Sunday, September 30, 2012

False Attribution

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Unreliable source; fabricated source (c.f. appeal to authority).


This deceptive tactic involves an advocate appealing to a marginally relevant, irrelevant, unqualified, unidentified, biased or even non-existent source to support a claim. The advocate may in some cases have a "half-hearted" degree of faith in the alleged source (they may have a dim recollection of having read something somewhere about the topic), or the advocate may deliberately fake knowledge of a source which they know does not exist.


Simon Murmurgut and Jenny Peristalsis are selling home-made herbal extracts at the local market. They have a sign at their stall advertising a "special slimming mixture". The main ingredient is paspalum juice. They are challenged by Kevin Jaded, a skeptical bystander. He says: "How do you know it works?"

Simon immediately responds: "There has been a recent study published in the Medical Journal of Patagonia which shows that eating four grams or more of paspalum each day results in the loss of up to 500 grams of body fat per fortnight."


If Simon did in fact read such an article, and if he is truthfully reporting the findings, he is not guilty of false attribution. However, if he only thinks that Jenny may have mentioned about a month or two ago that she had read somewhere in a South American journal that eating some paspalum each day results in the loss of some body fat, then he is guilty of false attribution. In this case, he is deliberately misleading Kevin about his own degree of certainty about the supposed "facts". If however, Simon is just inventing the reference, then he is guilty of the most reprehensible form of false attribution – deliberate deception through the citation of a fake source.

The deliberate or inadvertent fabrication of source information is a common feature of vigorous discussion. It is a tactic often used in desperation by advocates when they feel that the argument is about to be lost. The seeker after truth will often be assured by advocates that they have read some compelling facts about the topic under discussion – facts which unequivocally support the advocate’s position. The initial response of a seeker after truth to apparent dissembling of this kind should be a courteous request for a specific citation. This request should not be in the form of a provocative challenge, if the skeptic wishes to maintain a positive emotional climate as the discussion proceeds. In making the request, the point should be made that "going directly to the source" is always more reliable than a second-hand report.

Skeptical seekers after truth will not reject claims a priori. Nor will they accept claims a priori. They will reserve judgment on an issue and ask advocates for details of the source – with a view for reading it for themselves. Note that this request for a citation so that the skeptic can read the alleged information for themselves will not usually resolve the question on the spot, so the question may remain open. However, the more dedicated debunker may decide to pursue the issue beyond the particular discussion as a matter of principle. If the skeptical opponent subsequently finds out that false attribution has taken place, they could take the trouble to contact the evasive advocate (perhaps even several months after the initial discussion) and point out that the source cited doesn't exist, or the advocate's interpretation was in error.

In the day and age of internet enabled mobile devices such as mobile phones and tablets, made up on the spot false attributions will likely be easier to detect and a less effective form of humbug. As such, false attributions will likely become more elaborate. As the Wikipedia entry on false attribution now notes, devious and immoral frauds may even go as far as to create fake sources in order to cite them to support a claim.

(Note: if you are thorough you will no doubt attempt to verify the above reference to the Wikipedia entry on false attribution. It will almost certainly bear no resemblance to the citation above because of subsequent capricious editing. Check the revision history for 07:14, 28 April 2010 UTC to verify that this reference was valid at almost the exact time this updated section to the book was written - 07:37, 28 April 2010 UTC.)