. Here, for instance—quoted by the language scholar Deborah Cameron—is a therapy session for young single mothers dependent on welfare; Mirna is talking about wanting to have a baby, when the therapist intervenes:

MIRNA: You know how that is, when you just want to have a baby, just something that is yours and belongs to you . . .

THERAPIST: No, Mirna, we don’t know how it is. Please tell us, but don’t say “you”. It is your experience, not ours, so you need to say “I” instead of “you”: this is how I feel when I see a baby.


“We” can confidently declare that I can only speak for myself . . . And if I do so, there are no grounds for cooperation or for conflict, nor is there any notion of truth and error, since whatever I speak is true for me. Sweet talk is not an expression of good manners—it is a natural grammar for a society of disconnected individuals with weakened and broken links of reciprocity. It is a consumer marketing tactic, too, where the “I”—and the death of “one”—says that there are no wider principles at stake, but only a personal deal between two individuals, one of whom exists to pleasure the other. This portable and personal “I” is required, for instance, in call centres, including sex-lines. As Cameron notes, instruction manuals for sex-line workers could, with little editing, be applied to a commercialised culture that needs rules for interactions between strangers: “Always be bubbly, sexy, interesting and interested in each individual caller. Remember, you are not your character on the phone.”D6

A third, and closely-related, stimulus to deception is the reduced part played by direct personal reflection as a source of opinion. Iconic personal experience remains all too significant—as in the “Train Crash Fallacy” whereby being in a train crash makes you an instant expert on the railways; or having a family member killed in war makes you an expert on foreign policy. But first-hand experience as the raw material for one’s own creative reflection is rarer—and the detachment of opinion from that experience destroys confidence in one’s own critical judgment. You get out of practice. Instead, your judgment is applied to something you have heard, on criteria that you have heard, using evidence that you have heard, and—in search of approval of your own self—shaped by opinion that you have heard. The morals of modern debate are permissive about getting into bed promiscuously with heard opinions. The insubstantial view bluffs its way through, attaching itself to any plausible utterance that comes to hand.

In contrast with all this, the sharp authenticity of something directly and personally observed and known can come in quite narrow, direct, focused insights. It stays in the mind. Here are two examples from the poet Thomas Hardy. At a time of the breaking of nations, such as 1915, the need for something very precise, beyond deception, is intense; he observed,

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.D7

It is a limited and exact vision of a place and moment, which is precisely its deception-resisting strength. Something like it had happened to Hardy long before: walking behind a chaise—to ease the pony’s load—Hardy was climbing a hill at Castle Boterel with his future wife:

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story?D8

First-hand vision is not necessarily right. The horse-and-harrow culture did not last; nor did the quality of Hardy’s love, about which he was writing after his wife’s death. But its first-hand quality and presence give it the scent of the horse, the hardness of the ground; there is nothing second-hand, no sweet talk. It is a fixed point to hold in the mind when observing the constantly-moving deceptions that we try—and which others try on us—when we argue.


Fallacies never fit easily into a well-defined group, but here are some which (perhaps) fit more comfortably into a group labelled “deceptions” than into any other:

Begging the Question, Diplomatic Lie, Disingenuousness, False Analogy, False Consistency, Hyperbole, Quibble, Cant, Self-Deception, Wolf Fallacy.


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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