Tag Archives: Straw Man

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I normally don't read the Post's election blog posts primarily because they're blog posts, but this one from Sebastian Mallaby, "Obama's Faulty Logic," caught my eye.  I thought, "perhaps someone has caught Obama in a crazy non sequitur I can talk about here." 

Then I read it and it occured to me that Mallaby thinks logic means something else than I do.  But that's interesting anyway, because I often wonder what people who haven't been teaching it for many years think it is (feel free to comment on that).  When I use the term, I mean something rather specific.  I mean to point out the part of an argument that takes one from one fact to another fact.  This is what logicians call an "inference."  Even though this has to do with the facts in some very important sense, one can isolate the inference and see it as part of a larger pattern, a scheme, or whatever, independent of the particular facts.  To say someone has faulty logic, for me, means he endorses faulty inference patterns or schemes.  

For Mallaby it means something like there's something wrong with the thinking without any specific attempt at a diagnosis.  In this particular case, in fact, he just seems to think Obama has wrongly diagnosed the cause of the current financial crisis.  That's fine–so long as he attempts to prove it (which, to my mind, he doesn't, but that's another matter).  Then Mallaby, swinging about accusations of faulty logic, writes:

The regulation-versus-deregulation rhetoric is appealingly simple, and both parties abuse it. Republicans like to say they will get the economy going by cutting red tape. Democrats like to say that they will make the economy more stable by demanding rational oversight. Neither claim is worth much.

The Republicans fail to acknowledge that the easy economic gains from deregulation were exhausted more than two decades ago, when clearly destructive restrictions on competition in trucking, airlines and so on were scrapped by Carter and Reagan. The Democrats fail to acknowledge that there is a limit to what government oversight can do. Modern financial institutions are so complex that government inspectors are hard pressed to understand their trading strategies. That is why an outfit such as Citigroup, a deposit-taking institution theoretically overseen by multiple government bodies including the Fed, could park billions of dollars of toxic mortgage securities in off-balance-sheet vehicles, with nary a protest from regulators.

Yes, Wall Street's woes reflect greed and reckless borrowing. And yes, some regulatory reform is necessary. But you can't blame the mess on either political party — at least not if you want to remain honest.

It's staggering to say that more rational oversight wouldn't have helped.  But it's silly to say that anyone, even Democrats, would argue that oversight would solve all problems.  That, in fact, is a bit of a George Will style straw man–one which has the liberals demanding that the government will prevent every wrong if it's allowed to.  Obviously some amount of nefarious activity will take place, and unless Obama says that the government will stop every problem, cure every sickness and so on, then Mallaby is making Obama's position more absurd than it needs to be.  

It's fine, in other words, for Mallaby to correct Obama's assertions–that's his job, I think at least.  But accusing him of faulty logic when he's not guilty of it–even in Mallaby's enlarged sense–doesn't help anyone. 

Now you tell me

In today's New York Times David Brooks argues that Sarah Palin does not have the experience to be Vice President and therefore President.  He joins a growing chorus (he says) of conservative pundits who make this argument.  I can't say of course that I disagree with him or them.  But my interest in punditry here has little to do with agreement or disagreement.  For even in getting to this obvious conclusion, that Palin does not have the requisite experience to be a candidate for such an office, Brooks still encounters logical difficulty.  He cannot escape what has become the single most defining rhetorical trope of his intellectual career–the dichotomy. 

Brooks's dichotomies are not always fallacious ones–it's more often the case in fact that they are not.  A false dichotomy, the reader may remember, suggests two radically opposed and exhaustive possibilities, one completely ridiculous, one your view, as a means of suggesting your view has a kind of deductive support.  On further reflection, of course, one finds there are many shades of opposition to your view, so therefore the dichotomy, and the force it gives your position, is false.  So, for instance, you either endorse constitutional overreach, or you support the enemy and are thus a traitor.  Since one does not want to be a traitor, one finds one must support constitutional overreach.  But then it occurs to one that maybe there are other alternatives to constitutional overreach, so one discovers the dichotomy is false.  That's the fallacious false dichotomy.  Don't get me wrong, Brooks does it a lot.  Today, however, it just the rhetorically false dichotomy.  He writes:

There was a time when conservatives did not argue about this. Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against radical egalitarianism and the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said.

But, especially in America, there has always been a separate, populist, strain. For those in this school, book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected. The city is corrupting and the universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools.

The elitists favor sophistication, but the common-sense folk favor simplicity. The elitists favor deliberation, but the populists favor instinct.

This populist tendency produced the term-limits movement based on the belief that time in government destroys character but contact with grass-roots America gives one grounding in real life. And now it has produced Sarah Palin.

People may think this has a kind of sophistication to it–wow Brooks can really distill cultural, economic, and political tendencies can't he!–but it's rather a silly way of looking at complex historical, cultural, etc., phenomena.  He has, in other words, just pulled this out of his ass.  A minimum of inspection will reveal these things are hardly as opposed as he suggests–especially the small town/big city dichotomy.  

Where he gets into logical trouble today is elsewhere, however.  He continues the narrative that Democratic elites' main objection consists in the fact that Palin does not eat arugula:

Palin is the ultimate small-town renegade rising from the frontier to do battle with the corrupt establishment. Her followers take pride in the way she has aroused fear, hatred and panic in the minds of the liberal elite. The feminists declare that she’s not a real woman because she doesn’t hew to their rigid categories. People who’ve never been in a Wal-Mart think she is parochial because she has never summered in Tuscany.

Look at the condescension and snobbery oozing from elite quarters, her backers say. Look at the endless string of vicious, one-sided attacks in the news media. This is what elites produce. This is why regular people need to take control.

These two paragraphs distill the Palin/McCain campaign's political strategy: call everyone who disagrees with Sarah Palin a cultural elite, characterize the media as the enemy, and so forth.  It's one massive straw man.  But as long as they keep fighting it, the media will keep covering it, remarking on McCain's brilliant strategy in attacking the straw man, and in knocking him down, all the while they will keep asking why Obama can't get them interested in a real fight, and why this makes Obama weak.

But back to Brooks.  Having repeated eight years' worth of straw men, he joins the opposition and claims their arguments, repeated anywhere and everywhere for the last eight plus years, as his own:

And there’s a serious argument here. In the current Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward argues that the nation’s founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin.

But before I get to those, I should remark that the above argument would be a false dichotomy.  There's an obvious middle ground between a separate class of executives and caricatured portraits of mountain folk.  But I digress, back to Brooks's agreement with everything he has ridiculed:

I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.

And the problem with this attitude is that, especially in his first term, it made Bush inept at governance. It turns out that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills. Most of all, it requires prudence.

Yes.  And I think of all of the energetic sophistries Brooks has produced in favor of this ineptness.  

Better off

Now perhaps that the answer is likely to be "sadly, no," George Will no longer wants to hear the question: "are you better off than you were four years ago?"  In all fairness, his problem is McCain's use of this very Reaganite phrase.  When Reagan used it, of course, it made sense:

The nation considered the answer obvious. Reeling from oil shocks worse than today's, with 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran and with the Soviet Union rampant in Afghanistan, voters resoundingly said no. Today we know that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan hastened the collapse of the Evil Empire, so some things that seem to make us worse off are not unmixed curses.

Take heart America, look on the bright side.  In Will's defense, there are any number of reasons to reject this particular political device.  I might say in the first place that McCain looks like a fool asking it, considering his the Republican candidate for President.  As Will points out, it's a fairly vague question, but I would say that's its rhetorical, not logical, appeal.  Here is, however, one reason not to reject it:

The people asking and those answering the "better off" question seem to assume that the only facts that matter are those that can be expressed as economic statistics. Statistics are fine as far as they go, but they do not go very far in measuring life as actually lived.

No one really assumes that economic facts are the only relevant ones.  And it also would be supremely  disingenuous to suggest the question ought to consider the accumulation of good memories:

Suppose in those years you read "Middlemarch," rediscovered Fred Astaire's movies, took up fly-fishing, saw Chartres and acquired grandchildren. Even if the value of your stock portfolio is down since 2004 (the Dow actually is up), are you not decidedly better off?

Sheez.  Most people hearing that question would assume its non of the asker's business whether they've had a good time in their personal life these past four years.  But what looked initially like straw man in its misrepresentation of the question, now turns into an excursus on the meaning of life, David Brooks style:

We do, unfortunately, live, as Edmund Burke lamented, in an age of "economists and calculators" who are eager to reduce all things to the dust of numeracy, neglecting what Burke called "the decent drapery of life." In this supposedly rational and scientific age, the thirst for simple metrics seduces people into a preoccupation with things that lend themselves to quantification.

Self-consciously "modern" people have an urge to reduce assessments of their lives to things that can be presented in tables, charts and graphs — personal and national economic statistics. This sharpens their minds by narrowing them. Such people might as well measure out their lives in coffee spoons.

So now if you care to consider your economic status now versus four years ago, you measure your life in coffee spoons?  Now it's a false dichotomy: you either consider your reading of Middlemarch, your grandchildren, and baseball fandom have made your life better (despite your home foreclosure and costs of medication), or you are an economic reductionist.  

We’ll get hit again

William Safire must not have cable TV, internet, or newspaper delivery wherever he is spending is retirement.  He writes:

“Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country,” he cried angrily. “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t keep us safe.” Who’s telling him that? By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book. He promised to “restore our moral standing” (shades of Jimmy Carter) “so that America is once more the last, best hope for” (Lincoln wrote of) “all who are called to the cause of freedom” (shades of George W. Bush). But does he apply that idealist “cause of freedom” to the invaded Georgians? He didn’t say.

You have absolutely got to be kidding me.  Who is telling him that?  That claim–that Democrats won't defend you–has been the cornerstone of the right's argument against the Democrats for seven years–made in various forms by nearly every one of their intellectual and political superstars.

But he's right.  It is a 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.