Tag Archives: Straw Man

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.

First, get some straw…

We’ve pretty regularly noted that you can tell a straw man fallacy is coming when the speaker starts the windup for attributing views to his opponent by saying, “Some folks who believe X say…”  or “You know what all those X-ists say about this…”  What generally comes is a view nobody even recognizes as their view, or if it is, it’s only from the least capable of those who hold X.  And so we’ve been calling these hollow and weak men.

Now, what happens when the speaker’s on a roll?  It’s not just a one-off, but a series of these straw-man constructions.  For example, take Marta Mossburg’s “The Real ‘War on Women'” over at the American Spectator.   There are at least three in quick succession.

First, there’s the implication that Democrats who use the expression ‘The Republican War on Women’ don’t care at all about the way women are oppressed around the world.

When Terry McAuliffe, the governor-elect of Virginia,  relentlessly battered his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli for waging a “war on women,”  these innocent babies, teenagers and wives often attacked by their families and given no protection under the law throughout many countries in the world were not on his mind, however.  Not even remotely.

Second, there’s the implication of reverse racism in describing the progressive view:

It also fits in nicely with the progressive narrative that history is moving irrevocably forward to some ideal – which does not include stodgy white men.

And third, there’s the simple imputation of sheer craven rhetorical objectives to their opponents:

The success of the “war on women” trope should make Republicans realize that they are fighting progressives for whom the idea of truth is an outdated relic of a racist, homophobic, misogynist past to be discarded in favor of tactics that allow them to win elections and sway opinion.

Now, sometimes, the writing in politico magazines isn’t about making arguments.  Sometimes, it’s just about reminding people what’s at stake, motivating them to go out and win, galvanizing the side.  But here’s the thing: dog-cussing your opponents like this makes it very hard to intellectually engage with them afterwards.  It inculcates a habit that Talisse and I have been calling the No Reasonable Opposition perspective on the issues at hand.  And when you don’t see the opposition as reasonable, you don’t work on developing good arguments, and when you don’t work on good arguments, you don’t maintain your best reasons.  And then you become, ironically, just like the folks you were dog-cussing.

To the three straw men here, it’s worthwhile to say the following.  1. The “Republican War on Women” trope was about a series of elections and domestic policy, not about foreign policy.  You focus on what’s different between the two candidates and parties in that argumentative context and about the things they will determine – to talk about the treatment of women around the world is not what that discussion is about.  (One might call this, by extension, a form of red herring.)  2. There’s a difference between having less (unearned) influence and having no influence – if everybody gets a fair shake, there are going to be fewer white guys at the top.  It shouldn’t be hard to see that.  3. As to the cravenness view of one’s opponents, I’ll simply say that if you, yourself, aren’t very good at constructing good arguments, you won’t be very good at detecting them, either.

 

Not the Onion, part 342

Thighmaster General

While Scott and Rob argue their minds to the bone on the place of rationality in political discourse, the Wall Street Journal publishes an error-filled op-ed (in a section called “The Experts”) by Suzanne Somers, of Three’s Company and Thighmaster fame.  Here’s how it begins:

First of all, let’s call affordable health care what it really is: It’s socialized medicine.

I’ve had an opportunity to watch the Canadian version of affordable health care in action with all its limitations with my Canadian husband’s family. A few years ago, I was startled to see the cover of Maclean’s, a national Canadian magazine, showing a picture of a dog on an examining table with the headline, “Your Dog Can Get Better Health Care Than You.” It went on to say that young Canadian medical students have no incentive to become doctors to humans because they can’t make any money. Instead, there is a great surge of Canadian students becoming veterinarians. That’s where the money is. A Canadian animal can have timely MRIs, surgeries and any number of tests it needs to receive quality health care.

So the reason the Affordable Care Act, i.e., Obamacare, is a failure, is because the Canadian system, to which ACA is completely unrelated, is also a failure, according to the cover of a Canadian magazine (the original version of Somer’s op-ed said it was a horse, not a dog).

This would be hilarious if it were not the Wall Street Journal.

As always, the Onion already kind of called it.

Risky strategies

ad Hitlerem and straw man

Like the ad Hitlerem, there is a paradoxical admission involved in straw manning, viz., you don’t actually have an argument against your opponent’s view.  You have an argument against Hitler, in the case of the ad Hitlerem, which your opponent is very likely not; in the case of the straw man, you have an argument against a distorted, selected, or made up position or opponent, when your real opponent’s real view is still hanging around.  If you get caught, you first of all look like a liar; but more seriously, you’ll look like you’ve just made the case for your opponent.  Crucially, however, you’ve wasted precious time and attention attacking a pseudo-position.

This struck me when I read the following snippet from a New Yorker piece about the Tea Party:

The really weird thing—the American exception in it all—then as much as now, is how tiny all the offenses are. French right-wingers really did have a powerful, Soviet-affiliated Communist Party to deal with, as their British counterparts really had honest-to-god Socialists around, socializing stuff. But the Bircher-centered loonies and the Tea Partiers created a world of fantasy, willing mild-mannered, conflict-adverse centrists like J.F.K. and Obama into socialist Supermen.

As many supporters have pointed out, all of the attention given to death panels and Hitler socialism has left the law, with all of its actual flaws, standing.  One would think that concerns over practicality and efficiency would be sufficient to eliminate the straw Hitler arguments.  One would think.

Under a description

Here’s a way you can straw man someone.  Pick out a bad decision she made, then say she chose that bad part of the decision.  For example, say my wife and I are  trying to decide where to vacation.  She wants to go to a cabin in the woods – something rustic and woodsy.  But we get there, and the cabin’s filled with spiders and there’s a raccoon in the fireplace.  Angrily, I say: We could have gone to Chicago, but you preferred a cabin filled with arachnids and vermin! Yes, that’s the choice she made, but not what she chose as she chose it.  What she chose was rustic vacation… what that choice yielded was spiders and a hissing varmit.  The lesson: our desires are propositional attitudes, and those attitudes represent what we desire or choose under a specific description.  Again, she chose rustic cabin… and it happened to have spiders.  She didn’t prefer the spiders.  She just chose something that turned out had them.  That’s not choosing spiders.  So it’s a straw man – you’re misrepresenting the intentions of your interlocutor by describing them under the description of their worst consequences.

OK.  So now the point about choice under a description and straw-manning is clear, let’s turn to the way George Neumayr over at AmSpec is handling his portrayal of the Obama Administration’s turn on foreign policy.  His view is not just that they make bad decisions, but that they choose terrible things.

Ho Chi Minh once said that he won the Vietnam War not in the jungles of Asia but on the streets of America. Islamic terrorists could make a similar claim: from Libya to Egypt to Syria, they rose to power not in spite of American leaders but because of them. Obama and McCain preferred Morsi to Mubarak, the assassins of Christopher Stevens to Gaddafi, and now the enforcers of sharia to Assad.

The final point about Syria is a familiar one.  (If you haven’t, take a quick look at John Dickerson’s Slate overview of the various arguments regarding Syria.)  The point is that there would be an unintended consequence of destabilizing Assad – the opposition’s not a bunch of liberal-minded democrats, but radical Islamists.  But it’s not that with the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration chose to support a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to lead Egypt or that there would be a terrorist attack on a consulate in Libya.  Those were the consequences of the choices, but, again, choices are under descriptions, and not all consequences are the descriptions.

Here’s the skinny

Michael Jeffries, attractive man

Putzing around the internets the other day I ran across an example of an interesting and very common kind of downplayer.  Some context, the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch (see above), a clothing retailer, has claimed he only wants to sell clothes to thin, attractive people:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong (in our clothes), and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

So he’s a jerk.  Now comes the downplayer.  Reacting to the story, Shana Lebowitz of Greatist writes:

It’s truly incredible that these news stories have sparked such intense conversations about the way the media helps shape our relationship to our bodies. At the same time, it’s too easy to point fingers at Abercrombie and media outlets that glorify the thin ideal. Sometimes it seems like all we need is a couple of models and mannequins who aren’t stick-thin and everyone’s body image would significantly improve.

But that’s too easy. In reality, skinny models and mannequins don’t cause anyone to feel any way about their bodies. While we can’t always control the size of the T-shirts on Abercrombie’s shelves, we do have the power to walk through the overly cologned aisles without feeling bad about ourselves. So why don’t we arm people with the psychological tools to develop a healthy body image — even in spite of messages that can damage our self-esteem?

Perhaps it is easy to latch onto this guy’s sorry but unsurprising attitude about attractiveness, popularity, and so on.  But really, so what?  Things that are easy, however, not any the less true or worthwhile on account of their ease.

Further, note how the downplayer turns into a straw man: tweaking one or two things about stores or clothes sizes will not solve every single problem!  No kidding!  Who says it would?

Civility for jerks

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

fillmore

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.

Flopper

I thought this segment of the Daily Show underscored just what distinguishes it from much of the rest of Cable TV media.  Despite being a comedy show, they somehow managed, by the art of just stopping and thinking for a second, to show just how awful an arguer Paul Ryan is.  For Ryan, the former Republican Vice Presidential Candidate, accused Obama of straw manning him in his inaugural address.  From the Washington Post:

“I think when the president does kind of a switcheroo like that, what he’s trying to say is that we’re maligning these programs that people have earned throughout their working lives,” Ryan said. “So, it’s kind of a convenient twist of terms to try and shadowbox a straw man in order to win an argument by default, is essentially what that rhetorical device is that he uses, over and over and over.”

Yes, I found that incoherent as well.  In any case, the Daily Show pointed out in exquisite detail just how accurate Obama had been in referring to (without naming) Ryan.  Here’s Jonathan Chait doing the same thing.

Obviously Obama hasn’t done anything wrong.  So Ryan’s accusation of fallacy is specious.  Worse, it’s a akin to flopping: calling foul when there isn’t one is itself a kind of fallacious move, an attempt to sidetrack the conversation.  It deserves its own name.  Anyone?

Flopping is annoying in sports and it’s annoying in argument.  There should be some kind of penalty.

 

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. 

 

 

 
 

Fish tales

**Updates for clarity thanks to Brandon

Stanley Fish is still not worth reading.  He's the guy at the party who iron-mans the holocaust denier by straw manning the holocaust historian. 

On another matter–his fondness for false equivalence–he writes:

Dawkins and Pinker replied that you ask them to show you their evidence — the basis of their claim to be taken seriously — and then you show them yours, and you contrast the precious few facts they have with the enormous body of data collected and vetted by credentialed scholars and published in the discipline’s leading journals. Point, game, match.

Not quite. Pushed by Hayes, who had observed that when we accept the conclusions of scientific investigation we necessarily do so on trust (how many of us have done or could replicate the experiments?) and are thus not so different from religious believers, Dawkins and Pinker asserted that the trust we place in scientific researchers, as opposed to religious pronouncements, has been earned by their record of achievement and by the public rigor of their procedures. In short, our trust is justified, theirs is blind.

It was at this point that Dawkins said something amazing, although neither he nor anyone else picked up on it. He said: in the arena of science you can invoke Professor So-and-So’s study published in 2008, “you can actually cite chapter and verse.”

With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.

Really slowly: the list of items Fish mentions here (in bold) are prescriptions based on divine commands.  The chapter and verse Dawkins refers to are descriptions based on arguments.  They're just reported second hand. 

Those things are hugely different.