Category Archives: Iron man

Ignoring the trollz

John Oliver’s doing a bang-up job on the Daily Show, and he’s implemented the don’t feed the trolls policy with Sarah Palin. Salon’s got a brief discussion HERE.

One question about iron-manning is whether even addressing the argument given is appropriate.  That is, how John and I have been working with the Iron Man has been to take the fallacy as interpreting the opponent’s argument in the best possible light and addressing that version.  But sometimes, we can iron man when we just spend any time at all on an argument.  That is, if Iron Man is fallacious because of (a) the waste of time and energy on an opponent’s argument, and (b) thereby giving them more intellectual credit than they deserve, then the improvement of the argument isn’t the core of the fallacy.  Rather, it’s in the misuse of dialectical resources on a dumb argument.


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.



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.

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.

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).

Shooting fish in a barrell

David Frum is the new moderate Republican, but he's still a Republican.  I think he's an inveterate straw manner.  That's annoying.  Here's a recent example:

In December, Obama traveled to the Kansas town of Osawatomie to deliver one of the most important speeches of his presidency to date. There he poignantly described the dimming prospects of the American middle class—and then offered the following policy response: “The over 1 million construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing market collapsed, they shouldn’t be sitting at home with nothing to do. They should be rebuilding our roads and our bridges, laying down faster railroads and broadband, modernizing our schools—all the things other countries are already doing to attract good jobs and businesses to their shores … Of course, those productive investments cost money. They’re not free. And so we’ve also paid for these investments by asking everybody to do their fair share.”

In other words, the president is championing a more active government, not as a way to meet social needs but as a permanent and growing source of middle-class employment. Some of us will work directly for the public sector. Others will be contractors. Either way, many more of us will be working in jobs from which it will be difficult to fire us—and where the government sets more of the terms of employment.

This is very puzzling.  The President seems clearly to be addressing short term unemployment and our decaying infrastructure: saying that we ought to address the former by building the latter.  He doesn't suggest anything like Frum's "in other words" would suggest.  I would also suggest that Obama elsewhere doesn't suggest anything like the "let's increase the size of government and fix everything that way."  Had he thought that, we'd have single payer health insurance.  But no.

So we have a kind of classic straw man.  It seems that perhaps in the age of newspapers, when space was short and expensive, one had an excuse for being so uncharitable.  But now the internets have made space cheap.  And worse, I can always check what you say against what the person says.  In this case even, Frum quotes a passage then immediately misrepresents it.  There's really no excuse for this.  Anymore.  I think.

The funny thing is that Frum's piece is allegedly a response to the alleged weak-manning of the Republican position (by Andrew Sullivan).  Sadly, the weak-manning was merely a critique of the cast of characters known as the candidates for President.  Sullivan writes:

The right’s core case is that Obama has governed as a radical leftist attempting a “fundamental transformation” of the American way of life. Mitt Romney accuses the president of making the recession worse, of wanting to turn America into a European welfare state, of not believing in opportunity or free enterprise, of having no understanding of the real economy, and of apologizing for America and appeasing our enemies. According to Romney, Obama is a mortal threat to “the soul” of America and an empty suit who couldn’t run a business, let alone a country.

To which Frum says:

Andrew Sullivan had good sport last week shooting fish in a barrel, rebutting the most unfair, the most intemperate, and the most flat-out crazy of the criticisms of President Obama.

Now let’s move to the real debate. You don’t have to succumb to ideological fever or paranoid fantasy to see that the Obama administration is dragging America to the wrong future: a future of higher taxes and reduced freedom, a future in which entrepreneurs will innovate less and lobbyists will influence more, a future in which individuals and communities will make fewer choices for themselves and remote bureaucracies will dictate more answers to us all.

Might be right about those criticisms (Sullivan also attacked the lefty critics too), but those are the criticisms on offer at any Republican debate, on Fox, in the National Review, at the Heritage Foundation, or any other place such people gather.  If their view amounts to "fish in a barrel" that's their fault.  Frum ought to say: Sullivan is right.  These arguments really suck.  Sadly they are the most often made.  Maybe someone should make this one.  But his argument kind of sucks too, so I guess there's that.

Too timid to object

Click here for a nice piece on the problem of iron-manning and the spread of ignorance.  Here is a taste:

 Self-deprecating, too liberal for their own good, today's progressives stand back and watch, hands over their mouths, as the social vivisectionists of the right slice up a living society to see if its component parts can survive in isolation. Tied up in knots of reticence and self-doubt, they will not shout stop. Doing so requires an act of interruption, of presumption, for which they no longer possess a vocabulary.

Perhaps it is in the same spirit of liberal constipation that, with the exception of Charlie Brooker, we have been too polite to mention the Canadian study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, which revealed that people with conservative beliefs are likely to be of low intelligence. Paradoxically it was the Daily Mail that brought it to the attention of British readers last week. It feels crude, illiberal to point out that the other side is, on average, more stupid than our own. But this, the study suggests, is not unfounded generalisation but empirical fact.

Via Leiter.

Also via Leiter, an interesting podcast on fallacies of reasoning.

*fixed crazy typo in title.  Silly me.

**Had to change picture; I was getting malware warnings from Google Chrome.

Get back on board the f*cking boat

Some fun iron-manning.  The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, compared Barack Obama to Francesco Schettino, the tripping-onto-the-lifeboat captain of the doomed Carnival Cruise Liner, Costa ConcordiaHe said:

In a few months, this is all going to be ancient history and we're going to talk about our own little Captain Schettino, which is President Obama who's abandoning the ship here in the United States and is more interested in campaigning than doing his job as president," Priebus said on CBS' "Face the Nation.

The analogy doesn't make any sense (remember this is the party of Sarah Palin, someone who actually fits Schettino's profile much more closely) even as puerile name-calling.  Enter now the iron men:

BRZEZINSKI: That was disgusting. I'm sorry — take it back. You all screwed up in a big way. You sat in a room and said, "Oh, this would be so cool to say. Ha, ha, ha." You slapped your knees and then you went out on the air and you spit that you, you vomited that out, and you made a fool of yourself. Does anyone want to add anything?

KINGSTON: I don't know that you can say that was anything but an independent contractor using his own words and his own writing.

KINGSTON: There is name-calling there, and I don't appreciate the name-calling anymore than you do. However, there is also a point under it. The president does, in the State of the Union address, kind of revert back to kind of a lot of small ball items and isn't really handling the big issues of the day. Right now on the payroll tax cut, which isn't a huge deal, seems to be his biggest focus

Of course there's a point under it.  There always is.  But that's not the issue here in this discussion at all.  Now also notice what the point was: the President's State of the Union contained actual policy proposals, much like Schettino had actual command of the ship.  What was the analogy again?