Metaphysical arguments

When appeals to rational thought fail, side-step logic and use metaphysical constructs in your arguments. Claim to have something that science can’t explain.

Examples

  • “New age” remedies for medical ailments often emphasize their metaphysical component. They are proud to embrace something that science can’t explain.
  • The fervor that accompanies any comparison of Apple vs. PC products often devolves from comparison of specifications and price into comparison of (metaphysical) aesthetics and feelings.

Principles

Anthony Pratkanis, professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz and an expert on persuasion and propaganda, lists nine things that are used to sell pseudoscience that go beyond the types of claims that scientists can safely make about their work:

  1. Create a phantom: An unavailable goal that looks real and possible but in reality always remains at least one more step away.
  2. Set a rationalization trap: Get people committed. Then, rather than evaluating merits they will instead seek to prove how they are right.
  3. Manufacture source credibility and sincerity: Create someone believable as the authority figure making the claims.
  4. Establish a granfalloon: The term is appropriated from the author Kurt Vonnegut and means “a proud and meaningless association of human beings” who share rituals and symbols, jargon and beliefs, goals, feelings, specialized information, and enemies.
  5. Use self-generated persuasion: By asking people to “sell” the concept, they get more personally convinced of its merits.
  6. Construct vivid appeals: A graphically described single incident can trump logical arguments.
  7. Use pre-persuasion: Frame the argument in terms that make the competition look bad (the FDA wants to remove your freedom to choose our treatment), use differentiation (we have a special technique that sets us apart from the frauds in this field), set expectations (for instance through labeling), and specify the decision criteria (set your own guidelines for what is acceptable evidence).
  8. Frequently use heuristics and commonplaces: These are rules, norms, and beliefs that are widely accepted. For instance “What is natural is good” and “If it costs more, it must be more valuable” can both be attached to a premium health food product to give it credibility. Because of their general acceptance, these statements will not often be questioned.
  9. Attack opponents through innuendo and character assassination: Make them out to be biased, bad scientists who will probably shortly be investigated for their obvious wrongdoings.

How to use metaphysical arguments

  • Rather than relying on rational arguments, create a relatively unassailable position by introducing “evidence” that can’t be disproved scientifically. Arguments that make an emotional or spiritual appeal, or claim to have something “unexplained by science” cannot be directly confronted by scientific facts alone.
  • Put the burden on others to “disprove” your claims. So long as your claims are sufficiently broad or generic, you can reframe the issue even if compelling negative evidence is presented.
  • Find a charismatic and believable spokesperson to repeat your broad and generic claims. It helps if that spokesperson has credibility, even if it’s only in a slightly related field. (“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”)
  • Recruit customers to be salespeople. This can both convince those customers that the product is worth selling and also force them to justify their own use of the product.
  • Enhance customers’ sense of belonging by giving them a sense of identity, and somewhere to hang out and reinforce each other’s belief in what they are buying. Creating an “us versus the world” ambience will draw customers closer to each other and to defending your product.
  • Create a couple of clear and emotionally appealing case studies rather than relying on pages of facts.
  • If you do have lots of facts, show them. It will help polarize your audience. The people who already were against you will become more so, but the people who believed in you will become firmer adherents.
  • If all else fails, complain about “the establishment” and how “traditional” ways of evaluating products are hurting your wonderful new idea.

Blog posts about this pattern

  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery You know you’ve made it when people want to copy what you do. Or create a pitch-perfect spoof of it. Best Made Company have been featured on this site and in my book for their audacious use of justification marketing to avoid cognitive dissonance. Now, Re-Made company are calling them out.  Best Made Company sell $350 ...
  • Let’s get Metaphysical: Steve Jobs on brand marketing It’s hard to argue convincingly against qualities that can’t be measured. That’s why Apple doesn’t talk about processor speeds, and Nike doesn’t talk about shoes. Instead both companies make reference to metaphysical elements in order to boost their brands. In this video from 1997, just after he returned to Apple, Steve Jobs talks about improving Apple’s ...