Category Archives: weak 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.

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.


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.

An interesting weak man argument

Jonah Goldberg has a nice piece over at National Review Online about the way the recently upheld Affordable Care Act has been received at National Public Radio.  He picks out Julie Rovner's question about whether there are really any losers in the decision.  She eventually concludes that there aren't any.  Goldberg can't hold himself back:

It is an interesting perspective given that this is arguably the most controversial law in our lifetimes. It nearly sparked a constitutional crisis, helped cause the Democrats to lose their majority in the House, and, despite herculean efforts by the president to “sell” the law . . .  And yet, according to Rovner, the law creates only winners if properly implemented. Why on earth are its opponents so stupid?  For the record, there are losers under Obamacare. Here’s a short list: ….

He then goes on with your expected list (taxpayers…it's a tax, you see, Catholics who see part of the law as subsidizing condom use, and people at the bottom of the slippery slope of medication rationing).  This, so far, isn't what's good about Goldberg's column.  In fact, so far, it's just his usual schlocky version of what a dumb person would think a smart person would say about the issue and about the opposition.  But then he surprises:

Obamacare defenders have responses to these objections, and critics have responses to those responses. Still: Serious people do believe that the law creates — or just might create — losers, a fact Rovner might have mentioned.

I don’t mean to pick on Rovner. Her views on Obamacare don’t strike me as exceptional so much as typical — typical of a liberal Washington establishment that still seems incapable of grasping what the fuss is about.

This is nice, except for his saying that he doesn't mean to 'pick on' Rovner.  That, of course, is ridiculous — he's making an example of her. That's not wrong, nor is it worth making a big deal about not doing it.   Rather, what's nice is that Goldberg sees that this isn't the best the other side can do in the debate, but that it's typical of what the other side does in the debate.  That's a good observation, one that shows some real self-awareness and also dialectical sensitivity.  You have to disabuse your audience of the bad but widely made arguments before you can get to the good but infrequently given arguments. 




Of Demagogues and Straw Men

Victor Davis Hanson, over at The National Review, is an accomplished classicist.  Today's column, "The Demagogic Style," was a short account of the early usage of 'demagogue' and 'demagogueryfrom Thucydides through Xenophon and Aristotle.  Once the apparatus is in place, Hanson turns to look at how the demagogic style works in President Obama's rhetoric.  One tactic that caught my eye was the strategic use of straw men:

3) The evocation of anonymous straw men, sometimes referred to as “some” or “they”

In the Manichean world of Barack Obama there are all sorts of such demons, mostly unnamed, who insist on extremist politics — while the president soberly and judiciously splits the difference between these fantasy poles. So for the last three years we have heard, but been offered few details, about the perils of both neo-con interventionists and reactionary isolationists, of both profligate big spenders and throw-grandma-over-the-cliff misers, of both socialist single-payer advocates and heartless laissez-faire insurers who shut emergency-room doors to the indigent in extremis — always with the wise Barack Obama plopping down in the middle, trying, for the sake of all the people, to hold onto the golden mean between these artificially constructed zealots.

Hanson's provided an interesting analysis of how demagogic moderates sell their ideas — they portray themselves as avoiding the vices of two extremes.  The trouble, as Hanson sees it, is that nobody actually occupies those extremes.  They are men of straw.

But a few things.  First, so far, all Hanson has done is say that the positions are anonymous.  That doesn't mean that they don't have occupants.  That just means that the president doesn't have to name his dialectical opponents.  That's an old rhetorical advantage presidents have always had — they are presidents. Second, Hanson's way off if given that President Obama doesn't name names, it means that nobody actually occupies that position.  I can name people on the two sides, at least for the medical insurance issue.  Mike Huckabee for the "personal responsibility" right, Michael Moore for the 'single payer' left.  Done.  Just takes some familiarity with the terrain, and we can easily populate those extremes for ourselves.

The straw man trouble with the setup, really, isn't that the extremes are anonymous or that they aren't populated, but that there is a lot of ground between the extremes.  And when one sets them that way, anyone can look like a moderate.

Something had to be done

Richard Cohen, (allegedly) liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes a column in favor of the Libyan military intervention.  Unfortunately, he's spent enough time around his right-wing counterparts at that paper to believe that making a rhetorical case against his alleged opponents and their alleged views is sufficient for making an affirmative case for his position.

This is oh so tiresome.  To be clear, however, sometimes making a negative case is sufficient, especially when your view is the presumptive one.  For instance, I'm going to continue believing that the Holocaust happened until the denier positively prove that it didn't.  Debunking the denier in this case is sufficient. 

In the case of military intervention, however, especially lately–thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan–the burden of proof is much much higher.  War of this sort has recently proven very costly for little known benefit.  There exist, in other words, very good reasons in the dialectical atmosphere for not going to war.  If, then, you're going to make a case both for military intervention and against all of those good reasons.  It's not enough, in other words, to make a case against a bunch of real or imagined weak views.

Someone ought to tell Richard Cohen this.  He writes:

We heard some of those same sentiments expressed by opponents of U.S. intervention in Libya. I do not liken the situation there to the imminence of the Holocaust, only the startling willingness of good people to mask their cold indifference with appeals to fiscal prudence or something similar. Commentator after commentator, person after person, told me that the United States had no business interfering in Libya — that it needed an exit strategy or permission from Congress, and that if the United States could not intervene everywhere (Newt Gingrich mentioned Zimbabwe, manufacturing a civil war just for the occasion), then we could not intervene anywhere. This, somehow, gets stated as if were a logical principle — do nothing unless you can do everything.

With the possible exclusion of Newt Gingrich, those unnamed people don't count here–even if they were real.  He continues:

Still, a better question is: How much will it cost to save lives? That, after all, is what this operation is all about — the prospect that Moammar Gaddafi was going to settle the score in the most horrific way imaginable. Based on his record and the clear indication that he is crazy, a bloodbath was in prospect. What should the world have done? Nothing? Squeeze Gaddafi with sanctions, seize his Swiss accounts and padlock his son’s London townhouse? None of these measures would have had immediate impact. Sanctions are a slow-working poison. A bullet was needed.

This shocking indifference to the consequences of doing nothing, or doing something so slowly it was effectively nothing, was suddenly in the air — the so-called realist argument. Sadly, the message was coming from the surprisingly cold heart of liberalism. The Nation magazine, the reliable voice of the American left, put it this way: “Given our massive budget deficits and bloated Pentagon spending, never has there been a better time for America to end its role as global policeman in favor of diplomatic and economic multilateralism.” In other words, we gave at the office.

Arguments — good arguments — can be made in opposition to the Libyan intervention. Maybe it will make things worse. Maybe we’ll get bogged down and have to stay for years. Maybe the rebels are the really bad guys.

On the other hand, lives were clearly at stake and something had to be done. The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip — in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference. The Libyan intervention established a precedent: There is such a thing as the international community and, as inchoate as it may be, it will insist on certain minimum standards even for dictators: Your people are not yours to kill.   

In light of Cohen's support of the Iraq war ("only a fool or possibly a Frenchman. . . "), he really ought to think twice before writing this sort of crap.  The Nation said a lot more than "we gave at the office."  In fact, in the article he cites (or click here), they make another telling point:

Furthermore, as we should have learned from the Iraq War, the use of military force can have all kinds of unintended consequences. We may be going to war to prevent civilian casualties, but even the most prudent use of air power is incapable of doing that. The likelihood of US or coalition forces killing civilians will only increase if Qaddafi’s troops solidify their hold on Tripoli and other cities; urban warfare is notoriously messy. The UN resolution forbids foreign occupation, so what will we do if Qaddafi hangs on and the conflict settles into a grinding civil war, with all its attendant chaos and bloodshed? Mission creep seems to be an inevitable feature of this kind of intervention.

These are at least worthwhile practical considerations–completely ignored by Cohen in his rush to do something.  Cohen here combines all of the worst traits of the overheated pundit–he makes a negative case when he needs an affirmative one, he invents opponents and gives them stupid arguments, and, when confronted with a live argument, he misrepresents its strength.  

And of course, there's the false dichotomy–something's having to be done doesn't entail you've exhausted your non-military options.  Don't people ever learn?

Ever tried red herring?

Some people think gun control is a good idea.  But "gun control" could mean any number of things.  It might mean, for instance, a complete ban on guns.  Some people want that.  It might also mean a ban on military-style weapons.  Seems more sensible to me.  This might make it more difficult for some solitary crazy person to kill a lot of people at once.  You would have thought that, of course, until you consulted history:

(1) THE (NON) EFFECT ON PUBLIC SAFETY: Set aside the fact that criminals don’t obey any law. Set aside too the fact that even if all firearms could be magically disintegrated by appropriate legislation, the murderous would simply use other more time-tested methods of killing. It should not be forgotten that some 7000 were killed in a single day at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 using the available hand weapons, which did not include firearms. At the Civil War battle of Gettysburg in 1863, both sides suffered approximately 51,000 casualties in three days of fighting using primarily single shot, breech loading rifles and muzzle loading cannon quite crude by contemporary standards. Some 5000 horses were also killed. The problem, in 1066, 1863 and today is human nature, not the tools employed.

The little number there will tell you the author of this argument is presenting a convergent case.  The unique ridiculousness of this claim, therefore, may not be representative of the whole argument.  If I were to engage in a bit of weak-manning, I might argue that a person who would advance such a claim doesn't need to be listened to any longer.  But that's not fair play.  You can read the rest of the argument for yourself. 

This one is just uniquely hilarious, as it seems completely to miss the point that high-capacity magazines (assault weapons, etc.) make it easier for lone nutcases to kill a lot of people in a very short amount of time.  It doesn't, of course, end our inhumanity to each other in the form of war.  To invoke this, I think, is a textbook worthy instance of the red herring technique.  In case you're not familiar with that technique, here's another example:

It's not the case that the oil spill caused tons of environmental damage in the Gulf, have you ever tried red herring?  They're excellent and they're on the menu at your local Swedish restaurant. 

link courtesy of balloon juice.

Daily Show on Nutpicking

Watch at this link for a fun back-and-forth between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly on the argumentum ad Hitlerum. 

TL;DR for O'Reilly, his Nazi invocation (about "the left") is just fine because his assistants found an anonymous commenter at a blog who called Nancy Reagan evil and wished that she die soon (of natural causes).  What that has to do with the Nazis is beyond me. 

That, of course, is some classic nut picking, or as the experts call it, weak manning.  What makes it especially fallacious (if that is possible) is that it's deployed in an ideologically monochrome (should I drop this phrase? Should I not comment on my sentence during my sentence?) context in order to disqualify an opposing arguer on account of the very bad arguments they make.  This last part being critical to the nutpicker.   

Poe’s Law and Straw Men

Poe's Law is one of the many eponymous laws of the internet.  It runs, roughly, that you can't tell the difference between religious crazies and people parodying religious crazies.  And vice versa.  That means that anything you find, for example, on you can find a real religious nutcase who believes it and says it

If Poe's Law is true, then I think it would be very difficult for charges of straw-manning to stick.  That is, no matter how crazy a view you can dream up about religion, you would likely be able to find someone who really holds that view. As a consequence, you'd never really be distorting the dialectical situation with the issue — there's always someone dumber and crazier than you'd anticipated. 

One thing to note, now, is that there's a difference between straw-manning and weak-manning.  That is, it's one thing to distort what some speaker or another may say and it's another thing to take the weakest and dumbest versions of your opposition and refute only them.  Straw-manning is the former, weak-manning is the latter.  The point is that if Poe's Law is true, it may be impossible to straw man, but the dialectical terrain is littered with weak men.  Your job is to sort them.

My worry is that without that distinction between accurate but selectively inappropriate representations of one's opposition (nutpicking one's versions of the opposition so they always are the dumb ones) and accurate and the best representations of one's opposition, we lose the thought that discourse is possible.  If you think that Poe is true about the religious (that they're all borderline nutcases or people who are simply enablers of nutcases), then there's not much of a chance at reasoned exchange with them.  Same goes for politics.  That's bad.

N.B.: Robert Talisse and I have a longer version of this thought over at 3QuarksDaily. I also have a longish essay on it up over at  my website on

Pile on

The other day I talked about this weak and hollow man rich column by Charles Krauthammer.  But there was way more about that column that an attentive undergraduate could have criticized.  Here's another tidbit.  He wrote:

And now the mosque near Ground Zero. The intelligentsia is near unanimous that the only possible grounds for opposition is bigotry toward Muslims. This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than "violent extremists" of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief. Those who reject this as both ridiculous and politically correct (an admitted redundancy) are declared Islamophobes, the ad hominem du jour.

So fine two thirds of the population are against the Ground Zero community center.  What else have two thirds of the people been against?  I wonder.  Let's go back in time:

The reponse?

The "smug attribution of bigotry" to 82 percent of the people.