Tag Archives: Straw Man

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.

Replace and defend

Deep Insights

A follow up on David Brooks’ piece on the inadvisability of marijuana legalization.  Perhaps you’ll recall that Brooks told a very personal tale of his own adolescent adventure with marijuana.  TL;DR: marijuana should remain illegal (also because of nature and the arts). A charitable reading of this argument would go thusly: Brooks himself continues to pull tubes, with the consequence being that his arguments are terrible, so don’t legalize marijuana, lest you end up a bumbling fool like David Brooks.  He kind of says as much:

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

I’m still embarrassed for him.  In any case, rushing to his defense is the allegedly unstoned Reihan Salam, of the National Review (via Lawyers, Guns, and Money).  His argument is the perfect iron man.

The column has prompted an ungenerous and largely uncomprehending response from people who are attacking David as a hypocrite, and worse. But you’ll notice, if you know how to read, that Brooks isn’t endorsing draconian legal penalties for marijuana use. Rather, he is suggesting that legalization as such might not be the best way forward. Though I imagine I don’t agree with Brooks in every respect on this issue, I think his bottom line is correct. The goal of marijuana regulation, and the goal of alcohol regulation and casino regulation and the regulation various other vices, ought to be striking a balance between protecting individual freedom while also protecting vulnerable people from making choices that can irreparably damage their lives and the lives of those closest to them.

This fellow has just made up an entirely different argument: Brooks did not argue for regulation of marijuana.  Nor, in fact, does his column even suggest this.  Nor would any sane (non stoned libertarian) argue for unregulated legalization.  Just for reference, here’s how the obviously stoned David Brooks characterizes legalization:

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

Yet, according to Salam, Brooks is not arguing against legalization.  So this is a beautiful example of argument defense by complete replacement: when the argument you need to defend really sucks, no matter: replace it with a completely different argument, then accuse your opponents of straw manning.  It’s a double fallacy.

Question for the readership then: must the iron man always involve a straw man?  Seems like it might.  In strengthening an argument beyond what it deserves, I distort the critics’ view of the argument as weak.

First, get some straw…

We’ve pretty regularly noted that you can tell a straw man fallacy is coming when the speaker starts the windup for attributing views to his opponent by saying, “Some folks who believe X say…”  or “You know what all those X-ists say about this…”  What generally comes is a view nobody even recognizes as their view, or if it is, it’s only from the least capable of those who hold X.  And so we’ve been calling these hollow and weak men.

Now, what happens when the speaker’s on a roll?  It’s not just a one-off, but a series of these straw-man constructions.  For example, take Marta Mossburg’s “The Real ‘War on Women'” over at the American Spectator.   There are at least three in quick succession.

First, there’s the implication that Democrats who use the expression ‘The Republican War on Women’ don’t care at all about the way women are oppressed around the world.

When Terry McAuliffe, the governor-elect of Virginia,  relentlessly battered his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli for waging a “war on women,”  these innocent babies, teenagers and wives often attacked by their families and given no protection under the law throughout many countries in the world were not on his mind, however.  Not even remotely.

Second, there’s the implication of reverse racism in describing the progressive view:

It also fits in nicely with the progressive narrative that history is moving irrevocably forward to some ideal – which does not include stodgy white men.

And third, there’s the simple imputation of sheer craven rhetorical objectives to their opponents:

The success of the “war on women” trope should make Republicans realize that they are fighting progressives for whom the idea of truth is an outdated relic of a racist, homophobic, misogynist past to be discarded in favor of tactics that allow them to win elections and sway opinion.

Now, sometimes, the writing in politico magazines isn’t about making arguments.  Sometimes, it’s just about reminding people what’s at stake, motivating them to go out and win, galvanizing the side.  But here’s the thing: dog-cussing your opponents like this makes it very hard to intellectually engage with them afterwards.  It inculcates a habit that Talisse and I have been calling the No Reasonable Opposition perspective on the issues at hand.  And when you don’t see the opposition as reasonable, you don’t work on developing good arguments, and when you don’t work on good arguments, you don’t maintain your best reasons.  And then you become, ironically, just like the folks you were dog-cussing.

To the three straw men here, it’s worthwhile to say the following.  1. The “Republican War on Women” trope was about a series of elections and domestic policy, not about foreign policy.  You focus on what’s different between the two candidates and parties in that argumentative context and about the things they will determine – to talk about the treatment of women around the world is not what that discussion is about.  (One might call this, by extension, a form of red herring.)  2. There’s a difference between having less (unearned) influence and having no influence – if everybody gets a fair shake, there are going to be fewer white guys at the top.  It shouldn’t be hard to see that.  3. As to the cravenness view of one’s opponents, I’ll simply say that if you, yourself, aren’t very good at constructing good arguments, you won’t be very good at detecting them, either.


Not the Onion, part 342

Thighmaster General

While Scott and Rob argue their minds to the bone on the place of rationality in political discourse, the Wall Street Journal publishes an error-filled op-ed (in a section called “The Experts”) by Suzanne Somers, of Three’s Company and Thighmaster fame.  Here’s how it begins:

First of all, let’s call affordable health care what it really is: It’s socialized medicine.

I’ve had an opportunity to watch the Canadian version of affordable health care in action with all its limitations with my Canadian husband’s family. A few years ago, I was startled to see the cover of Maclean’s, a national Canadian magazine, showing a picture of a dog on an examining table with the headline, “Your Dog Can Get Better Health Care Than You.” It went on to say that young Canadian medical students have no incentive to become doctors to humans because they can’t make any money. Instead, there is a great surge of Canadian students becoming veterinarians. That’s where the money is. A Canadian animal can have timely MRIs, surgeries and any number of tests it needs to receive quality health care.

So the reason the Affordable Care Act, i.e., Obamacare, is a failure, is because the Canadian system, to which ACA is completely unrelated, is also a failure, according to the cover of a Canadian magazine (the original version of Somer’s op-ed said it was a horse, not a dog).

This would be hilarious if it were not the Wall Street Journal.

As always, the Onion already kind of called it.