Tag Archives: Straw Man

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.  

Romney won’t say anything to get elected

Mitt Romney has learned a thing or two about electoral politics.  He's learned, for instance, that if you say anything specific about anything, people will challenge it.  What he takes away from this is that if you make an argument, people will distort it.  He says:

One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney recalled. “So I think it’s important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. So for instance, I anticipate that housing vouchers will be turned over to the states rather than be administered at the federal level, and so at this point I think of the programs to be eliminated or to be returned to the states, and we’ll see what consolidation opportunities exist as a result of those program eliminations. So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.

Sadly, this has been reported this way by the "liberal" media (in this case, Jonathan Chait): "Mitt: I Won’t Detail Plans, Because Then I’d Lose".  This is not really what it says, but it kind of makes his point.  His point is that if he says anything, people will attack a distorted version of it.  And this is exactly what Jonathan Chait has done with this one. 

Ironically, Romney is clueless as to how the "liberal" media works.  You see, when Republican Paul Ryan outlined a plan undoing the single-payer health system called "medicare," replacing it with a voucher-based Obama/Romney model called by the same name, Democrats rightly pointed out that such a move amounted to eliminating medicare.  This correct observation earned the Democrats, not the Republicans, the "lie of the year" award from politifact.

Doubly ironically, Romney's failure to offer any kind of plan at all for fear of having is plan misrepresented forces everyone to do what he fears: make them up.

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.

My views are underappreciated by those who disagree with my views

There is a natural tendency to iron man one's own arguments; that's why self-assessment is not an accurate measure of a position's cogency. It also often turns out that such self-ironmanning comes along with underestimating the strength of positions opposed to one's own. For, perhaps if one's arguments aren't so strong, the alternatives a super weak. Key to this strategy is keeping oneself from exposure to the alternatives. Ergo, Fox News. The arguments, whatever their merits, for the alternatives to whatever it is that Fox supports don't get heard there (at least now that Alan Colmes is gone). The other strategy is constantly to complain about how one's arguments don't get treated fairly. Thus, "liberal media." Thus again, Fox News. The diehard Fox News person knows in advance of the critique, so can't be swayed by it.

On this same theme, here is Paul Ryan via Paul Krugman:

“Just last week, the president told a crowd in North Carolina that Republicans are in favor of, quote, ‘dirtier air, dirtier water and less people with health insurance,’ ” Mr. Ryan said at a gathering at The Heritage Foundation on Oct. 26. “Can you think of a pettier way to describe sincere disagreements between the two parties on regulation and health care?”

He makes some good points.  But here is Paul Ryan himself:

Do you remember what he said? He said that what’s stopped us from meeting our nation’s greatest challenges is, quote, “the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And yet, nearly three years into his presidency, look at where we are now:

Petty and trivial? Just last week, the President told a crowd in North Carolina that Republicans are in favor of, quote, “dirtier air, dirtier water, and less people with health insurance.” Can you think of a pettier way to describe sincere disagreements between the two parties on regulation and health care? Chronic avoidance of tough decisions? The President still has not put forward a credible plan to tackle the threat of ever-rising spending and debt, and it’s been over 900 days since his party passed a budget in the Senate. A preference for scoring cheap political points instead of consensus-building? This is the same President who is currently campaigning against a do-nothing Congress, when in fact, the House of Representatives has passed over a dozen bills to help get the economy moving and deal with the debt, only to see the President’s party kill those bills in the do-nothing Senate.

"TL:DR: The President has harsh words for our positions on the problem of health insurance and the environment, but what about the problem of red herring?  (or why isn't he worklng on the economy?) " Ryan does not in fact challenge the accuracy of the accuracy of the statement about the environment and he barely addresses the health insurance question (other than to repeat that tax cuts will solve the problem). That has not proven to be a solution, except to those whose brains have been occupied by Wall Street.

The funny thing, I think, about the tendency to make one's case entirely in the form of a complaint that one doesn't get to make one's case–which is effectively what Ryan does here–is that one never makes one's case.  Whatever its merits, the Democrats did something about the health insurance problem, somethinng like what Mitt Romney advocated as governor of Massachussets.

The natural response here of course will be that pointing this out is itself unfair, etc.  I don't believe that tax cuts will solve all problems because I'm opposed to it and I underestimate the strength of the arguments for it.  I do this probably because I am petty.