Poe’s Law and Straw Men

Poe's Law is one of the many eponymous laws of the internet.  It runs, roughly, that you can't tell the difference between religious crazies and people parodying religious crazies.  And vice versa.  That means that anything you find, for example, on LandoverBaptist.com you can find a real religious nutcase who believes it and says it

If Poe's Law is true, then I think it would be very difficult for charges of straw-manning to stick.  That is, no matter how crazy a view you can dream up about religion, you would likely be able to find someone who really holds that view. As a consequence, you'd never really be distorting the dialectical situation with the issue — there's always someone dumber and crazier than you'd anticipated. 

One thing to note, now, is that there's a difference between straw-manning and weak-manning.  That is, it's one thing to distort what some speaker or another may say and it's another thing to take the weakest and dumbest versions of your opposition and refute only them.  Straw-manning is the former, weak-manning is the latter.  The point is that if Poe's Law is true, it may be impossible to straw man, but the dialectical terrain is littered with weak men.  Your job is to sort them.

My worry is that without that distinction between accurate but selectively inappropriate representations of one's opposition (nutpicking one's versions of the opposition so they always are the dumb ones) and accurate and the best representations of one's opposition, we lose the thought that discourse is possible.  If you think that Poe is true about the religious (that they're all borderline nutcases or people who are simply enablers of nutcases), then there's not much of a chance at reasoned exchange with them.  Same goes for politics.  That's bad.

N.B.: Robert Talisse and I have a longer version of this thought over at 3QuarksDaily. I also have a longish essay on it up over at  my website on Academia.edu.

10 thoughts on “Poe’s Law and Straw Men”

  1. The Colbert Report was the first thing that crossed my mind, when reading this … and sure enough on the wiki page they mention it.
    I think you're right on, Scott. You can't call someone crazy and then sit down with him and have a  conversation.

  2. Hey BN.  A nice point about Colbert.  The LaMarre, Landreville and Beam study referenced on the RationalWiki site is very interesting — effectively, conservatives can't tell the difference between Colbert and O'Reilly.

  3. well … not all conservatives 🙂 but yes … I've met a bunch that think Colbert is one of them 🙂 … it can turn ugly if someone takes him seriously.

  4. Just as a side note, I have a colleague who thinks that Ann Coulter is a Poe — devoting her career to being the most outrageous and awful face for conservativism as she can be… with the hopes of making sure no one would ever be on her side. 

  5. I had never heard of this before, but now I realize why my students think I'm a radical, heartless libertarian after I teach political philosophy: they simply can't tell the difference between parody and sincerity. Troubling…

    Scott–if your colleague thinks Coulter's a Poe, then what does shim think of, say, Glenn Beck?

  6. Straw-Manning seem eminently possible to me here: one simply assigns to one's opponent a straw position that they themselves reject. The fact that you can find someone out in the world even more grotesquely stupid than the person you want to refute does not make it less of a strawman argument to assign to them that OTHER person's position.

  7. Hi Gary,
    So this requires that we clarify who or what has been straw-manned.  If person A and B are in a disagreement, and A misrepresents B's views in a way that makes B at an argumentative disadvantage, then B has been straw-manned.  But, now, the crucial thing here is not about people being straw-manned, but views, or positions.
    So A thinks that the view that p is false.  A then finds B, who is stupid and holds that p.  A is very careful to get B's version of the case for p just right. And then, because it's stupid, refutes it.  B hasn't been straw-manned.
    The point, Gary, is that if Poe's Law is true, then for pretty much any stupid version of theism you can dream up, there's probably a theist out there that thinks its right.  And so refuting even the most flimsy construction nevertheless accurately represents at least someone's position on the matter.
    So that's why it's important to make the difference between straw and weak manning.  Or better, show how weak-manning is a form of straw-manning. Otherwise Poe's Law makes it impossible to straw man — because you are refuting an OTHER person. 
    Perhaps your comment depends in some way depends less on the that before your ALL CAPS OTHER.  Fine, but you've assumed that straw-manning happens only in specific dialogical contexts, when there is a specific person to mis-represent.  But that's just wrong.  Any time someone starts a reconstruction of an opponents view with 'some say,' there aren't specific interlocutors, but there is a straw man.  In these cases, it's not a speaker that's been straw-manned, but a view.

  8. I like how William "Bill" Kristol appears after "week man" in your tags list. Q.E.D.?

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