Tag Archives: straw man arguments

Nowhere man

It’s often difficult to find actual hollow man arguments; what with all of the internet crazies holding these views, you can always find someone to weak man at least.

So I wonder, is the hollow man for the extremely lazy arguer?  Or is there some other more nefarious and devious purpose?  Here’s indolent Laura Ingraham, who has figured out why Obama doesn’t want to impose an Ebola-themed travel ban: so that some Americans die in penance for our sins (from Crooks and Liars):

Ingraham: The experts are telling him we can’t think about a travel ban because it will make matters worse. For whom? I think there have been a few moments where people have been honest about this on the left/ where in their heart of hearts think if a few Americans have to be infected and even a few Americans or more than that have to die to make the lives of Africans better , that’s just what has to happen. We owe a great debt to other countries in the world. including Africa, and if Americans have to die to repay that debt then we just have to die. I really believe this is where they are.

Yea, I don’t think so.   I wonder if the function of the hollow man here is to make it appear one’s opponent not only reprehensible positions, but is also dishonest about holding them.  They’re so dishonest that they don’t even utter them in public.  It takes in the know folks like Ingraham to figure it out.   Sure, you can weak man or nut pick all you want, but at least in those circumstances you’re engaging with your opponent (and they’re engaging with you).  One might be tempted to improve their views, or, at the very least, feel sorry for them.

Wrenching from context

Last night's Daily Show had a nice discussion of the "you didn't build that line" that Obama didn't utter (i.e., in the way suggested).  For those unfamiliar with this, the President gave a speech, talked about infrastructure (such as roads) necessary (but not sufficient) for success in business.  I can't have much success with my highway adult video store unless there's a freeway next to which to place it.  An obvious point, of course.  Sadly, many conservative media types cut out key lines in the President's speech to make it look like he was saying that no one built her own business, thus,  "you didn't build that".  That would be a stupid thing to say, unless of course you inherited your business (which many people probably do–so in their case it's true!).

So here's what the President actually said:

OBAMA: [L]ook, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the GI Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together.

Here's how it was reported by Fox et alia (for a brief history of the distortion, see here and here)

OBAMA: If you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen.

[...]

The point is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Jon Stewart pretty much said all there is to say about what's going on: it's a case of straw manning by depriving of context.  The only thing that's true about what the President said is that those words came out of his mouth. 

All that aside, there is a theoretical point here.  In a recent article, Douglas Walton and Fabrizio Macagno ("Wrenching from Context: the Manipulation of Commitments") allege that straw manning of this variety (wrenching from context) are really "manipulations of commitments."  There are limitations to this view, namely that it gives too much credit to the straw manner, as it allows them to claim their representing commitments a person may actually hold (but for which they don't have evidence).  In addition, it doesn't capture the crucial aim of the context-wrencher: to close out an argument with someone by dishonest means.  But their notion of commitment does capture the method of the wrencher: though the wrencher may know his quotation to be inaccurate, he knows it represents the person's real views.  I think we saw something like this at work in Mitt Romney's "I like to fire people line" of a while back. 

What this means is that the wrencher is playing a rather different game from the one his audience is playing.  Even if his audience agrees with him, he's thinking that an argument (with evidence and all of that) is being offered by the wrencher.  But it isn't.  The wrencher is telling a story, a fiction, to a person who thinks he's listening to an argument.  Cross purposes, I think. 

Final Exam

It's final exam day here in my world–Critical Thinking is the course.  A friend on Face Book posted this article about being a Republican who believed climate change to be a real thing.  Actually, the article is about understanding what the claim about climate change entails, in particular the difference between climate and weather.  This difference being somehow more difficult to grasp than Fermat's Last Theorem. 

Some grafs:

Climate science shows that over a long period of time, the statistics have changed. Things that used to happen a lot, like consistent winter snow cover, are happening less reliably. Things that happened every now and then, like droughts and wildfires, are happening more reliably. And things that almost never happened — such as the 15,000 new U.S. temperature records in March — sometimes now do occur. And they can’t be explained with purely meteorological reasoning.

The changes we’re seeing, far more than I can list here, seem like an accumulation of coincidences. Pieced together, reveal the full puzzle: There’s more heat and moisture in the atmosphere, and our emissions are largely responsible for keeping it there.

The millennium’s first decade was the warmest on record and included nine of the 10 hottest years. Greenhouse gas levels are at their highest in 800,000 years. Less heat is escaping the top of the atmosphere in the wavelengths of greenhouse gases. For the first time, scientists have recorded both hemispheres are warming – and the global temperature spike can’t be linked to an astronomical trigger, such as solar variability. Great Lakes peak ice has seen a 71 percent drop since 1973. Winters are shorter. Lakes melt earlier. Plants are moving north.

Worldwide, 95% of land-based glaciers are losing mass. September Arctic sea ice has lost 10 percent of its area every decade. Sea levels are rising. Oceans are 30 percent more acidic. Flooding and extreme storms are spiking in frequency and intensity. Last winter was the 4th warmest on record, despite the cooling influence of a La Nina phase in the Pacific.

Extremes are becoming more extreme. And none of it has anything to do with Al Gore.

Very sciency stuff here.  Anyway, the fun begins with the commenters.  A couple of samples.

Here's one disconnected from fact:

But because of the politics of the Obama Administration, all funding for Hydrogen research was cut to the bone in 2009. If you want to look for politics interfering with technological solutions to CO2 pollution – don't look at the Republicans…we tried!  

Here's one that thinks a work of fiction is a rebuttal (in the commenter's defense, George Will thought the same thing):

Did you read Michael Crichton's STATE OF FEAR? It really helps you understand that GLOBAL WARMING, renamed "climate change" is a 100% sham.

Here's your classic straw man:

Oh, no!!

Drowning polar bears???

Polar ice caps falling into the sea???

Despair, despair!!!

Hey, kids!! It's Kool-Aid time!!!

And now the tu quoque featuring Al Gore:

Well, at least Gore sets a good eexample by not flying private jets.

What? What do you mean he flies private jets? Isn't that a mega-polluter?

Well, at least he doesn't own a McMansion.

What? He owns one of those too?

I try to do what I can to reduce CO2, but Gore is single-handedly burning the planet up.

And this is just the top few of them. 
 

 

 

The same basic respect, i.e., none.

It's been well over a week since conservative radio host made launched into a not-uncommon series of misogynisitic ad feminam attacks against a women speaking on an issue of concern to women.  The woman, Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University Law student, was invited by Congress to speak on the issue of mandated contraception coverage for women.  The relevant part of her remarks can be read here.

Rush Limbaugh has such a long history of dishonesty and abuse that his views no longer deserve rational analysis.  I'm sorry for the millions of listeners who listen to him.  I'm especially sorry for those who listen only because they find his brand of humor funny.  It's best, I think, not to develop a taste for certain things.  

Some people defending Limbaugh, on the other hand, do warrant discussion.  Here is fairly well known professor of economics at the University of Rochester, Steve Landsburg.  

Rush Limbaugh is under fire for responding in trademark fashion to the congressional testimony of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who wants you to pay for her contraception. If the rest of us are to share in the costs of Ms. Fluke’s sex life, says Rush, we should also share in the benefits, via the magic of online video. For this, Rush is accused of denying Ms. Fluke her due respect. 

But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatsoever. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty. I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it. 

To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits. His dense and humorless critics notwithstanding, I am 99% sure that Rush doesn’t actually advocate mandatory on-line sex videos. What he advocates is logical consistency and an appreciation for ethical symmetry. So do I. Color me jealous for not having thought of this analogy myself.

It is funny how so many of our debates concern the rules of our debates.  Many claim–correctly in my view–that Limbaugh broke basic argument rules, distorting a person's words to malign her (fallacious ad hominem attacks, straw men, etc.).  This fellow, Steven Landsburg, inexplicably, thinks Limbaugh has not in fact done this, but has rather zeroed in on the critical issue–whether you and I should pay for this woman to have sex.

That, however, wasn't nearly the point of Limbaugh's 46 or so tirades.  Here's one:

She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps.

And Landsburg thinks only the word "slut" was out of order. 

There’s one place where I part company with Rush, though: He wants to brand Ms. Fluke a “slut” because, he says, she’s demanding to be paid for sex. There are two things wrong here. First, the word “slut” connotes (to me at least) precisely the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous. A far better word might have been “prostitute” (or a five-letter synonym therefor), but that’s still wrong because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) She will, as I understand it, be having sex whether she gets paid or not. Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is something much closer to “extortionist”. Or better yet, “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement”. Is there a single word for that?

I'm sad for this guy's students, his department, and his university.

Brace yourselves

Many have probably heard Mitt Romney's line about firing people.  Here it is in full (ish):

ROMNEY: I want people to be able to own insurance if they wish to, and to buy it for themselves and perhaps keep it for the rest of their life and to choose among different policies offered from companies across the nation. I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep people healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.

 

This has some people jumping with glee.  It has others justifying (unfortunately) the context-free narrative-reinforcing interpretation, and maligning those who don't want to join in:

How did so much of the left descend into this kind of dickless navel-gazing? Because you know this is pretty typical of the tote-bag crowd. I’m glad Mike Royko isn’t alive to see all of this.

This was the response to someone's cautioning that Romney didn't mean he liked firing people while at Bain, when even by his own account he caused a lot of people to lose their jobs.

I'm (obviously) not a fan of Romney.  But I don't see any value in taking his claim out of context.  It lets him claim, truthfully this time, that his critics cannot be trusted.  Now someone might claim, plausibly, that he will say that anyway.  Nonetheless, it's still false.

Besides, there is a stronger criticism in its truthful interpretation.  Romney likes, as he claims, "being able to fire people."  That's a little bit like saying "I like being able to kill people in war."  It's a power people have, and you might think it's good that you have it, but it's not one you ought to "like" having.

Crazy Train

We've all been busy here at the Non Sequitur.  But today I had a moment for a short post.

Here's Paul Krugman on George Will (via Eschaton):

Oh, boy — this George Will column (via Grist) is truly bizarre:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

As Sarah Goodyear at Grist says, trains are a lot more empowering and individualistic than planes — and planes, not cars, are the main alternative to high-speed rail.

And there’s the bit about rail as an antiquated technology; try saying that after riding the Shanghai Maglev.

But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.

Like Kramer on Seinfeld, I'd take issue with the last bolded comment.  This argument, such as it is, is classic Will:  The most dishonest kind of straw man used to provoke an explanatory hypothesis about the the straw manned arguer's motives and intellgence in making such bizarre and wrong-headed claims.  On the strength of this, you'll feel justified in ignoring anything else such a person would say.

This one is especially odd since trains are self-evidently awesome–and they're kind of bow-tie conservative-ish, like baseball.  Besides, as Sarah Goodyear points out, they do the same things planes do: they send you in a tube to another city.  The only difference is that trains usually drop you off downtown.

New study shows: liberals don’t have conservative economic views

Ron Ross, at The American Spectator, reports that a Zogby International survey "confirms what (he's) long suspected — when it comes to economics, liberals are clueless."  The survey asks respondents to identify themselves on a spectrum from very liberal to very conservative, and then eight questions come.  Ross notes: 

On the basis of eight economic questions, wrong answers correlated consistently with ideology.  Progressive/very liberal respondents got four times more wrong answers than libertarians.

Ross concludes that the survey results "demonstrate a strong connection between economic ignorance and interventionist enthusiasm.  Those who are most determined to interfere with the economy know the least about it."

Well, golly, if there really is a connection between not knowing economics and being a liberal, that'd be a bad thing.  Especially for liberals and their views about economics.  So let's look at all the economics that liberals are so ignorant about.  Here are two of the most telling questions:

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.  (Unenlightened Answer: Disagree)

6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (Unenlightened Answer: Agree)

The rest of the questions are the usual libertarian talking points (minimum wage laws increase unemployment, licensing professional services causes the price for those services to be raised).  The crazy thing is that question 1 is so vaguely stated that anyone with any sense would ask for clarification: Are the restrictions with regard to where the houses will be built, what kind of houses, or whether they must meet safety codes, and so on? In some cases, those restrictions will drive prices up, and other times, down.  Of course, the survey has the right answer that they do.  Why? Because that's what libertarians believe.

With question 6, I don't see this as a matter of having knowledge of basic economics or any such thing, but more a question of having ethical judgment about what counts as exploitation.  Again, because the right answers are being determined by people who casually use the term "leftist," as a term for anyone who's not a member of the John Birch Society, the right answers will likely be different from, say, any morally developed adult.

None of this would be surprising or irritating if the survey and report did not use terms like "unenlightened" and "wrong" for the answers here.  Now, if the survey were about, say, basic economic knowledge, where there is no reasonable disagreement, then we'd have no problem.  But here we have the simple strategy of polling one's opponents in a disagreement, noting how they have views you reject, casting them as being wrong, and then reporting how often those with whom you disagree are wrong about things that matter.  But, even if liberals are in error, these are not the simple errors that Ross portrays them to be.  These are controversial matters in economics, ones about which intelligent people disagree.  To portray this as a matter of ignorance, as Ross does, is not just a distortion of the debate, it's simple lying.  But Ross is all too happy to run up the score when the deck is stacked:

What we're seeing all too often is "the arrogance of ignorance." Both arrogance and ignorance do enormous damage in the world, but together they are a toxic brew.

Ross's gerrymandered study really only shows that opinions about economics track political self-identification.  That's not news, and certainly not something to make the hay Ross does of it.  There's another toxic brew, in addition to Ross's arrogance and ignorance: it's willful deception and self-righteous indignation.

**Hello Everyone–Welcome Scott Aikin, our newest contributor

–Editors.