Readers of the NonSequitur are familiar with the Straw Man Fallacy varieties and especially the Iron Man.Â 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.Â And the connection to longer-term argumentative pathologies, swamping in particular, was part of the agenda.
Marco Rubio recently made an interesting analogy after the release of the CBO report.Â 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.Â However, if we do, then Aaron Goldstein has a critical point to make:
But letâ€™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.Â 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.Â 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.Â Oh well, when the objective is to paint your political opponents in the worst lights, saving the actual point is beside the point.
(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.Â 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.Â 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.Â Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.Â So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.
That’s better, but not dialecticaly.Â The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.Â (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.)Â Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.Â The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.Â Isn’t that an important issue?Â Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?
So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himselfÂ 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.
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…”Â or “You know what all those X-ists say about this…”Â 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.Â And so we’ve been calling these hollow and weak men.
Now, what happens when the speaker’s on a roll?Â It’s not just a one-off, but a series of these straw-man constructions.Â For example, take Marta Mossburg’s “The Real ‘War on Women'” over at the American Spectator.Â Â 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,Â relentlessly battered his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli for waging a â€œwar on women,â€Â 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.Â 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 â€“ 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 â€œwar on womenâ€ 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.Â Sometimes, it’s just about reminding people what’s at stake, motivating them to go out and win, galvanizing the side.Â But here’s the thing: dog-cussing your opponents like this makes it very hard to intellectually engage with them afterwards.Â It inculcates a habit that Talisse and I have been calling the No Reasonable Opposition perspective on the issues at hand.Â 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.Â 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.Â 1. The “Republican War on Women” trope was about a series of elections and domestic policy, not about foreign policy.Â 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.Â (One might call this, by extension, a form of red herring.)Â 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.Â It shouldn’t be hard to see that.Â 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.
Here’s a way you can straw man someone.Â Pick out a bad decision she made, then say she chose that bad part of the decision.Â For example, say my wife and I areÂ trying to decide where to vacation.Â She wants to go to a cabin in the woods – something rustic and woodsy.Â But we get there, and the cabin’s filled with spiders and there’s a raccoon in the fireplace.Â Angrily, I say: We could have gone to Chicago, but you preferred a cabin filled with arachnids and vermin! Yes, that’s the choice she made, but not what she chose as she chose it.Â What she chose was rustic vacation… what that choice yielded was spiders and a hissing varmit.Â The lesson: our desires are propositional attitudes, and those attitudes represent what we desire or choose under a specific description.Â Again, she chose rustic cabin… and it happened to have spiders.Â She didn’t prefer the spiders.Â She just chose something that turned out had them.Â That’s not choosing spiders.Â So it’s a straw man – you’re misrepresenting the intentions of your interlocutor by describing them under the description of their worst consequences.
OK.Â So now the point about choice under a description and straw-manning is clear, let’s turn to the way George Neumayr over at AmSpec is handling his portrayal of the Obama Administration’s turn on foreign policy.Â His view is not just that they make bad decisions, but that they choose terrible things.
Ho Chi Minh once said that he won the Vietnam War not in the jungles of Asia but on the streets of America. Islamic terrorists could make a similar claim: from Libya to Egypt to Syria, they rose to power not in spite of American leaders but because of them. Obama and McCain preferred Morsi to Mubarak, the assassins of Christopher Stevens to Gaddafi, and now the enforcers of sharia to Assad.
The final point about Syria is a familiar one.Â (If you haven’t, take a quick look at John Dickerson’s Slate overview of the various arguments regarding Syria.)Â The point is that there would be an unintended consequence of destabilizing Assad – the opposition’s not a bunch of liberal-minded democrats, but radical Islamists.Â But it’s not that with the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration chose to support a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to lead Egypt or that there would be a terrorist attack on a consulate in Libya.Â Those were the consequences of the choices, but, again, choices are under descriptions, and not all consequences are the descriptions.
Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by aÂ tu quoque!
If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.Â In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?
A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.Â That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.
Yesterday the entire academic blogosphere blew up in a rage over a poorly reasoned post on the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog by Naomi Schaefer Riley. She wrote in favor of the elimination of African-American Studies PhD programs. I say "wrote in favor of" because to say "argued" would have given even fallacious arguments a bad name. Here's a taste:
You’ll have to forgive the lateness but I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.
The post was entitled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." Sadly, the author didn't read any dissertations, abstracts or extracts. She read synopses of works in progress. Her objections are then almost pure speculation:
But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?
I'd point out that affirmative action and civil rights are not coextensive terms (and besides, is that even the argument of the dissertation?). Anyway, in addition to embarassing herself hugely by not reading the unwritten dissertations she claims are evidence of shoddy thinking and then criticizing them, she only picked out three examples, as if these three dissertations were sufficiently representative of all of the work in African American Studies.
Thankfully, the students reply here.
Garbage such as this does not belong in the first draft of an undergraduate paper. Somehow, however, it found itself in Chronicle of Higher Education. So here's how the editors defend themselves:
Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit. Take a moment to read The Chronicle’s front-page story about the future of black studies, written by Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton and weigh in.
If this is the justification for posting Schaefer Riley's piece, then it's appears the Editors of the Chronicle have no standards at all. Making matters worse, Schaefer Riley defends herself (post here), writing:
Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.
She will forgive the commenters who do not understand that she can invoke evidence she has not seen to criticize arguments that haven't been made and advocate the elimination of academic programs she knows nothing about.
And there is enough money to get *someone *to read a dissertation on black midwifery: it's likely to be the salary of an Assitant Professor.
Bill Maher thinks there's too much manufactured outrage in our national discourse. When Bobby De Niro recently made a white people joke at an Obama fundraiser dinner, noted defender of the rights of minority groups Newt Gingrich leapt to our TV screens and demanded an apology from the President himself. It is of course absurd to think that Newt is legitimately outraged by this joke when he has famously argued that "one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty."
So, Gingrich's laughable fake outrage on this issue leads Maher to rhetorically conclude, "[w]hen did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?" When, indeed? Unfortunately, Maher takes this hollow man and proceeds to cast every recent instance of public outrage as an assertion of our right to not hear things we don't like. From the Limbaugh-Fluke uproar, to the Jeremy Lin-ESPN gaffe, Maher casts his net wide and far.
When did we become such whiny cry-babies? With all this thin-skinned outrage tearing our nation apart, Maher advances a solution:
"Let’s have an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.
If that doesn’t work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth."
See, all you have to do is plug your ears.
Now, there's something to be said about ignoring things that are worth ignoring. Do we need to jump down Limbaugh's throat every time he has says something offensive? There might not be enough time in one day to do that job and we shouldn't feed the king troll. And politicians like Gingrich will feign outrage whenever it is politically expedient, and that crap gets annoying. But Maher treats all instances of outrage as analagous to the following scenario:
"When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham."
Clearly not. That would be insane. But if an extremely popular and influential pundit makes aggressive misogynistic attacks against a person in an effort to deny what many feel are basic human rights, should we just smh and change the channel, or be fake outraged?
My sense is that critical thinking and informal logic classes stress the evaluation of arguments, not arguers. This is fine as a starting point, but as a long run strategy, it ignores the fact that we have very often to evaluate arguers. Someone who makes good ones, like someone who can throw good pitchers, is a good arguer; someone who makes bad ones, is a bad arguer. It's a kind of skill. The judgement about the person arguing strikes some, however, as having too much of an ad hominem character. But ad hominems are not by their very nature fallacious. They're fallacious only when the ad hominem judgement has no relevance to the truth or falsity or reliability or whatever of what a person is saying.
In light of this, consider George Will's latest attack on his favorite hollow man, "progressivism."
In 2011, for the first time in 62 years, America was a net exporter of petroleum products. For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.
and then later:
An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives’ preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force. How many Americans noticed that the latest United Nations climate change confabulation occurred in December in Durban, South Africa?
Let's put this another way. A person who makes up phony opponents (hollow men) merely in order to knock down their imaginary arguments with demonstrable scientific falsehoods is a very sorry arguer. That's an ad hominem.
David Brooks has a problem with all you people and your outrage over the rape of young boys. So take a break from feverishly trying assuage your liberal guilt with innumerable OMG SANDUSKEEZ A PERV OMG #librulzrule tweets and witness the real root of your outrage: your own vain refusal to acknowledge the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves about their willingness to act.
I know. A shocking thesis. Let's hear it again.
People are outraged over the rape of young boys because they are trying to mask their own guilt at knowing they would probably also do nothing. Quoth Brooks:
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
So, if people can't stop a genocide, they can't stop a rape. That seems off to me, but who am I to say? After all, Dave has SCIENCE!
Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State [ed. note: site where study occurred chosen, like, totally at random] and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.
In another experiment at a different school, 68 percent of students insisted they would refuse to answer if they were asked offensive questions during a job interview. But none actually objected when asked questions like, “Do you think it is appropriate for women to wear bras to work?”
First, we're given no indication of (1) the source of these studies, (2) the size of the samples, or (3) whether or not they were published, and therefore subject to the rigors of peer review. For all we know, this was some odd balding guy with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie and a New York Times press pass, wandering around Happy Valley and Different School University creeping out students with odd questions. Second, of course self deception could be only explanation for the responses to these studies. It couldn't be that college age individuals are often poorly educated as to what constitutes sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior, or that the studies appear, at least on their face, engineered to elicit a specific response. Nope. The only explanation is that people deceive themselves as to the extent they would act to stop another human being from being harmed. Why, you might ask? Dave has answers, bros:
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.
But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the tendencies noted in the second paragraph stem from an adherence to the codified moral systems whose absence from present day society is implied by the same paragraph! But perhaps I'm simply deceiving myself. After all, as someone who considers himself a vehement opponent of old men raping children, I'm obviously just pontificating from my perch high atop the moral high ground. Right, Dave?
Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”
The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.
Seems to me the proper question is how we can stop 55 year old football coaches from using the facilities of one of the most illustrious athletic programs in the nation to rape boys. Seems to me the proper question is how we might rebuild the power structure at Penn State to ensure that the full powers of that institution of higher learning are never put in service of the protection of a child rapist. Seems to me the proper question is why a judge that worked for the foundation this man used as his child rape pool, was allowed to hear this man's case and then set him free on unconditional bond. If my thinking that these are the proper questions make me someone who is simply trying to assuage liberal guilt, then I prefer the deception to the alternative.
Which, on the basis of Brooks' claims, seems to be nothing.