Critical Thinking

An Introduction to Spin, Hype and Bad Logic

Many leaders in government and industry say that it is important to understand more about China because of the following: (1) China is becoming a major power; (2) China is a major trading partner of the US; and (3) there could be many fruitful opportunities—in business, security, or the arts—to cooperate with people in China. Clearly, the more reliable our understanding of China, the easier it will be to recognize opportunities or problems, but obtaining accurate information about other nations—especially nations viewed as exotic—is not an easy task. Ever since the nineteenth century, nations have tended to view one another as if they were rival high school football teams. Would you expect the school paper of your rival team to provide a fair assessment of your team?

How did this come about? With the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more people began to link their sense of identity with the nation. They felt proud of themselves, not because of who they were as individuals, but because they were French, Italian, or German. This created a ready market for journalists, novelists, or historians willing to sing the motherland’s praises. Writers grew adept at creating stories that flattered their own nation and smeared the “rival team,” but these same stories could prove disastrous as guides to direct national policy. For example, in the nineteenth century, British trade suffered serious setbacks because of nationalistic fantasies about Chinese arrogance (e.g., Tianjin Treaty in the case study China and International Law in the Nineteenth Century). Even today, politicians can benefit from stirring up public rancor with hypernationalistic rhetoric, but such tactics can lead a nation to make ill-informed and sometimes costly choices. This is why most countries have professional units (e.g., the US State Department or CIA), which attempt to make more objective assessments of the international situation independently of nationalistic hype.

It is also important for citizens to make rational, informed decisions about public affairs; therefore, they need to recognize when a journalist, politician, or academic puts a nationalistic spin on news about the rival team. Recognizing this kind of spin is not difficult, because, typically, there will be a tell-tale flaw in the logic. Here we provide a selection of common but fallacious arguments that you may find helpful in reading materials on unfamiliar cultures.

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