Iron man

Corresponding to the three versions of the straw man scheme (straw, weak, hollow), one may identify three forms of dialectical distortion going the other way–i.e., that is the "positive" way.  That is to say, one may be guilty of not being critical enough, or of being too nice, or too interested in analyzing good arguments to bother with all of the bad ones.  The last one here, I think, is a typical philosopher problem.  

This idea of being too charitable has come up before.  See here. And here and to some extent here.

Like the classic straw man, this sort of distortion would admit of both fallacious and non fallacious varieties.  The non fallacious varieties one might employ in class (among other places), for the kids sometimes make crappy arguments that could be made better with a little tweaking.  It's the same kind of tweaking one does to make them worse, only the point is to then evaluate the better argument, the argument not given.

One type of fallacious employment, let's call it the iron man, consists in being insufficiently critical to an obviously weak argument (or arguer) when that criticism is right, proper, and necessary.  Here's an example from Jennifer Rubin's "Right Turn Blog" at the Washington Post:

Bachmann’s greatest challenge, should she run for president in 2012, will be to convince a wide cross-section of voters that she isn’t the media’s cartoon figure. But she’ll have to do it without dampening the enthusiasm of her most devoted supporters. However, candidly, the biggest challenge will be for the other candidates, who will have to debate a very smart, articulate and entirely underestimated woman. As one Republican operative told me, “Hey, I wouldn’t want to get on that stage with her.” And that is precisely why a Bachmann candidacy, far from being a “joke” or a “farce,” might be the most interesting thing to happen to the 2012 GOP primary race.

Bachmann has many more obvious challenges, but this alternate reality post happily refutes itself, as it seems to suggest her most ardent supporters will be turned off by her losing the alleged media caricature.  Bachmann may be smart in some sense, but she's nowhere near the serious contender Rubin makes her out to be.  And this doesn't help–it doesn't help Republicans in particular–clarify what the viable options are.  Bachmann, on even Bill O'Reilly's accounting, isn't a serious candidate (or person or thinker).  Why we should waste precious minutes in the 24 hour news cycle is beyond me. 

There a Poe's law corollary here somewhere.



3 thoughts on “Iron man”

  1. Hi John,
    This is a nice observation — that iron-manning may cast a view in good light that it hasn't been cast by its adherents, but may encourage more bad work from its adherents.  I wonder about the point about Poe's Law, though.  Would it be something along the lines of:
    For any statement of religious or political extremism on the internet, there is a reasonably-stated and evidentially plausible version of the view expressed by a well-meaning interpreter and critic of the view attempting to avoid straw-manning the view.

  2. O Hai Scott,

    Yes, I think that nails it.  Perhaps we could put it more formally still:

    "for any view extremist view E there is a philosopher (usually) or other iron manner PHI who will distort E in order to make it more intellectually respectable."  

    It's a kind of rejection, or so, of Poe's Law–for every view which parodies itself, there's someone who refuses to believe people could believe such ridiculous things.  

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