Editorials, Opinion

Rhetoric 101: How they get you to buy what they’re selling

In a world where the line between fact reporting and opinion spouting is increasingly blurry and politicians put spin on everything, we want to help our readers better understand some of the rhetorical devices employed to get them to think one way or another. This will be the first in what we hope to be a recurring segment on media literacy and logical fallacies.

We can thank the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle for defining the three building blocks of all arguments: Logos is an appeal to logic; ethos, an appeal to authority; and pathos, an appeal to emotion. None of the above are good or bad on their own merits — it all depends on how they are used.

Logos appeals the audience’s logic; it uses data, statistics and evidence to bolster an argument or make a point. After all, numbers don’t lie, right?

Well … it depends on how those numbers are used. A good argument (in the moral sense) uses evidence accurately in order to prove that the argument is valid. A bad argument (also in the moral sense) cherry picks data or presents it out of context in order to support a particular point of view. An effective argument uses data in such a way that you buy into whatever the speaker is selling — for better or worse.

Ethos appeals to authority, generally the speaker’s. It’s the idea that just because someone has a certain set of credentials or qualifications, what they are saying must be right. Like any rhetorical device, ethos cuts both ways: It can establish trust in the speaker that should or should not be there.

For example, “the president said it, therefore it must be true” or, “this person is a doctor, so they must know what they are talking about.” Sure, but … what does a politician like the president gain by saying whatever it is that he’s said? Is this doctor the kind of doctor who actually has authority to speak on this subject (i.e., a foot doctor talking about a disease that affects the lungs)?

Which is not to say appealing to authority is wrong. A president may try to score political points, but if he’s giving a speech on America’s foreign policy, he knows what he’s talking about. A Ph.D. may not be a medical doctor, but if she’s been studying the evolution of bacteria, she likely is the best person to talk about antibiotic-resistant infections. However, sometimes a seemingly trustworthy professional will use their real authority to sell you fake information or products.

Pathos appeals to emotion — which makes it one of the most commonly used rhetorical devices and arguably one of the most effective. It can be used tug on your heart strings, to get you riled up and angry, to convince you that something will make you happy or to play on your fears and anxieties.

Have you ever seen an ASPCA commercial? Thin, shivering dogs with big, sad eyes gaze up into the camera and directly into your soul as Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” plays in the background, and a voice tells you that you can save these poor creatures from abuse and neglect — for $20 a month. And you either open up your wallet or immediately change the channel to keep from crying. ASPCA leans heavily on pathos in hopes you’ll do the former.

However, an effective argument isn’t the same as a true statement. A false conclusion can be argued persuasively, while a true conclusion can be argued poorly, but that doesn’t make the former truer than the latter.

As you take in information, ask yourself: Are the data and evidence presented being used accurately? Does the authority speaking on this topic have qualifications and expertise related to the topic? What emotion is this argument or advertisement trying to play on? And most importantly: Who benefits if I buy what they’re selling?