Category Archives: Iron man

Spitballs and Iron Men #2

One more example of a spitball getting ironmanned when challenged.  Trump tweeted that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election.

And he later told congressional leadership that the number was between 3 and 5 million.  That’s how he explained losing the popular vote.

In his recent Time interview with Michael Sherer, Trump clarifies the claim:

Well now if you take a look at the votes, when I say that, I mean mostly they register wrong, in other words, for the votes, they register incorrectly, and/or illegally. And they then vote. You have tremendous numbers of people. In fact I’m forming a committee on it.

But there’s no evidence that 3 million people voted with…

We’ll see after the committee. I have people say it was more than that. We will see after we have. But there will be, we are forming a committee. And we are going to do a study on it, a very serious problem.

But this is, first, different from the claim that 3 million ‘illegals’ voted — there’s a difference between illegals voting and illegal votes, right?  Second, this is another instance of the iron-manning of a spitball by turning it from an assertion to a query about something really important.  If Trump is right, then it’s something that should be reformed.  And perhaps we should investigate how widely it is the case that there is voter fraud of all the kinds he alleges.  But there’s a difference between claiming that it’s happening and holding that we should find out whether it is happening.  If you don’t have evidence for it at the time of the speech act, the claiming is wrong.  But that’s of course, what the iron-manning afterwards does — you get the benefit of claiming but without having to defend the claim.

Spitballing and iron men

A few months back, Rob Talisse and I introduced the notion of spitballing.  Here’s the rough version of how the notion works:

At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer’s dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one’s slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer’s interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.

If the spitballer must answer for an inaccurate or otherwise objectionable contribution, crying foul that others don’t interpret their statements properly is the default strategy:

Accordingly, when a spitballer’s pronouncement is subjected to critical analysis in, say, print media, the spitballer’s response is simply to return to the confines of the television studio to denounce the interpretation of the slogan that was scrutinized. The denouncement begins with an indignant “what I actually said was . . .” and is followed with the introduction of a new slogan –hence a new provocation – which is no more precise or transparent than the original. Thus the process begins anew.

Our target for the original posting was then candidate Trump, and now it’s President Trump.  The new developments with the investigations of Trump’s wiretapping tweets have exactly the form of sptiball-then-ironman from before.  First, the spitballs

OK, and then the next day, plenty of folks (including  FBI director James Comey) come out to say these claims are unsubstantiated.  Then Kellyanne Conway suggested that it’s possible to surveil through TV sets and microwaves.  Sean Spicer then clarified some of the tweets noting that (at least in two of them) ‘wiretapping’ is in quote marks, which means that it really stands for… general surveillance.  And presumably ‘Trump Tower’ means the Trump Campaign and its representatives.   And by ‘President Obama,’ he really means someone in a government agency. And now that House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Devin Nunes (R-CA) has announced that athere is evidence that there was information collected incidentally and widely disseminated among the intelligence community, there is the sense that the Trump claim has been vindicated.

First, consider Trump himself.  In the “Is Truth Dead?” Time Magazine interview, Trump, in responding to the question about the tweets and their troubles, responds:

When I said wiretapping, it was in quotes. Because a wiretapping is, you know today it is different than wire tapping. It is just a good description. But wiretapping was in quotes. What I’m talking about is surveillance. And today, [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Devin Nunes just had a news conference.. . . That means surveillance and various other things.

Note, however, that in one, ‘wiretapping’ was not in quotes.  But, hey, when it’s Twitter, maybe nuance is lost.  Wait…

The iron-manning move went into full swing afterwards, which turned not just to the re-interpretation strategy, but to the “if this accusation has anything to which it could be applied, then it’s really important” move.  And so, Johnathan Turley, at The Hill:

Of course, the original tweets were poorly worded and inappropriate as a way for a president to raise this issue. Moreover, the inadvertent surveillance is rightfully distinguished from the original suggestion of a targeting of Trump. However, this would still be a very serious matter if intelligence officials acted to unmask the names and distribute them.

And the point of spitballing is made — one makes whatever accusation against the opposition one wants.  Then these accusations are reinterpreted to fit the evidence and made to be more alarm bells about possibilities of really bad things.

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.


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.


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.



Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has some interesting musings on conditional arguments.  Critical point:

Strawser claims that IF drones reduce civilian casualties compared to other means THEN the use of drones is justified (I’m simplifying). Philosophers will typically then say that the argument is merely conditional, and that therefore, if the antecedent is false then the conclusion doesn’t follow. Clearly that’s right. But does it get us off the hook in a world of propaganda, mass media, think tanks and the like? . . . .So, for example, I’ve heard it argued by philosophers that IF sweatshops improve opportunities for poor people in poor countries THEN they are on-balance justified: so people shouldn’t campaign against sweatshop labour. This then gets supplemented with “evidence” that the antecedent is true, but by this time the casual listener has been inclined by the rhetoric to accept the conclusion.

Here we have, I think, a major source for iron-manning: the conditional "arguments" are not really arguments at all.  They're conditional statements.  The real question, as Bertram correctly points out, is whether the claims are true.  As he notices, however, whether the claims are true is a secondary question (in the minds of some people) to conditional statement in question.  How those get evaluated is the more interesting question (to philosophers).  But it's often the wrong question.  And entertaining such arguments might often amount to a form of iron manning.

Here we have an example of this.  Yesterday Todd Akin, Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, remarked that in cases of "legitimate" rape, women cannot get pregnant.  Here's what he said:

"From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," said Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist."

I think it would be very hard to defend this remark, as it has no basis in scientific fact.  Sadly, if you treat the whole thing as conditional, suddenly it appears Akin is making an interesting point worth discussing among rational adults.  Here's Politico's David Catanese (tweeting):

"So perhaps some can agree that all rapes that are reported are not actually rapes? Or are we gonna really deny that for PC sake?" he said. "So looks like he meant to say — 'If a woman was REALLY raped, it's statistically less likely for her to get pregnant.' What's the science?"

Akin is saying something rather different.  He's saying that pregnancy is statistically less likely in cases of "legitimate" rape.  It's more likely when that rape is "illegitimate."  Catanese version has it that Akin is querying after some science.  As I think I've often repeated here (sorry), I think this is a kind of philosopher disease.  You're looking for the thing worth discussing, but in looking for it, you overlook or ignore the awful things before you.  So, yes, maybe there is a scientific question here we discuss, but that's not what Akin's point was.  In fairness to us, and oddly to him, we ought to represent his words and his intention correctly.  How else will he or we learn his "doctors" are wrong?

What's the harm?  Bertram poses an interesting question:

ADDENDUM: it would be an interesting psychological experiment (which, for all I know someone has done) to test whether people who are exposed to conditional arguments in the total absence of evidence for the truth of the antecedent become more inclined to believe the consequent, perhaps especially for cases where the antecedent is some morally dubious policy. So, for example, are people exposed to the conditional “IF increased inequality ends up making the poorest better off THEN increased inequality is justified” more likely to believe that increased inequality is justified, even when no evidence that increased inequality benefits the poorest is presented?

Anecdotal evidence says this is true.  If that's the case, then I think he might have an interesting point.

L’uomo di sasso*

Tony Perkins, of Focus on the Family fame, shows the uninitiated how to iron man.  For those playing along at home, an iron man is a kind of reverse straw man.  Instead of weakening an argument so as more easily to defeat it, an iron man strengthens an argument so as to make it more difficult to defeat.  Both violate the dialectical principle of fidelity, and so are wrong.

Today we have Perkins doing the iron-manning (rather than being iron-manned, as would be more common in his case).  Here he is speaking on the subject of the President's Birth Certificate (via Think Progress):

PERKINS: [The media] have attempted to marginalize anyone who challenges this administration on those principles and that driving ideology. You know, it goes back to what they did to those that questioned the issue of his birth certificate. Look, I don’t know about all that, but I will tell you this, it’s a legitimate issue from the standpoint of what the Constitution says.

And I think what we’ve done is we’ve done great harm to foundation of our government by marginalizing and attacking anyone who brings up a legitimate issue.

Holy Batman is that awful.  Now, to be fair, whether a candidate for President is born in the USA is a constitutional issue.  An iron man view of Perkin's awful argument would stop there (as does his iron-man view of birtherism).  

But Perkins is saying more than that.  He saying it is still an open question in this circumstance–i.e., Obama may not have been born in the USA.  But that matter has been settled on all reasonable accounts, and those who continue to believe that it's false or questionable do not have good, sound constitutional points to make.  They have factual points to make–namely in this case the President was not born in the USA. 

This is of course false a thousand times over. 

Calling them loony-toons is precisely what is called for.  

*"the stone man," as in Il Commendatore.

Iron manning, again

The iron man works like the straw man.  You take an argument (or an arguer), distort his argument, pick an urepresentative feature of his argument, or you invent an argument the person does not make all in order to make the argument the person makes appear to be stronger than it is.  This has the related effect of making the critics look unfair, unhinged, or shrill.  More importantly, it may serve to cover over the real vices of someone's position. 

Oftentimes strengthening an argument serves both practical and epistemic ends.  We're better off if everyone is better at arguing and if we're considering better arguments.  However, in the case of ironmanning, strengthening arguments may make us worse off, because we don't consider for example what is actually being proposed by someone, or the worst-case-scenario effects of someone's view. 

I posted an example of this yesterday from Krugman.  Here is another example from Krugman. 

But the “centrists” who weigh in on policy debates are playing a different game. Their self-image, and to a large extent their professional selling point, depends on posing as high-minded types standing between the partisan extremes, bringing together reasonable people from both parties — even if these reasonable people don’t actually exist. And this leaves them unable either to admit how moderate Mr. Obama is or to acknowledge the more or less universal extremism of his opponents on the right.

Enter Mr. Ryan, an ordinary G.O.P. extremist, but a mild-mannered one. The “centrists” needed to pretend that there are reasonable Republicans, so they nominated him for the role, crediting him with virtues he has never shown any sign of possessing. Indeed, back in 2010 Mr. Ryan, who has never once produced a credible deficit-reduction plan, received an award for fiscal responsibility from a committee representing several prominent centrist organizations.  

Let's consider it a factual matter as to whether the presentation of Ryan's views is accurate.  It likely is, IMO, but that's not the point of this post anyway.

There would be much to gain by the intellectual exercise of pretending there are Republican moderates.  But let us say they do not exist.  Pretending that they do, or recasting very extreme views in moderate tones, is very harmful to our public discourse. 

The straw man unjustifiably excludes reasonable views from consideration by pretending they're unreasonable, the iron man unjustifiably includes unreasonable ones by pretending they're reasonable.