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.

At least be relevant for Chrissake

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass must have trouble reading.  Here's his analysis of a passage from a recent Obama speech:

"I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," said Obama at a campaign speech in Ohio last week. "Michelle wasn't. But somebody gave us a chance — just like these fine folks up here are looking for a chance."

The spoon flashed as he stepped forward and tried to slip it somewhere between Romney's political ribs, the message unmistakable: Romney is the rich man, caring only for the rich, and I am the anti-Romney, born poor and guardian of the people.

Naturally, the class warrior didn't mention charging regular folks $1,000 for a handshake at a fundraiser, but class warfare is the theme of the Democrats in 2012. The Republican is of the equestrian class that rides over the poor, leaving hoof prints on their necks. And Obama is of the people, so please forget that presidential media guru David Axelrod just dropped $1.7 million on a gorgeous Chicago condo.

Even the selected passage makes it clear that Obama is talking about fairness and opportunity.  So the argument would be something like this: "I had a chance to improve myself, I want the same for others." 

But what's more hilarious is that Kass then goes classic fallacious ad hominem: attacking irrelevant things about the President's current economic situation regarding (1) the realities of Presidential fundraising and (2) the amount of money an extremely successful political advisor on his team paid for his condo.  These two facts have nothing to do with anything Obama has claimed about fairness.  And they don't make him a hypocrite.  Or a "class warrior."

In all seriousness, it cannot be that hard to criticize Obama.  You might argue, for instance, that our system is not unfair.  I'd disagree, but at least that rises to the level of relevance. 

UPDATE: here is piece from The Colbert Report which underscores the degree to which Kass's mind has been occupied by Fox and Friends.

Bishop Godwin

The Pontifical North American College, or whoever is responsible for instructing America's Catholic Priestly class, must offer a course in Godwinism: everyone with whom you have even a minor disagreement is a Nazi.  This is a move repugnant even to the most stoned college freshman who's just been busted for pot smoking.  For him, at least, the phrase "floor fascist" has some modicum of irony.  

Not so, sadly, for the venerable leaders of the Catholic Church in Chicago.  When a persecuted minority wanted to walk by a Church on the public way, they were the KKK.  Now, it turns out, the requirement that non Catholics have access to birth control in health plans offered by Catholics and Catholic Institutions (save actual Churches and similar organizations), has one Bishop screaming both Stalin and Hitler (from the Chicago Tribune):

“Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care,” Jenky said. “In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama — with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda — now seems intent on following a similar path.”

To me this sends a terrible lesson to the Catholic faithful.  It is not the case that every disagreement with widely neglected Catholic teachings is equivalent to (what they imagine to be) some kind of Nazi or Stalinist assault on their right to practice their faith.

This means, of course, that we can't have rational disagreements about such issues, as everyone knows that the only response to Hitler was war.

And war, as the good Bishops ought to know, is a last resort.  And even it has rules. 


This is the slippery slope we were talking about

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins has identified the cause of the recent scandal involving the Secret Service, prostitutes, and discounts.  It turns out that this is the causal or logical result of the breakdown of the moral order.  This breakdown in the moral order was caused by the repeal of "Don't ask don't tell" among other things.

Perkins: Yeah, you know that’s a great point. Just for a moment step back and look at the implications of this, over the weekend we saw the news of the President’s Secret Service detail in Colombia and the issue of them hiring prostitutes and now the White House is outraged about that. Actually in a meeting this morning my staff asked, ‘why should the President be upset’? It was actually legal; it was legal there to do that, so why should we be upset? Well, the fact is we intuitively know it’s wrong, there’s a moral law against that.

The same is true for what the President has done to the military enforcing open homosexuality in our military. You can change the law but you can’t change the moral law that’s behind it. You can change the positive law, the law that is created by man, but you can’t change the moral law, it’s wrong. So what you have is you have a total breakdown and you can’t pick and choose. Morality is not a smorgasbord; you can’t pick what you want. I think you’re absolutely right, this is a fundamental issue going forward because if we say ‘let them do what we want,’ what’s next? You cannot maintain moral order if you are willing to allow a few things to slide.

I'd say this is maximally dubious.  Among other things, as far as I know, heterosexual men do not look to homosexual men for moral or sexual guidance.  Unless they're really gay.  I guess that makes the Secret Service agents gay.

Identity Theft

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George is not the master of analogies by any stretch. Recently, when a persecuted minority wanted to walk by one his churches on a Sunday, they were "Nazis."  Now, if someone requires that Health Insurers Provide a certain standard of care regardless of the religious affiliation of the insured employee, it's "identity theft."

Sadly, this remark seems to have followed upon the following (from the Chicago Tribune story):

"The difficulty of public discussion … is that the political is the highest level of public discourse," George said. "Therefore, the primary categories of discussion and mutual understanding are liberal and conservative. But they're not evangelical, Catholic or gospel categories. The categories that count in the Gospel are true and false. The bishops try to be people of God. And those are the first questions we ask is: 'Is it true or false?' Political terms are not adequate to discuss it."

The Cardinal recognizes the seriousness of his words, so this must mean he is just terrible at reasoning.  Let's say we change the terms somewhat, and insist that a Jehovah's Witness who runs a hospital or university must, through a private insurer, provide coverage for blood transfusions.  Yes, it's against their religion, alright.  For them.  But you just work for them.  You are the janitor in Kingdom Hall, or you're their accountant.  Unlucky you.  I guess. How dare you steal their identity by wanting blood transfusions during surgery.

But we're talking about contraception for women.  Not in the Tribune article, but in the local CBS story, was the Cardinal's very respectful and truth oriented threat: if some women can get the pill, the three percent of Catholics who actually care about this stuff will be forced to take their ball and go home.

“In order to do anything publicly, we’re going to have to cloak it in some kind of explicit religious circumstance that would not make it possible to run big universities and large hospitals as we’ve run them before,” George said.

The cardinal told members of the Union League Club downtown that the Church may otherwise sell its hospitals, pay penalties, or in a last resort, close them altogether, rather than offer birth control. George says offering birth control would be cooperating with evil.

The ad baculum, the appeal to force–that's what the Cardinal thinks the highest level of public discourse is.

An argument that will not die

There seem to be two very crappy albeit popular arguments against increasing marginal tax on people making over a certain very high dollar figure (let's call it "the Buffett rule").  I am not aware of any good arguments against the idea, but if you are, feel free to direct me to them in comments.

One argument involves denying that the Buffett rule will solve the debt problem.  Another argument consists in pointing out that no one has voluntarily given extra money to the US Treasury.  The first argument is something of a weak or hollow man, depending on how it's deployed.  It's a weak man if someone makes this claim among many others; it's a hollow man if no one, as I suspect is the case, has actually made this specific argument.

The second of the two arguments, a textbook tu quoque, got another shot at life yesterday from the ever clueless Chris Wallace:

[I]f I may, David, the question I have for you is: if the president feels so strongly about tax fairness, is he going to he contribute money to the Treasury and they have a special department just for this, to help with the deficit?

What would make the President a hypocrite in this circumstance is if he advocated for higher taxes on earners such as himself and then refused to pay.  Not, as Wallace seems to suggest, that he isn't currently just donating money to the Treasury. 

I don't know how this stuff gets into people's brains.  But Wallace gets paid a lot of money, and he went to Harvard.  Doesn't Harvard owe us some kind of apology?

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.

Paul Krugman on Iron Manning

If only he know the word for this behavior, his post would be snappier.  But here is Paul Krugman talking about the phenomenon of Iron Manning.  The case at hand is the iron manning of Paul Ryan's budget plan.  You can follow the links in the cited passage.  I'll point out right away, for the skeptics, that there is an empirical element to this charge–iron manning that is.  I think People have accused (rightly) Paul Ryan of being a dishonest tool, so minus one to Krugman on that.  Anyway, Krugman writes (via Balloon Juice):

In my next life I want to be a conservative policy scammer. Think of how much nicer it would be. Instead of constantly being accused of having evil motives, I’d be presumed to have noble intentions no matter how much the actual content of my policy proposals was at odds with such claims. Instead of being accused of saying bad things I never said, I’d be given credit for supporting good things I’ve never supported. Life would be great!

OK, I’m whining. But the continuing defense of Paul Ryan is a remarkable phenomenon. He’s still being treated by many pundits as a man deeply concerned about deficits, when the fact is that his policy proposals are all about redistributing income upward, and make no serious effort to curb debt. He’s even given credit for advocating higher taxes on the rich when he has more or less specifically rejected the things for which he’s given credit.

So Ryan has been iron-manned.  That's the reverse of being straw manned.  There might be an empirical case that this happens more often to people like Ryan than people like Krugman, but someone else can argue that.  I think there is little question, however, that it is the case with Ryan. 

Now consider the iron manners:

What’s going on here? The defenders of Ryan come, I’d argue, in two types.

One type is the pseudo-reasonable apparatchik. There are a fair number of pundits who make a big show of debating the issues, stroking their chins, and then — invariably — find a way to support whatever the GOP line may be. There’s no mystery in their support for Ryan.

The other type is more interesting: the professional centrist. These are people whose whole pose is one of standing between the extremes of both parties, and calling for a bipartisan solution. The problem they face is how to maintain this pose when the reality is that a quite moderate Democratic party — one that is content to leave tax rates on the rich far below those that prevailed for most of the past 70 years, that has embraced a Republican health care plan — faces a radical-reactionary GOP.

What these people need is reasonable Republicans. And if such creatures don’t exist, they have to invent them. Hence the elevation of Ryan — who is, in fact, a garden-variety GOP extremist, but with a mild-mannered style — to icon of fiscal responsibility and honest argument, despite the reality that his proposals are both fiscally irresponsible and quite dishonest.

How much longer can this last? I guess we’ll eventually find out.

So this is a classic case of iron manning: take a crappy argument, suggest it's a good one by distortion [of some variety], suggest (by implication) that its critics are extremists or shrill (Krugman).

Gawker on Philosophy

Here is a list of academic disciplines, ranked by "realness" according to Gawker:

1. Physics

2. Astronomy or other Space Science

3. Philosophy

4. Engineering

5. Math

6. History

7. Chemistry

8. Biology or other Life Science

9. Foreign language (Useful type)

10. Computer Science

11. Agriculture

12. Geology or other Earth Science

13. Architecture

14. Literature

15. Law

16. Geography

17. Music

18. Economics

19. Study of Some Foreign Place or Culture

20. Archaeology

21. Anthropology

22. Religion or Theology

23. Art

24. Education

25. Foreign Language (Useless type)

26. Political Science

27. Drama or Film

28. Phys Ed, Sports Management or other Major Designed For Athletes

29. Journalism or "Communications"

30. Business

31. Psychology

32. Sociology

You'll notice that Philosophy is #3.  Here is a comment about how Philosophy shouldn't be ranked so high from the thread that proves why:

Exactly! Why single out art, but not music or philosophy?

Then again asking for reasoning on a Gawker comment board is probably asking too much.