Tag Archives: Straw Man

Philosophy15 on Straw and Iron Men

Readers of the NonSequitur are familiar with the Straw Man Fallacy varieties and especially the Iron Man.  John was down at Vanderbilt for a Friday Colloquium talk, and we had a chance to record an episode of Philosophy15 on Straw Men and Iron Men.  And the connection to longer-term argumentative pathologies, swamping in particular, was part of the agenda.

Chicken Littles of Straw

Chicken Little freaked out when hit on the head with an acorn, and called out, “The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling!”  Everyone goes berserk, then they see it’s just an acorn.  Chicken Little then retires to being an overreacting chicken, and things return to normal.  The end.

Calling someone a ‘Chicken Little,’ then, works as a form of analogy.  One sees someone reacting strongly to something, perhaps that it forebodes something worse, and one then points out that they are overreacting or don’t see the situation clearly.

It’s a pretty common feature of contemporary American political culture for folks to think and say that Donald Trump is a danger not just to this country’s prosperity and safety, but to the world’s.  He’s an authoritarian, he seems to have (or at least there’s the accusation that he’s) colluded with another state to secure his election, and he seems to be a general nincompoop who surrounds himself with avaricious doofuses.  That makes him dangerous as the President of the United States.

Well, Heather Wilhelm at NRO has had it with the doom-saying chicken littles out there.

The unprecedented volume of apocalyptic media pronouncements that Trump has inspired is unhealthy. . . .  How many times can one presidential administration end life as we know it?

The coverage of the Trump administration is “crazed and breathless” and bent on spurring your outrage or stoking your fears with predictions of doom.  Chicken Little apocalyptic journalists.  But Wilhelm has a counter to this:

[C]ongratulations! If you’re reading this, it means you’re still alive, and have survived the approximately 5,000 world-ending decisions that the Trump administration has supposedly made thus far this year. The Russians, at least as far as I know, have not yet taken over. Faced with budget challenges and various logistical challenges, including the fact more than 1,000 miles of our border with Mexico is actually a river, it seems that Trump’s much-decried Great Wall of America could be slowly shuffled off into the “it seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe not really” pile. When it comes to health care, congressional Republicans seem to be in the political equivalent of that one unlucky bumper car that gets stuck in the corner, no matter which way you steer. As Francis Fukuyama addressed the panic in Politico this week: “Trump’s a dictator? He can’t even repeal Obamacare.”

The last line’s funny, I’ll give Fukuyama and Wilhelm that.  But how is this a reply to the worries people actually had about the Trump administration?
Seriously, the evidence here is that things aren’t SOOOO bad, so what’s with all the hand-wringing?  Moreover, it’s not that people were predicting that the world would end, or that it’ll be like RED DAWN up in here.  The worries were that he’s an authoritarian dingus, who will either do something belligerent or something stupid.  That he hasn’t done something mindbogglingly belligerent or incomprehesibly stupid YET isn’t reason that people who had worries that he will do something belligerent or stupid were wrong or had no basis.

Lying to my face

One of the many perplexities of the study of argument is that people often (but not of course always) deploy bad arguments to favorable audiences. You don’t straw man an opponent to their face–you do it to people disposed already to find your interpretation acceptable.

This raises an interesting question: I’m guessing that at least sometimes these audiences know that you’re doing it. They know you’re lying to them about your opponent’s view. Do they just not care? Or do they put up with it for “strategic” reasons?

This question came up yesterday in regard to Trump’s constant lying. It turns out, according to one report, that his supporters just do not care. An excerpt:

Robin Pierce, the owner of a men’s clothing store in Newark, said he doesn’t think anybody wiretapped Trump. But Pierce, 70, was almost gleeful as he offered an explanation for Trump’s claim.

“I think Trump just did that to freak them out — they were giving him bad times, so he gave them bad times. Mess with their brains,” he said.

He broke into a loud laugh.

“I like that,” he said. “Because we’ve had so much crap in Washington for years, and now we have someone shaking ’em up really good.”

Well, this is not reassuring. But here’s some research on point:

This research — and those stories — highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial — compassionate, empathic, generous, honest — in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence — and socially sanctioned deceit.

“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” said George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, people who tend to view these issues as a part of a contest or argument-as-war narrative are likely to act accordingly. This means foregrounding group-cohesion or coherence of a simple message has higher strategic value than getting some opponent’s view just right.

Reductio mad libitum

Mad Libs is a kids game, where a familiar story has a number of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and proper names taken out, and players provide their own without knowing the story.  It makes for great game time, and when you allow the kids liberal use of some naughty terms, things get pretty hilarious.  (Pro tip: ‘diaper’ and ‘butt’ are always an excellent nouns to use if you’re in a pinch. But only one per story, else you’ve overplayed your hand.)

Folks use a Mad Libs strategy sometimes when making an argument by analogy.  And so when one criticizes someone for saying something that sounds racist, you might say, “Replace all those times you said ‘Romanian’ with ‘blacks,’ and see how that sounds…”

The crucial thing for all the cases, of course, is that the replacement instances are of roughly the same type.  That’s why it’s an argument by analogy — if the two things aren’t analogous, then the exercise is pointless.

George Will’s new column at NRO is a defense of the Trump plan to gut and/or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.  Will does make a few sensible points along the way — especially that the NEA is a regressive wealth distributor (most of the folks who get the support are already with money).  And, of course he leads with the old kulturkampf line about the government shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to fund things like the Piss Christ, Mapelthorpe’s photos, and other objectionable messes.  These, of course, are more arguments against how the NEA has been run, and less arguments against the NEA.  He closes, after conceding that art, for the most part, is a good thing, with the following:

Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”

Holy moly!  OK.  I’ll limit myself to three things.

#1:  The argument overyields.  Now replace “art” with “national defense” or “law enforcement.”  Once the line is put that way, NO government program is defensible.  (Don’t tell small government Republicans!)

#2: We do have government subsidies for macaroni and cheese.  It’s called  the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  So many boxes of mac’n’cheese have been purchased with government help.  (Moreover, don’t forget the government support for the farming and manufacturing sectors that produced it!)

#3:  I smell some straw on that opponent.  With ‘GOOD DEED’, Will has conflated a good thing to do with a thing that is good for the populace, or is in the interest of the state.  Contributing to the common good, even if it is indirectly, is what this is about.  Calling it a ‘good deed’ is a mis- description of what the supporters of the NEH see the agency out to do.  This is not a distillation of essence, but rather a snifter of nonsense.

Norms of Assertion #2

In more news of assertions made without backing (see previous post about the various norms of assertion), Joe Scarborough Tweeted:

Two assertions, really.  #1: Trump leaked the return, and #2: He did it as a distraction.

The backing: That it’s “painfully obvious.”  Pretty weak backing.  But, hey, it’s Twitter.

Interestingly, Scarborough was challenged by one of Trump’s lawyers, Michael Cohen — in particular, that he should have some support for such claims:

A pretty apt response, with a little heat to it.  It is ironic, however, that a Trump representative is making hay out of someone making unsubstantiated claims.  Oh, and then Scarborough took the bait:

Oy vey.  Wrong way to do this.

Scarborough is committing two errors here.  First, is what’s been called the Free Speech FallacyJohn’s got a nice bit on it HERE, and we’ve got an entry in the coming Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Important Fallacies.  Here’s our line:

The fallacy arises when a contributor to a critical exchange confuses the protected freedom of expressing an opinion with correlate obligations to reply to freely expressed critical opinions of others.

And note, that using the Free Speech Fallacy is a form of ignoratio argument — that we change what’s being criticized from what was said to whether one has the right to say it.  (I’d had an earlier point about this HERE, which I’d called the ‘meta-move’).   So taking the first amendment strategy is no defense against the request/demand for evidence.  Nor is it a reply to the insult that he has a big mouth.  In fact, some replies seem to confirm the accusations!

The second error is with taking a request, admittedly with heat, as purely intimidation.  In a way, I think this is a bit of straw-manning, which is to focus on the tone of a challenge instead of the content, and then make the case that someone is using an ad baculum or some other scare tactic.

Imagine that A gives a crappy argument, perhaps that B has made some moral error.  B, in reply, says something like:

Look, asshole, if you’re going to make a charge like that, you’ve got to have better grounds.  Seriously, what’s wrong with you?

And A replies:

Now who’s the asshole… defending yourself with an ad hominem against me?

For sure, B put some stank on the reply, but there wasn’t an argument from A’s being an asshole to A making unsubstantiated claims.  Rather, it was from A’s making unsubstantiated claims to A being an asshole.  Mistaking heat of reply with a premise of argument or with intimidation is to mistake tone and content.  And, you know, grownups who have hard conversations have to keep the two distinct all the time.


A longstanding way to think of straw man argumentation is to misinterpret or misrepresent what people said or what their arguments were.  That’s a version of the representational straw man. John and I have also identified the selectional version of the straw man, or the weak man.  That’s a case of finding a member of the opposition that has a badly stated version of the view or a poorly constructed version of their argument and go after that.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a bad argument, but what gets communicated with it is that you, in investing time and energy in replying to that bad argument, you’re not spending time on the better ones.  That would be bad use of your time, so if you’re doing the work of criticizing the bad arguments, they must be as good as they get.

Another weak man instance is that you take imperfectly phrased versions of an opponent’s posiiton and interpret them mercilously.  When we’re speaking off the cuff, extemporaneously, we may not say everything just right.  And so we, except when in full-attack mode, give each other some slack.  That’s a difference between spoken and written communication.  And to interpret your interlocutor in the worst lights when they are speaking informally (and so, imprecisely) is a kind of selectional straw man.

Well, so here’s what happened. Mika Brzezinski said on Morning Joe today that the media’s “job” is to “actually control exactly what people think.”  Here’s the clip:

Now, the context is that Brzezinski’s line is a contrastive — that Trump is trying to control what people think by pushing out the media.  By “speaking directly to the people,” as we’d seen in a previous post.

So conservative media has gone straight up bonkers about the line.  Tyler Durden says she’s “let slip the awesome unspoken truth” about what the media thinks they should be doing.  The folks at Breitbart have made it a front page story, with the implication that the imperfect wording is really a Freudian slip.

Real Clear Politics has a follow-up to it, and Brzezinski has gone into Twitter cleanup mode

It’s pretty clear that when folks have what Walton calls “dark side interpretation” already cued, they’ll take something like this as evidence of letting a mask slip instead of a poorly phrased bit of intellectual pushback.  So this makes it an interesting case of a mix between selectional and representational straw man — it’s selectional, since they go after what she’s said, but it’s representational, since we need an interpretive attitude to take this as seriously a representation of her sincere position.

So, in a way, a lesson about straw manning.  If your picture of the opposition, after interpretation, fits the worst kind of picture you may have of them, you may be a straw-manner.

Friendly fire

One major purpose of critical argument analysis is evaluating other arguers: other arguers’ arguments are bad and they should feel bad.  There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s helpful to us to have this kind of information.  Arguing is a skill, you can do it well or you can do it badly.  If you do it badly enough, then maybe we should ignore you.

Straw manning shortcuts this process by loading the deck against the person being evaluated: people who make such arguments are fools/liars/inconsistent, etc.  Armed with this information, we can safely ignore them.  Beyond this, we need not consider their reasons anymore as reasons to be engaged and evaluated, but rather as pathologies to be explained.

Naturally, this kind of move is productive in bucking up the troops, but ineffective as a method of rational engagement with another arguer.  I ran across a very good example of this form this afternoon on the American Prospect.  Here, first, is the conclusion:

This, in the end, is the essence of conservative thought on these issues. Better a child should go hungry than get a free lunch. Better a poor person should have no health insurance at all than get insurance from the government. Their suffering may multiply, but they’ll still have their dignity. If only you could eat it.

I’m fairly certain no conservative would agree with that formulation of the essence of their view (not that this is what would make it wrong).  This interpretation relies on the following argument:

The souls of the wealthy, on the other hand, are apparently so healthy and strong they can withstand the indignity of government help. Special tax treatment for investment income? The mortgage interest deduction? Cuts to upper-income tax rates? The rich are truly blessed with souls so resilient that they remain intact even in the face of such injuries of government largesse.

As almost any conservative would tell you (I imagine, not being one), there’s a difference between giving someone something they don’t have and not taking away what they currently have.  They argue the taxation is unjust (or immoral, or inefficient, or whatever their view is) and that a system of government benefits is ineffective at its purpose of lifting the poor out of poverty.  I think it’s pretty obvious this isn’t the obvious inconsistency we’re supposed to think it is.  I imagine they’ll also argue that there is difference between our obligations to people with nothing and our obligations to people with something.  The rich, in other words, can ruin their lives on their own dime; they hurt only themselves.

On the version of the argument presented, however, I don’t get any of this, nonetheless, I’m invited to conclude the conservatives are foolishly inconsistent and heartless to boot.  Should I believe the author here, the argument with the conservative on these scores is closed.

Of course, it isn’t; in fact, I’ve probably just made my ideological compatriots just a little dumber and my conservative opponents just a little more annoyed.  And I suppose the former is an under-stressed effect of the straw man: while it’s usually deployed to undermine an opponent, the damage is really to ourselves: we’ve cut ourselves off from the actual arguments being made, we’ve misinformed our friends, and made ourselves appear just that much duller to our opponent.

Straw manning and logical implication

Michael Medved has argued at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference and in print (almost four years ago) that it’s a “liberal lie” that states have “banned” gay marriage.

Now that you’re done laughing, here’s the argument in print (at TownHall.com):

1. “Proposition 8 was a mean-spirited ban on gay marriage.”

TRUTH:Proposition 8 banned nothing. The ubiquitous headlines describing this voter-mandated change in the California constitution as a “gay marriage ban” amount to the worst example of journalistic malpractice in recent years. The entire proposition consisted of only fourteen words: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” This simple statement imposes no restrictions and issues no commands regarding the behavior of private citizens: it merely demands a change in the actions of government. Proposition 8 did nothing to interfere with gay couples in registering for state-recognized civil unions, participating in church or civil ceremonies consecrating their love, forming life-time commitments, raising children, or concluding comprehensive contractual arrangements to share all aspects of life and property. The proposition simply says that government will not get involved in any of these private or public processes by calling such relationships a marriage.

The “only” in those 14 words has the effect of a “ban.”  I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader to figure out (it’s not hard).

This reminds me of a debate about whether certain universities’ bans on homosexual behavior were “discriminatory.”  People argued, with a straight face so I imagine, that they were not, because such places didn’t ban homosexual behavior per se, but rather all extra-marital sexual activity.

If one is fancy enough with words, distinctions like these can be made.  But they’re really just disingenuous cover for something else.

The fun part about this move, however, is this: should you call them out on their too-subtle-by-half distinction, they’ll accuse you of distorting their position, as Medved (and the defenders of gay faculty bans) have done: note how Medved elaborates on the “journalistic distortion” of that characterization.

Sadly, for people like Medved, you don’t have exclusive control over the interpretation of your arguments; more importantly, you don’t own words and you don’t determine the rules of implication.

How to turn your analogy to straw

Marco Rubio recently made an interesting analogy after the release of the CBO report.  He said that the likelihood of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) actually helping people is as great as the likelihood of the Denver Broncos coming back from their fourth-quarter deficit in the SuperBowl.

I know that there are still some who hold out hope that Obamacare will work, just like there were some in Denver this Sunday still holding out hope that the Broncos could come back and win in the fourth quarter.

Now, there is some debate on the matter, but let’s give Rubio the point for the sake of argument.  However, if we do, then Aaron Goldstein has a critical point to make:

But let’s not forget that the Broncos actually made it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos were the second best team in the NFL in 2013….

If Rubio is going to compare Obamacare to a football team he should invoke the 2008 Detroit Lions who went 0-16. Better still, the junior Senator from Florida could also speak of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. This would be a far more apt comparison because when it comes to Obamacare no one wins.

Ah, a lesson in how to turn an analogy into a straw man.  At least the Rubio analogy conceded that the ACA had something going for it (at least the Broncos had a chance to make points back earlier), but Goldstein refuses even that.  Beyond this, the point Rubio was trying to make with the analogy was one of prospects, like for the future, not retrospects, looking at the past.  Oh well, when the objective is to paint your political opponents in the worst lights, saving the actual point is beside the point.

Don’t strawman me… I was strawmanning, myself

(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.  Here’s the line folks are focusing on:

They cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government

The reply is that the Governor did say those words, but the quote is “taken out of context”. As it turns out, the context is that of attributing this view to Democrats.  Here’s Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller clarifying the situation:

If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because [DEMOCRATS BELIEVE] they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

The context of the quote, I think, is correct in terms of the Daily Caller’s clarification. The video HERE.  Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.  So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.

That’s better, but not dialecticaly.  The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.  (He follows these sentences with a call for further debate on the issue, clearly calling attention to the fact that he sees his opponents as having a wildly indefensible view.)  Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.  The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.  Isn’t that an important issue?  Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?

So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himself  the straw-manner.

To use the full taxonomic vocabulary: My hypothesis is that Huckabee was hollow-manning (nobody on the Democrat side has had a thought like that, right?), and the defense is a form of iron-manning.