What is Nauseam, argumentum ad?

Simple repetition of a point of view does nothing by way of supplying additional evidence or support. Yet it can erode the critical faculty. There is a completely mistaken supposition that a thing is more likely to be true if it is often heard. The argumentum ad nauseam uses constant repetition, often in the face of massive evidence against a contention, to make it more likely to be accepted.

 

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice; what I tell you three times is true.

(Whereas in fact if someone repeats the same thing three times it is because he has nothing else to say.)

 

The point is that repetition adds nothing at all to the logic. It is done in an attempt to persuade an audience, either by wearing down their resistance, or by deceiving them into supposing that objections have somehow been dealt with. Since they add nothing, the extra versions are irrelevant to the consideration, and fallaciously appeal to psychological factors rather than to reason.

‘Please sir, it wasn’t me!’

‘But this is your catapult, Smith Minor. ‘

‘Please sir, it wasn’t me!’

‘And witnesses saw you pick up the stone. ‘

‘Please sir, it wasn’t me!’

(This could go on indefinitely, unless the heavy hand of an ad baculum cuts it short. We can all spot that Smith Minor would have done his case more good if he had been able to find anything else to say. Would we spot it if he simply kept saying ‘Socialism means rule by the workers’, however?)

 

Utterly discredited political credos, which adherents cling to for other than intellectual reasons, are supported by the ad nauseam fallacy. If an economic system brings general prosperity and gives ordinary people access to the things which were once the prerogative of the rich, it is quite difficult to make out a case that this is exploitation. Fortunately, one does not have to. The ad nauseam effect means that the charge can simply be repeated over and over again without argument or evidence. Eventually, some people will fall for it.

Advertisers have long been life members of the ad nauseam society. They know that a specious claim acquires credibility and force if it is repeated often enough. They know the importance of building up not a rational conviction but a habit of association.

It washes whiter than bleach; that’s whiter than bleach; yes, whiter bleach.

(What they tell us three times is true.)

Many of the proverbs we hear in childhood are dinned into us so many times that we often come to suppose that there must be truth in them. This assumption seems able to survive all of the contrary evidence which life thrusts before us, and in some cases survives a simultaneous belief in contradictory proverbs. It is quite hard to look before you leap without being lost through hesitation, and while many hands make light work, they do tend to spoil the broth. All of which shows the power of the simple ad nauseam.

To use the argumentum ad nauseam is easy enough: all you have to do is to repeat yourself. It is harder to recognize the situations where it might succeed. The general rule is that con-stant repetition over a long period of time is more effective than short bursts. You must be totally impervious to arguments against you, always reiterating the same point. This not only bores your audience to tears, it also instils in them the futility of opposing you. And when they give up in total weariness, observers will begin to suppose that they can no longer counter your claims.

The civil servant advising his minister provides a case-study of the argumentum ad nauseam:

But Minister, as I have been explaining for two years, there is no way in which we can cut the administrative costs of this department. Every single job is vital to our efficiency. The man we hire to scour the building picking up used paper-clips, for example…

(And the ad nauseam cracks the minister before the minister cracks the problem.)

 

If you aspire to expert rank, however, study closely the form exhibited by the minister himself at the dispatch-box:

 

I responded to charges of ministerial dereliction of duty on 9 November by saying that I had nothing to add to my statement of 4 June. I would not care to expand on that at this time.

(Please sir, it wasn’t me!)