Tag Archives: weak manning


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.

Mixed nuts


assorted nuts

This post at Talking Points Memo is pretty much the essence of nut picking.  A taste:

Republican politicians have tried to pay homage on Facebook to the late Nelson Mandela since his death on Thursday, but many of their conservative supporters want to hear none of it.

Peruse through comment sections of the GOP’s Facebook tributes to Mandela, and there’s a good chance you’ll find plenty of vitriol for the former South African president and for the politicians who praised him.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) wrote that Mandela “will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe.” One commenter took a different view of the anti-apartheid leader’s legacy, urging “all you Mandela lovers head on over to South Africa and see what’s going on now that ‘Mandela’s people’ have control of the nation.”

No kidding.  “Peruse through the comments on Facebook” tells you all you need to know. More interesting, however, are the actual comments from the Republicans themselves over the years.  See here for that.

More on nut picking here.


It's Saturday Morning, and it's farmers' market season, so it seems right we have post about food.  The other day the times ran an op-ed by Stephen Budiansky, otherwise known as the blogger Liberal Curmudgeon (not, by the way, THE liberal curmudgeon, who is someone else), on the virtues, or rather the dangers and ridiculous absurdities of selectively chosen arguments and advocates of locavorism. (Locavorism, in case you don't know, is the view that one ought to do one's best to eat the foods grown nearby and in season–farmers' market stuff basically).  

This is unfortunate, as I think many advocates of locavorism consider themselves to be empirically-driven (i.e., reality based) kinds of people, so if there's a mistake in their advocacy for their view, then I think they'd like to know it.  It's also unfortunate for several other reasons, but let's look at the piece first.

Budiansky writes:

But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill. 

I think it's not unreasonable to say that every activity participated in by large numbers of people will include advocates who don't have the faintest idea what they're talking about it.  Christianity is one example of this.  But we all know that it's not fair, honest, or accurate to pick out the craziest and most uninformed of those advocates, and then select the weakest of their arguments, in order to undermine the entire movement to which they belong.  A lot of people will "eat local" because it's cool, or because they're joyless hypocrites, or because they have a superficial understanding of the math (as Budiansky alleges), but there's no reason to conflate them with the idea as a whole.  I mean seriously, who advocates the energy-intensive greenhouse tomato?  We know this around here as "weak-manning" and in the tomato case "hollow manning."   

It is a real question, of course, whether "the math" supports the specific (mathematical) claims of locavores.  But that's really hard to evaluate here, because Budiansky hasn't done us the common courtesy of pointing us to any specific source for the claims of the locavore.  It's an op-ed, of course, but a parenthetical reference of some kind is certainly possible (there's more follow-up on his blog, by the way–hurray for blogging!).  More importantly, however, the topic of relative energy cost deserves a more serious discussion than Budiansky seems interested in having–juding by his characterization of locavores and their arguments–they're dogmatists, so why bother?

More basically, however, there's more than one argument for locavorism (as it turns out commenters on his blog have pointed out).  This one argument for locavorism may fail–hey I'm an empiricist, one has to be open to that possibility–but there are other arguments and other more charitable versions of this (the energy) argument.  This is a serious topic.  It deserves better than this.

UPDATE: same points, made better: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kerry-trueman/the-myth-of-the-rabid-loc_b_689591.html

Culpa istorum

**Quick update below I've noticed several mea-culpae about Iraq floating around lately. We talked about one of them (Ignatieff) the other day. Being wrong about such a thing as monumental as war ought probably to carry serious consequences for the credibility of the person who was wrong. In light of that obvious but completely ignored imperative, it's entertaining to watch the ones who were wrong explain themselves:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

So Ignatieff was wrong, but some of those who were right were right for the wrong reasons (so he claims). We might then say that they're wrong too. Because after all it's just as bad to have a true belief which is unjustified as it is to have a unjustified false belief (like Ignatieff had). Any mature person can see that Ignatieff has picked on the college socialist again–a slogan chanting and capitalistically challenged representative of the anti war left. Everyone ought to know by this point–especially a former Harvard Professor of political science–that such a lefty exists in Rush Limbaugh's mind. Pointing out that someone might have had stupid reasons for being right doesn't have anything to do with your stupid reasons for being wrong. Now to his stupid reasons:

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq's fissured sectarian history. What they didn�t do was take wishes for reality. They didn't suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn't suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn't suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn't believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes.

First off, I think a good number had some knowledge of Iraq's "fissured sectarian history." It was no secret to experts in Middle East history. But the more perplexing thing (aside from its self-serving comparisons) about this mea culpa is that it puts the entire matter in terms of gambling about an uncertain future–where no one could possibly predict the outcome. And this is just the point that Ignatieff and others fail to get. A person with even a casual knowledge of the history of the region (say the recent war between Iraq and Iran) could have predicted the outcome of this war with a good deal of precision. It's not a question, as Ignatieff frames it, of being unduly critical of the motives of the administration (which one always should be in any case), it's rather a more straightforward matter of good judgment. And so this underscores the shallowness of Ignatieff's thinking about matters of life and death (which is what it was to think about invading Iraq in case that wasn't obvious). The experts he trusts don't have any knowledge of the very public and relevant facts about the history of Iraq (and the entire region). So it's not only a case of taking wishes for reality. It's simpler than that.

**Update: Here's Crooked Timber, always a worthwhile read. I'd be interested in seeing more apologiae pro errore meo if anyone knows where to find them.