Tag Archives: Straw Man

Stop contradicting yourself

In the never begun quest to figure out why our children isn't learning, George Will hits upon the answer:

Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism — teachers should be mere "enablers" of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof. Other opponents are the teachers unions and their handmaiden, the Democratic Party. Today's liberals favor paternalism — you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance — for everyone except children. Odd.  

His argument would be better if he could find some representative liberal making that argument.  But alas.  Perhaps honesty is just too much to ask.

UPDATE: here's a more enlightening discussion of the same piece.  

Argumentum ad dictum

I can think of the Latin for "bumper sticker" (argumentum ad scriptum bigae in posteriore?).  But Bill Kristol gives us another example in today's Times (see here for another):

But the next morning, as I drove around the Washington suburbs, I saw not one but two cars — rather nice cars, as it happens — festooned with the Obama campaign bumper sticker “got hope?” And I relapsed into moroseness.

Got hope? Are my own neighbors’ lives so bleak that they place their hopes in Barack Obama? Are they impressed by the cleverness of a political slogan that plays off a rather cheesy (sorry!) campaign to get people to drink milk?

And what is it the bumper-sticker affixers are trying to say? Do they really believe their fellow citizens who happen to prefer McCain are hopeless? After all, just because you haven’t swooned like Herr Spörl doesn’t mean you don’t hope for a better world. Don’t McCain backers also have hope — for an America that wins its wars, protects its unborn children and allows its citizens to keep more of their hard-earned income?

But what if all those “got hope?” bumper stickers spur a backlash? It might occur to undecided or swing voters that talk of hope is not a substantive plan. They might be further put off by the haughtiness of Obama’s claim to the mantle of hope. This hope restored my spirits.

Before they fell again. Later that day, I read a report of a fund-raising letter from Obama on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, arguing that “We must have a deadlock-proof Democratic majority.”

Someone once claimed that all arguments are "ad hominem."  By this he obviously didn't mean that all arguments commit the fallacy of the same name, but he meant rather that all arguments are directed at some particular person's beliefs.  Regardless, the same principles of charity would apply.

Now this isn't the worst of Kristol's argument, as it is merely a set-up for an even sillier claim [continuing directly]:


But then it occurred to me that one man’s “deadlock-proof” Democratic majority is another’s unchecked Democratic majority. Given the unpopularity of the current Democratic Congress, given Americans’ tendency to prefer divided government, given the voters’ repudiations of the Republicans in 2006 and of the Democrats in 1994 — isn’t the prospect of across-the-board, one-party Democratic governance more likely to move votes to McCain than to Obama?

These are all certainly reasons related in the right kind of way to the conclusion (they won't elect Obama), but Kristol is guilty of two big mistakes.  The first is a priorism–while the evidence he mentions relates to the conclusion (even though the claim about the dissatisfaction with the "democratic" congress is misleading), the availability of empirical data makes such recourse to a priori notions unnecessary.  One can, in other words, track poll data now–poll data which paints a rather different picture (so he at least ought to argue against that).  Second, the repudiation of majorities 12 years a part does not demonstrate much (it's only two instances) about American distrust of one-party rule–besides, in neither of those years were their Presidential elections.

**update: here's someone's suggestion for bumper sticker: adfixum in obice.

Back in my day

Maybe we could call this the "grandpa argument": to anyone complaining of a misfortune, you reply by recounting misfortunes much worse.  So if someone says it's hot, tell him about when you forgot to turn on your air conditioning.  When someone says school is hard, tell them about when you went to school and had to run both ways uphill in the snow with bricks.

Robert Samuelson offers us a nice example of this.  He writes:

The specter of depression stalks America. You hear the word repeatedly. Are we in a depression? If not, are we headed for one? The answer to the first question is no; the answer to the second is "almost certainly not." The use of "depression" to describe the economy is a case of rhetorical overkill that speaks volumes about today's widespread pessimism and anxiety. A short history lesson shows why

I haven't heard the word "depression" at all (and my quick and informal Google search did not produce anything serious).  I've certainly heard the word "recession," which is a much different thing.  So who is Samuelson talking about?  He doesn't really say.  And this isn't just a lead in.  He's serious.  He concludes:

We are relearning an old lesson: The business cycle isn't dead. Prosperity's pleasures breed complacency and inspire mistakes that, in time, boomerang on financial markets, job creation and production. Just as expansions ultimately tend to self-destruct, so downswings tend to generate self-correcting forces. People pay down debts; pent-up demand develops; surviving companies expand. The Great Depression was an exception. The present economy would have to get much, much, much worse before it warranted the same appraisal.

So there you have it.  Samuelson has conjured up a non-existent opponent, and soundly defeated him.  Now the funny thing is this.  Normally one makes such arguments in order to defeat much stronger ones–or so goes the strategy of the straw man.  Samuelson, however, doesn't seem to suggest that much.  So, while today may be no Great Depression, it doesn't mean that it's not a "recession" (which is another, more interesting question Samuelson might have spent more time addressing).

You make me so mad

The proliferation of global warming deniers occupying the highest echelons of the Republican political and intellectual structure (need they be listed here?) notwithstanding, Al Gore is really partisan–and on top of that, some environmentalists seem not to value people more than plants.  So if anyone is responsible for the failure of environmentalism, Michael Gerson argues, it's them.  While we're at it, if anyone is responsible for the failure of women's rights, it's those annoying feminists:

Some Republicans and conservatives are prone to an ideologically motivated skepticism. On AM talk radio, where scientific standards are not particularly high, the attitude seems to be: "If Al Gore is upset about carbon, we must need more of it." Gore's partisan, conspiratorial anger is annoying, yet not particularly relevant to the science of this issue.

This points, however, to a broader problem. Any legislation ambitious enough to cut carbon emissions significantly and encourage new energy technologies will require a broad political and social consensus. Nothing this complex and expensive gets done on a party-line vote. Yet many environmental leaders seem unpracticed at coalition-building. They tend to be conventionally, if not radically, liberal. They sometimes express a deep distrust for capitalism and hostility to the extractive industries. Their political strategy consists mainly of the election of Democrats. Most Republican environmental efforts are quickly pronounced "too little, too late."

Even worse, a disturbing minority of the environmental movement seems to view an excess of human beings, not an excess of carbon emissions, as the world's main problem. In two recent settings, I have heard China's one-child policy praised as an answer to the environmental crisis — a kind of totalitarianism involving coerced birth control or abortion. I have no objection to responsible family planning. But no movement will succeed with this argument: Because we in the West have emitted so much carbon, there needs to be fewer people who don't look like us.

Human beings are not the enemy of sound environmental policy; they are the primary reason sound environmental policy is necessary.

If the movement to confront climate change is perceived as partisan, anti-capitalist and hostile to human life, it is likely to fail, causing suffering for many, including the ice bears. And so the question arises: Will the environment survive the environmentalists?

Now in some respect this might be sound practical advice.  But really, I think Gerson has blamed the unreasonable excesses of the Conservative movement on their perception (which is in reality a caricature) of the environmental movement.  That caricature, of course, exists primarily in their minds.  Sure, you can find some pretty jerky environmentalists, but you need not consider them the key representatives of the movement.

Built on sand

George Will compares the housing "crisis" (his scare quotes) to another one of his famous pseudo crises:

The housing perhaps-not-entirely-a-crisis resembles, in one particular, the curious consensus about the global warming "crisis," concerning which, the assumption is: Although Earth's temperature has risen and fallen through many millennia, the temperature was exactly right when, in the 1960s, Al Gore became interested in the subject.

There is a big difference, someone ought to point out, between the "climate" and the "weather" or the "temperature" at any given year.  Suggesting that these are the same–and then pointing out how silly global warming is–is just dumb.  I'm not even sure if this would rise to the standard of the straw man.  At least with the straw man you have to approximate someone's real argument in order to make the deception work.    

Anyway, on the strength of this astounding misunderstanding, Will launches into an a priori, and rhetorical-question-driven, assault on the housing crisis.  He writes: 

Are we to assume that last year, when housing prices were, say, 10 percent higher than they are now, they were exactly right? If so, why is that so? Because the market had set those prices, therefore they were where they belonged? But if the market was the proper arbiter of value then, why is it not the proper arbiter now? Whatever happened to the belief, way back in 2007, that there was a housing "bubble"? Or to the more ancient consensus that, because of, among other things, the deductibility of mortgage interest payments from taxable income, too much American capital flows into the housing stock?

Where's the drooling dunce who holds the position Will ever so skillfully skewers (that's two alliterations) here?  Nowhere I bet.  People may be wrong about the nature of the housing issue–they may even exaggerate it in a bit of political hyperbole–but Will should do us a favor of describing someone's actual position rather than the a priori incoherence of a straw man's position. 

Shopworn Panaceas

A frequent question among our chattering classes is whether our children is learning.  The answer seems to be no, they isn't.  What would explain that?  George Will has the answer:

Moynihan also knew that schools cannot compensate for the disintegration of families and hence communities — the primary transmitters of social capital. No reform can enable schools to cope with the 36.9 percent of all children and 69.9 percent of black children today born out of wedlock, which means, among many other things, a continually renewed cohort of unruly adolescent males. 

If you think the solution–the only solution, the panacea, as it were–is a rise in teacher salaries then George Will is going to prove you wrong:

Chester Finn, a former Moynihan aide, notes in his splendid new memoir ("Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik") that during the Depression-era job scarcity, high schools were used to keep students out of the job market, shunting many into nonacademic classes. By 1961, those classes had risen to 43 percent of all those taken by students. After 1962, when New York City signed the nation's first collective bargaining contract with teachers, teachers began changing from members of a respected profession into just another muscular faction fighting for more government money. Between 1975 and 1980 there were a thousand strikes involving a million teachers whose salaries rose as students' scores on standardized tests declined.

In 1964, SAT scores among college-bound students peaked. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) codified confidence in the correlation between financial inputs and cognitive outputs in education. But in 1966, the Coleman report, the result of the largest social science project in history, reached a conclusion so "seismic" — Moynihan's description — that the government almost refused to publish it.

We've already established that teachers' salaries have nothing to do with output, haven't we?  But lo, continuing from above:

Released quietly on the Fourth of July weekend, the report concluded that the qualities of the families from which children come to school matter much more than money as predictors of schools' effectiveness. The crucial common denominator of problems of race and class — fractured families — would have to be faced.

But it wasn't. Instead, shopworn panaceas — larger teacher salaries, smaller class sizes — were pursued as colleges were reduced to offering remediation to freshmen.

Couldn't it be, however, that smaller class sizes and higher teacher salaries are goods to be pursued regardless of their effectiveness at fixing a social problem they're not supposed to be fixing?  Who could dispute that teachers ought to be well compensated for the very important work they do (I'll exclude myself from that work–what I do is not really work)?  What parent would not want her or his child in a smaller rather than a larger class?

More importantly, where is the social scientist who would claim that paying teachers more will remedy the various social problems produced–get this–as a result of income inequality?  Indeed, while we're at the correlation game, why don't we correlate family incomes and stability with the absence of well compensated, union labor?  Since Mr.Will is so interested in quantitative social science, perhaps he might find the results so alarming he'd refuse to read them until the Fourth of July, at night.

So to sum up.  Teachers' salaries may have nothing to do with educational outputs.  But that's not why teachers should have higher salaries in the first place.  Second, the social problems kids bring to school stem in no insignificant way from economic inequalities faced by their parents.  These may come together at school, no one expects the school to solve anything but what the school can solve.   But teachers and schools ought not to be punished just because they can't solve that which they aren't suited to solve.