Fire and Fury: It’s False, That’s How We Know It’s True
The False-But-True Fallacy
There’s concern in the City of Others Riches (Washington D.C.) that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury book about the Trump White House contains as much truth as an advertisement for herbal male supplements.
Matt Labash at Weekly Standard read the book and told us of the author’s note
where Wolff states that many of the accounts in Fire and Fury are in conflict with one another and many, “in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue … and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself” is “an elemental thread of this book.” Or put another way: Despite him weighing the evidence and settling “on a version of events I believe to be true,” everything that follows might be a lie.
This sobering and cautionary warning means that the book might better resemble one of Bill Clinton’s “explanations” than the truth. Still, as Labash concludes, “what comes through loud and clear in Wolff’s telling is that no matter how bad you thought it was in Trump’s White House, it was actually much worse.”
Many are saying things like this. Sure, Wolff might have included stories like the one he heard from a guy, who himself got it “from a woman on the beach in Florida, who heard it in a carpool line.” But since these stories show Trump to be the moronic oaf we know him to be, they must be true. Even if they’re false.
Seeing What Isn’t There
The reception of Wolff’s book is thus a prime example of the False-But-True Fallacy.
The False-But-True Fallacy, which I sometimes call the Meta Fallacy because it is the mother of all fallacious arguments, is hard to explain. So stick with me.
It works like this. A certain proposition is first conjectured to be true, like “President Trump is an idiot or incompetent.” Evidence for this belief is put forward, as in the case of Wolff’s book. This evidence, if accepted, confirms the belief.
But we later discover that the evidence is false, or likely false. Indeed, we learn that the evidence might have been juiced, or even in part manufactured.
Since the evidence upon which people have been relying has been proved or judged faulty, it would seem that the strength of the belief in the proposition must diminish. But it doesn’t. If anything, it increases.
How could this happen when the rules of logic say it’s impossible?
Because people argue like this. “The evidence would never have been juiced if the proposition wasn’t really true, because nobody would have bothered to make up stories unless there existed other stories like the made-up ones, but about which we never heard.”
If we accept that excuse, then it does follow that the proposition is true. Trump really is incompetent if we accept that there are stories we don’t know about, which prove Trump is an incompetent.
In this way, the person who wants to believe, can. His argument is complete, as long as his false-but-true premise is accepted. The only problem is, there is no real basis other than desire to believe the false-but-true premise.
Come Flay Away
Where else have we seen the False-But-True Fallacy? It sounds uncommon, but it isn’t. I call it the Meta Fallacy because it’s the driver of lesser fallacies. We might even call it the I-Want-To-Believe Fallacy, or for fans of science fiction, the X-Files Fallacy, named for its protagonist, who had a poster with those words.
The False-But-True Fallacy is beloved of UFO buffs. (Here’s the Stream again talking about UFOs!) Every time NASA or the Air Force says, “It wasn’t an extraterrestrial; what people saw was a natural phenomenon,” the saucerologist says, “Aha! He’s denies it! So it must be true.”
The hidden premise used by the believer is, “The government doesn’t want us to know, therefore when it observes UFOs, it lies to us.” That the government sometimes lies is unfortunately not always a bad premise, but it is here.
I’ll Drink to That
Atheists are fond of the False-But-True Fallacy. Eyewitness reports that Jesus turned water into wine is used in a false-but-true proof that God (probably) doesn’t exist by claiming eyewitnesses of miracles are always confused or lying. Thus the presence of an eye-witeness account proves the miracle couldn’t have happened.
Talking the True Believer out of his False-But-True belief is never easy. For instance, Labash got from Wolff’s book that Trump’s “eyes rolled” while being lectured, which he takes as proof of Trump’s limited mental capacity. But the eye-rolling could equally well be the standard reaction of a bright student who grasps the material faster than this less-gifted teachers can dish it out.
The evidence supports both views. Yet in this case, commonsense strongly suggests that only an intelligent man could rise in the manner he did to the post of presidency.