Category Archives: weak man

Ever tried red herring?

Some people think gun control is a good idea.  But "gun control" could mean any number of things.  It might mean, for instance, a complete ban on guns.  Some people want that.  It might also mean a ban on military-style weapons.  Seems more sensible to me.  This might make it more difficult for some solitary crazy person to kill a lot of people at once.  You would have thought that, of course, until you consulted history:

(1) THE (NON) EFFECT ON PUBLIC SAFETY: Set aside the fact that criminals don’t obey any law. Set aside too the fact that even if all firearms could be magically disintegrated by appropriate legislation, the murderous would simply use other more time-tested methods of killing. It should not be forgotten that some 7000 were killed in a single day at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 using the available hand weapons, which did not include firearms. At the Civil War battle of Gettysburg in 1863, both sides suffered approximately 51,000 casualties in three days of fighting using primarily single shot, breech loading rifles and muzzle loading cannon quite crude by contemporary standards. Some 5000 horses were also killed. The problem, in 1066, 1863 and today is human nature, not the tools employed.

The little number there will tell you the author of this argument is presenting a convergent case.  The unique ridiculousness of this claim, therefore, may not be representative of the whole argument.  If I were to engage in a bit of weak-manning, I might argue that a person who would advance such a claim doesn't need to be listened to any longer.  But that's not fair play.  You can read the rest of the argument for yourself. 

This one is just uniquely hilarious, as it seems completely to miss the point that high-capacity magazines (assault weapons, etc.) make it easier for lone nutcases to kill a lot of people in a very short amount of time.  It doesn't, of course, end our inhumanity to each other in the form of war.  To invoke this, I think, is a textbook worthy instance of the red herring technique.  In case you're not familiar with that technique, here's another example:

It's not the case that the oil spill caused tons of environmental damage in the Gulf, have you ever tried red herring?  They're excellent and they're on the menu at your local Swedish restaurant. 

link courtesy of balloon juice.

Daily Show on Nutpicking

Watch at this link for a fun back-and-forth between Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly on the argumentum ad Hitlerum. 

TL;DR for O'Reilly, his Nazi invocation (about "the left") is just fine because his assistants found an anonymous commenter at a blog who called Nancy Reagan evil and wished that she die soon (of natural causes).  What that has to do with the Nazis is beyond me. 

That, of course, is some classic nut picking, or as the experts call it, weak manning.  What makes it especially fallacious (if that is possible) is that it's deployed in an ideologically monochrome (should I drop this phrase? Should I not comment on my sentence during my sentence?) context in order to disqualify an opposing arguer on account of the very bad arguments they make.  This last part being critical to the nutpicker.   

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 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

Pile on

The other day I talked about this weak and hollow man rich column by Charles Krauthammer.  But there was way more about that column that an attentive undergraduate could have criticized.  Here's another tidbit.  He wrote:

And now the mosque near Ground Zero. The intelligentsia is near unanimous that the only possible grounds for opposition is bigotry toward Muslims. This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than "violent extremists" of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief. Those who reject this as both ridiculous and politically correct (an admitted redundancy) are declared Islamophobes, the ad hominem du jour.

So fine two thirds of the population are against the Ground Zero community center.  What else have two thirds of the people been against?  I wonder.  Let's go back in time:

The reponse?

The "smug attribution of bigotry" to 82 percent of the people.

Letters to the editor

A post or two ago I made the claim that columnists and arguers in general ought to have some lattitude in defining their opponent's argument(s).  One only has 750 or so words, so one can't possibly be expected to provide thorough references.  

The breadth of this lattitude, however, ought to be determined by reality.  This means one ought to use the means available to pin the argument to an actual person or institution whose view is under discussion.  In the days of linkage, this is not very hard: online versions of columns can and often do have links.  When you say something about some person x's view, you can write it as a link ot the place where that person says what you say she says.  Once we have these, then we can discuss the degree to which they are representative of the opposition's case.   

The weird thing about this is that you'd also think in the days of linkage the readers' demands for such precision would increase, not decrease.  I don't have empirical data on this, but I think it's decreased.

Fortunately, an alert reader of the Post noticed just this about Charles Krauthammer's most recent hollow and weak men:

In his Aug. 27 column, Charles Krauthammer offered negative generalizations and accusations about "liberals" — referring to their "promiscuous charges of bigotry" and saying that they give "no credit to the seriousness and substance of the contrary argument" and resort "reflexively to the cheapest race baiting," without citing as an example one statement from any so-called liberal person or organization. Surely with liberals running amok and using such baseless and terrible rhetoric, he could have cited a few examples to better make his case.

He stated also that liberals have lost the debate on every issue he cited in the court of public opinion by often lopsided margins, without citing any polling data. My reading of the polls on the issues he listed is that public opinion is much more nuanced than he acknowledged.

By his polemical, over-the-top attack on liberals in general, Mr. Krauthammer practiced what he condemned — giving no credit to the seriousness and substance of the contrary argument.

Hurray for this reader.  The reader makes another very important observation at the end.  Columnists–right wing ones especially–work dialectically.  They're allegedly trying to convince the unconvinced.  But then again, maybe they're not and maybe that's the entire problem. 

He’s a decent family man and citizen*

Shorter Charles Krauthammer: only liberals are bigotted enough to use ad hominem arguments. 

Todays' piece is a gold mine of fallacious reasoning.  One hardly knows where to begin (or where to end).  Now hold on objector, I'm going to prove that charge, just give me a minute.  The article begins by, on a very charitable interpretation, weak-manning the "liberal" position:

— Resistance to the vast expansion of government power, intrusiveness and debt, as represented by the Tea Party movement? Why, racist resentment toward a black president.

— Disgust and alarm with the federal government's unwillingness to curb illegal immigration, as crystallized in the Arizona law? Nativism.

— Opposition to the most radical redefinition of marriage in human history, as expressed in Proposition 8 in California? Homophobia.

— Opposition to a 15-story Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero? Islamophobia.

A sort-of caveat.  Columnists (given the absurd and arbitrary limitations on space which is as much their fault as anyone else's) have broad latitude to characterize their opponents' arguments in general terms.  But one can do this–I think at least–without sacrificing clarity, precision, and honesty.  (This one fails on all of those grounds). 

The weak man has it that in some forms someone in the opposition holds the view as described.  And indeed I bet I can find lots of people who fit the caricature Krauthammer draws.  Funny thing, however, without disgracing himself and engaging in obvious nutpicking, Krauthammer can't.  He doesn't name a single person or reference a single argument made by an actual person.  Moreover, the only things he attributes to a person are without meaningful context.

On all of the topics listed above, serious arguments have been made.  Just to take one for example because it's all anyone talks about anymore: Richard Cohen, Krauthammer's Post colleague (and frequent object of criticism here) had a piece up earlier this week about the Park51 Islamic Community Center project (which, by the way, IS NOT A MOSQUE NEAR GROUND ZERO).  Now he points out, correctly I think, that no small measure of opposition to the project is driven by old-fashioned bigotry against Islam.  Hell, a too-large percentage of Americans don't think a Muslim ought to be legally allowed to be President (and a number of Americans think the current President is a Muslim). 

But he also mounts an argument against the clearly non-bigotted:

This is not a complicated matter. If you believe that an entire religion of upward of a billion followers attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, then it is understandable that locating a mosque near the fallen World Trade Center might be upsetting. But the facts are otherwise. Islam was not in on the attack — just a sliver of believers. That being the case, those people with legitimate hurt feelings are mistaken. They need our understanding, not our indulgence.     

I think Cohen happens to be right.  But you'll at least have to admit that he doesn't resort to the bigotry charge.  Then again, maybe Krauthammer doesn't consider him part of the intelligentsia. 

Whatever the merits of Cohens argument, however, we have at least one easily found example of someone making a freedom of religion case for not disallowing the Park 51 project.  Sure it accuses people of ignorance.  But hey, that's what happens when you're wrong.   

*On the title: cf. John McCain's response to the 2008 accusation that Obama was an "Arab."


More nutpicking

Here's an almost definitional instance of nutpicking:

'NUTPICKING' HASN'T GONE AWAY…. I'd hoped we were past this.

Yesterday, ThinkProgress reported news that a Muslim cab driver in New York City had been assaulted by a passenger simply because of his faith. […]

Today on Fox News, right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin discussed the incident and argued that the real story is not about the hate crime, but rather, the progressive blogosphere. "Something really ugly happened," she said. "Time and again, when something like this happens — any random incident of violence — there are people on the left with a knee-jerk impulse to indict the right." As evidence, Malkin pointed to comments left on ThinkProgress.

Note, Malkin wasn't offended by what ThinkProgress wrote; she was offended when she dug through the comments section and found reactions she found distasteful.



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:

Liberal Intelligentsia

You have to hand it to Charles Krauthammer, at least he makes an effort to mount an argument.  Sadly, however, his effort too often confuses fallacious forms of argument with valid ones.  Today's topic: the "Ground Zero" "Mosque."  I put "Mosque" and "Ground Zero" in quotes because IT"S NOT A "MOSQUE."  People should not call it that.  And it's not AT "ground zero," so people should stop saying that also.  He at least gets this part half correct.  The rest is all hollow-manning, weak-manning, straw-manning, and ad-homineming: he begins:

It's hard to be an Obama sycophant these days. Your hero delivers a Ramadan speech roundly supporting the building of a mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York. Your heart swells and you're moved to declare this President Obama's finest hour, his act of greatest courage.

It is inexcusable nowadays in the world of links not to put a bunch of links to quote-worthy people who hold that view of Obama.  No such luck, as this is just the set up.  But that tone of moral and logical condescension (sycophant? please) is pure Krauthammer–he's going to show you whose belief is foolish now.  Continuing directly:

Alas, the next day, at a remove of 800 miles, Obama explains that he was only talking about the legality of the thing and not the wisdom — upon which he does not make, and will not make, any judgment.

You're left looking like a fool because now Obama has said exactly nothing: No one disputes the right to build; the whole debate is about the propriety, the decency of doing so.

It takes no courage whatsoever to bask in the applause of a Muslim audience as you promise to stand stoutly for their right to build a mosque, giving the unmistakable impression that you endorse the idea. What takes courage is to then respectfully ask that audience to reflect upon the wisdom of the project and to consider whether the imam's alleged goal of interfaith understanding might not be better achieved by accepting the New York governor's offer to help find another site.

What's hilarious is that Krauthammer's evidence of no one disputing the right to build is another Krauthammer piece.  I will at least have the decency to send you to someone else–and you can follow their links.  What Krauthammer says is false.  Ok, a quote:

Limbaugh: "[T]he Constitution does not guarantee you can put your church anywhere you want it." On his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh stated: "If you're going to bring the First Amendment into it, that's where your argument's going to fall apart. There are 23 mosques in New York. The government — the Constitution does not guarantee you can put your church anywhere you want it. It just says you cannot be denied the practice of worship."

Regretably, That guy is a leading conservative figure.  But you can see that he disputes the legal right to build.  Moving on:

Where the president flagged, however, the liberal intelligentsia stepped in with gusto, penning dozens of pro-mosque articles characterized by a frenzied unanimity, little resort to argument and a singular difficulty dealing with analogies.

Read closely, "dozens" of articles were written, but there was "little resort to argument" and a "singular difficulty with analogies."  And he comes up with two examples: Richard Cohen and Michael Kinsley.  God help us.

The Atlantic's Michael Kinsley was typical in arguing that the only possible grounds for opposing the Ground Zero mosque are bigotry or demagoguery. Well then, what about Pope John Paul II's ordering the closing of the Carmelite convent just outside Auschwitz? (Surely there can be no one more innocent of that crime than those devout nuns.) How does Kinsley explain this remarkable demonstration of sensitivity, this order to pray — but not there? He doesn't even feign analysis. He simply asserts that the decision is something "I confess that I never did understand."

That's his Q.E.D.? Is he stumped or is he inviting us to choose between his moral authority and that of one of the towering moral figures of the 20th century?

At least Richard Cohen of The Post tries to grapple with the issue of sanctity and sensitivity. The results, however, are not pretty. He concedes that putting up a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor would be offensive but then dismisses the analogy to Ground Zero because 9/11 was merely "a rogue act, committed by 20 or so crazed samurai."

Any reference to Richard Cohen is by definition weak-manning.  But Kinsley's argument–which you can read at the link if you click it–is rather stronger than Krauthammer suggests.  In fact, he addresses precisely the point about analogies Krauthammer mentions (in addition to naming Krauthammer specifically).  Kinsley writes:

Opponents of the mosque have their own analogies. What about a theme park near the Civil War battlefield at Manassas? What about a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor? What about a convent full of nuns praying at Auschwitz (a project Pope John Paul II shut down). I confess that I never did understand what was wrong with nuns devoting their lives to praying at the site of a Nazi death camp. As for the other what-abouts: the difference is that our constitution does not guarantee freedom of theme parks, or freedom of national (as opposed to religious) cultural centers. It guarantees freedom of religion, which (to make the banal but necessary point) is one of the major disagreements we have with Osama bin Laden.

I think Kinsley's point is that the nun analogy is not obviously decisive.  I think he's correct about this, as the nuns had occupied a building actually used in the Auschwitz complex (where the Nazis stored Zyklon-B), and their sole purpose was to pray for the dead at Auschwitz.  They didn't occupy a building in the nearby town that had nothing to do with the Holocaust (like a Burlington Coat Factory, for instance, or a strip club).  Agree or not, it's obvious Kinsley doesn't see the aptness of the analogy.  You can't challenge him by insisting that it's super apt.  That just begs the question.  And he's certainly not obliged to question the towering Moral authority of the Pope (which Krauthammer–in his drumbeat for war war war—did more than he).  And besides, I think the Pope's decision was a pragmatic one–he was avoiding a fight.  Finally, the organized structure of the Catholic Church is not analogous to anything in Islam. 

Anyway, Krauthammer has not only not discussed the dozens of other possible arguments (are we supposed to take his word for it that they're bad?) for the Cordoba Initiative, he has also missed the point of at least one of the articles that he does discuss.  If you're going to weak man, at least do it right. 

Embrace the Ad Hitlerum

Ad Hitlerum arguments are arguments by analogy — you criticize your opponent's views or proposals on the basis of their similarities either to those of Nazi Germany or Hitler himself.  And so: Vegetarianism? No way — many Nazis were vegetarians.  Or: The Nazis favored euthanasia, so it must be wrong.  The crucial thing for these arguments is that Nazis or Hitler favoring X means that X is morally unacceptable.  But this is a pretty unreliable method of detecting immorality, as the Nazis also were avid promoters of physical fitness, environmentalism, and classical music.  So ad Hitlerum arguments regularly suffer from problems of relevance.  But that failing of the argument hardly ever prevents folks from using it. Regularly.

Godwin's law, one of the oldest of the eponymous Laws of the Internet, runs that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."   Given that the argumentative strategy has regular relevance problems, there's a widely recognized corollary to the law, which is that whoever makes use of the argumentative strategy has thereby lost the argument.  It's in the same boat with appeals to the subjectivity of an issue, after having had a heated argument about it.  It is an argument that is a last-ditch grasp at straws.

So far, none of this is news.

Here's the news: Hal Colebatch, in  his post "Don't Be Scared of Goodwin's So-Called Law" at the American Spectator, is urging conservatives not to be deterred by the charge of "Goodwin's Law."  The law of the internet, instead of being used as a tool for improving discourse, has hampered good argument. He writes:

Try mentioning to a euthanasia advocate that the Nazi extermination program started off as an exercise in medical euthanasia. And as for suggesting that Jews and Israel are in danger of a second holocaust if Muslim extremists have their way, just wait for: "Godwin's Law!" "Godwin's law!" repeated with a kind of witless assumption of superiority reminiscent of school playground chants.

The first question is: with whom has Colebatch been arguing?  Nobody, at least nobody serious, in any of these debates does that chanting stuff. (I smell weak-manning here.) The second question is why would anyone serious about the issues even be bothered by this response?  His article urges people not to be "afraid" of Goodwin's law — who is afraid of people arguing like that?

Colebatch, first, seems to think that the counter-argument is in the chanting.  Or maybe in the thought that someone's lost the argument.  But the real point of noting Godwin's law in a discussion with someone who's just made an Ad Hitlerum move is to challenge the aptness of the analogy.  So take Colebatch's own example — wouldn't the point of bringing up Godwin's Law there be to say something like: euthanasia programs aren't out to do anything more than allow some people to die with dignity.  It's not a cover for something else, and there are oversight programs to ensure that it doesn't turn into something else.  Unless it's shown that there are other plans for euthanasia, there's no relevance to the analogy.

So Colebatch is not being silenced or intimidated when someone says "Godwin's Law" to him — he's on the receiving end of a rebuttal.  But he can't recognize that:

Personally, I don't intend to be intimidated by chants of "Godwin's Law" or any other infantile slogan, used to smother debate in a way reminiscent of something from George Orwell or, if you'll excuse me saying so, a Nuremberg Rally. I have come up against echoes of Nazi thought-patterns and arguments many times and not only am I not going to be bullied into keeping silent about this, I believe every civilized person has a positive duty to speak up about it whenever appropriate.

But Godwin's Law isn't smothering debate at all.  It's a move to point out a fallacy.  Or at least a challenge to demonstrate relevance.  Since when is criticism of an analogy a form of intimidation or something infantile?  That's what good debate is about!