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.

Keeping up with the Godwins

“Godwin’s Blog” ought to exist (probably does actually).  If it did, hardly an hour would go by without something to write about.  Here’s novelist Danielle Steel’s ex-husband’s letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal comparing criticism of income inequality with Kristallnacht :

Regarding your editorial “Censors on Campus” (Jan. 18): Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Tom Perkins

San Francisco

Mr. Perkins is a founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Yes, it’s unthinkable now, because, in part, this comparison makes no sense.

The ad hitlerum manqué

Image 1: Analogy to a pro-gay marriage rally

The Nevada Coalition for the Protection of Marriage is my nomination for the first Glenn Beck Award for WTF Analogies.  Just as Glenn Beck recently argued that science education advocate Bill Nye is like the Catholic Church in his rejection of teaching Creationism in public school science classes, the Nevada Coalition argues that homosexuals are like white supremacists in their desire to change the definition of marriage.  Monte Stewart, their attorney, argues (via ThinkProgress):

On closer examination, this strategy reveals something deeply troubling. White supremacists engrafted the anti-miscegenation rules onto the marriage institution — and thereby altered marriage from how it had existed at common law and throughout the millennia — to bend that institution into the new and foreign role of inculcating white supremacist doctrines into the consciousness of the people generally. Because of the profound teaching, forming, and transforming power that fundamental social institutions like marriage have over all of us, this evil strategy undoubtedly worked effectively for decades.

Question: Where does one see today a similar massive political effort to profoundly change the marriage institution in order to bend it into a new and foreign role, one in important ways at odds with its ancient and essential roles? Answer: The genderless marriage movement. The big difference, of course, is the immorality of the effort to advance the white supremacist dogma compared to the morality of the effort to advance the social well-being and individual worth of gay men and lesbians. Whether that moral objective is sufficiently weighty to justify so bending and altering the marriage institution is for the free, open, democratic process to decide. Certainly, the comparison of laws that protect the man-woman meaning of marriage to anti-miscegenation laws is a false analogy that provides no basis for any court to mandate the redefinition of marriage.

Yes, that is a big difference.  It’s such a big difference, that I wonder why Mr.Stewart decided to compare the two.  This is just like what the Nazis did, only you’re not Nazis and it’s not like what they did.  Perhaps we need a name for this move: let’s call it the ad hitlerum manqué.

Thunderbolt and lightning, Very, very frightening me.

Here is Glenn Beck, as self-described rodeo clown, i.e., troll, on Bill Nye the Science Guy’s advocacy of scientific literacy:

. . . .Or Bill Nye the Science Guy, who said teaching creationism is just dangerous and not appropriate for children!

BILL NYE: And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them.

How’s he going to look? Is he going to look like the people who threw Galileo up?

It would be hard to make this analogy worse.  Any takers?  There’s good money in this kind of thing, apparently.

You can’t do what Jesus can do

Kevin O’Leary, co-host of the “Lang and O’Leary Exchange” on Canadian television, has an interesting argument for why it’s good that the richest 85 families control the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people.   From Talking Points Memo:

“It’s fantastic and this is a great thing because it inspires everybody, gets them motivation to look up to the one percent and say, ‘I want to become one of those people, I’m going to fight hard to get up to the top,’” he said. “This is fantastic news and of course I applaud it. What can be wrong with this?

I think striving is great and it’s good to have role models (and I doubt anyone is denying this), but these particular role models (even the one percent on his expanded version) are very far from being meaningful.  It’s somewhat like asking what Jesus would do:  Chances are, it’s beyond your capabilities.

Look for the helpers


Disagreements are scary things sometimes: people yelling, accusing, abusing.  What to do? I recommend turning to Mr.Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Inspired by one of Scott’s comments the other day, let’s call this the “helpfulness objective.”  The HO ought, like the principle of charity, to guide one’s discursive interaction.  It’s fine to be critical (jeez, that’s what we do here all of the time), but the objective of criticism ought to be the improvement of the overall quality of our arguments.  After all, we come into arguments with an objective: demonstrating the correctness of our position.  If we fail in this, then we need improvement; if others fail, they need it.

Here’s a good example of the HO in action from Mike Konczal at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog:

Perhaps some of these programs should be discontinued, or expanded, or turned into straight cash. (How about cash instead of food stamps?) But we can’t have a productive conversation unless we make it clear what the government is, and is not, doing. And it is spending a lot less on welfare than conservatives claim, and getting fantastic results for what it does spend.

What is critical here is the opener (“let’s have a productive conversation”), rather than the closer (“are they lying or stupid?”).  Nice work.  Here’s to the HO.

Outrageous, egregious, preposterous


I’ve long maintained that there is a fallacy gap between right and left.  Major right-leaning pundits (Will, Krauthammer, Brooks, and the legions of Am Spec bloggers) far exceed left-leaning pundits (Krugman, E.J.Dionne, and who else is there?) in basic philosophy 101-style argumentative terribleness.

The only evidence I have is my unscientific observations over the past nine or so years.  For some, this view cannot possibly be correct, since “both sides do it” is a logical and metaphysical fact.  It isn’t.  But the fact that most people think this forces any treatment of fallacies, over-the-top rhetoric, etc., to insist on a balance which isn’t there.  Provide your own examples.

Now there is some, but only some, empirical support for my thesis.  Professors  Jeffrey Berry (Political Science) and Sarah Sobieraj (Sociology) of Tufts have written The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, which takes an empirical perspective on over-the-top political rhetoric.  In an article in Politico, they write:

That said, the data from our analysis still show that the liberal outrage media is no match for the conservative side. Looking at low levels of outrage—say, two to five incidents per episode—we found that left- and right-leaning programs and blogs were roughly equal. However, as the number of outrage incidents per episode or post increased, the source was more and more likely to be conservative. This is most visible at the far end of the spectrum: The most outrageous cases (with 50 or more incidents per episode or post) come almost exclusively from conservative sources.

The outrage measure is itself kind of an interesting notion. But I’ll leave that for another time. In the meantime, check out the article (see if you can spot the balance-mongering!), and the book.

Fallacy Man

Existential Comics has a nice series on Fallacy Man, a guy dressed as Zoro who jumps into conversations to point out fallacies.  It’s a nice way to show the dialectical error of only pointing out fallacies – namely, that naming a fallacy form isn’t helpful feedback for the argument.  You’ve got to explain why a premise is irrelevant, or how some forms of inference are based on incorrect data.  Those are all dialectical requirements of reason – exchange.  The best part, of course, is that there’s also the problem of the fallacy fallacy. (You’ve got to read to the end of the comic.)

Now, the fallacy fallacy requires additional dialectical baggage, and I don’t see it in the comic posted.  Here’s the basic form of fallacy fallacy:

Premise: The opposition’s case for their view (P) is fallacious. (Then the list of the fallacy forms identified).

Conclusion 1: The opposition’s view, P, is false.

Conclusion 2: And, further, my view is true.

Now, so far, just listing all the fallacy forms you identify in the opposition’s case isn’t yet proof that their view is false or that your view is true.  BUT: there are a number of considerations that might undercut that.  Note, the opposition may have the entirety of the burden of proof.  And so, were the opposition to have the view that, say, there’s an elephant in the room, and they can’t prove it except fallaciously, then there’s reason to believe that there’s no elephant in the room.  (Otherwise, there’d be evidence).  Or consider this in a legal context — all the defense has to do is point out the failures of argument from the prosecution, because the burden of proof is entirely on those who argue for guilty.  In those cases, there are default conclusions, and when the case to the contrary fails, we revert to them.  So in those cases, fallacy fallacy is no fallacy. To further clarify John’s got a great post on the Fallacy Fallacy Fallacy.

Replace and defend

Deep Insights

A follow up on David Brooks’ piece on the inadvisability of marijuana legalization.  Perhaps you’ll recall that Brooks told a very personal tale of his own adolescent adventure with marijuana.  TL;DR: marijuana should remain illegal (also because of nature and the arts). A charitable reading of this argument would go thusly: Brooks himself continues to pull tubes, with the consequence being that his arguments are terrible, so don’t legalize marijuana, lest you end up a bumbling fool like David Brooks.  He kind of says as much:

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

I’m still embarrassed for him.  In any case, rushing to his defense is the allegedly unstoned Reihan Salam, of the National Review (via Lawyers, Guns, and Money).  His argument is the perfect iron man.

The column has prompted an ungenerous and largely uncomprehending response from people who are attacking David as a hypocrite, and worse. But you’ll notice, if you know how to read, that Brooks isn’t endorsing draconian legal penalties for marijuana use. Rather, he is suggesting that legalization as such might not be the best way forward. Though I imagine I don’t agree with Brooks in every respect on this issue, I think his bottom line is correct. The goal of marijuana regulation, and the goal of alcohol regulation and casino regulation and the regulation various other vices, ought to be striking a balance between protecting individual freedom while also protecting vulnerable people from making choices that can irreparably damage their lives and the lives of those closest to them.

This fellow has just made up an entirely different argument: Brooks did not argue for regulation of marijuana.  Nor, in fact, does his column even suggest this.  Nor would any sane (non stoned libertarian) argue for unregulated legalization.  Just for reference, here’s how the obviously stoned David Brooks characterizes legalization:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

Yet, according to Salam, Brooks is not arguing against legalization.  So this is a beautiful example of argument defense by complete replacement: when the argument you need to defend really sucks, no matter: replace it with a completely different argument, then accuse your opponents of straw manning.  It’s a double fallacy.

Question for the readership then: must the iron man always involve a straw man?  Seems like it might.  In strengthening an argument beyond what it deserves, I distort the critics’ view of the argument as weak.