Tag Archives: weak man

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.

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. 


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

Nut Picking

I love meta commentary–that's why it's so much fun to read George Will and Charles Krauthammer–that's what they do: they make (usally wrong) observations on the logic of argument.  Well, at least someone is doing it.  For this reason I was glad to run across a phrase close to our heart here, "nut picking."  It appears in a Dave Weigel column in the Washington Post concerning misconceptions about the "Tea Party Movement." 

The tea party is racist.

2. It's a phenomenon that some activists call "nutpicking" — send a cameraman into a protest and he'll focus on the craziest sign. Yes, there are racists in the tea party, and they make themselves known. But tea party activists, in most cases, root them out. Texas activist Dale Robertson, who held a sign comparing taxpayers to "niggars" at a 2009 rally, was drummed out of that event and pilloried by his peers. Mark Williams, formerly the bomb-throwing spokesman for the Tea Party Express (he once told me he wanted to send the liberal watchdog group Media Matters "a case of champagne" for calling him racist), was booted after penning a parody essay that had the NAACP pining for slavery.

Liberal critics of the tea party make the case that conservative opposition to social spending is often racially motivated. That's not new, though, and it's certainly not the basis for the tea party.

"Nut picking" has its origin in a 2006 Kevin Drum post of the Washington Monthly as far as I can tell.  To be precise, it refers to the all-too-common practice of trolling the comments of internet fora–what you humans call "blogs"–for the crazies.  One then alleges that the crazy commentor represents a typical view of the opposition.  Therefore, etc., as the medievals would say.  Real logicians call this practice "weak manning" or more technically, "the selectional form of the straw man."  

Now to be precise again (sorry, it's my job), the claim that the tea party is racist might be justified (badly, let's say) in some instances by nut picking, but it is not the same as nut picking.  Nut picking may be one of the many mechanisms used to produce an unrepresentative sample, upon which one then makes an inductive generalization.   

Raw deal

It's farmers' market season, so it's time for a food-related post.  Slate ran an article by a professor of science journalism on the possible ill effects of consuming raw milk.  To be more precise, Slate ran an attack on weak man arguments in favor of drinking raw milk, complete with weak man digs against other pro-organic positions.  This, I think, is especially egregious, not only of Slate but of the author, who as a professor of journalism really seriously ought to know better than to engage in such behavior.  Here's a representative graph:

And it's in this incarnation—the one that draws a cultlike following—that the raw-milk ideal becomes dangerous. They're not alone, of course; pure-food advocates in general tend to cast a romanticized glow over their favored products. We hear that old-fashioned organic produce contains more nutrients than that grown by modern agriculture, despite the fact that most research suggests that, basically, a carrot is a carrot and one spinach leaf is pretty much another (and all lose nutrients as they sit on a shelf). We hear that we should return to old-fashioned farming methods, advice that ignores the key fact that such techniques are so inefficient that they can't sustain the world's current population. There's an element of wishful thinking to many food mythologies, but—unlike the haloed status of raw milk—most don't lead directly to risky behavior or public health concerns or physicians complaining that increased consumption of "nature's perfect food" has led to a recent doubling in the number of milk-borne disease outbreaks.

I'm going to presume that the readers of Slate are not going to be all that familiar with debates about raw milk and biodynamic farming methods.  It think it's also safe to assume that the likely reader of this piece doesn't have a stake in the argument–they're not a partisan looking for confirmation of their vision of the dialectical opposition.  This fact makes the weak manning here all the more egregious.  People know, or ought to know, where a partisan agenda is being advanced.  You're a fool (and sadly many are) if you think you're going to get an honest picture of liberals from the Rush Limbaugh show.  In this case, however, one might be excused for having one's guard down.  

Now of course, it's certainly true that some advocates of raw milk are nuts (the author has picked them)–they make nutty claims without basis in any kind of evidence for the magical properties of raw milk.  Some of these nuts even dismiss the very obvious dangers of raw milk consumption with the most ridiculous of sophistries.

Nonetheless, many people drink raw milk (and in general advocate for various organic farming methods).  Some of these people have compelling arguments.  Many of them have arguments that pass the initial test of plausibility.  But you'd never get that idea from this piece.

Nothing’s Sacrosanct

Ann Coulter’s been paying attention to Elena Kagan’s SCOTUS nomination proceedings.  She even read a profile of Kagan from the New York Times.  Kagan’s aunt notes that the family was intellectually engaged:

“There was thinking, always thinking,” Joyce Kagan Charmatz, Robert Kagan’s sister-in-law, 71, said of the family’s dinner table. “Nothing was sacrosanct.”

That “nothing was sacrosanct” caught Coulter’s eye.  She’s skeptical about whether in a liberal family that there could be a nothing’s-off-limits discussion.  She first observes:

Really? Nothing was sacrosanct? Because in my experience, on a scale of 1-to-infinity, the range of acceptable opinion among New York liberals goes from 1-to-1.001.

And then she ponders:

How would the following remarks fare at a dinner table on the Upper West Side where "nothing was sacrosanct": Hey, maybe that Joe McCarthy was onto something. What would prayer in the schools really hurt? How do we know gays are born that way? Is it possible that union demands have gone too far? Does it make sense to have three recycling bins in these microscopic Manhattan apartments? Say, has anyone read Charles Murray's latest book? Those comments, considered "conversation starters" in most of the country, would get you banned from polite society in New York.

Coulter’s hypothesis is that Kagan’s family was actually a group of insular liberals, people who pretended to be open-minded, willing to hear out all the sides, and so on, but never actually met anyone who had an opposing view.  Coulter knows all those New York liberals, and she knows just how dogmatic they can be: 

Even members of survivalist Christian cults in Idaho at least know people who hold opposing views. New York liberals don't. . . .  Even within the teeny-tiny range of approved liberal opinion in New York, disagreement will get you banned from the premises.

Seriously?  Now, for sure it’d be easy to switch out ‘New York liberals’ with ‘Texas conservatives’ and all the right-wing talking points with lefty talking points, and you’d see just what a bigoted and ridiculous tirade that’d be about conservatives.  Surely, we all know there are dogmatists on both sides. But they don’t define the sides, and they don’t define how parenting happens.  One of the things that Coulter fails to observe is that Joyce Kagan Charmatz is trying to get across that the Kagan family was not one of those dogmatic families you might see on the liberal side.

The larger problem is that Coulter has the worst of the ‘New York liberals’ define them all.  We’ve observed a number of times here at the NonSequitur that this is a form of straw-manning more precisely called weak manning. The basic trope is to find the worst and dumbest representative of a group you hold to be wrong, criticize this representative, and then act as though the group is wrong uberhaupt on the basis of this criticism.  For example, we all have shut-in uncles who surf the web in their bathrobes who are just right of Ron Paul libertarians.  When they say stupid things at family reunions, we don’t think this necessarily impugns libertarianism.  Every time you’re inclined to think that libertarians are stupid, you must remember Robert Nozick was very likely smarter than you. Same goes for Coulter – every time she thinks she can define the class ‘New York liberal,’ their views and their parenting on the basis of the worst of the class, she should exercise some measure of judgment.

Argumentum ad imperfectionem

The argumentum ad imperfectionem is a kind of fallacious argument advanced by lazy meta commentators.  It consists in alleging that the imperfections in the arguments of certain peripheral exponents of a particular view justify the weak-manning of the opponents of those views.   

So for instance, some less than responsible or scientifically accurate characterizations of the family of views known as climate change justify the wildly erroneous allegations of global warming deniers.  Here's an example from the Washington Post's Dana Milbank:

As a scientific proposition, claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution. In fact, warming theory suggests that you'd see trends toward heavier snows, because warmer air carries more moisture. This latest snowfall, though, is more likely the result of a strong El Niño cycle that has parked the jet stream right over the mid-Atlantic states.

Still, there's some rough justice in the conservatives' cheap shots. In Washington's blizzards, the greens were hoist by their own petard.

For years, climate-change activists have argued by anecdote to make their case. Gore, in his famous slide shows, ties human-caused global warming to increasing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought and the spread of mosquitoes, pine beetles and disease. It's not that Gore is wrong about these things. The problem is that his storm stories have conditioned people to expect an endless worldwide heat wave, when in fact the changes so far are subtle. 

Other environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish; they've blamed global warming for shrinking sheep in Scotland, more shark and cougar attacks, genetic changes in squirrels, an increase in kidney stones and even the crash of Air France Flight 447. When climate activists make the dubious claim, as a Canadian environmental group did, that global warming is to blame for the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, then they invite similarly specious conclusions about Washington's snow — such as the Virginia GOP ad urging people to call two Democratic congressmen "and tell them how much global warming you get this weekend."

That's just nuts.  Gore and the climate change activists are correct (Milbank doesn't doubt that), but examples used in their arguments may give lazy or just plain dishonest people the wrong idea.  It's their fault, in other words, that they have used anecdotes to illustrate claims about the consequences of a warming atmosphere.  Giving examples, anecdotes in other words, is one way a view can be communicated.  These anecdotes, by the way, are not perfect.  They are not perfect especially in the hands of people with no particular scientific training or real grip of the view they hold.  A view, in this circumstance, which turns out to have a sound justification. 

Misrepresenting the scale or significance of the imperfect anecdote in order to undermine the view is what we call "weak manning," that is, distorting a view by selection of its weakest justifications.  There likely are lots of these.  But this does not justify the dishonesty of people who know of better arguments.  And the existence of weak exponents of a particular view does not entail that the view itself is weakened.

They’re just nihilists

The Washington Post has given tenured spots on its page to a serial climate change denier (George Will), a conspiracy theorist (Charles Krauthammer), and they have offered up guest spots to the likes of Sarah Palin and other alleged global warming skeptics.  Today, finally, a little bit of balance.  Eugene Robinson goes after Palin's latest op-ed, and Anne Applebaum reaffirms the obvious and well-known facts about global warming. However, as if a part of some weird conspiracy to exacerbate the problem of the doubters, their arguments blow. 

Robinson's entire piece is directed at the alleged change in Palin's position.  As governor of Alaska, Robinson points out, Palin seemed to affirm the reality of climate change, but now she denies it.  But that's not what Robinson says:

In her administrative order, Palin instructed the sub-Cabinet group to develop recommendations on "the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska sources, including the expanded use of alternative fuels, energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, land use management, and transportation planning." She also instructed the group to look into "carbon-trading markets."

But in her op-ed last week, Palin — while acknowledging "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and the possibility that human activity might be contributing to warming — states flatly that "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs." What she once called "carbon-trading markets" she now denounces as "the Democrats' cap-and-tax proposal."

Is there nobody at the Post who can point out that this is not a contradiction.  She instructed a group to "look into" not to "endorse" carbon trade proposals.  She's clearly unhappy with the ones offered.  Robinson is so gleeful in the discovery of his alleged contradiction that he doesn't realize he hasn't found it.  Besides, what does it matter?  She can change her mind if she wants.  Further, who cares what she thinks?  She is neither a scientist nor an elected official of any consequence. 

By contrast, Anne Applebaum has found the real culprit in the whole climate change debate: scattered crazy enivronmentalists.  And she goes in the for the full weak man.  She begins, ominously enough:

There is no nihilism like the nihilism of a 9-year-old. "Why should I bother," one of them recently demanded of me, when he was presented with the usual arguments in favor of doing homework: "By the time I'm grown up, the polar ice caps will have melted and everyone will have drowned."

When I was a kid it was nuclear war.  Anyway, what lesson does she draw from this.  No, not that for many kids this will be a reality.  Rather, people who point this out are a big bringdown:

Watching the news from Copenhagen last weekend, it wasn't hard to understand where he got that idea. Among the tens of thousands demonstrating outside the climate change summit, some were carrying giant clocks set at 10 minutes to midnight, indicating the imminent end of the world. Elsewhere, others staged a "resuscitation" of planet Earth, symbolically represented by a large collapsing balloon. Near the conference center, an installation of skeletons standing knee-deep in water made a similar point, as did numerous melting ice sculptures and a melodramatic "die-in" staged by protesters wearing white, ghost-like jumpsuits.

Danish police arrested about a thousand people on Saturday for smashing windows and burning cars, and on Sunday arrested 200 more (they were carrying gas masks and seem to have been planning to shut down the city harbor). Nevertheless, in the long run it is those peaceful demonstrators, the ones who say the end is nigh, who have the capacity to do the most psychological damage.

The second group of people have nothing to do with negative messaging.  She goes on and on with examples of nutty environmentalists who just make you feel bad with all of their blaming and hyperbole (the veracity of which she doesn't question).  All of this, however, is a silly distraction.  The law of probability has it that global warming will attract no small number of people who say crazy things (if in fact they're guilty of that).  Can you really blame them, however, when you have well-paid people on the staff of the Post–not sign-carrying nutters in the streets–who deny well-established facts. 

Who is the real nihilist?  The one who says we're doomed if we do nothing?  Or the one who alleges it's all a big communist lie?  


My distortions are your fault

There was a time when a young Robert Samuelson insisted that cost should not count if something like an invasion of Iraq was necessary. He wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but “can we afford it?” is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

He regretted writing that. Having spent something like a lot of money now on Iraq, one might reasonably ask whether Samuelson should be listened to on matters of cost. I would say not. In any case, so Samuelson makes his argument against health care reform by the well-known device of attacking someone’s motives:

The campaign to pass Obama’s health-care plan has assumed a false, though understandable, cloak of moral superiority. It’s understandable because almost everyone thinks that people in need of essential medical care should get it; ideally, everyone would have health insurance. The pursuit of these worthy goals can easily be projected as a high-minded exercise for the public good.

It’s false for two reasons. First, the country has other goals — including preventing financial crises and minimizing the crushing effects of high deficits or taxes on the economy and younger Americans — that “health-care reform” would jeopardize. And second, the benefits of “reform” are exaggerated. Sure, many Americans would feel less fearful about losing insurance; but there are cheaper ways to limit insecurity. Meanwhile, improvements in health for today’s uninsured would be modest. They already receive substantial medical care. Insurance would help some individuals enormously, but studies find that, on average, gains are moderate. Despite using more health services, people don’t automatically become healthier.

Let me state first that Samuelson isn’t talking here about the specific plan (he does later, but he relies on the Lewin group, an insurance company funded “research” group–so, really, please), he’s talking about the general concept of reform. For anyone with a minimal knowledge of other industrialized nations, who spend at most about half of what he do and get a lot more, this is just an insult. For more on that, see here.

But more basically, Samuelson is doing a bit of straw man–weak man actually–and a bit of ad hominem circumstantial. It’s a weak man because he picks on the weakest of the pro-health reform moral arguments. There are other good moral reasons to support health care reform, and they involve arguments against the very real threat of medical bankruptcy, recision, denial of coverage of pre-existing conditions, and so forth.

The ad hominem accompanies the weak man–so weak are these arguments (which Samuelson has imputed to pro-reform people), that they must rather be dishonest attempts to score political points. Now that’s just a double-wammy. It’s a bit like saying this: “the weak argument I have dishonestly imputed to you is so bad that I question your honesty in making it.”

On the arguments against the specific plan, I’d say Samuelson needs to look beyond anti-reform sources of analysis and information. It’s a fair question whether the current plans being discussed will help, so we ought to have an honest discussion of that. But that perhaps is just hoping for too much.

But let me close by going back to something Samuelson said in defense of his poorly thought-out defense of the Iraq invasion:

But I am certain — now as then — that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It’s not that the costs are unimportant; it’s simply that they’re overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important. We can pay for whatever’s necessary. If we decide to do less because that’s the most sensible policy, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that any “savings” will rescue us from our long-term budget predicament, which involves the huge costs of federal retirement programs. Just because the war is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s the source of all our problems.

Other considerations that are much more important. Indeed.

Profits good

I'm sure Stephen L. Carter is a smart guy, but his opinion piece in the Washington Post today is unquestionably silly.  Here's how it begins:

A specter is haunting America: the specter of profit. We have become fearful that somewhere, somehow, an evil corporation has found a way to make lots of money.

Ok–who can see the problem?  Is it profits simpliciter (I used the Latin phrase since we're talking about a Yale law professor's thoughts here)?  High profits?  Or, perhaps, are we talking about disproportionately high profits earned when people don't make disproportionately large amounts of money?  I'm confused.  But let's continue.

Flash back three years. In 2006, Exxon Mobil announced the highest profit in the history of American corporate enterprise. Politicians and pundits stumbled over each other to call for an investigation and for some sort of confiscatory tax on the money the company earned. Profit, it seemed, was an evil, but large profit was even worse.

Again, I wonder, was it the simple fact of their making a profit, or was it there making a certain kind of profit.  Those, I think, are different propositions.  And indeed, when one considers the amount of public treasure (US military) spent on making Exxon's private wealth secure, one wonders whether it's fair for Exxon to reap rewards incommensurate with their contribution to the res publica, the public thing (Latin again).

Today, the debate on the overhaul of the health-care system sparks a shiver of deja vu. The leitmotif of the conversation about the coming shape of health insurance is that the villain is the system of private insurance. "For-profit" firms come under constant attack from activists and members of Congress.

Thus, a recent news release from the AFL-CIO began with this evidently alarming fact: "Profits at 10 of the country's largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007." Even had the figures been correct — they weren't — we are seeing the same circus. Profit is the enemy. America could be made pure, if only profit could be purged.

This attitude was wrong in 2006. It is wrong now. High profits are excellent news. When corporate earnings reach record levels, we should be celebrating. The only way a firm can make money is to sell people what they want at a price they are willing to pay. If a firm makes lots of money, lots of people are getting what they want.

Again–profits, high profits, disproportionate profits, and now profits illegitimately gained.  The problem with the high profits of the insurance companies is that they depend on their not paying claims–on their denying people the insurance that they have paid for (or charging a lot for very little).  Further, it's wrong to talk of "price their willing to pay" when it comes to insurance–one typically has little to no choice in the amount one has to pay or to whom one pays it.

This argument is already so bad that it's not worth continuing to criticize it–the rest goes on to argue that profit is good (including price gouging during natural disasters!).  But no one, save for a few college socialists (and really not even them) denies that profit simpliciter is a positive thing.  They just hold that profits of certain types and quantities are not necessarily a good thing–case in point, health insurance.  The confusion at the beginning makes this argument a case of equivocation, but the fact that the argument sets up a non-existent opponent makes it a very nice case of a hollow man (with a bit of weak man and classic straw man).  In other words, awesome take down, professor Carter, of an argument no one has seriously made.