Yesterday, a reader asked for evidence they could use to argue back against a flurry of comments in an online debate with a ‘unionist.’ My responses are here:

This prompted another reader and regular contributor to offer this:


David, I’m sure you’ll find the info from John both ‘sound’ and useful. I’d like to take advantage of you raising the challenge you are facing on FB to make some wider, generic comments on the challenge that we all face in countering Unionist arguments successfully. I hope you find this of interest and value.


(With acknowledgement to the online ‘Urban Dictionary’ for this colourful definition of the term ‘Gish Gallop’.)

“Named for the debate tactic created by creationist shill Duane Gish, a Gish Gallop involves spewing so much bullshit in such a short span that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it. To make matters worse a Gish Gallop will often have one or more ‘talking points’ that has a tiny core of truth to it, making the person rebutting it spend even more time debunking it in order to explain that, yes, it’s not totally false but the Galloper is distorting/misusing/misstating the actual situation.”


Refutation in political debate is far from straightforward. See this from Professor Martin G. Evans, an organisational psychologist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, in an article in the Boston Globe (14 August 2014 – ).

As this source explains, it has been claimed that “ …. when disputants argue things out in the marketplace of ideas, lies will be exposed.” However, Evans disputes this.

“Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. The lie itself usually opens up a new arena for discussion and, by being first on the ground, sets up the mental frame for the argumentation to come.

Therefore, those wishing to refute a political lie have a two-part task: (1) they must convincingly articulate the truth, and (2) they have to replace the existing frame of discussion with a more accurate one. Those tasks are very difficult to accomplish.”


Evans (and others) argues that the mental frame the lie establishes is used to channel the information we receive. Information consistent with the frame is easily assimilated in our minds. Information that is inconsistent with the frame tends to be ignored or distorted into being consistent.

(This why the it is so crucial to recognise and challenge the prevailing, repetitive negative framing about Scotland and our public services by pro-Unionist media and by the public service broadcaster. I have discussed the important matters of ‘negativity bias’ and ‘bias by omission in a prior post:


Evans adds: “Counter-speech is at a major disadvantage here; the …. politician who gets the lie in first has the higher ground. This advantage for the lying party is enhanced by repetition. Repeating the lie time and again strengthens the network of nerve associations (the neurological substrate) underlying the frame in the minds of listeners and readers, making the lie more difficult to refute.”


More from Evans’ article set in his article in the context of debate between opposing election candidates but of wider relevance: “Paradoxically, …. when the candidate denies the lies, the same frame is invoked and once again the neurological substrate is strengthened. For effective counter-speech, the candidate must escape from the original frame. How? Well, for example, he could speak about all the good things he has done for his constituents and the people ..… By talking this route, there is a good chance that he can supplant the old negative frame with a new, more positive frame.”

For more on ‘framing’ and importantly ‘reframing’ see important articles on the topic published by iScot Magazine ( )

Finally, Professor Evans argues: “Cognitive science has much to teach us in the political arena. By increasing awareness of these tendencies, we can perhaps help inoculate the public against succumbing to these harmful distortions. But we also need to discourage the repetition of obvious lies.”