"idea obfuscation?"
April 18, 2007 5:42 PM   Subscribe

i think there is a term--rhetorical or otherwise-- for the way "conspiracy theory" can serve to cloud the environment of ideas thereby rendering politically unpopular notions inert regardless of their veracity. anybody know what im struggling to effin describe and label?
posted by oigocosas to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Red herring, sort of.
posted by voidcontext at 5:49 PM on April 18, 2007

"Idea Obfuscation" is Disinformation, essentially, which conspiracy theories aren't. Conspiracy theories would be disinformation if they were specifically disseminated by the government to mask their genuine criminal and undercover activities. The most entertainingly meta, or realistic, depending on how you look at it, suggest this is exactly what is happening.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:58 PM on April 18, 2007

COINTELPRO was the first thing I thought of. "Conspiracy theory" is not the only thing that clouds the environment of ideas.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:59 PM on April 18, 2007

Is this what you're talking about?
In the law business, I see it all the time. The Federalists put on a panel with one lefty, a few centrists, a few conservatives, and a raving nutbag. Who wins the debate? Who cares? The nutbag is always legitimated by being there. And that's the point of the debate.
If so, Brad Delong calls it "undiscourse" (via Washington Monthly).
posted by alms at 6:00 PM on April 18, 2007

Oh, wait, I think you're talking about the opposite of what I suggested. You're saying, "attach an unattractive label to something (such as "liberal" or "conspiracy theory" or "theocratic" or "gay") such that people stop seeing the idea itself, and just associate it with the negative label?

You'll probably find it somewhere among Schopenhauer's infamous 38 Stratagems for winning an argument (none of which have to do with the substance of the argument).
posted by alms at 6:05 PM on April 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Labeling something a conspiracy theory can be used in a strawman strategy, too.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:10 PM on April 18, 2007

"FUD"--Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.
posted by Osmanthus at 6:17 PM on April 18, 2007

"Poisoning the well".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:18 PM on April 18, 2007

"Guilt by association"?
posted by fings at 6:21 PM on April 18, 2007

posted by wackybrit at 6:34 PM on April 18, 2007

Not directly answering your question here, but Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson played with the concept of rhetorical sabotage in coining the term fnord.
posted by ardgedee at 7:33 PM on April 18, 2007

I'm sure I'm missing some subtlety but I think you answered your own question: labelling.
posted by mendel at 7:39 PM on April 18, 2007

It's similar to an ad-hominem argument, or "playing the man, not the ball".

That is, instead of addressing the claims themselves, the claims are dismissed out-of-hand as a "conspiracy theory". There is an implied ad-hominem in that the person putting forward the ideas is tarred with the same brush as all tinfoil hat nutjobs, and overall the effect is the same - it's a refusal to counter the substance of the argument.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:51 PM on April 18, 2007

alms: that Schopenhauer link is just fantastic. Thank you thank you.
posted by Miko at 7:57 PM on April 18, 2007

Just check out the Wikipedia link on fallacies. All the classical logical fallacies are covered, and in addition lots of other rhetorical strategies are discussed.

I agree that Association is one of them at play ("your argument is similar to the arguments of crazy axe-grinders, therefore you're a crazy axe-grinter"), but the ad hominem argument is also a strong contender.
posted by Miko at 8:03 PM on April 18, 2007

Well-poisoning, guilt-by-associating, ad-homining are all correct (as I read the question), but are all somewhat narrow.
It seems the OP is asking about the ploy of confusing the issue, and if there is one good word for such a tactic, I'd suggest sophistry:
a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone
posted by rob511 at 8:30 PM on April 18, 2007

I would say that in this case, both sides are trying to conflate an issue. The conspiracy theorist is conflating facts, assumptions and half-truths into a neat-and-tidy whole. The anti-conspiracy theorist conflates the incorrect and poorly supported accusations with the real facts, calls it "conspiracy theory" and dismisses the whole.

You can also call this latter tactic "labelling."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:09 PM on April 18, 2007

I would suggest that the label "conspiracy theory" would bring other ideas into disrepute. In other words by being labeled as a conspiracy theory otherwise valid political ideas are discredited by the term rather than the factual basis or rationale of the argument. So "conspiracy theories" can bring valid points into disrepute. Or more accurately the selective usage of facts in conspiracy theories can make those facts seem invalid despite their being accurate and valid absent the additional "theory."
posted by occidental at 10:00 PM on April 18, 2007

Another term comes to mind, made popular in recent years by Berkeley linguistics prof George Lakoff: framing.
posted by rob511 at 10:46 PM on April 18, 2007

"nutpicking" was suggested in a few places as the term for the person carrying out this kind of argument
posted by scodger at 11:09 PM on April 18, 2007

Poisoning the well is a good one.

I suggest this article by Gore Vidal:
TV-watcher have no doubt noted so often that they are no longer aware of how often the interchangeable TV hosts handle anyone who tries to explain why something happened. "Are you suggesting that there was a conspiracy?" A twinkle starts in a pair of bright contact lenses. No matter what the answer, there is a wriggling of the body, followed by a tiny snort and a significant glance into the camera to show that the guest has just been delivered to the studio by flying saucer. This is one way for the public never to understand what actual conspirators – whether in the F.B.I. or on the Supreme Court or toiling for Big Tobacco – are up to. It is also a sure way of keeping information from the public. The function, alas, of Corporate Media.
posted by nasreddin at 1:18 AM on April 19, 2007

posted by From Bklyn at 2:15 AM on April 19, 2007

If someone introduces a conspiracy theory into an otherwise legitimate argument, it would be a red herring. If that conspiracy theory was about your opponent, it would be an example of poisoning the well.

I think the most common phrase I've heard describing this sort of thing would be "clouding the issue."
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:43 AM on April 19, 2007

I agree with rob511. Once you get people to accept an underlying [false] assumption, a/k/a Framing, it crystallizes the rest of the world around it.

The only way out is to reframe, causing a Paradigm Shift to a new frame.
posted by KRS at 12:17 PM on April 19, 2007

Response by poster: thanks, all.

occidental has restated my original concept best and rob511's mention of lakoff (whose notions i'm familiar with) does fit.

i just thought there was a more specific label vis a vis "conspiracy theories" "clouding" the marketplace of ideas such that any idea incovenient to TPTB might be instantly discredited by association, etc, blah, blah, blah.

any other thoughts?
posted by oigocosas at 4:55 PM on April 20, 2007

Response by poster: yeah, and nasreddin's got it right, too.

gore vidal=double plus good
posted by oigocosas at 4:57 PM on April 20, 2007

Response by poster: and alms at 6:05.
posted by oigocosas at 12:51 AM on April 21, 2007

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