Black Tools

Salami Tactics

(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 11--12, May/June 1999.)

Did you know that any decision of the Swiss government can be reversed by a public referendum if someone can prove that the people are interested? Since doing that is not very difficult, we have votes on almost any topic ranging from whether the speed limit on motorways should be 120 or 130 km/h (75 or 81 mph) to whether the air force may spend 1.5 billion Swiss francs (just over U.S.$1 billion) on new fighter planes.

That makes Switzerland the country of «Salami Tactics.» Rather than put forward a SFr1.5 billion project, the government cuts it into five seemingly uncorrelated slices at SFr400 million each to reduce the probability that a referendum will be held or even succeed. (The additional SFr100 million per slice is required to pay the overhead that makes everything look uncorrelated.)

A similar trick plays a paramount role in many discussions where momentous decisions have to be made. To convince someone of something he wouldn't like, make him accept it in the form of thin, easily digestible slices and hide your intentions until it's too late for him to turn the tables.

This «Stealth Salami» is Trick 4 of the 38 discussion tricks and countermeasures I am presenting in this column. It has become infamous through its use in courts where the lawyers ask seemingly harmless questions beginning with, «Is it true that ...,» and the witnesses often admit enough slices that the lawyer can make up a very large and particularly indigestible salami. A countermeasure is to be very wary of this trick or to directly ask your opponent what he is getting at (as judges often do with lawyers).

Another trick to get enough premises for drawing your conclusions is Trick 5, the «Gambit.» If you believe in two-valued (true-false) logic, you must also accept that any true or false statement can be derived from false premises. This was explained nicely in the British TV comedy «Yes, Prime Minister!»:

Sir Humphrey (Cabinet Secretary): Statistics? (laughs) You can prove anything using statistics!

Jim Hacker (Prime Minister): Yes, even the truth.

Although there are many other systems of logic, most people firmly believe in two-valued logic as the conveyor of truth. However, no one's world view is consistent in true-false logic, meaning that everyone believes in something that contradicts some other of his beliefs. So, if you know a person well enough and are creative enough, you can prove virtually anything to him.

A gambit is a risky kind of chess opening. I chose this name because like a chess move, reasoning in a discussion is correct unless the opponent sees that it is not. To counter a Gambit, you must be prepared to adjust some of your views or, better still, not to think in terms of absolute truth and falsehood in the first place.

Trick 6, the «Hidden Postulation,» is yet another stealth trick. Postulate what you should prove in a different form and then do as if you would actually reach a conclusion. This is a common trick; it can be done on purpose or unwittingly. It is even used in scientific research, as Douglas Adams describes in Last Chance to See: "See first, think later, then test. But always see first, or you will only see what you were expecting."

Although these tricks are already quite efficient, they can be enhanced by «Asking Questions» (Trick 7) to which a simple yes/no answer is impossible. You can then use your opponent's answers or parts thereof as premises for your reasoning. This gives you lots of material to use toward your own ends.

Socrates used this trick all the time, but nowadays it is mostly used to convince audiences of something. Only an educated, creative, and well trained person can play this trick on his opponent. If you ever talk to such a person (for example a news reporter), keep in mind the advice Hacker gave in «Yes, Prime Minister!»:

Hacker: If someone asks you a question, say nothing or, better still, say «That's not the question. I think the real question is ... ,» and make a statement of your own.

Related to Trick 7 is Trick 9, «Stealth Questions,» which really is nothing other than the Stealth Salami in question form. If you ask lots of questions in seemingly random order and draw your conclusions quickly, you sometimes can make your opponent believe that he actually said what you just repeated. Often your opponent will underestimate you because you are only asking harmless questions. There is no real defense against this trick but to be very wary of it and never think that your opponent is stupid.

There is another way of using pre-drawn conclusions: Trick 11, «Proof by Induction.» It is often applied by politicians who demonstrate several examples of an opponent's failure and then proceed as if his complete incompetence were already proven. Although you cannot actually draw generally valid conclusions from any number of examples, this trick normally works well because examples are much more impressive than general statements (a six-year-old girl dying of cancer evokes much more interest than an attempted genocide). The countermeasure against Trick 11 is simply to give a counterexample.

I saved Tricks 8 and 10 'til now because they deal with the opponent's emotions, regardless of the topic of discussion.

Trick 8, "Evoking Anger," is a deliberate action to weaken the opponent. Since an angry man can't think straight, make him angry by harassing him and being impudent. If someone does that to you, ignore it or even tell him not to play this silly trick on you. But beware, you must know whether he is using Trick 8, a purely tactical move, or whether he is attacking you personally out of despair (the Last Trick in my preceding article).

Finally, some people (and many children) can be so stubborn that they will say no just because you expect them to say yes. Then you can "Dig Their Heels Out" by using Trick 10: don't tell them what you want or even ask them for the contrary. This is the one trick against which I will not even attempt to propose a countermeasure. If you are so childishly stubborn that Trick 10 can be applied against you, you deserve it.

This is all for now. I hope you have already started to notice how frequently people around you are applying these tricks. In my next column I will show you the "Proof of a Paradox" and seven more tricks.


Next Article (Part III)   Hanspeter Schmid is an analog-IC designer and Ph.D.-degree student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zürich) who has an untamable interest in modern philosophy of science and society. His need to know and avert dirty communication tricks follows naturally from his belief that a philosopher who never disputes with people is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.