Tag Archives: iron manning


Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a nice piece up at 3Quarks Daily about the constraints of certain argument contexts. They write:

In the real world of political talk, getting the last word is often what counts most. This is especially the case where political talk is conducted in the limited space between commercial breaks.

The limitations of time and space are also a problem for real life, but that’s another story. The time constraints (John Stewart, by the way, had a great segment on this on the Daily Show–“CNN leaves it here” or something, but it’s long gone.) In that segment, people would start conversing, then CNN would run out of time, despite having a 24-hour span of time in which to develop arguments. You’d think, but you’d be wrong, that they could develop this stuff in depth.

Anyway, back to Aikin and Talisse. They call this “spitballing” and it works like this:

The derailing strategy we have in mind may be called spitballing. At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer’s dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one’s slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer’s interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.

Here is how this plays out over time:

Consequently, the spitballer controls the discussion by derailing any attempt to scrutinize what he has said; thus, in a very real sense, he always speaks unopposed. Meanwhile, public conversation is dominated by counterfeit ideas; popular political discourse is crowded out by a mode of exchange that merely mimics dialogue; and the pressing political issues that face the nation remain undiscussed.

The spitballer trolls in real life. You can’t evaluate what the spitballer says because there is no way to fix on it. Here is another thing. The spitballer relies on the requirement of charity for us to pick out the best of the many views. But even then, he can always claim we’ve straw manned him. And he can always call upon his minions to iron man what he’s spitballed.

Bad arguments get bad replies

A student of mine is a lapsed vegetarian–with vegetarian parents. They object, for religious and ethical reasons, to his meat eating.   He retorts with the following argument:

If it’s wrong to eat animals because they’re living creatures, it’s wrong to eat plants, because they’re also living creatures.

My student acknowledges that this is a weak argument but nonetheless reports that this is a successful rejoinder to the extent that his parents do not reply.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that this is the case.  Let’s further say, again for the sake of argument, that the parents’ argument is both weak in itself and weakly held by them.

This means that his parents do not have (or do not share) very good reasons for their vegetarianism.  So, the student replies to a weak argument with an equally weak argument.  When I raised this point, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “what does it matter?  It does the job.”

Students of argumentation, in my limited experience, tend to study either bad arguments or bad replies, but not both together.  And in this case, the bad reply is offered on purpose, because a better reply isn’t necessary.

I’m inclined to think this is wrong, and that the student owes the parents (and himself) a better reply to a better argument.   I say this because he’s aware of how bad his own argument is.  On the other hand, his parents haven’t offered a very good defense, and answering a better argument would be iron manning them.

Iron manning means not having to know what you’re defending

As devoted Non Sequitur readers know, the iron man is a kind of reverse straw man.  This is to say that it’s unjustifiably strengthening someone’s argument so as more easily to defend it.  This interview with Sarah Palin is the very essence of iron manning.  You see, Palin doesn’t even need to know what Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynast, has said (or what the criticisms of it are) for her to defend him.  From TPM:

Fox News host Greta Van Susteren asked Palin if she took issue with the manner in which “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson made his comments, which Van Susteren characterized as “graphic” and “offensive,” even if she agreed with the substance of what Robertson said.

“I haven’t read the article. I don’t know exactly how he said it,” Palin responded. “But what he was doing was in response to a question about a lifestyle he disagrees with, and yet he has said over and over again he doesn’t hate the person engaging in a lifestyle he disagrees with.”

That speaks for itself.  For reference, here’s what he said (from the GQ article):

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

Then there’s this (which is just kind of hilarious):

For the sake of the Gospel, it was worth it,” Phil tells me. “All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.

For the record, Islam includes more than 0 percent Jesus, and it’s also more than 80 years old.

The Godwinator

Fig.1: Obamacare analogy

George Will, whose pseudo-logical musings at the Washington Post inspired our work here so many years ago, has moved from ABC to Fox News.  In keeping with the tone of his new employer, he waxes historical about the legality of Obamacare (via Talking Points Memo):

In an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” host Steve Inskeep asked Will about President Barack Obama’s argument that Republicans are short-circuiting the system by using government funding and the debt ceiling as leverage to dismantle Obamacare, rather than repealing the law outright.

“How does this short-circuit the system?” Will said. “I hear Democrats say, ‘The Affordable Care Act is the law,’ as though we’re supposed to genuflect at that sunburst of insight and move on. Well, the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law, lots of things are the law and then we change them.”

Many here are familiar with Godwin’s law, where as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a Hitler analogy approaches 1.  We might now offer two variations on that.  Given any possible disagreement, the probability of a completely inept Hitler is initially 1.  The second variation is implied in the first: Hitler is a mere stylistic choice: the invoker can select any other moral abomination according to need.

One further rule: some iron-manner will come to the defense of the Godwinator:

I generally agree with TPM, but this headline is an outrageous distortion of what GW said.

His view is that Obamacare law is wrong, which is a legitimate view (not  mine).  He then points out that we have rescinded laws that we all regard as wrong.  He was speaking to the process, not the content.

Nah.  That isn’t his view and this ignores the inappropriate analogy.  Looking past these kinds of rhetorical outrages keeps them alive.

Troll feeding

The injunction against feeding trolls is one part logical and one part rhetorical. 

The logical part consists in the implication that feeding the troll misrepresents the troll's contributions.  In addressing a troll's view one implies that it strongly represents the dialetical situation, when, in fact, it doesn't (largely because the troll doesn't himself believe his on view)–Iron manning, in other words (making the troll appear stronger than he is). This is a variation on the injunction against weak manning: picking on trolls is nut picking,

Rhetorically, addressing trollish criticism puts one on the defensive.  One isn't making one's argument so much as defending oneself against criticism.  The public mind can only listen for so long, so chances are your responding to trolls diminishes your ability to make your own arguments.

Advantage trolls.  The advantage is especially acute nowadays, because the intellectual side of one of the two parties in our lovely two-party system consists almost entirely in trolls.  Someone ought to explain this to this guy:

Of course, not all right-wing pundits spew hate. But the ones who do are the ones we liberals dependably aggrandize. Consider the recent debate over whether employers must cover contraception in their health plans. The underlying question — should American women receive help in protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancies? — is part of a serious and necessary national conversation.

Any hope of that conversation happening was dashed the moment Rush Limbaugh began his attacks on Sandra Fluke, the young contraceptive advocate. The left took enormous pleasure in seeing Limbaugh pilloried. To what end, though? Industry experts noted that his ratings actually went up during the flap. In effect, the firestorm helped Limbaugh do his job, at least in the short term.

But the real problem isn’t Limbaugh. He’s just a businessman who is paid to reduce complex cultural issues to ad hominem assaults. The real problem is that liberals, both on an institutional and a personal level, have chosen to treat for-profit propaganda as news. In so doing, we have helped redefine liberalism as an essentially reactionary movement. Rather than initiating discussion, or advocating for more humane policy, we react to the most vile and nihilistic voices on the right.

He's right on the rhetorical points, but on the logical point, Limbaugh and his ilk represent current Republican thinking in both style and substance.  Being high-minded about them, I think, just leaves their arguments unanswered.  Answering their arguments cedes rhetorical ground. 

It's a trap.  Anyone know a way out?

Iron manning, again

The iron man works like the straw man.  You take an argument (or an arguer), distort his argument, pick an urepresentative feature of his argument, or you invent an argument the person does not make all in order to make the argument the person makes appear to be stronger than it is.  This has the related effect of making the critics look unfair, unhinged, or shrill.  More importantly, it may serve to cover over the real vices of someone's position. 

Oftentimes strengthening an argument serves both practical and epistemic ends.  We're better off if everyone is better at arguing and if we're considering better arguments.  However, in the case of ironmanning, strengthening arguments may make us worse off, because we don't consider for example what is actually being proposed by someone, or the worst-case-scenario effects of someone's view. 

I posted an example of this yesterday from Krugman.  Here is another example from Krugman. 

But the “centrists” who weigh in on policy debates are playing a different game. Their self-image, and to a large extent their professional selling point, depends on posing as high-minded types standing between the partisan extremes, bringing together reasonable people from both parties — even if these reasonable people don’t actually exist. And this leaves them unable either to admit how moderate Mr. Obama is or to acknowledge the more or less universal extremism of his opponents on the right.

Enter Mr. Ryan, an ordinary G.O.P. extremist, but a mild-mannered one. The “centrists” needed to pretend that there are reasonable Republicans, so they nominated him for the role, crediting him with virtues he has never shown any sign of possessing. Indeed, back in 2010 Mr. Ryan, who has never once produced a credible deficit-reduction plan, received an award for fiscal responsibility from a committee representing several prominent centrist organizations.  

Let's consider it a factual matter as to whether the presentation of Ryan's views is accurate.  It likely is, IMO, but that's not the point of this post anyway.

There would be much to gain by the intellectual exercise of pretending there are Republican moderates.  But let us say they do not exist.  Pretending that they do, or recasting very extreme views in moderate tones, is very harmful to our public discourse. 

The straw man unjustifiably excludes reasonable views from consideration by pretending they're unreasonable, the iron man unjustifiably includes unreasonable ones by pretending they're reasonable.

Paul Krugman on Iron Manning

If only he know the word for this behavior, his post would be snappier.  But here is Paul Krugman talking about the phenomenon of Iron Manning.  The case at hand is the iron manning of Paul Ryan's budget plan.  You can follow the links in the cited passage.  I'll point out right away, for the skeptics, that there is an empirical element to this charge–iron manning that is.  I think People have accused (rightly) Paul Ryan of being a dishonest tool, so minus one to Krugman on that.  Anyway, Krugman writes (via Balloon Juice):

In my next life I want to be a conservative policy scammer. Think of how much nicer it would be. Instead of constantly being accused of having evil motives, I’d be presumed to have noble intentions no matter how much the actual content of my policy proposals was at odds with such claims. Instead of being accused of saying bad things I never said, I’d be given credit for supporting good things I’ve never supported. Life would be great!

OK, I’m whining. But the continuing defense of Paul Ryan is a remarkable phenomenon. He’s still being treated by many pundits as a man deeply concerned about deficits, when the fact is that his policy proposals are all about redistributing income upward, and make no serious effort to curb debt. He’s even given credit for advocating higher taxes on the rich when he has more or less specifically rejected the things for which he’s given credit.

So Ryan has been iron-manned.  That's the reverse of being straw manned.  There might be an empirical case that this happens more often to people like Ryan than people like Krugman, but someone else can argue that.  I think there is little question, however, that it is the case with Ryan. 

Now consider the iron manners:

What’s going on here? The defenders of Ryan come, I’d argue, in two types.

One type is the pseudo-reasonable apparatchik. There are a fair number of pundits who make a big show of debating the issues, stroking their chins, and then — invariably — find a way to support whatever the GOP line may be. There’s no mystery in their support for Ryan.

The other type is more interesting: the professional centrist. These are people whose whole pose is one of standing between the extremes of both parties, and calling for a bipartisan solution. The problem they face is how to maintain this pose when the reality is that a quite moderate Democratic party — one that is content to leave tax rates on the rich far below those that prevailed for most of the past 70 years, that has embraced a Republican health care plan — faces a radical-reactionary GOP.

What these people need is reasonable Republicans. And if such creatures don’t exist, they have to invent them. Hence the elevation of Ryan — who is, in fact, a garden-variety GOP extremist, but with a mild-mannered style — to icon of fiscal responsibility and honest argument, despite the reality that his proposals are both fiscally irresponsible and quite dishonest.

How much longer can this last? I guess we’ll eventually find out.

So this is a classic case of iron manning: take a crappy argument, suggest it's a good one by distortion [of some variety], suggest (by implication) that its critics are extremists or shrill (Krugman).

Too timid to object

Click here for a nice piece on the problem of iron-manning and the spread of ignorance.  Here is a taste:

 Self-deprecating, too liberal for their own good, today's progressives stand back and watch, hands over their mouths, as the social vivisectionists of the right slice up a living society to see if its component parts can survive in isolation. Tied up in knots of reticence and self-doubt, they will not shout stop. Doing so requires an act of interruption, of presumption, for which they no longer possess a vocabulary.

Perhaps it is in the same spirit of liberal constipation that, with the exception of Charlie Brooker, we have been too polite to mention the Canadian study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, which revealed that people with conservative beliefs are likely to be of low intelligence. Paradoxically it was the Daily Mail that brought it to the attention of British readers last week. It feels crude, illiberal to point out that the other side is, on average, more stupid than our own. But this, the study suggests, is not unfounded generalisation but empirical fact.

Via Leiter.

Also via Leiter, an interesting podcast on fallacies of reasoning.

*fixed crazy typo in title.  Silly me.

**Had to change picture; I was getting malware warnings from Google Chrome.