Fallacies: The Big Lie

In an editorial titled, “How the House Bill Runs Over Grandma,” in Investor’s Business Daily, arguing against a U.S. national health care policy, the editor said,

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

Embarrassingly for the Daily, Dr. Hawking has lived his entire life in the U.K., is a professor at Oxford, and has nothing but praise for Britain’s National Health Service. The Daily was caught in an especially stupid lie. Yet the story still is quoted by the ill-informed as an argument against national health care.

Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York state, in an editorial in the New York Post, wrote

One troubling provision of the House bill compels seniors to submit to a counseling session every five years (and more often if they become sick or go into a nursing home) about alternatives for end-of-life care (House bill, p. 425-430).

Caribou Barbie famously seized on this claim, posting it on her Facebook account. Despite AARP, Politifact and many other neutral authorities rejecting the claim as a complete fabrication (Politifact gave it a “Pants on Fire” rating), Caribou Barbie and others continue to repeat it. The lie was repeated so often that the provision was eventually stripped from bill. This despite the provision providing the exact opposite of what McCaughey, Palin and Limbaugh claimed.

This propaganda technique is called “The Big Lie,” and it was named, oddly enough, by one Adolf Hitler, writing in Mein Kamp. He described it as “a lie so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. He went on to say,

Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying. Mein Kamp, Chapter 10

The source alone probably tells you enough about the utterly unprincipled character of this fallacy. It is the refuge of the scoundrel, the poltroon and the fraud. Worse, it is poisonous in a democracy, which depends upon truthful free speech. Think for a moment about the terrible consequences of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s use of The Big Lie, “I have in my hand a list of 205 known Communists in the U.S. Department of State.” He was never able to prove it, but he never had to prove it.

Those who use The Big Lie as an argument or part of an argument must be called out. But because of the effect of The Big Lie on listeners, it’s not enough to correct the misstatement. You also have to point out the use of a Big Lie, its roots and what it means. It won’t be an improper use of the ad hominem fallacy, because a Big Lie involves the credibility of the person uttering it. Insist upon facts. Insist on identifying the fallacy for what it is.