Persuasive Illogic

By Paul Windsor


Too many diplomats are too logical for their own good. This is not necessarily their fault. An awful lot of people come to the game of Diplomacy by way of backgrounds where logical analysis is either rigorously practiced or strongly stressed.

Many of the people who are reading this participated in the college experience or plan to do so. All such persons likely have, in some manner or another, been subjected to a course (in some cases, a lot of courses) in logic or rhetoric, or have become acquainted with the important of logical analysis and organization, and logical presentation of arguments in written or oral communication. Many are professionals of some stripe or another that require a rigorous application of logic, e.g. programmers, engineers, mathematicians, etc.

Not surprisingly, the diplomatic arguments churned out by many diplomats tend towards the strictly logical and/or formulaic. These are the kinds of arguments that a person who is naturally inclined to logic assumes will be most persuasive to another person.

Bad assumption.

Want to know why? Turn on the television and watch some advertisements. Try to find one, just one, that attempts to persuade on a strictly logical basis. Turn on a political talk show. Try to find one politician or political partisan who can string together three sentences without a logical fallacy involved. You can’t, of course.

But the advertisements successfully (more often than not, anyway) sell the product. And the politicians you see—the ones selling their ideas via a string of fallacious arguments—they are the ones who won their elections. A higher level of Diplomacy skill can be achieved by learning to imitate the giants of advertising and political success. When we present diplomatic arguments, we must not reject logical fallacy, but embrace it. Fallacy is persuasive. Fallacy works. Fallacy is good.

What follows is an explanation of some of the most common logical fallacies. Normally, such a listing is offered to help the reader avoid them. I list and explain them to help the diplomat in you embrace them. Learn to construct and use their fuzzy illogic. Whether they ought to be or not, they are time-tested strong persuaders.

Fallacies of Relevance

Ad hominem.

This fallacy is definitely the best way to ease into the subject. It is, far and away, the one we see most commonly applied in Diplomacy. Consequently, the power of fallacy can be most convincingly demonstrated by beginning with a study of this one, in particular.

The most important thing to understand about the effective use of the ad hominem argument strategy is that it isn’t just name-calling. Name calling alone is not an ad hominem argument; it’s just childish and rude. The ad hominem attack on the speaker must in some way be linked to the argumentative conclusion—typically a rebuttal of the speaker’s assertions—in order to work.

In Diplomacy, we are all acutely aware of one particular application of this fallacy: reputation effect. This is the perverse reasoning that, because we are aware that a fellow player is known to be a good player, we ought not to listen to his diplomatic proposals. Or, in a variation on the theme, the in-game reputation effect: the assertion that any individual in-game betrayal works an unalterable destruction of the reliability reputation of a player for the remainder of the game. The fact that most otherwise unrelentingly rational diplomats can be enticed to follow these fallacious relationships between premise and conclusion demonstrates the power of properly applied fallacy.

Objectively, what one should be doing in Diplomacy, as in life, is evaluating the merits of the argument or proposal, not the speaker. Singular self-interest at the Diplomacy table involves holding all opponents in equal check, while advancing your own interests or position. Judging the potential veracity of a proposal and the risk-reward ratio of agreeing to it is best done through application of this self-interest principle to the proposal as it affects both you and your potential ally. Single-minded opposition to proposals from an opponent, based on an objection to his past behavior, whether within the game or without it, seldom advances this goal. Yet, skillful (and even not so skillful) use of the ad hominem fallacy of reputation effect has proven effective time and again in getting people to reject rational analysis in favor of irrational opposition.

Indeed, some people need no encouragement at all to apply the reputation effect fallacy to their play, but do so automatically. In a game premised, in theory, on balance of power, allowing an ad hominem view of a player to prevent all future consideration of self-interested alliance shifting must be viewed as fallacious. Yet, there are a significant proportion of people who consider just such reasoning to be their first and best strategy.

I suspect that most diplomats have attempted to use reputation effect as a diplomatic weapon at some point, regardless of whether they personally believe in it or apply to their own diplomacy. Consequently, few people need to be encouraged to integrate it into their diplomatic tool bag, despite the relatively obvious fallaciousness of the argument. If fallacy has such a well-proven track record in one case, why not consider it in others?

Ad populum.

This is the fallacy of assuming that which is most popular must be best. An appeal to popularity, so common in advertising, is of notable persuasive value. This fallacy has an application that is very nearly as common as the reputation effect argument: citing to statistics about most popular openings.

Application of the fallacy need not end at the point of arm-twisting an opponent into selecting your desired opening. In fact, the most important point at which to uncork this fallacious persuasion is at the near-terminal point in a game where you are trying to persuade a balky player to participate in a stalemate line. Who knows why he’s hesitating? Perhaps he doesn’t trust you. Perhaps he’s bored of the game. Perhaps he’s waiting to be bribed with beer. Regardless, you can trump his perceived needs with a more universally felt need: the need to be popular. Assure him that, if he goes along with your proposal, he’ll be the most beloved diplomat since the game was invented. Assure him that, if he doesn’t go along, he’ll be as popular as a social disease.

This tactic can work in smaller groups. At any time a proposal is being considered among any number of players larger than two, the agreement of any majority can be expressed in terms of popularity. The consequence of not going along then steepens from merely being wrong, to being unpopular.

Where logic fails, an appeal to baser instincts will often triumph.

Ad verecundiam.

The appeal to authority. The authority in question can be any one of numerous sources. Find an article and quote it. Refer to a game you played with one of the hobby notables and say, “hey, that’s what so-and-so did!” Refer to a game you played last night and say to Turkey, “I won the game as Turkey playing this opening!” Any form of prior experience or external source has potential to be a citable “authority” for virtually any proposition. (By the way, you don’t actually have to have had any of these experiences to relate them authoritatively.)

When challenged, studiously ignore the reality that there is no one authoritative approach to the game. Insist that there must be one correct answer and, if necessary, manufacture the evidence to prove it. One of the advantages of the ad verecundiam approach is that you can get away with a greater degree of arrogance in your convictions of righteousness. After all, it isn’t you who say your right, it’s that unchallengeable objective body of evidence you are referring to which is right. You’re just the messenger relating this wisdom greater than your own (and, of course, your correspondent’s).

Ad ignorantiam.

The appeal to ignorance. The argument that since no one can present evidence that specifically refutes the claim, then it must be true. Especially effective in an environment like email Diplomacy, where there is almost no such thing as hard data about in-game communications. No one can really know who is talking to whom and what they are saying. Even forwarded press quoted verbatim can be denied as manufactured or doctored. No one can positively disprove anything you say, therefore, you are free to assert that the failure of absolute rebuttal is, itself, absolute vindication of your position (whatever it is). Similarly, it is perfectly possible to toss the wildest of accusations into diplomatic negotiations, then assert that they must be true, given that they haven’t been disproved, while conveniently ignoring the impossibility of absolute debunking.

The appeal to ignorance need not be reserved for such drastic cases. The fallacy should be tentatively tried out in the early stages of any relationship. It is most successful when you can establish your diplomatic or tactical chops early with a lazy or distracted player who seems content to hitch his wagon to another player’s star. It is often possible to quickly assess when it is safe to invite another player to dispute the feasibility (knowing he won’t seriously bother) of a proffered plan, or dispute your version of reconnoitering the disposition of other players. Somehow, others often derive great comfort from such offers, and in turn, you can get great mileage out of the posture that, since you haven’t been proved wrong, you must be right.

Tu Quo.

“You’re one too.” My favorite response to complaints about a stab. Typically: “If I hadn’t stabbed first, you’d have done it to me. That’s the way the game is played.” This is the most efficient tactic I know of for getting off the subject of why I betrayed someone and getting onto the subject of why they should keep talking to me so that I can further manipulate and betray them. This rebounding of the accusation is unanswerable, and conveniently serves to deflect attention from my behavior by postulating it as a universal norm that the accuser must subscribe to as well. Heck, he practically shoved that knife into his own back, just by agreeing to play the game, right?

Fallacies of Presumption

Accident vs. inconsistency.

An argument that a person is being inconsistent, but which identifies an inconsistency that occurred through no fault of the actor. Related fallacy: post hoc, ergo propter hoc—after the fact, therefore, because of the fact. This is another fallacy which the environment of email Diplomacy is especially conducive to supporting.

A good, active, hard contested, email game is going to generate intense junctures which will encourage paranoia in even the steeliest diplomats. Here’s a great line to toss into such an environment: “I don’t believe in accidents.” This observation is applicable to virtually any situation where there is any measurable gap between expectations about a fellow player’s behavior, and actual outcomes.

Did an important support get cut unexpectedly (heck, expectedly, why not?) by a third party? Did it result in someone else building and not you? Do you want to exercise some control over what gets built and where? Inform your ally that you are suspicious (I don’t care if you really are). Tell him “I don’t believe in accidents.” Tell him that, unless he does exactly as you bid, you are going to hold him accountable for the inconsistency in his behavior (okay, it wasn’t his behavior, so what?). Insist that if he doesn’t build that fleet in Rome, he’s no ally of yours any longer.

Many such applications are possible. The key is to leverage sub-optimal results into arguments that your allies are behaving inconsistently, and owe you some proof or favor as a result.

False dilemma.

At most fundamental: “Either you’re with me or against me.” Slightly more refined: “Either you agree to my proposed plan, or I’m going to have to assume that you are intending to stab me.” A bit more general, England speaking to France: “France has to decide who to ally with, Germany or England. If you don’t immediately move to attack Berlin, I’m going to be forced to assume that you want to ally with Germany and I’ll deal with youaccordingly.”

Of course we’re all aware that life isn’t a series of either/or propositions, and Diplomacy, especially, is a game in which more complex balancing must, of needs, occur. We just don’t need to admit to that awareness in our arguments. There is nothing in the rules requiring consistency in our logic. It is often useful to be deliberately obtuse to the possibility or viability of alternate plans or middle grounds.

Complex question.

E.g. “So how long has it been since you beat your wife?” “Since you spend so much time online, you must like pornography.” The complex question usually blends some other fallacy into an assumption implicit in the question. It forces the answerer to spend all his effort on rebutting the presumptions underlying the question. It forces defensiveness. Related fallacy: the red herring argument—raising issues in response to arguments that actually aren’t responsive at all.

In Diplomacy, there are numerous opportunities to employ this kind of technique. One example: sooner or later, someone you are working with is going to be prompted to confront you with something someone else said to them about you. If you play like I do, constantly working everyone in the game, always looking for a new and better deal or plan, chances are the accusation of disloyalty being leveled against you is true.

In this circumstance, flat out denials are generally unconvincing. In fact, any attempts at direct refutation are generally unconvincing, especially if the rumors are true. In such cases, rejoinders based on the complex question fallacy are often a great deal more effective.

Let’s say your ally has just confronted you with the accusation (true, in fact) that you’ve been sharing supposedly confidential information with a third party in an attempt to cajole that third party into a course of action that would be detrimental to your ally. Flat out denial is pointless, as he’s got the goods on you. Instead, one way to reply might be, “I see you’ve been talking to France. Since France only says anything on a quid pro quo basis, tell me, what information did you give away to him to get him to talk to you? Why didn’t you tell me what France proposed to you about stabbing me? What are you holding back from me?”

Mix in an actual denial of the initial accusation if you like, but my experience is that it is more effective to fashion a reply that makes the remainder of the conversation entirely about your ally’s suspect behavior, rather than your own. Put him on the defensive and force him to explain himself. Make him forget that he’s supposed to be seeking answers from you, rather than the other way around. At the very least, you can stall him for the rest of the negotiation period with this kind of smokescreen. After the move report, one way or the other, his initial suspicion will be a moot point.

Other Fallacies

Affirming the consequent.

Reversing the normal flow of a logical argument so that one concludes the specific from a general statement. E.g. Fred says he likes to play Russia. Russia is the best country for fast attacks. Fred must be planning a fast attack.

It is often possible to assert that black is white, and up is down, with this fallacy. Did Russia and Turkey bounce in the Black Sea in S01? Assert that they must be planning a Juggernaut, since such a bounce is often planned, and a planned bounce is often a disguise for an alliance, therefore, the R-T is on!

Actually, that one has a terribly familiar ring for most of us, doesn’t it? Like reputation effect, affirming the consequent is another example of a well-worn, because often successful, use of fallacious diplomacy.

Denying the antecedent.

“If the Kaiser were going to stab England, he’d have built a fleet. The Kaiser built an army. Therefore, he will not stab England.” The fallacy here is assuming that there is one, and only one, way to get from point A to point B.

This is one of my personal favorites. Fallacious arguments based on denying the antecedent are an excellent way to produce misdirection which results in an effective stab. The ideal would be to string a number of these together in a row, e.g. “Now, if I were going to stab you, I’d move XXX – YYY and build an army in ZZZ, but I’m going to prove my loyalty by moving XXX – ZZZ and building a fleet in AAA.”If you ignore the fact that a stab also can be accomplished under the alternate proposal, however slightly less than ideally, chances are, the target of this proposal will ignore it, too, and be reassured.

Once you get a fellow player buying into the flow of such false assurances, by demonstrating them “true” over a series of turns, you can often get him to let down his guard with a particularly blatant whopper, simply through the comfort level you’ve instilled in him by proving the “strength” of this bad formula. This is how you set players up for the really big stab. You get them to buy into a false process. People will trust the repetition of the process when they won’t actually trust you. Use the process to lead them gradually astray. It’s important to realize, however, that you can’t invent the process in one season and take advantage of it the next. Best results take game-years of investments to produce.


“It depends on what the meaning of ‘DMZ’ is”.

I include this one with some trepidation. As the above “example” implies, I’ve seen a lot of really poor attempts at equivocation, usually attempted on a post hoc basis. A proper equivocation is thought out in advance, and is subtle enough to have a reasonable chance at not being spotted.

The best kind of equivocation, in my experience, is contained in lengthy press. The kind that appears to go on and on, analyzing the situation ad nauseum, trying to locate all angles and weigh all possibilities. The more vague the conclusions after such long, and apparently thoughtful, rambling, the better. After the fact of your orders alarms and provokes questions, you can then quote yourself, more concisely, and out of context, to make it appear that the surprising choice of action you just took was actually clearly spelled out in prior press, if only your correspondent had the wit and memory to deduce and recall it.

Suppressed evidence.

More accurately, an incomplete recitation of the facts. A half-truth.

The best foundation for any lie is the truth. Sincerity: once you can fake that, you’ve got it made. The best deceptions don’t come out of the blue or whole cloth. They are constructed from a foundation laid with bricks of veracity and mortar of guilessness.

The way to facilitate the half-truth approach is similar to the methods used in good equivocation. You have to do a lot of talking. You have to establish your capital account at the bank of honesty and goodwill if you intend to make a withdrawal later on. In order for a half-truth to take in someone, they first have to become convinced that you are the kind of player who consistently tells full truths, and tells them freely. That takes a lot of talk, and a lot of work.

Once you become an accepted and assumed source of good data, however, you can gradually begin shaping, shaving and sculpting that data into almost any form you desire. As the trustworthy source, conflicts between your version of reality and others’ will begin to be resolved in your favor. Once you see others accepting your version of the world as reality, that’s when you can set them up with the bigger variations. The key is to always include enough verifiable reality to keep the victim believing in your continued honesty and reliability.

Unlike other fallacious arguments, this is not a one shot attempt to parry or refute a verbal attack. This is an active game-long diplomatic strategy. If you’ve ever said about another player, “I can’t understand how he always convinces people to become his patsies,” chances are, this is the strategy that wove the snare to capture the patsy.

Begging the question/circular arguments.

Most cleverly formed when posed in the form of “additional” facts or arguments that are merely restatements of the unproven original premise. In Diplomacy, this is most useful when you want to say “no” without saying “no.” A good way to be stubborn without being obstreperous is to be obtuse instead. Become the kind of person, for at least a season (until the issue passes), who just can’t give up on his pet argument. Instead of addressing refutations of the argument, keep restating the argument in a different way. It’s a lousy and unconvincing way to win an argument, but a very useful way to keep an argument going, if that is your main goal.

Straw man.

The reiteration of an opponent’s argument in a weaker, more easily disposed of, form. Example: By way of response to an opponent expressing concern that a certain build is a prelude to a stab, you reply: “You think I’m going to stab you every time I get a new unit! We can’t keep on being allies if you never let me build anything!” You’ve transformed his attempt to engage you on the subject of what to build into an objection against you ever building and defeated the latter argument, rather than the former. Other such applications are possible.

One of the principle benefits of both begging the question and beating the straw man, and indeed, this can be said of many of the fallacious arguments, is the ability to put off genuine discussion of an issue until a later point it time. Delay, as often as not, moots the point altogether. The best way not to lose an argument is to never let it really get started. If your correspondent persists, and takes the time to reiterate the argument in a logical, non-fallacious form, you are always free to do as you like, cite the delay caused by the confusion, and proceed on your own terms without admitting to any failure of loyalty or even of earnestness. “Sorry, by the time I got your third email, I’d already submitted my orders and the turn processed. I apologize for the confusion, and assume the fact that I deliberately obfuscated the issue with calculatedly poor logic and did exactly what I wanted to do anyway won’t go down too hard.”

Well, okay, maybe you want to leave that last clause off the letter.


I’ve heard a lot of lamenting from people who say that they just don’t seem to ever be able to tell an effective lie. They claim not to have it in them. I would suggest that the application of logical fallacies to the diplomatic process can reveal effective lies for Diplomacy in the same way that application of tactical study can reveal effective orders for units. Logicians wouldn’t have taken the time and effort to catalog and explain these persuasive beauties if they hadn’t been responsible for leading countless would-be thinkers astray.

To paraphrase Caligula: we must resolve to be illogical.

Paul Windsor

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