Tag Archives: iron man fallacy

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.

 

 

Conditionalization

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. 

 

Meat stoking, plenty of it

I've been thinking of the reverse straw man for a bit now.  Following the suggestions of some friends and commenters at the Mid South, one variation of the too charitable straw man we might call the "iron man."  This is when someone's weak argument–or some weak arguer–is made stronger by irrelevant and inappropriate charity.  Too often this inappropriate charity comes from people who ought to know better.  And trolls depend on troll enablers.

The Onion, of all places, seems to get this.  Here's their take on Michelle Bachmann:

Michele Bachmann Announces Bid To Be Discussed More Than She Deserves In 2012

That pretty much sums it up.  Bachmann makes Bush look like Aristotle.  Not iron-manning every incoherent utterance.  I heard this yesterday on NPR:

ELLIOTT: I think the reception that Minnesota Congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, got here. She was really the star of the day. The crowd even sort of mobbed the stage when she finished her speech. And she really gave this conservative crowd just what they were looking for: plenty of meat stoking the anti-President Obama fervor that was rumbling through the crowd.

She attacked the president's health care overhaul. She attacked his energy policy, as well as his handling of the economy.

Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): We know what works. It's cutting spending. It's growing the economy. It's doing what free markets do, and what economic superpowers do. And Mr. President, you're no economic superpower.

I think it's a stretch to call this an "attack" on the President's handling of the economy.  Maybe it would be more appropriate to say that she said words which on the most charitble interpretation were probably meant as criticism of Obama on the economy.  Anything more would be iron-manning.  The sample clip doesn't begin to make sense–it begs the question (it's growing the economy!), ignores basic economics (cutting spending!), and it equivocates on "economic superpower" (in the first it's a property of nations, then it's denied of Barack Obama).