Category Archives: Straw Man


A longstanding way to think of straw man argumentation is to misinterpret or misrepresent what people said or what their arguments were.  That’s a version of the representational straw man. John and I have also identified the selectional version of the straw man, or the weak man.  That’s a case of finding a member of the opposition that has a badly stated version of the view or a poorly constructed version of their argument and go after that.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a bad argument, but what gets communicated with it is that you, in investing time and energy in replying to that bad argument, you’re not spending time on the better ones.  That would be bad use of your time, so if you’re doing the work of criticizing the bad arguments, they must be as good as they get.

Another weak man instance is that you take imperfectly phrased versions of an opponent’s posiiton and interpret them mercilously.  When we’re speaking off the cuff, extemporaneously, we may not say everything just right.  And so we, except when in full-attack mode, give each other some slack.  That’s a difference between spoken and written communication.  And to interpret your interlocutor in the worst lights when they are speaking informally (and so, imprecisely) is a kind of selectional straw man.

Well, so here’s what happened. Mika Brzezinski said on Morning Joe today that the media’s “job” is to “actually control exactly what people think.”  Here’s the clip:

Now, the context is that Brzezinski’s line is a contrastive — that Trump is trying to control what people think by pushing out the media.  By “speaking directly to the people,” as we’d seen in a previous post.

So conservative media has gone straight up bonkers about the line.  Tyler Durden says she’s “let slip the awesome unspoken truth” about what the media thinks they should be doing.  The folks at Breitbart have made it a front page story, with the implication that the imperfect wording is really a Freudian slip.

Real Clear Politics has a follow-up to it, and Brzezinski has gone into Twitter cleanup mode

It’s pretty clear that when folks have what Walton calls “dark side interpretation” already cued, they’ll take something like this as evidence of letting a mask slip instead of a poorly phrased bit of intellectual pushback.  So this makes it an interesting case of a mix between selectional and representational straw man — it’s selectional, since they go after what she’s said, but it’s representational, since we need an interpretive attitude to take this as seriously a representation of her sincere position.

So, in a way, a lesson about straw manning.  If your picture of the opposition, after interpretation, fits the worst kind of picture you may have of them, you may be a straw-manner.

Two wrongs of straw

Kellyanne Conway has had a hard couple weeks.  She had the ‘alternate facts‘ brouhaha, then she had the case where she made up a massacre in Bowling Green.   That then yielded a refusal by  a number of news outlets to interview her.  CNN’s ran for 48 hours. She had a credibility deficit.

Jonah Goldberg, over at National Review Online has come to Conway’s defense saying that she is “good at her job, and the media hates her for it.”  You see, she’s regularly been sent on a tough mission – to defend Trump’s policies against a media set on interpreting everything they say in the worst possible light.

President Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, have mastered the art of defending straw-man positions that don’t reflect the actions and views of the president himself.

Just for clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that I don’t think Goldberg is holding that Conway must defend straw man positions, but rather she must defend against straw men of her positions.  It has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see the language of informal logic abused, but this one is a doozy!  Regardless, the point is a fair one.  If folks have been getting the views and policies wrong, it’s the job of the communicators to set the record straight.

But it’s here that Goldberg switches gears – you see, if you must defend against those who straw man in hostile fashion, then you, too, must fight dirty. And a lesson from history is a case in point.

In 2012, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, flatly lied on five Sunday news shows, saying that the attack on the Benghazi compound was “spontaneous” and the direct result of a “heinous and offensive video.” No one talked of banning her from the airwaves. Nor should they have. Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie.

This, of course, is a curious line of argument, since the lies made the administration’s position (in both cases!)look considerably worse.  Who needs a straw manner in one’s opposition when one is doing such a bang-up job oneself?

How to turn your analogy to straw

Marco Rubio recently made an interesting analogy after the release of the CBO report.  He said that the likelihood of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) actually helping people is as great as the likelihood of the Denver Broncos coming back from their fourth-quarter deficit in the SuperBowl.

I know that there are still some who hold out hope that Obamacare will work, just like there were some in Denver this Sunday still holding out hope that the Broncos could come back and win in the fourth quarter.

Now, there is some debate on the matter, but let’s give Rubio the point for the sake of argument.  However, if we do, then Aaron Goldstein has a critical point to make:

But let’s not forget that the Broncos actually made it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos were the second best team in the NFL in 2013….

If Rubio is going to compare Obamacare to a football team he should invoke the 2008 Detroit Lions who went 0-16. Better still, the junior Senator from Florida could also speak of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. This would be a far more apt comparison because when it comes to Obamacare no one wins.

Ah, a lesson in how to turn an analogy into a straw man.  At least the Rubio analogy conceded that the ACA had something going for it (at least the Broncos had a chance to make points back earlier), but Goldstein refuses even that.  Beyond this, the point Rubio was trying to make with the analogy was one of prospects, like for the future, not retrospects, looking at the past.  Oh well, when the objective is to paint your political opponents in the worst lights, saving the actual point is beside the point.

Don’t strawman me… I was strawmanning, myself

(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.  Here’s the line folks are focusing on:

They cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government

The reply is that the Governor did say those words, but the quote is “taken out of context”. As it turns out, the context is that of attributing this view to Democrats.  Here’s Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller clarifying the situation:

If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because [DEMOCRATS BELIEVE] they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

The context of the quote, I think, is correct in terms of the Daily Caller’s clarification. The video HERE.  Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.  So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.

That’s better, but not dialecticaly.  The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.  (He follows these sentences with a call for further debate on the issue, clearly calling attention to the fact that he sees his opponents as having a wildly indefensible view.)  Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.  The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.  Isn’t that an important issue?  Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?

So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himself  the straw-manner.

To use the full taxonomic vocabulary: My hypothesis is that Huckabee was hollow-manning (nobody on the Democrat side has had a thought like that, right?), and the defense is a form of iron-manning.

First, get some straw…

We’ve pretty regularly noted that you can tell a straw man fallacy is coming when the speaker starts the windup for attributing views to his opponent by saying, “Some folks who believe X say…”  or “You know what all those X-ists say about this…”  What generally comes is a view nobody even recognizes as their view, or if it is, it’s only from the least capable of those who hold X.  And so we’ve been calling these hollow and weak men.

Now, what happens when the speaker’s on a roll?  It’s not just a one-off, but a series of these straw-man constructions.  For example, take Marta Mossburg’s “The Real ‘War on Women'” over at the American Spectator.   There are at least three in quick succession.

First, there’s the implication that Democrats who use the expression ‘The Republican War on Women’ don’t care at all about the way women are oppressed around the world.

When Terry McAuliffe, the governor-elect of Virginia,  relentlessly battered his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli for waging a “war on women,”  these innocent babies, teenagers and wives often attacked by their families and given no protection under the law throughout many countries in the world were not on his mind, however.  Not even remotely.

Second, there’s the implication of reverse racism in describing the progressive view:

It also fits in nicely with the progressive narrative that history is moving irrevocably forward to some ideal – which does not include stodgy white men.

And third, there’s the simple imputation of sheer craven rhetorical objectives to their opponents:

The success of the “war on women” trope should make Republicans realize that they are fighting progressives for whom the idea of truth is an outdated relic of a racist, homophobic, misogynist past to be discarded in favor of tactics that allow them to win elections and sway opinion.

Now, sometimes, the writing in politico magazines isn’t about making arguments.  Sometimes, it’s just about reminding people what’s at stake, motivating them to go out and win, galvanizing the side.  But here’s the thing: dog-cussing your opponents like this makes it very hard to intellectually engage with them afterwards.  It inculcates a habit that Talisse and I have been calling the No Reasonable Opposition perspective on the issues at hand.  And when you don’t see the opposition as reasonable, you don’t work on developing good arguments, and when you don’t work on good arguments, you don’t maintain your best reasons.  And then you become, ironically, just like the folks you were dog-cussing.

To the three straw men here, it’s worthwhile to say the following.  1. The “Republican War on Women” trope was about a series of elections and domestic policy, not about foreign policy.  You focus on what’s different between the two candidates and parties in that argumentative context and about the things they will determine – to talk about the treatment of women around the world is not what that discussion is about.  (One might call this, by extension, a form of red herring.)  2. There’s a difference between having less (unearned) influence and having no influence – if everybody gets a fair shake, there are going to be fewer white guys at the top.  It shouldn’t be hard to see that.  3. As to the cravenness view of one’s opponents, I’ll simply say that if you, yourself, aren’t very good at constructing good arguments, you won’t be very good at detecting them, either.


Under a description

Here’s a way you can straw man someone.  Pick out a bad decision she made, then say she chose that bad part of the decision.  For example, say my wife and I are  trying to decide where to vacation.  She wants to go to a cabin in the woods – something rustic and woodsy.  But we get there, and the cabin’s filled with spiders and there’s a raccoon in the fireplace.  Angrily, I say: We could have gone to Chicago, but you preferred a cabin filled with arachnids and vermin! Yes, that’s the choice she made, but not what she chose as she chose it.  What she chose was rustic vacation… what that choice yielded was spiders and a hissing varmit.  The lesson: our desires are propositional attitudes, and those attitudes represent what we desire or choose under a specific description.  Again, she chose rustic cabin… and it happened to have spiders.  She didn’t prefer the spiders.  She just chose something that turned out had them.  That’s not choosing spiders.  So it’s a straw man – you’re misrepresenting the intentions of your interlocutor by describing them under the description of their worst consequences.

OK.  So now the point about choice under a description and straw-manning is clear, let’s turn to the way George Neumayr over at AmSpec is handling his portrayal of the Obama Administration’s turn on foreign policy.  His view is not just that they make bad decisions, but that they choose terrible things.

Ho Chi Minh once said that he won the Vietnam War not in the jungles of Asia but on the streets of America. Islamic terrorists could make a similar claim: from Libya to Egypt to Syria, they rose to power not in spite of American leaders but because of them. Obama and McCain preferred Morsi to Mubarak, the assassins of Christopher Stevens to Gaddafi, and now the enforcers of sharia to Assad.

The final point about Syria is a familiar one.  (If you haven’t, take a quick look at John Dickerson’s Slate overview of the various arguments regarding Syria.)  The point is that there would be an unintended consequence of destabilizing Assad – the opposition’s not a bunch of liberal-minded democrats, but radical Islamists.  But it’s not that with the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration chose to support a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to lead Egypt or that there would be a terrorist attack on a consulate in Libya.  Those were the consequences of the choices, but, again, choices are under descriptions, and not all consequences are the descriptions.

Ignoring the trollz

John Oliver’s doing a bang-up job on the Daily Show, and he’s implemented the don’t feed the trolls policy with Sarah Palin. Salon’s got a brief discussion HERE.

One question about iron-manning is whether even addressing the argument given is appropriate.  That is, how John and I have been working with the Iron Man has been to take the fallacy as interpreting the opponent’s argument in the best possible light and addressing that version.  But sometimes, we can iron man when we just spend any time at all on an argument.  That is, if Iron Man is fallacious because of (a) the waste of time and energy on an opponent’s argument, and (b) thereby giving them more intellectual credit than they deserve, then the improvement of the argument isn’t the core of the fallacy.  Rather, it’s in the misuse of dialectical resources on a dumb argument.


TU to-the-evah-lovin’ QUOQUE!

We’ve had a number of discussions here at the NS about how ad hominem tu quoque can sometimes actually be a relevant form of argument. (See one of mine HERE, Colin on it HERE, John on it HERE, and my publication on it at IL HERE) In short: the argument form, when properly presented, can show in speaker inconsistency: incompetence, insincerity, or  evidence that a proposed practice is impractical.  I have one that seems a glaring case of insincerity.  Thomas Sowell’s syndicated piece (here at the American Spectator) is that because liberals control (most of) education, there’s no actual fact-checking from critics of conservatives. Instead, all liberals do, from his experience, is give counter-assertions, and that’s what’s supported by the educational institutions producing them.  Well, at least that’s what happened when Sowell read an email from a liberal critic.

It is good to check out the facts — especially if you check out the facts on both sides of an issue…. By contrast, another man simply denounced me because of what was said in that column. He did not ask for my sources but simply made contrary assertions, as if his assertions must be correct and therefore mine must be wrong.

He identified himself as a physician, and the claims that he made about guns were claims that had been made years ago in a medical journal — and thoroughly discredited since then. He might have learned that, if we had engaged in a back and forth discussion, but it was clear from his letter that his goal was not debate but denunciation. That is often the case these days.

OK.  So Sowell got an email from someone with outdated information.  From a medical journal, but outdated information.  Well, that’s not so bad, is it?  Apparently so, because Sowell takes this email to be representative of how liberals think:

If our educational institutions — from the schools to the universities— were as interested in a diversity of ideas as they are obsessed with racial diversity, students would at least gain experience in seeing the assumptions behind different visions and the role of logic and evidence in debating those differences.

Instead, a student can go all the way from elementary school to a Ph.D. without encountering any fundamentally different vision of the world from that of the prevailing political correctness.

Well, first, I smell weak manning here — thanks, Tomas Sowell, for picking a bad arguer for a liberal talking point and generalizing to all liberals.  Perhaps we could do the same for you and use Michele Bachman as the representative voice for conservatism?

At this point, Sowell then turns to the institutions that produce what he takes to be shoddy arguments, that is, universities.  And he’s got one case in point:

The student at Florida Atlantic University who recently declined to stomp on a paper with the word “Jesus” on it, as ordered by the professor, was scheduled for punishment by the university until the story became public and provoked an outcry from outside academia.

Ah, but then there’s the old fact-checking, getting the other side’s version of the story.  You know, like what a well-educated person would do.  The exercise did take place, but the student who refused wasn’t up for punishment for not stepping on ‘Jesus’, but for threatening the professor with violence.  And that’s where we know that Sowell’s not playing fair – when his side gets criticized, he wants his critics to be entirely up to date on all the details of the matter.  And when they aren’t, well, that’s evidence of how stupid, horribly educated, and disinterested in actual debate they are.  But when it’s his side, well, it’s just a matter of saying what his favored audience wants.

A final question, but now about the FAU case:  why would Christians care about stepping on the word ‘Jesus’? The name’s not holy. The letters aren’t either.  This strikes me as another case of hypocrisy — they’ve got their own graven images.  The name of god in their own language.  Christians who threaten Professor Poole with death over this don’t understand their own religion.

Just little old me…

Dennis Prager’s post at NRO today is literally a series of conservative talking points on Islam and terrorism.  All pretty much familiar fare, from identifying a persecution complex in their opponents (the irony!) to blaming the Left for encouraging them to their acts of violence, to just stopping short of calling Islam an ideology of indecency.  But it’s with the last line of thought  that Prager has an interesting line of argument.  He holds that “Any religion or ideology that is above good and evil produces enormous evil”, and then he plays to make a contrast.

Unfortunately, most religious and secular ideologues find preoccupation with human decency boring. The greatest moral idea in history, ethical monotheism, doesn’t excite most people.

First, there are factual things in question.  One is that most of the ideologies run on making the case that they are the last and best hope for decency.  They wouldn’t be convincing otherwise.  Liberalism is posited on the appeal of decency, by the way.  Second, is ethical monotheism really “the greatest moral idea in history”?  Solve the problem of evil before you say that, buddy.  Moreover, I don’t even seen ‘ethical monotheism’ as really a moral idea — it’s more a meta-ethic, that God is the source of moral norms.  That’s more a metaphysical idea.  And aren’t there actual moral ideas that seem to be considerably more powerful than ‘ethical monotheism,’ anyhow?  Deontology?  Eudaimonistic ethics?  Consequentialism? (It’s one thing you can say for Roger Scruton is that he’d never write anything this stupid.  NRO and The American Spectator will miss his intellectual heft for sure.)

Finally, I suspect Prager’s got a very specific monotheism in mind when he says this… but, you know, his favorite ethical monotheism doesn’t have a particularly good track record, either.   Would we want Christianity judged by the decisions made by George W. Bush?

Factual questions aside, Prager’s case is interesting argumentative strategy.  It’s a kind of downplayer, but on his own side. As if to say, “Well, nobody pays attention to little old me… I just try to do my best to be moral and upright and stuff…”  The implicature of the speech act, of course, is to make the contrast — so as to say that popularity is a kind of negative authority of what’s right and true.

I’ve started calling strategies like this ‘persecution strategies,’ those that set up the dialectical board in a way that makes it inappropriate to overtly challenge the view.  It runs:  this view has had a long line of critics and rejections, and most folks think it’s crazy.  But it hasn’t had a fair hearing.  The strategy, then, is to identify most of the going criticisms of the view as mere expressions of the standard knee-jerk rejection of the view.  Now, for sure, some views haven’t had a fair hearing, and it’s worth making the case they should be given it.  But, as we’ve noted with the iron man, not all views need to be fully developed before we can see they are losers. And sometimes, it’s not worth our time and effort to do the work.  Recently, in my survey of informal class, I’ve started calling this tactic the little view that could.

Iron Palin

Kyle Peterson at The American Spectator reviews Sarah Palin’s speech at CPAC.  It’s classic euphemism meets iron man (See one of John’s posts on iron manning HERE):

Sarah Palin hit all the laugh lines in her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday afternoon, bringing the audience to its feet perhaps a half-dozen times. At points, Palin simply jumped between one-liners.

Jumping between one-liners means free-associates for laughs.  And Peterson means that in a good way.  Well, as good as you can mean by that.  And when did steal the show come to take the place of upstages all?  Oh, and here’s the obligatory Orwellian moment when Palin expresses just how serious she is:

“We’re not here to dedicate ourselves to new talking points coming from D.CWe’re not here to put a fresh coat of rhetorical paint on our party,” she said. “We’re here to restore America, and the rest is just theatrics.”

Yes, says the person with no political agenda beyond talking points and who simply jumps between one liners.