Here at Snopes, we encounter our fair share of logical fallacies, or errors in reasoning that tend to be more persuasive than they really are, and are based on poor or faulty logic.
In previous coverage, we've looked at a range of fallacies including ad hominem attacks, the black sheep effect, confirmation biases, and more. Now, we're unpacking the concept of "changing the goalposts" — or reworking "the terms of a debate or conflict after its started," according to journalist and editor Peter Stothard, speaking to The New York Times in 1990, to gain an advantage over others.
Indeed, changing the rules in the middle of a process has been commonly employed as a form of workplace abuse, as well as a misinformation tactic. Dave Hahn, adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY Geneseo, described it thus in an article for The Skeptic:
The conspiracy theorist posits an epistemic standard that they claim will disabuse them of their position. They say, 'I will no longer believe my theory if you can provide X evidence."
You, the intelligent (and good looking) skeptic reply, "You mean this evidence? Here you are."
At this point, in an ideal world, this conversation should be over. The conspiracy theorist should shrug and reply, "Oh, that evidence does exist. I guess I was mistaken, perhaps we should share a tea and have a friendly chuckle about this."
Instead the conspiracy theorist shifts the goalposts. Instead of reconsidering their belief, they ask for X+1. If you provide X+1, it will not matter because they will then ask for X+2, then X+3…and so on. The temptation for us skeptics is to provide the evidence, and if we do, we are falling for their trap, which will be perceived as a 'victory' for their side.
In workplaces, this can take the form of "raising the bar" for success, and often facilitates discrimination against women and other marginalized groups. The New York Times detailed a discrimination lawsuit from 1999 that fit this description:
When Cornelius Cooper, a lineman at the Georgia Power Company, joined a discrimination lawsuit against his employer last summer, he did not dwell on the company's failure to promote him to a training job.
Instead, Mr. Cooper, who is black, complained that Georgia Power kept raising the bar. In 1992, for example, when he was working on underground power lines, he was denied a promotion because he lacked sufficient experience working with overhead lines, he said in court papers. Even though he disagreed, he spent nearly a year working on overhead lines to get the job, he said, only to be told that he did not have enough experience with underground lines.
In numerous cases of discrimination against Black employees, lawyers pointed out that employers were moving the goalposts: "They [workers] are told they cannot advance to a coveted job until they acquire a particular skill, like obtaining a college degree or learning how to use new software. Then, when they achieve that goal, the employer sets another requirement and the promotion sails even farther out of reach."
How does this play out in politics? Political comedy show "The Daily Show" made this argument about former U.S. President Donald Trump in his response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, saying he moved the goalposts on his predictions for how many people would die from the virus as death tolls rose. In a series of clips taken from different speeches, Trump's initial forecasts for the number of COVID-19 deaths shifted considerably from 60,000 to 200,000 as he was proven wrong by the increasing number of fatalities. In order to spin the government's handling of the pandemic as a success story, his standards evolved.
U.S. President Joe Biden similarly had shifting goalposts when it came to reopening schools from COVID lockdowns; that is, moving students from online-only to in-person learning. In February 2021, his press secretary stated that, by day 100 of his presidency (April 30, 2021), the administration would like most schools to have at least one in-person day each week."[That's] the bar of where we'd like the majority of schools across the country to be, which they're not at this point in time, and we want to build from there."
A week later, after some people criticized the administration for not taking bigger strides to get students back to in-person classes, Biden denied that his administration thought that one day a week was enough and told a town-hall audience his goal was five days of classroom instruction, and, "I think we'll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days." The next day, his press secretary added that the one-day-a-week policy "was our floor, it was not our ceiling."
Check out more explanations of logical fallacies here and here.