The Dishonest Motte and Bailey Technique

Motte and Bailey

A motte-and-bailey castle was a common fortification structure during the High Middle Ages in western Europe. It consisted of a highly defensible keep situated on a small hill or mound (the motte) with a surrounding courtyard (bailey) that was more sparsely protected by fence and a ditch. The bailey housed the economically productive components of the castle, such as construction workshops, stores, kitchen and so on. During an assault, the bailey could be defended against a weaker invading force, but more powerful enemies would have the inhabitants of the castle retreat into the keep and raise the bridge because unlike the bailey, the motte is much harder to penetrate.

This has an analogous counterpoint during many discussion. Many irrational ideologues typically reside in the bailey, where they make radical, unsubstantiated and probably wrong claims in order to attract attention and support. Because of their weakness, these claims are easily attacked and difficult to defended. If the flawed claims are attacked by scientific skeptics using any kind of science-based approach, they retreat into the easily defended keep on the motte, deny that they ever believed or used bailey claims. Instead, they deploy motte claims that are easily defensible and sometimes even trivially true. Defenders then try to portray critics as intellectually weak and suggest that they are only attacking bailey claims (which are labeled as straw men), despite the fact that the same individual defender or the ideological movement that the defenders belongs to commonly use these bailey arguments. The underlying strategy used by defenders is to assert that since the motte claims are true, the bailey claims are also true, but this is not always made explicit.

Who first identified the motte and bailey technique?

The motte and bailey technique (originally referred to as “motte and bailey doctrine”) was first discussed in the paper The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology written by philosopher Nicholas Shackel (at Cardiff University) published in the journal Metaphilosophy in 2005. The paper is a detailed examination of many of the rhetorical techniques used by anti-science postmodernism, such as the “Troll’s Truisms”, “Equivocating Fulcra”, “The Postmodernist Fox Trot” and “Rankly Relativising Fields”. It also feature an extended discussion of the Motte and Bailey doctrine, originally conceived as:

For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. I think it is evident that Troll’s Truisms [i.e. a statement that has both an exciting but false and a true but trivial interpretation – Emil’s note] have the Motte and Bailey property, since the exciting falsehoods constitute the desired but indefensible region within the ditch whilst the trivial truth constitutes the defensible but dank Motte to which one may retreat when pressed. An entire doctrine or theory may be a Motte and Bailey Doctrine just by virtue of having a central core of defensible but not terribly interesting or original doctrines surrounded by a region of exciting but only lightly defensible doctrines.

In other words, you make a certain set of claims that you genuinely believe in and use to attract attention and supporters (bailey claims), but retreat to another, more safe, set of claims (motte claims) when bailey claims are being criticized. There is the unstated assumption that the bailey claims are true because of the validity of motte claims and defenders will expand back to the bailey claim when the attackers are gone. About a decade later, the author wrote a follow-up text about this doctrine that provides a fuller discussion, including the emphasis that motte and bailey claims do not require the equivocation of a specific term or phrase. A cache of the original paper can be found here, and a cache of the follow-up text can be found here.

What are some examples of motte and bailey claims?

The motte and bailey technique is often used by a lot of different mainstream and fringe movements simply because of how effective it is. This means that its usage is not always a reliable method for distinguishing these two and motte claims can be defended by reasonable people who have no interest whatsoever in the absurd bailey claims. Here are some examples of how the motte and bailey technique is used by a range of different kinds of pseudoscientific:

Anti-science postmodernism: a common bailey claim within anti-science postmodernism is that “everything is a social construct” or “all knowledge claims are equal”, but these can easily be defeated by pointing out that it would entail that anti-science postmodernism too is a social construct and thus not objectively true or that scientific realism is just as equal to anti-science postmodernism. Anti-science postmodernists typically retreat to motte claims such as “knowledge claims can sometimes be influenced by unconscious biases that may distort reality”, a claim that is easily defensible and possibly even trivial.

Another category of bailey claim is to assert that “scientific models are sexist”, such as general relativity or static mechanics, because they privilege the speed of light over more everyday velocities or downplay turbulent flow because it supposedly deal is with “feminine fluids” compared with the “manly” static mechanics. This is obviously intellectually vacuous and when this is pointed out, defenders typically retreat to the motte claim that “women are underrepresented in STEM fields and that this can lead to different research priorities than if there had been a better gender balance”. Even though the latter can be used in a motte and bailey technique, it should be pointed out that it is often used in many legitimate arguments and can be more or less easily defended by evidence.

White supremacism: common bailey claims by white supremacists are that “whites are being subjected to a genocide by immigration” or “that whites are genetically superior to others”, whereas the corresponding motte claims that they retreat to when criticizes are “whites should have the same right to their culture as others” and “not all humans are genetically identical”. This is often couple with amazement at being called racist.

Existential risk movement: some thinkers in this movement considers existential risk to be a global priority, because even if it sounds exceedingly improbable (or unknown), the outcome can be so devastating that this overturns the low probability in an expected utility calculation. Often they include the happiness of future humans that would not exist if humanity went extinct in their calculations, thereby radically inflating the importance of existential risk with dozens of orders of magnitude. This is clearly an abuse of expected utility theory, and when criticized, they often retreat to the motte claim that they are merely proposing a modest increase in attention and funding for existential risk issues.

Alternative medicine advocates: activists who defend fake cures against a wide range of diseases and conditions typically assert many flawed bailey claims about how homeopathy or bleach can allegedly cure all disease from cancer to HIV. When these claims are countered by scientific evidence, alternative medicine believers retreat to the claim that these fake cures are just placebo and that the placebo effect can bring relief.

How do you defend against the motte and bailey technique?

It is often extremely difficult to defend against the motte and bailey technique if it is used by a highly skilled debater on a socially controversial issue. You may quickly find yourself being portrayed as (1) attacking positions that are virtually impenetrable, possibly trivially true or socially highly desirable or (2) attacking positions that will be described as “bizarre straw men” while “refusing to engage the actual arguments”. Both of these possibilities could be viewed critical hits to your position in an exchange. However, there are ways to defend against the motte and bailey technique, but they typically require some work.

Expose the technique: a rhetorical technique can lose some of its force if it is exposed. Thus, highlighting that the proponent of pseudoscience is, in fact, using this technique could be a useful method to weaken its hold. This also provides the necessary context for readers and viewers to understand the ideological context of the pseudoscience activist.

Prevent the retreat: a crucial part of the motte and bailey strategy is to retreat into the keep, where you only advocate claims that are easier to defend or sometimes trivial. This retreat can hindered or prevented by pointing out that the individual has clearly advocated bailey claims in the recent past. Thus, when the defender says that he or she is merely advocating relatively uncontroversial motte claims, you pin them down by pointing out that this is a completely wrong description and that they have consistently been asserting bailey claims. If you can provide clear and incontestable evidence that the person does promote the bailey, this can effectively prevent or severely impede the retreat to the motte.

Highlight the bailey: another approach is to downplay the motte claims and emphasize that the ideological milieu that the defender is a part of strongly and loudly promote and defend bailey claims. This is a more difficult tactic because it involves a struggle about the true nature of the ideology under discussion. A defender can attempt to derail this by charging you with only attacking the weakest formulations of the ideology, that you are using guilt by association or that you are ignoring the issue under discussion, but you can push on by citing solid evidence that the bailey has a strong presence and perhaps even an inherent part of the ideology.

Penetrate the keep: one of the most difficult and dangerous way to rebut the motte and bailey technique is to carry out an all-out assault on the motte no matter the losses. This is because the keep is difficult to assault due to its strong defenses, it requires much less effort to defend than the bailey and you risk attacking claims that most people consider unobjectionable and thereby lose intellectual credibility. Sometimes, however, the motte is an easy target. For instance, the alternative medicine motte is typically that fake treatments have a placebo effect that is useful and that patients should not be denied this benefit. This can be debunked by noting that placebo effects are often clinically small and transient and that vulnerable people with medical conditions are better off without quacks trying to exploit them.

However, a note of caution is in order because although the motte and bailey technique is commonly used, it is easily to start seeing it everywhere. Therefore, careful consideration has to be made before calling something an application of the motte and bailey technique.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

One thought on “The Dishonest Motte and Bailey Technique

  • October 12, 2016 at 13:17

    There’s a defense method missing I think, which is cut access to the keep. If you anticipate the switch to the motte claims, you can expose them in advance and thus prevent your adversary from using them. You can then easily engage in refuting the bailey claims.


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