Category Archives: Straw Man

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.


Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!


If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

Love democracy, despise your fellow citizens

Check out last Friday’s Mallard Fillmore:


The thought here is a familiar sour-grapes yuckface that those on the losing ends of elections make about what they think wins elections — catering to the intellectual tastes of a credulous and decadent electorate.  It’s a old Platonic worry about democracy, and it’s usually invoked by those who think their own democracy has made a bad decision.  (It’s all about what a good means for decision-making democracy is when they win elections, of course.)

As I take it the trope here is a form of what I’ve started calling the ‘No Reasonable Opposition’ strategy for political argument.  Take the move here as follows:  The electorate made a decision I disagree with;  from this, we can infer that they were deeply distracted and mis-informed.  They wouldn’t have made that kind of decision if they knew what they were doing.   There are two bad consequences of this line of thinking.  First, it’s self-sealing (as losing elections isn’t taken as evidence one needs to rethink one’s views, but of how fargone the rest of the citizenry is).  Second, it’s a perfect way to not even bother to get one’s views out for inspection — pearls to swine, at this point.

Reductio by analogy

Johah Goldberg wrote a book about public and political discourse.  That makes him an expert about how people argue about policy.  His recent criticism of Joe Biden’s rhetorical flourish “if it saves one life,” reason to heavily regulate fire arms is an occasion for him to act the logic hound:

Maybe it’s because I wrote a whole book on the way phrases like “if it saves only one life, it’s worth it” distort our politics, but whenever I hear such things the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

Ok, so what’s Goldberg’s critical point?  That the ‘saves one life’ line of reasoning doesn’t work for lots of other things we could regulate:

The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds, or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative that the government do any of that? It’s a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?

Oy.  Well, for sure, he’s responding to stark version of the ‘saves one life’ principle, but the application of the principle in the gun laws case is about regulating a product that’s designed to kill.  For sure, if we can prevent the wrong kinds of deaths, that’s the objective.  So the analogy may be appropriate for a straw liberal, but that’s not Biden’s argument.  And note, on top of all that, we do use a version of the ‘one life’ principle with all those other products, only that we don’t prohibit their purchase.  We regulate salt in foods, we institute speed limits and require safety measures in car production, and have pretty clear warnings about buckets and ladders on them (the presumptions being that people don’t purchase them so as to drown toddlers or jump off of).

The irony of it all is that Goldberg says that phrases like Biden’s cheapens our political discourse.  Sometimes, it’s not the phrase that cheapens, but the way it’s taken.



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.

Good Lord

I admit that for me, it's galling to see Christians playing the game of claiming discrimination when challenged on their own discriminatory policies.  It's usually about sex, whether about insurance covering contraception or gays in the military, but its always a confusion about whether they have a right for their bigotry to ground policy.  When bigotry isn't the law of the land, they say they're being discriminated against, because their religious views aren't applied to all.  But George Neumayr over at the American Spectator takes it to a new level. He rehearses all the usual pieties about how Christianity is under fire in a secularist state, and it looks to be the AmSpec boilerplate.  But then when he moves to the contraceptive issue, he's got a surprising twist to his argument.

The sheer idiocy of the HHS mandate was illustrated recently by Senator Tom Harkin, who, in a comically desperate attempt to cast the absence of free contraceptives and abortifacients as a form of corporate oppression, said, "There are many women who take birth control pills, for example, because they have terrible menstrual cramps once a month, some of them almost incapacitated, can't work. I know of young women myself who, because of this, aren't able to work and be productive, and it's prescribed by their doctor." Harkin, apparently, can't rest until these women are back working on Obama's animal farm, having received, under the gaze of government, all the suitable injections to guarantee their productivity for years to come. Harkin's paternalism is so touching: What would women do without his monitoring of their ailments?

Holy cow.  I mean, is Neumayer trying  to miss the point?  Just for the sake of making the whole thing clear, here's Harkin's argument:  The point of the mandate is to ensure that people can live their lives even when they face health care challenges, and some health care challenges take the form of menstrual cramps.  If we don't make medicine to address this part of the mandate, we leave these women out.  We shouldn't leave them out, so we need to cover their medicine — which is a contraceptive.  Now, for sure, having contraceptives covered by the mandate is also part of a larger human right to control your own destiny (by having control over when one has children), but Harkin's not making that argument.  He's just talking about how people have debilitating problems, and resistance to covering contraceptives leaves them out.  Simple, right?

Well, apparently not.  Here's how I see the Neumayr reply.  1) He's claiming that the government is giving these people injections and thereby controlling (or monitoring) their reproductive lives, and 2) He's claiming that it's just about putting people to work.  But this entirely misses the point.  For sure, if government helps you get the care, there is a measure of control and monitoring in that, but that's more control for you, too, assuming that without the help, you won't have the meds at all!  And the point about work is just silly, really.  Harkin's using work as merely an example of productive life.  He could just as well have said: read the Bible closely, or be a stay-at-home mother, or write for NRO.  You can't do any of those things, either, if you've got debilitating cramps. 

And animal farm?  Sheesh. First off, how many readers at AmSpec got the Orwell reference?  And second, of those who did, how many were only because they saw the movie?

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. 




The debacle of higher education

Yesterday the entire academic blogosphere blew up in a rage over a poorly reasoned post on the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog by Naomi Schaefer Riley.  She wrote in favor of the elimination of African-American Studies PhD programs.  I say "wrote in favor of" because to say "argued" would have given even fallacious arguments a bad name.  Here's a taste:

You’ll have to forgive the lateness but I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

The post was entitled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies?  Just Read the Dissertations."  Sadly, the author didn't read any dissertations, abstracts or extracts.  She read synopses of works in progress.  Her objections are then almost pure speculation:

But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights? 

I'd point out that affirmative action and civil rights are not coextensive terms (and besides, is that even the argument of the dissertation?).  Anyway, in addition to embarassing herself hugely by not reading the unwritten dissertations she claims are evidence of shoddy thinking and then criticizing them, she only picked out three examples, as if these three dissertations were sufficiently representative of all of the work in African American Studies.

Thankfully, the students reply here.

Garbage such as this does not belong in the first draft of an undergraduate paper.  Somehow, however, it found itself in Chronicle of Higher Education.  So here's how the editors defend themselves:

Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit. Take a moment to read The Chronicle’s front-page story about the future of black studies, written by Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton and weigh in.

If this is the justification for posting Schaefer Riley's piece, then it's appears the Editors of the Chronicle have no standards at all.  Making matters worse, Schaefer Riley defends herself (post here), writing:

Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece. 

She will forgive the commenters who do not understand that she can invoke evidence she has not seen to criticize arguments that haven't been made and advocate the elimination of academic programs she knows nothing about.

And there is enough money to get *someone *to read a dissertation on black midwifery: it's likely to be the salary of an Assitant Professor.

Final Exam

It's final exam day here in my world–Critical Thinking is the course.  A friend on Face Book posted this article about being a Republican who believed climate change to be a real thing.  Actually, the article is about understanding what the claim about climate change entails, in particular the difference between climate and weather.  This difference being somehow more difficult to grasp than Fermat's Last Theorem. 

Some grafs:

Climate science shows that over a long period of time, the statistics have changed. Things that used to happen a lot, like consistent winter snow cover, are happening less reliably. Things that happened every now and then, like droughts and wildfires, are happening more reliably. And things that almost never happened — such as the 15,000 new U.S. temperature records in March — sometimes now do occur. And they can’t be explained with purely meteorological reasoning.

The changes we’re seeing, far more than I can list here, seem like an accumulation of coincidences. Pieced together, reveal the full puzzle: There’s more heat and moisture in the atmosphere, and our emissions are largely responsible for keeping it there.

The millennium’s first decade was the warmest on record and included nine of the 10 hottest years. Greenhouse gas levels are at their highest in 800,000 years. Less heat is escaping the top of the atmosphere in the wavelengths of greenhouse gases. For the first time, scientists have recorded both hemispheres are warming – and the global temperature spike can’t be linked to an astronomical trigger, such as solar variability. Great Lakes peak ice has seen a 71 percent drop since 1973. Winters are shorter. Lakes melt earlier. Plants are moving north.

Worldwide, 95% of land-based glaciers are losing mass. September Arctic sea ice has lost 10 percent of its area every decade. Sea levels are rising. Oceans are 30 percent more acidic. Flooding and extreme storms are spiking in frequency and intensity. Last winter was the 4th warmest on record, despite the cooling influence of a La Nina phase in the Pacific.

Extremes are becoming more extreme. And none of it has anything to do with Al Gore.

Very sciency stuff here.  Anyway, the fun begins with the commenters.  A couple of samples.

Here's one disconnected from fact:

But because of the politics of the Obama Administration, all funding for Hydrogen research was cut to the bone in 2009. If you want to look for politics interfering with technological solutions to CO2 pollution — don't look at the Republicans…we tried!  

Here's one that thinks a work of fiction is a rebuttal (in the commenter's defense, George Will thought the same thing):

Did you read Michael Crichton's STATE OF FEAR? It really helps you understand that GLOBAL WARMING, renamed "climate change" is a 100% sham.

Here's your classic straw man:

Oh, no!!

Drowning polar bears???

Polar ice caps falling into the sea???

Despair, despair!!!

Hey, kids!! It's Kool-Aid time!!!

And now the tu quoque featuring Al Gore:

Well, at least Gore sets a good eexample by not flying private jets.

What? What do you mean he flies private jets? Isn't that a mega-polluter?

Well, at least he doesn't own a McMansion.

What? He owns one of those too?

I try to do what I can to reduce CO2, but Gore is single-handedly burning the planet up.

And this is just the top few of them.