Tag Archives: iron man fallacy

Philosophy15 on Swamping and Spitballing

A new episode at Philosophy15 is up, and in it Talisse and I talk through the related phenomena of what we’d been calling in our old 3QD piece, Spitballing and Swamping.  The topic’s gotten good coverage here at the NS, but it’s worth noting that spitballing has a close connection to what John and I have been calling the iron man.  (An earlier post about the connection here.)

The connection is that with spitballing, a speaker makes a number of statements, mostly controversial, usually vague, and always memorable, and waits for people to react.  When they respond critically, one strategy is for the spitballer to then say that they’ve interpreted the statement incorrectly — that’s not what I said!  And then follow up with more stuff, or rely on allies to craft interpretations of the statement that are more plausible.  Hence, spitball and rely on iron-manners in the background.

Swamping is still a concept in the works.  One version of it is that it is the use of spitballs to completely fill the space of discussion with matters that are pure distraction.  And so, for example, one may be enraged with the tweets from an orange monster and the consequent iron-manning the monster’s minions pursue in light of criticism, but this distracts us from the policy decisions the orange monster’s other minions are making at the EPA or in the Department of Energy.  Moreover, it makes it impossible to have any discussion that is not about the spitballer.  The crucial thing about swamping, then, is that we are in a way complicit with the strategy, because it’s we who go along with the outrage and drama of spitball consequences.  We, as it were, pull the wool over our own eyes.

The debriefing paradigm

Image result for trump cartoons twitter

Readers will be familiar with this weekend’s POTUS tweet accusing former President Obama of authorizing wiretaps of Trump Tower. The controversy surrounding these tweets regarded the apparent baselessness of the claim (or its apparent base in Brietbart news). As of this AM (as far as I know) the POTUS has refused to offer clarification on the question of the basis of his claim.  Background here in case you’re behind.

This hasn’t stopped his court followers from coming out to iron man his claim. This is a pattern we’ve seen before. Trump says something manifestly false or outrageous, then come people to interpret what he says to sound more reasonable than it actually was. That’s the iron man. What differentiates Trump from, say, Palin is that she had the sense (or lack thereof) to shut up about it after (usually). Trump tends to reject the iron man version of his view. It’s what makes him strong and decisive.

Here’s another variation on Trump’s strategy:

I have learned that some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump’s inner circle share his belief that the Obama administration tapped his Trump Tower phones in October. And a White House official told me President Trump not only doesn’t regret this weekend’s fracas despite the lack of evidence for his astonishing claim, he is “absolutely convinced” he’ll be vindicated.

“The president just has a great nose for these things,” the official said. “It’s the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers.”

This, by the way, is a variation on “spitballing,” identified by Talisse and Aikin at 3quarksdaily and discussed again here.

But there’s a parallel to another interesting case of epistemic failure.

Contrary to the what the source above says, Trump will not, of course, have a good point to make in any epistemically meaningful sense: he didn’t offer any relevant evidence (and apparently doesn’t have any, note the “if”). What’s amazing, however, is that the destruction of the basing belief here (the wiretap) doesn’t seem to undermine the case at all in the mind of the source. Such a failure at belief revision has long baffled psychologists. You can read about that here.

It runs basically like this. You give people a false belief on purpose, then you tell them that you gave them a false belief. Then you ask whether they continue to believe the false belief. Oddly, and sadly, they usually do. This explains, I think, the basic strategy of spitballing Trump-style: say a bunch of false things because once they’re out there and people believe them, they will continue to do so in the face of fact checking, even of the most direct variety.

The Transformer Man

Every critical engagement requires some critic A to represent some B’s position p. Ideally, A accurately presents B’s p in addressing it. Sadly, it’s never that simple. What counts as B’s p is often very difficult to determine. It’s especially difficult because of A’s urge to score points on B and B’s desire not to be scored on. With regard to the latter, B has a number of options. One is to change positions. One way to do this is to “move the goalposts.”  Moving the goalposts is a question of degree. Say B argues for some p, but the evidence for p doesn’t stack up, so B claims some diminished form of p, call it p*. This, with little p and p*, by the way, is how you do philosophy.

Now consider another version of this. B clearly argues for p. But it turns out that p is false. B doesn’t modify p with p*, but rather replaces p with q. All along, B alleges, q was meant. By implication, A’s an idiot or dishonest for not understanding this.

This is what is going on here (Conor Lynch at Salon.com):

As Trump has packed his administration with lobbyists and industry insiders, many liberal commentators have mocked Trump voters as misinformed, credulous idiots, while shoving his swampy cabinet picks in their faces. Such liberals have missed something fundamental about Trump’s populist rhetoric. For many of the millions who voted for Trump, the “swamp” in Washington doesn’t necessarily denote corporate insiders, Wall Street executives and K-Street lobbyists — as those of us on the left visualize — but arrogant technocrats, bookish intellectuals and politically correct liberal elites who are indifferent to the struggles of the “forgotten men and women” in middle America.

I can’t think of a more strained reading of the “drain the swamp” than this. Here’s an analysis, if you’re interested, of the actual words and context.  I don’t mean to deny that Trump might be “anti-intellectual,” whatever that might mean. Rather, this is not at all what he meant by that phrase (he has admitted that he didn’t like it). I can tell because the author of this piece doesn’t bother trying to make the case for this interpretation. He’s just substituted it in. He’s switched goalposts.  Of course on this method just about anything counts as “draining the swamp.”

This all turns out to be hugely insulting to the people (gleeful liberals included) who took Trump literally when he said “drain the swamp”. The funny thing about this is that Lynch doesn’t appear to be some kind of Trump surrogate. He’s just offered up this crazy interpretation on his own, for no reason.

So we have something totally novel (something identified, by the way, by one of Scott’s daughters). Instead of A and B and p, we have A and B and C and p and q. A charges B’s p is false. B replies that it was not p but p*. C comes along and says that B never argued for p or p*, but rather q and that A and B are both idiots. What do we call C, then? C is the Transformer Man.

A golden age of iron manning

Donald Trump has, somewhat ironically, ushered in a golden age of iron manning.  Here’s how it goes: Candidate Trump says something false, crazy, racist, etc., and Trump surrogate  appears somewhere to recast what he said as totally reasonable. This is now a daily occurrence, so you can fill in your own examples (here’s one).

The iron man works best when the person who’s getting iron-manned plays along. Oddly, this doesn’t always work with Trump. He often seems unaware that he needs help. Here is Trump supporter Hugh Hewitt trying (and failing) to iron man him:

I’ve got two more questions. Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

DT: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.

HH: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

DT: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?

HH: Well, that, you know, I have a saying, Donald Trump, the mnemonic device I use is Every Liberal Really Seems So, So Sad. E is for Egypt, L is for Libya, S is for Syria, R is for Russia reset. They screwed everything up. You don’t get any argument from me. But by using the term founder, they’re hitting with you on this again. Mistake?

DT: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it. I give him the most valuable player award. And I give it to him, and I give it to, I gave the co-founder to Hillary. I don’t know if you heard that.

I’m informed now that Trump finally gotten the picture. Turns out it was sarcasm. Yeah, like’s that’s good defense.

Popular Science positively starves the trolls

Popular Science has completely shut off comments for their articles, citing trolling at their number one reason.  Given our interest here at the NS in the don’t feed the trolls maxim and our fixation on the Iron Man Fallacy, it’s worth a shot thinking this through.  I’ve got a defense of the decision over at WWA, especially against the Will Oremus charge that it’s a form of scientific dogmatism (or as he says: “Lazy and Wrong“).

See my post at WWA.  HERE.

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.

They believe in nothing

Two semi-related items today.  First, here's Newt Gingrich's version of the secularism has caused mass shootings argument, from Thinkprogress:

When you have an anti-religious, secular bureaucracy and secular judiciary seeking to drive God out of public life, something fills the vacuum. And that something, you know, I don’t know that going from communion to playing war games in which you practice killing people is necessarily an improvement.

What is "secular bureaucracy"?  Is it anything not identifical with the Cardinalium Collegium?  And the secular judiciary?  I wonder what kinds of judgements a non-secular judiciary would or could impose.  I'll leave that to you as an exercise.

Second item.  Here is DougJ at Balloon Juice on the Megan McArdle comment the other day. 

In case you missed ABL’s post yesterday, this appears to be Megan McArdle’s principled libertarian position on preventing mass shootings:

I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once

For now, people are mostly making fun of this idiocy (Sullivan; Chait; Josh Marshall), but I wonder: how long til someone at Slate takes the contrarian position “sure, it’s easy to mock Megan McArdle for saying this but once you get past the conventional wisdom of our hippie overlords you will see the logic, and, empirically, the Finns have a proud tradition of shooter-rushing, which children learn from an early age, and they have a much lower rate of mass shootings blah blah blah”.

Yes, I too wonder whether McArdle will get iron-manned.  Another exercise: let's see some Iron Men of McArdle's argument.




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 men at the Washington Post

Some classic iron manning from the Washington Post's Ombudsman (via Media Matters and Atrios):

When President Obama has a bad day, or more specifically, on days when the economic news has been bad, I get a slew of feedback from conservative readers that go like this:

“See, you liberal media nincompoops, this is all your fault, you treated Obama like a saint when he was running in 2007 and 2008 and you didn’t vet him, investigate him, report on him skeptically. You were so fawning (and adoring of his blackness), you missed that he was a (pick your adjective), radical, socialist, Muslim, inexperienced, dangerous, corrupt, weak Chicago politician with no track record of accomplishment, whose only talent is giving speeches.”

Those e-mails usually employ much harsher language, and some are filled with expletives.

If you watched the Republican debate Thursday night, you heard a muted version of this criticism of Obama from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. (Although Ron Paul almost never mentioned Obama, he criticized the entire system of government instead.)

Deborah Howell, Post ombudsman from 2005 through 2008, said at the end of her tenure that “some of the conservatives’ complaints about a liberal tilt [at The Post] are valid.”

I won’t quibble with her conclusion. I think she was right. I read all of The Post’s lengthier, meatier stories on Obama published from October 2006 through Election Day 2008. That was about 120 stories, and tens of thousands of words, including David Maraniss’s 10,000-word profile about Obama’s Hawaii years, which I liked.

I think there was way too little coverage of his record in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate, for example, with one or two notably good exceptions. But there were hard-hitting stories too, even a very tough one on Michelle Obama’s job at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

And that’s what The Post needs to do in covering his reelection campaign this year: be hard-hitting on his record and provide fresh insight and plenty of context to put the past three rough years into perspective.

I suppose it's a factual question (to some extent at least) as to whether the Post's coverage of Obama was light on skepticism.  (My guess is that it was as bad as their other work–they pay George Will for petesake).  The funny thing here, however, is the occasion for this moment of self-reflection. 

A person full of conspiracy-driven blather about Obama's race, religion, and socialism (Goldman Sachs style I can only guess) alleges that the Washington Post failed to be skeptical about Obama's race, religion, socialism is for the Ombudsperson a reason to reconsider its coverage of Obama.  Why?  Because he turned out to be a socialist?  Sheesh.