Category Archives: Straw Man

Give me argument, not advice!

Dear Prudence at is an advice site for some of the more progressive of the progressives.  So there are lots of letters and advice response on how to handle LGBT issues, conflicts within class consciousness, how to manage vegan-nonvegan relationships, and Tinder mini-norms.  NRO’s Graham Hillard’s take on it all is that Mallory Ortberg (Prudence) “dispenses increasingly ridiculous progressive orthodoxies, and a not insignificant portion of her audience, well, laughs at them.”  The point, Hillard wants to emphasize, is that:

Regular people — “the great unwashed,” in Edmund Burke’s oft-repeated phrase — know both instinctively and by hard experience that to live as the sexual Left preaches is to enter a world of confusion, heartbreak, and deep, abiding dissatisfaction.

Simple truth, do you? So, to start, Hillard’s charge is that the advice column on a progressive website gives progressive-friendly advice.  The second point is that “Regular people” know instinctively and by experience that it’s terrible advice.   Sigh.   To the first point — what do you expect?  If NRO ran an advice column, I would expect it all to be conservative and religious material.  You go to the kind of advice you want, so it’s really a problem with affiliated advice columns, isn’t it?  (For example, if a student comes to me about a crisis of faith, I interpret it as a request for more information about atheism and Slayer albums to listen to, not asking for spiritual healing. Were she to approach a priest, she’s requesting something different.)

To the second point, isn’t the matter more complicated than that?  Isn’t one of the replies by progressives that most of these norms and intuitions are products of societies that did not abide difference, and when we aren’t under those social conditions, there are many wider livable lives than we’d anticipated?

But Hillard’s not done.  His biggest complaint is that:

The problem with these cubes of p.c. baloney — aside from the fact that, if heeded, they’re likely to leave Ortberg’s readers in worse shape — is that their cumulative effect is to move acceptable discourse (indeed, acceptable thought) ever leftward. Because Ortberg makes pronouncements rather than arguments when discussing the latest trends in gender and sexuality, the casual reader could be forgiven for believing that the argument has already happened somewhere, that the Left won, and that the only remaining thing is to climb on board.

Hillard wants arguments.  It’s part of the regular right-side nonsense that liberals are bad at argument, don’t argue, are fact-avoidant, and so on.  But I looked at some of Prudie’s replies, and they are full of argument.  Here’s one from one of the columns Hillard notes, about a bisexual student who was in a relationship with a married couple, who now have a baby on the way:

Get out now. This couple is producing red flags at such an accelerated clip that they could double as a red-flag factory …. You don’t want a child, and Dave and Sue are about to have one. You don’t want to be treated like a dirty little secret, but already you feel uncomfortable spending time alone with Dave because of the unhealthy, triangulated dynamics between the three of you.

That’s an argument.  But perhaps not the kind of argument Hillard wants, one that would go something along the lines: what were you thinking, being Bi- and getting involved with a married couple to begin with… you must not be Normal.

Here’s  a thing that normal people know either intuitively or by experience: communication is for the sake of relaying the information needed (or thought needed) for the situation.  Bisexual people go to the advice column at Slate about their current relationships for advice about the relationship, not about why they shouldn’t be Bi- or that they shouldn’t have done what they did.  Moreover, normal people know by intuition or by experience that arguments are often there, but you’ve got to be looking for the piece of controversial information in the communication, not for what you think is controversial.

For sure, Hillard laments something lamentable — that people exist, get news in, and even advice within ideological bubbles that rarely are questioned internally.  It’s easy to see it looking in the culture sections of those you hold in contempt. But when you can’t detect reasoning internal to those cultures or in their advice columns, that’s more evidence that you’re the one who can’t get outside the ideological bubble except to gather dirt. (John had a nice column on this phenomenon, asking whether straw-manning is inevitable.)

Straw Figures and Analogies

When one makes a straw figure of an interlocutor’s position, one casts it in worse lights than it deserves.  And so, one interprets a ‘most’ as an ‘all,’ or a prima facie duty as an absolute one.  And so with Mallard Fillmore’s recent comic, we have an imagined critical discussion.  The person in the black turtleneck says “we should be more like Scandinavia.”  Fillmore’s rebuttal is that there’s a brewery in Scandinavia that makes beer from urine, presumably with the thought that this is a counter-example.  He then predicts that this should have “no impact” on the black turtleneck guy’s thesis.

Of course, it’s a joke.  But the humor in the joke, I presume, is that the urine-beer point is supposed to be a kind of analogy-breaker, instead of a counter-example.

So, in the first instance, the Fillmore argument is a straw figure.  He interprets black turtlenecks’ thesis as: we should do all the things that Scandinavians do.  All it takes is one counter example.  So pee beer.  You could also have other things.  Black Metal, weird furniture design, love of Schnapps, obsessions with wool mittens.  Those are things that Americans could probably take the pass on.  (Sidebar: I’ve always thought I should like Black Metal, but I just can’t seem to get into it.)

As I take it, black turtleneck won’t be phased by the urine beer counter-example, because his argument isn’t that we should do all the things they do, just those from a relevant class.  So, decent treatment of workers, living wage, encouraging bicycles, social safety net.

So, here’s how I think that Fillmore’s argument works in the second instance.  It’s supposed to be a kind of analogy-breaker, and the line is that if you’re comfortable with all the social things that come with being a Northern European Socialist Utopia, then there are other things that come along for the ride. External costs.  And urine beer is just one of those things.  So the thought is that if you experiment with society to a certain degree, you break common sense.  And you end up with piss beer.

The irony, of course, is that if reductio of social policy can be done by way of what kind of beer a society produces, then we are in for some trouble.  And Fillmore implicitly recognizes that point.  See the next comic:

What’s funny, of course, is not just that Fillmore recognizes the  implication for American beers, but that he’s really hung up on the Danish piss brew.

Two scoops of weak man

Time magazine ran a bit about how President Trump got two scoops of ice cream for desert after a dinner interview, while everyone else got just one.  CNN then ran a few stories about it.

So far, not fake news.  Ah, but that’s not the issue.  The issue is how Breitbart and Hannity are responding to the story.  Here’s Hannity’s tweet:

The implication is that the story isn’t newsworthy, so CNN (and Time) are undercut as news organizations for running with it.

The first thing is a version of the weak man point.  Judging a news organization on the basis of its weakest story is uncharitable, especially if it’s a slower news day.   Puff pieces happen when you’ve got a 24-hour news channel.  One nut-picked puff piece does not a case against a network make.  So long as it’s not made up, poorly sourced, or misleading, how exactly is this bad journalism?

The second thing is that I’m not sure what the argument against the story is beyond the implication that it comes off a little petty.  But here’s the thing: the character of the President of the United States is a matter of significant import. (I’d posted something on this point about ad hominem a little while back.)  And what we seem to keep getting is a picture of a very selfish person.  Sure, it’s not a scoop on whether there are “tapes” of the conversation Trump had with Comey, and it’s not a discovery of evidence of collusion with Russia.  But it is yet one more story confirming what we’d had a pretty good idea of to begin with, and that the office has had no change on the character of the man inhabiting it.


Iron Turkey

Remember the bonkers 80’s move, Iron Eagle? I only vaguely do, but I remember thinking it was bonkers back then.   Well, taking off from that, I’ve been thinking of ways iron-manning can fall apart.  So, instead of making someone an IRON EAGLE, they show back up and turn themselves into an IRON TURKEY.

Here’s an example. President Trump won’t accept someone reinterpreting what he’s saying so that it won’t sound crazy.  Take the Jeaninne Pirro interview.

Pirro: Are you moving so quickly that your communications department can’t keep up with you?

Trump: Yes, it’s true.

P: So, what do we do about that, because –

T: We don’t have press conferences. And we do –

P: You don’t mean that!

T: Well, we just don’t have ’em – unless I have one every two weeks, and I do it myself.  We don’t have ’em.  I think it’s a good idea. First of all, there’s a level of hostility that’s very unfair….

Trump also tweeted that it’s impossible for his surrogates to get everything right all the time, so it’s just better to opt out of having press conferences altogether.  Just have press releases.

There are actually two issues with the argumentative context here.  The first is Trump’s false dilemma between (a) having totally error-free press conferences and (b) not having press conferences at all.  His reasoning is that because (a) is impossible, (b) must follow.  But, we know, that there are many other options. Another option could just be: (c) have press conferences, but have people who are properly briefed before them, vet the people you’ve got speaking on behalf of the administration for competence, and try to cultivate an amicable relationship with at least some of the media outlets and their reporters. You know, what responsible Presidents do.

Ok, so that’s the familiar perfectionist’s false dilemma.

But it’s what Trump does after someone tries to help him out in the midst of the argument that’s so interesting.  Pirro responds: surely this must be just a rhetorical overstatement.  It’s a nice way to say: Look, I know it’s hard to get a detailed view out, so using a bit of reactionary language is useful.  But try the detailed view, now.  I’m listening.  But, as it turns out, that’s all Trump’s got!  It’s like you try to iron man a guy, and he shows back up and says not only it’s not his view, but that it’s worse.  He wanted the fully on bonkers view!  So here’s folks trying to iron man him, and he turns it into an iron turkey.




Straw Mom

Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue about his son’s congenital heart defect and the medical treatment it needed was pretty moving.  And Kimmel then followed it with an observation that too many folks without insurance coverage would not have had the medical access he had. It was, ultimately, a personal story about why the Affordable Care Act is so important.

Enter Michelle Malkin for some pushback.  She titled her piece, “A Thinking Mom’s Message for Jimmy Kimmel.”  First, she took issue with the fact that Kimmel “turned his personal plight into a political weapon” that so many were willing to re-tweet and like on social media.  But then the argument, and not the opportunisim, gets some critical attention:

Kimmel doesn’t need more maudlin Twitter suck-uppery. He needs a healthy fact-check. “Before 2014,” he claimed, “if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you’d never be able to get health insurance because you had a pre-existing condition, you were born with a pre-existing condition.”

This is false. If parents had health insurance, the child would have been covered under the parents’ policy whether or not the child had a health problem

But this is a pretty uncharitable interpretation of Kimmel’s sentence.  Surely Kimmel’s not saying that without the ACA the babies would need to have insurance coverage, but the baby’s parents.  But the second issue is not addressed at all – the point about pre-existing conditions.  Sure, if the parents have coverage, no problem.  But the parents can’t apply for coverage after finding the condition without either huge penalties, going into a high-risk pool with sky-high premiums, or just not getting coverage.  That’s what Kimmel is focusing on.  And that’s not at all what Malkin’s responding to.
This occasions an important theoretical point.  Sometimes the straw man is constructed not in the restatement or the explicit representation of the opponent’s view, but in the implicature in how one responds to the things they said.  So when Malkin makes the unnecessarily persnickety point about parents, she’s painting a picture of Kimmel’s view by only stating the correction.  And when she makes the point about health insurance already on the books, she obscures Kimmel’s main point by attacking something off stage.

The inevitability of straw men

Not all newspaper op-eds are straightforwardly argumentative. Some trend explanatory. The ones that are argumentative face a kind of dilemma. On the one hand, they can present an argument that’s engaging, conclusive, and therefore probably wrong because it’s a straw man or some other easily diagnosed fallacious argument form. On the other, they can present a fair, rigorous, and analytical piece that won’t have time or space to get to a conclusion. Most argumentative ones opt for the former.  Few people, outside of academics, want to read anything like the latter.

An illustrative example of this came up over the weekend. Background: The New York Times, in an effort to diversify its op-ed page, hired another white, male, conservative with predictable conservative views. This naturally includes thinking the science behind climate change to be wrong. To this end, he made the following argument:

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

And there’s your problem. No one who is a serious participant in the science-based conversation around climate change makes that argument (call it the Cartesian Certainty Claim). For those keeping score at home, this is a weak man. That’s not how science works (it’s more Humean certainty). To be charitable to Stephens, maybe he is thinking of the no doubt many confused individuals who make these sorts of claims at rallies and such. They truly could use this clarification. But that’s probably not what he means. And it would also leave standing the idea that he means to criticize. And so the problem:  it’s not fun to argue fairly and honestly. And you can’t do it in the space of an op-ed. In matters of science, you can’t do it even in the space of many many publications. It takes a long time to rock and roll, as it where.

There was a serious uproar over his hiring that again flared up this weekend. There were many good responses. The best response, I think, is this one :

A decent touchstone for newspapers to apply to opinion writers of all ideological persuasions would test whether they engage in that kind of sophistry, and a decent rule would be to not publish them if and when they do—basically, to hire good editors for their editorialists. It would be ideologically cocooning for newspapers to censor the opinion that climate change isn’t worth doing anything about, but it is neither partisan nor biased to insist that the supporting arguments be factual, logically rigorous, and sincere.

Easy enough, but it’s surprising to me how difficult it is to get newspaper types away from the idea that only single factual assertions can be the subject of editing (BTW, the one factual assertion about climate change in Stephens’ piece was wrong–the Times issued a correction).

Simple Truths and Politics

The Simple Truths Thesis is that within some domain of inquiry or dispute, there is a set of truths that only the wicked, stupid, or mendacious would question or deny.  (Philosophy15 video on it here) Some domains of inquiry admit of simple truths, for sure.  But even in those domains, not all truths within them are so simple.  The core problem with the simple truths thesis is that there’s a difference between being wrong and being irrational.  It’s possible to be rational and wrong, to make a mistake, to be led astray by some piece of evidence or a theory.  And to have one’s defaults set on interpreting those with whom one disagrees as being on the wrong side of a simple truth is to set oneself up for being deaf to all criticism.

A perfect recent instance of Simple Truths being wielded to defend against criticism is by President Donald Trump in his AP interview over the weekend.  Transcript here.  When asked about criticism he’s received over whether he’s not kept his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, Trump replies that they’ve, since he’s taken office, not been so bad.  Oh, and he can’t call them out on it if he’s also hoping to get help from them on North Korea.  But what does he think of the criticism?

And the media, some of them get it, in all fairness. But you know some of them either don’t get it, in which case they’re very stupid people, or they just don’t want to say it.

Stupid or mendacious.  Those are the only options.

Philosophy15 on Straw and Iron Men

Readers of the NonSequitur are familiar with the Straw Man Fallacy varieties and especially the Iron Man.  John was down at Vanderbilt for a Friday Colloquium talk, and we had a chance to record an episode of Philosophy15 on Straw Men and Iron Men.  And the connection to longer-term argumentative pathologies, swamping in particular, was part of the agenda.

Chicken Littles of Straw

Chicken Little freaked out when hit on the head with an acorn, and called out, “The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!”  Everyone goes berserk, then they see it’s just an acorn.  Chicken Little then retires to being an overreacting chicken, and things return to normal.  The end.

Calling someone a ‘Chicken Little,’ then, works as a form of analogy.  One sees someone reacting strongly to something, perhaps that it forebodes something worse, and one then points out that they are overreacting or don’t see the situation clearly.

It’s a pretty common feature of contemporary American political culture for folks to think and say that Donald Trump is a danger not just to this country’s prosperity and safety, but to the world’s.  He’s an authoritarian, he seems to have (or at least there’s the accusation that he’s) colluded with another state to secure his election, and he seems to be a general nincompoop who surrounds himself with avaricious doofuses.  That makes him dangerous as the President of the United States.

Well, Heather Wilhelm at NRO has had it with the doom-saying chicken littles out there.

The unprecedented volume of apocalyptic media pronouncements that Trump has inspired is unhealthy. . . .  How many times can one presidential administration end life as we know it?

The coverage of the Trump administration is “crazed and breathless” and bent on spurring your outrage or stoking your fears with predictions of doom.  Chicken Little apocalyptic journalists.  But Wilhelm has a counter to this:

[C]ongratulations! If you’re reading this, it means you’re still alive, and have survived the approximately 5,000 world-ending decisions that the Trump administration has supposedly made thus far this year. The Russians, at least as far as I know, have not yet taken over. Faced with budget challenges and various logistical challenges, including the fact more than 1,000 miles of our border with Mexico is actually a river, it seems that Trump’s much-decried Great Wall of America could be slowly shuffled off into the “it seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe not really” pile. When it comes to health care, congressional Republicans seem to be in the political equivalent of that one unlucky bumper car that gets stuck in the corner, no matter which way you steer. As Francis Fukuyama addressed the panic in Politico this week: “Trump’s a dictator? He can’t even repeal Obamacare.”

The last line’s funny, I’ll give Fukuyama and Wilhelm that.  But how is this a reply to the worries people actually had about the Trump administration?
Seriously, the evidence here is that things aren’t SOOOO bad, so what’s with all the hand-wringing?  Moreover, it’s not that people were predicting that the world would end, or that it’ll be like RED DAWN up in here.  The worries were that he’s an authoritarian dingus, who will either do something belligerent or something stupid.  That he hasn’t done something mindbogglingly belligerent or incomprehesibly stupid YET isn’t reason that people who had worries that he will do something belligerent or stupid were wrong or had no basis.

Philosophy15 on Swamping and Spitballing

A new episode at Philosophy15 is up, and in it Talisse and I talk through the related phenomena of what we’d been calling in our old 3QD piece, Spitballing and Swamping.  The topic’s gotten good coverage here at the NS, but it’s worth noting that spitballing has a close connection to what John and I have been calling the iron man.  (An earlier post about the connection here.)

The connection is that with spitballing, a speaker makes a number of statements, mostly controversial, usually vague, and always memorable, and waits for people to react.  When they respond critically, one strategy is for the spitballer to then say that they’ve interpreted the statement incorrectly — that’s not what I said!  And then follow up with more stuff, or rely on allies to craft interpretations of the statement that are more plausible.  Hence, spitball and rely on iron-manners in the background.

Swamping is still a concept in the works.  One version of it is that it is the use of spitballs to completely fill the space of discussion with matters that are pure distraction.  And so, for example, one may be enraged with the tweets from an orange monster and the consequent iron-manning the monster’s minions pursue in light of criticism, but this distracts us from the policy decisions the orange monster’s other minions are making at the EPA or in the Department of Energy.  Moreover, it makes it impossible to have any discussion that is not about the spitballer.  The crucial thing about swamping, then, is that we are in a way complicit with the strategy, because it’s we who go along with the outrage and drama of spitball consequences.  We, as it were, pull the wool over our own eyes.