Tag Archives: Straw Men

Straw Sorbo

Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame and other entertainment ventures of playing a philosophy professor) has given a kind of critique of the California Coronavirus lockdown rules. Governor Gavin Newsom had imposed a 10PM curfew as numbers of infections had risen sharply in the last weeks. Sorbo, critiquing the rule, tweeted:

The folks at Breitbart thought it was fuggin’ hilarious. The joke, as I understand it, is that the hour of 10:00 is the threshold, and Sorbo narrowly avoided it. Of course, for the joke to actually criticize the curfew, you’d have to think that the curfew’s justification hung on things being radically different between 9:59 and 10:01. But that’s not what the justification for the rule is. The justification is that whatever happens later than usual dinner hours is unnecessary and likely more risky. And so, the penumbral zone between normal dinner hours (5:00 to 8:00?) and not (later than 9:00?) will admit of some relatively arbitrary line-drawing if we have to do it. Assuming there needed to be a curfew, the line was drawn at 10, likely to give as much room to err on the side of tolerance. (That’s how vagueness stuff works, right?)

So the joke works as a kind of straw man, then. Instead of constructing the reasons and attributing them to your straw man, and then turning to criticize them, one just announces a criticism — and the felicity conditions for that criticism produces the shitty reasons all by themselves. Clever!

The thing here is that this straw man argument is just so clearly crappy, and the joke sucks. So why did the folks at Breitbart love it so? (And Sorbo’s Twitter followers loved it, too.) This is what John and I in the new book on the Straw Man (now with a press, and we’ll see how things go!) have called the EFFECTIVENESS PUZZLE about straw man arguments. How in the world do they work when they very clearly misattribute the reasons criticized? We’ve got a whole variety of answers to this puzzle, but the big idea with this case is this: this straw man is not erected to be criticized for the sake of folks who sympathize with the lockdown rules — it’s erected and knocked down for the sake of an audience who already opposes those rules.

That is, the audience for this straw man already is committed to the fact that the rules are stupid and mere exercises of power. They are not out to convince anyone of anything, but to express an already held commitment and share it. Let’s call it the EXPRESSIVE ROLE of straw manning — it’s like a shared gripe session about one’s political foes with one’s allies. You mock up a picture of the hated ones and just beat it up together. And it doesn’t matter if the mock up accurately depicts the opposition or their reasons — it just matters that everyone in your audience already agrees that they are wrong, stupid, laughable, and need to be opposed. So with these kind of straw man arguments, the inaccuracy of the representation of the other side is beside the point — the negativity of the depiction is the point.

Of course, you can see that this is the case with Sorbo’s later tweet:

Err… it did work. Infection rates went down. Remember all that ‘flatten the curve’ business in the spring? To think that ‘worked’ meant that the virus was eradicated is, well, to get the situation all wrong. But that’s a whole other kind of intentional misinterpretation, isn’t it?

He tweeted me so unfairly

I always (I think) name names here because it's hard to cite someone's arguments without naming them by name.  But sometimes, I've noticed, one does hear the expression, "I won't name names here."  I ran across an instance of this at the Washington Monthly today.  One fellow, Brendan Nyhan, is all upset over having been referred to (not named) with identifiable phrases he thinks taken out of context.  Here is what he is complaining about (it's a post by Nathan Silver–everyone's favorite numbers nerd):

The jobs numbers are awful, but they’ve also provided fodder for some poor political punditry. 

I won’t name names, since the people in question are normally thoughtful writers. But you can already find an article keyed off the news with the headline “How a one-term president is made.” And a political scientist in my Twitter feed wrote of how numbers like these will have Mitt Romney “measuring the drapes” in the White House.

I do not mean to suggest that the unemployment numbers are unimportant as a news story. To the contrary, recent polls find that four times as many people list jobs rather than the budget deficit as a top priority, even though the latter issue has gotten more press attention lately.

But if you’re going to write about the jobs numbers as a horse race story, you ought to do it right, and that means keeping an eye on the big picture.

Following up on this post from yesterday, this seems like a somewhat polite use of the "some say" trope.  You don't identify your opponents not because they don't exist; you avoid doing so in order to be nice.  Let's hope, perhaps is the thought, no one inquires but the guilty party gets the point.  This seems reasonable, as the point of the criticism is friendly correction, rather than triumphalist douchebaggery.

This strategy does not work, however, when the accused publicly complains about being strawmanned.  On this score, the criticism in question was directed at a tweet.  Two things:  One, don't tweet easily misunderstood condensed arguments (which require, as Nyhan maintains in his own defense, you to refer to your vast body of not-tweeted work) and expect to be tweeted fairly; and two, criticizing tweets is almost nutpicking, because tweets are usually dumb. 

What to do about straw men

My sense has always been that careful and honest editors can spot most straw men.  But no.  On this score, via Leiter, here is an entertaining case in point.  The case is Gary Wills' negative review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's "All Things Shining."  Drefyfus and Kelly feel they've been straw manned, they write:

Our book, All Things Shining, has clearly touched a nerve. Prominent reviewers have found it transformative. They have called it “fascinating,” “stunning,” “illuminating,” “inspirational,” and even a “harbinger of future philosophies to come.” But others have been outraged and dismissive. Garry Wills, the eminent historian and distinguished defender of the Catholic faith, now bears the standard for those arguing against. His recent review [NYR, April 7] expresses “astonishment” at how “inept” and “shallow” our book is, states that it is full of “silly” and “discredited” claims, and admonishes the “famous Big Thinkers” who, he thinks, have been duped by its wiles.

Many of the historical arguments Wills gives are reasonable, and his review would be fair if we actually held the positions he criticizes. Unfortunately, Wills regularly mistakes our views for discredited ones with which he is already familiar, and then, after reciting the well-known arguments against these discredited views, calls us “inept” for having spewed such “nonsense.” Some of our most sensitive and appreciative interlocutors disagree with the positions we articulate; but Wills seems simply not to understand them. 

This is a pretty serious charge.  Here is how Wills responds:

A lot of words, and no answers. I made specific charges, to which the authors make no specific replies. The only concrete point they make is that “we even give an example of Odysseus deliberating,” and for that they give no citation, either to their own book or to Homer. But I assume (after search) they are referring to page 76, which quotes (and rearranges) Fitzgerald’s translation on Odysseus’ “mind and spirit pondering” (Odyssey, 5.424). The verb here is hormainein (which Lattimore translates as “meditate”). They do not address the formulae of choice I adduced (dikha mermērizein, or entha kai entha mermērizein). They must not have wanted me to find their passage, since they gloss the verb as “pondering and despairing.” Odysseus is not undergoing the anguish of choice. He is, in their words, “busy despairing of his options.” Despair precludes choice—which does not matter, since Athena saves Odysseus with a whoosh.

Amid all their verbiage they say nothing about most of the points that I challenge—such as that Augustine was the first to join Christianity with Greek philosophy, or that he invented interiority by watching Ambrose read silently.

They do not even mention the matters that were most noticed as sacred “shining moments” in their book—the worship of Roger Federer’s tennis, the “praises of the Lord” for Demon Deacons, the canonization of Elizabeth Gilbert for submitting to the god of her own genius. They especially do not take the opportunity to explain, at last, their wildest idea—that carefully brewed coffee is a prophylactic against the “whoosh” of Hitler rallies. They vaguely dance away from all that with a dismissive claim that I am talking history and they are talking philosophy—as if philosophy were a warrant for making false statements, over and over.

I haven't read the book.  I didn't read Wills review either.  But it doesn't seem like Wills gets this criticism either.  Seems like a better reply would be: "no, I didn't straw man your view.  This is where you hold it."


Some maintain that arguments are dialogues and such therefore be evaluated as such.  I have my doubts about this view, because so many of the arguments I encounter seem to be monologues, or at least the critical parts of them don't have anything to do with dialoguing with someone who disagrees with you (assuming the back-and-forth exchange is what is meant by "dialogue").  They seem–the critical parts–to be old-fashioned inferences of the inductive variety, or variations thereof.

Here's an example.  Today George Will argues ("superbly" according to some twitterers) that collective action to address an economic crisis is bad.  His argument, such as it is, goes something like this:

1.  During the depression, FDR's NRA attempted  price-fixing as a tool of economic recovery;

2.  One of those charged with overseeing this program admired Mussolini;

3.  Those who attempted to sell goods or services for less than the fixed price were punished  (just like in Cold War Poland);

4.  Today, as in the Great Depression, the government is trying to aid recovery:

Today, as 76 years ago, economic recovery is much on the mind of the government, which is busy as a beaver — sending another $26 billion to public employees, proposing an additional $50 billion for "infrastructure" — as it orchestrates Recovery Summer to an appropriate climax. But at least today's government is agnostic about the proper price for cleaning a suit.  

5.  But, in 1937 the Great Depression got worse:

In 1937, FDR asked in his second inaugural address for "unimagined power" to enforce "proper subordination" of private interests to public authority. The biggest industrial collapse in American history occurred eight years after the stock market crash of 1929, and nearly five years into the New Deal, in . . . 1937.

6.  Therefore:

The NRA lives on, sort of, in this Milton Friedman observation: Pick at random any three letters from the alphabet, put them in any order, and you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.

That's the best I can do with this argument.  In the first place, Will hasn't done anything to show that price-fixing (or the New Deal) caused the industrial collapse of 1937.  Second, there seems to be no analogy between stimulus spending on teachers, firefighters and police (among others) and arguably misguided price-fixing in the Thirties.  

Now had this been some kind of back and forth of a dialogue, WIll might have anticipated that.  But he didn't.