The Weak Man Argument
September 5, 2009 10:04 AM   Subscribe

The Weak Man Argument or Getting Duped: How the Media Messes with Your Mind. A variant of the 'Straw Man fallacy,' the 'weak man' doesn't misstate a rival's position like a 'straw man,' but instead chooses "the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack." Originally proposed by Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin here. (pdf)
posted by anotherpanacea (71 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
The WMD in Iraq issue was pure propaganda. They used the term WMD because it encompassed such a large range of munitions (chemical, biological, dirty nuclear, nuclear). A hydrogen bomb is a WMD, so is anthrax or nerve gas or smallpox. The administration friendly media used weaselly and misleading language to implicate Al-Quaida ties in Iraq without actually making false claims, with the intention of creating an impression wholly unsupported by the facts. This was not some failing of public logical capacity, it was sleazy reporting.
posted by idiopath at 10:22 AM on September 5, 2009


Necessary public service.
posted by kldickson at 10:23 AM on September 5, 2009


Things like concentrating on Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh instead of Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg, for example.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:27 AM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Krauthammer and Goldberg really aren't any smarter or better than Beck and Limbaugh, they're just flattering and appealing to a different kind of shithead from the shitheads Beck and Limbaugh flatter and appeal to. Just because William Buckley used big words didn't make his arguments any less vacuous and vile.

I mean I swear to god, you people will give conservatives intellectual credit for being literate.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:38 AM on September 5, 2009 [20 favorites]


idiopath: The WMD in Iraq issue was pure propaganda. They used the term WMD because it encompassed such a large range of munitions (chemical, biological, dirty nuclear, nuclear). A hydrogen bomb is a WMD, so is anthrax or nerve gas or smallpox.

One thing I think needs to be done in future situations is the removal of chemical weapons from the WMD classification. Sure, they're nasty, and I agree they should be forbidden, but I just don't think they cause mass destruction in a way that say, conventional explosives don't. Nuclear weapons are bad because they might cause a nuclear war and a planetary holocaust, and biological weapons are bad because they might escape their bounds and go on to cause an apocalyptic plague, but chemical weapons simply don't seem to have potential consequences on anything like that scale. WWI was bad, yes, but not global-thermonuclear-war bad.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:39 AM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I mean I swear to god, you people will give conservatives intellectual credit for being literate.

The GOP: A bar has been lowered.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:48 AM on September 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


I read this stalemate as the end result of our culture's overwhelming NEED to pursue argument as if it's a SPORT (ie: something that must be won, or lost) as opposed to an open-learning opportunity (ie: enter with your own strong point-of-view, keep your senses and your MIND open, exit with a broadened worldview, the good ole win-win).

I just threw these two-bits into the dying embers of a different thread but I suspect they apply here.

My point being (all too obvious, I suppose) that it doesn't matter if your "Strawmanning" or "Weakmanning" (or whatever else), if your goal in a given argument is to WIN AT ALL COSTS, then you're being disingenuous. I don't care how holy your point may be. Because the mess we're currently in here on planet earth (culturally, politically, socially, you name it) will not be resolved by WINNING arguments. It will be resolved by connecting with those we feel animosity toward, feeling empathy, acknowledging their humanity and their humility ... and you know, holding hands and singing Beatles tunes together (that last part is optional).

A good example recently posted to the blue.
posted by philip-random at 10:51 AM on September 5, 2009 [10 favorites]


For what it's worth, both Limbaugh and Beck dropped out of college. Both Krauthammer and Goldberg completed college. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I'm willing to bet that the reasoning presented by the graduates is more nuanced and difficult to counter, while the other two rely on having broadcast pulpits and bullying techniques.
posted by hippybear at 10:57 AM on September 5, 2009


Limbaugh and Beck are college dropouts? No wonder they're morons. They're uneducated rubes.

Seriously, I don't know why nobody's pointing this out. It might actually make them unpopular enough that we sane, educated people can kick their asses.
posted by kldickson at 11:04 AM on September 5, 2009


I never got a single college credit, whatever that means.

Regarding the WMD issue, upon further research, the wikipedia article for WMD says that the term initally indicated biological and chemical weapons, after the development of the atomic bomb it referred almost always to nuclear weapons. Until the first gulf war, WMD meant nuclear weapons, and the definition was shifted in popular usage to include chemical and biological agents afterward.
posted by idiopath at 11:05 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Try getting some. It's good for your brain.
posted by kldickson at 11:07 AM on September 5, 2009


Limbaugh and Beck are college dropouts? No wonder they're morons.

Careful who you point that standard at, you might end up hitting a lot of the voter base you want to agree with you.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:08 AM on September 5, 2009 [13 favorites]


It will be resolved by connecting with those we feel animosity toward, feeling empathy, acknowledging their humanity and their humility ...

Unfortunately, I fear that some form of civil war is a more likely outcome.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:08 AM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


kldickson: I am OK with being stupid, thanks.
posted by idiopath at 11:09 AM on September 5, 2009 [10 favorites]


Sean Hannity dropped out of New York University AND Adelphi University.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:13 AM on September 5, 2009


Sometimes it feels like we've gone 'round the bend of being able to tamp down the rhetoric and reinstitute a civil debate oriented discourse when talking about national issues. I don't want that to be true, I guess I just get the feeling more and more each day when keeping up with the "major news" that our system is broken beyond repair.
posted by lazaruslong at 11:19 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


To be fair to Glenn Beck, he wanted to continue and was doing well in classes, but apparently there was some kind of major criminal investigation that got in the way and took up too much of his time. In 1990.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:20 AM on September 5, 2009 [22 favorites]


Guys, seriously, this LOLMORANS stuff is hurtful. Not all of us have the resources to attend an institution of higher eduction, and not all of us do well in formal academic environments. You know what? Some of us uneducated rubes still are capable of being articulate, well read, perhaps even occasionally insightful. Many of us would be your natural allies if it weren't for you calling us morons.
posted by idiopath at 11:26 AM on September 5, 2009 [38 favorites]


Any idea what that was, game warden? It must have been something really big to distract the poor man so badly that he had to drop out of school? Cheating scandal? Or something much, much worse?
posted by John of Michigan at 11:29 AM on September 5, 2009


I agree with idiopath, here. This isn't the ad hominem thread.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:29 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Man, that Jonah Goldberg example floors me. He's such a poor example of a reasonable or even reasonably intelligent voice on the right. Which makes me wonder: what's it called when you set out to prove against The Weak Man Argument (eg, somebody says that Glenn Beck represents conservatives) by providing what you believe is your best example (in turn, you say, "Hey, what about Jonah Goldberg?"), but by providing your best example you have unintentionally proven how weak your argument is. Because I think that's just what happened. It's not exactly being hoisted by your own petard, but it's close.
posted by billysumday at 11:31 AM on September 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


And just like that, within a dozen comments, the thread becomes a debate on the merits of college education, instead of actually addressing the key point of the post, which is sloppy journalism and media manipulation.
posted by darkstar at 11:35 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also known as the red herring fallacy!
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:39 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Limbaugh and Beck are college dropouts? No wonder they're morons. They're uneducated rubes.

Seriously, I don't know why nobody's pointing this out. It might actually make them unpopular enough that we sane, educated people can kick their asses.


Thank you, Earth-2 Ann Coulter.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:42 AM on September 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


There is something to be said for the validity of the Weak Man/Woman Argument, though.

When Sarah Palin is propped up as a credible candidate and her candidacy enthuses the vast majority of registered Republicans, it isn't being disengenuous or fallacious to point out the incredible weakness in her intellect/experience/insight/stability. Sure, she's a Weak Woman example and an easy target, but it's not like she represents only the statistical fringe of the party: she was their chosen representative heroine, center stage.

Similarly, though Beck and Limbaugh and Bachmann are classic examples of the Weak Man/Woman, they also have an enormous following. So one can't simply say "Oh, you're picking on the easy targets" because a large swath of Republicans hold those examples up as meritworthy representative of their party. Another part of the party may not feel this way, sure, but for those who do, it seems entirely appropriate to point out the absurdity of these exemplars of Republicanism.
posted by darkstar at 11:42 AM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have known plenty of stupid, illogical people who had graduate degrees. And I have known plenty of brilliant, well-read and -educated people who did not complete college (or did not even start it). It's lazy, elitist, and just plain incorrect to automatically dismiss people who do not have college degrees, or to credit people who have them with superior logic and persuasive ability. It's also counterproductive, as idiopath points out. We can do better than that.
posted by katemonster at 11:43 AM on September 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


Careful who you point that standard at, you might end up hitting a lot of the voter base you want to agree with you.

"Mr. Stevenson, all the thinking people support you!"

"Thanks, but I need a majority."
posted by dhartung at 11:45 AM on September 5, 2009 [9 favorites]


Any idea what that was, game warden? It must have been something really big to distract the poor man so badly that he had to drop out of school? Cheating scandal? Or something much, much worse?

He's bullshitting you.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:49 AM on September 5, 2009


Beck was admitted to a special program for non-traditional students at Yale University while he was working for a New Haven-area radio station, having received at least one of his recommendations from Senator Joe Lieberman. During this time Beck took a single theology class, dropping out around the time of his divorce.

Well, at least he tried!
posted by mek at 11:50 AM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what you mean, nebulawindphone. If that didn't happen in 1990, then when DID it happen? I think we'd ALL like to know!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:51 AM on September 5, 2009


(...Whatever that was that allegedly happened in alleged 1990.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:53 AM on September 5, 2009


All we need is a clear, straightforward denial from Glenn Beck, along with proof that it didn't happen. I don't think that's unreasonable.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:01 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Weren't people saying about Michael Moore back in the day that someone on the American Left was finally using the glib and sleazy polititainment techniques of the likes of Limbaugh? Now manipulative hyperbolic bullshit from the Right has the "what about Michael Moore?" justification (however weak that justification is, it is about as strong as the argument for what Moore was doing). Let's not stoop to their level. I am angered by Glenn Beck's sleazy rhetorical tactics as much as anyone else, but joining in is bad news.

It may be easier to defend our position from the lunatic fringe of the opposition, but it is also moving the overton window in a dangerous direction. Arguing in bad faith may be a good way to rally the troops, but it makes no new friends. I would like to be able to say that my side of the debate has largely avoided using straw man or weak man arguments to make its point.
posted by idiopath at 12:04 PM on September 5, 2009


I have known plenty of stupid, illogical people who had graduate degrees.

Income aside, I don't believe lacking a college degree (well, anything better than my Associate's) has placed me in any worse company. In fact, knowing Jonah Goldberg has a degree certainly keeps me from regretting my incomplete education.
posted by dgbellak at 12:08 PM on September 5, 2009


Seriously, the point I was making was in direct response to Chocolate Pickle's assertion that there are persons we should be paying more attention to than Limbaugh and Beck, and I was doing a comparison / contrast trying to focus on how the people he mentions might be more insidious with their arguments than Limbaugh or Beck. I have no prejudice against people who did not finish college. I didn't complete a degree myself, but have worked hard to self-educate about many topics, and am able to hold up my end in a discussion fairly well, I believe.

If others took that statement to be more about their lack of education and how we should mock that instead of seeing what I was really saying about the possibility that the more educated ranting voices might be more dangerous than the loud ones, I apologize for not having framed my statement more clearly.
posted by hippybear at 12:09 PM on September 5, 2009


Krauthammer has an MD. He was in a car accident and was paralyzed during his first year of medical school, but finished his degree anyway, including doing a lot of his studies in his hospital bed.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:16 PM on September 5, 2009


That is awesome. Krauthammer has an MD! Ipso facto, per se, abra-cadabra, he is an expert on foreign and domestic policy. WHO CAN ARGUE WITH THAT??
posted by billysumday at 12:19 PM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Time Warner's premium cable internet package is much much faster than ATT's slowest DSL package!
posted by Zangal at 12:23 PM on September 5, 2009


darkstar, you say: Similarly, though Beck and Limbaugh and Bachmann are classic examples of the Weak Man/Woman, they also have an enormous following. So one can't simply say "Oh, you're picking on the easy targets" because a large swath of Republicans hold those examples up as meritworthy representative of their party. Another part of the party may not feel this way, sure, but for those who do, it seems entirely appropriate to point out the absurdity of these exemplars of Republicanism.

the article in the first link says: this is hardly illegitimate all the time, because sometimes the weaker argument is actually the prevalent one. Maybe the best arguments for Christianity are offered up by Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine, but I doubt there are very many people who are believers because they read On Christian Doctrine.

It seems pretty clear that the weak man is not always fallacious or decietful (or maybe if it is actually the vanguard position, it is not the weakman, even if it is far from the most logically sound).
posted by idiopath at 12:30 PM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the first link:

But it also meshes with an unfortunate psychological bias that I’m finding more and more grating lately: It seems that most people genuinely have no idea what people with very different views actually think.

This has bothered me for a long time, too, and I see a lot of it here on MetaFilter.
posted by languagehat at 12:54 PM on September 5, 2009 [18 favorites]


Things like concentrating on Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh instead of Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg, for example.

Suggesting that people should ignore one bunch of reprobates and focus on the reprobates of their choice is often referred to as a Weak Sauce argument.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:02 PM on September 5, 2009 [6 favorites]


Krauthammer is smart enough that I consider it a safe bet that not only does he know full well when he is distorting, but he puts a great deal of deliberation and thought into crafting the most effective lies and distortions he can. To him, the end justifies the means.

Intentional deception is not making stronger arguments, it's just using different methods of persuasion. He might use, for example, an introductory misdirection to disguise the substitution of a straw man and take it from there, whereas Rush might instead employ a stirring and emotive exaggeration.

Different approach, but hardly a weak man / strong man. Neither can withstand scrutiny - but they're not intended too, because they don't need too withstand scrutiny to sway hearts and minds in this media environment.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:04 PM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


But it also meshes with an unfortunate psychological bias that I’m finding more and more grating lately: It seems that most people genuinely have no idea what people with very different views actually think.

This has bothered me for a long time, too, and I see a lot of it here on MetaFilter.


That's a factor, languagehat. But sometimes that's also a convenient excuse (or a comforting perception) used by people that are being irrational but don't realize it or don't want to admit it. It's a lot easier to imagine that their interlocutor "just doesn't understand them", which then insulates them from having to critically evaluate their own position.

I've encountered this a fair amount from some of the more right-wing folks I've discussed politics with in the past. They get wound up into the whole "you just don't understand the conservative mindset/worldview/principles". Then I explain to them that I was a politically active conservative Republican for over 20 years and a leader in evangelical Christian ministry and that I understand the "conservative mindset" at least as well as they do.

The expression that steals over their face in that moment when they realize that, yes, I actually DO understand where they're coming from and still disagree with it on rational grounds is somewhat gratifying, but it doesn't last long. In almost every case, my interlocutor rallies and veers off into some kind of evasion.

But I agree, there probably is a fair bit of misunderstanding and confusion at large in the broader debate.
posted by darkstar at 1:10 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've encountered this a fair amount from some of the more right-wing folks I've discussed politics with in the past. They get wound up into the whole "you just don't understand the conservative mindset/worldview/principles". Then I explain to them that I was a politically active conservative Republican for over 20 years and a leader in evangelical Christian ministry and that I understand the "conservative mindset" at least as well as they do.

Agreed. When I explain to people that the hippie they see standing before them used to picket abortion clinics in the Dallas area during his college years and would regularly make "bold stands" on his college campus about the necessity of realizing that the world was created 6000 years ago instead of millions and millions of years ago, they often blink twice and swallow, and then try to change the subject.

I often find myself standing in a bit of a puzzle about how I could have been THAT back then, but I was, and I cannot change my past, only affect the present in hopes to create a better future.
posted by hippybear at 1:15 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I like the fallacy, but I'm not convinced that there is a "weak man" fallacy in party politics - with so many people affiliated to all parties, every party and every issue will always have some moron or radical dumb enough to present self-evidently wrong arguments.

Addressing only the arguments of the village idiot - arguments that carry little or no traction in the wider party - is not so much a weak man, it's a straw man.

And if the party is made up of village idiots, and so a lot of people subscribe to really bad arguments, then addressing those arguments is neither weak man, nor straw man.

I suppose that there is a gray area in the middle that you could call weak man, but I think this fallacy is most useful when applied to a cohesive proponent of a viewpoint, not a rabble.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:23 PM on September 5, 2009


A weak man argument, however, is more opaque because it contains a grain of truth and often bears little similarity to the stronger arguments that should also be presented. Therefore, a listener has to know a lot more about the situation to imagine the information that a speaker or writer has cleverly disregarded.

I've heard a lot of things said about the US public (or actually, for any public, US or other countries), but "know a lot more" is a sequence of words rarely uttered in those things.
posted by DreamerFi at 1:34 PM on September 5, 2009


-harlequin-: a lot of people subscribe to really bad arguments

this phrase got me thinking, a large problem with the political discourse in the US is a different set of standards of what a good argument is. For many people, especially those on the Right, but disturbingly more and more on the Left as well, a good argument is one that quickly and effectively changes a mind. Whether because it is because it is better reasoned, more effective at stigmatizing the opponent, or better able to incite fear / anger / contempt / whatever other emotion better manipulates the decisions of the constituency. As far as the by-any-means arguers are concerned any argument that changes a mind is an effective one, whether made in good faith or not.

For all the bloviating about the elitism of the Left, I would say that a condescending usage of emotional arguments is as elitist as a prejudice against lack of education or culture, and it compounds the elitism with a manipulative using of the target of that elitism for political gain, which is yet more repulsive.
posted by idiopath at 1:42 PM on September 5, 2009


Let's take an example: screeds about "death panels" as the weaker argument vs. a subtle, nuanced critique of the marginal possibilities that a government option might somehow include making difficult choices about resource allocation in the treatment of terminal care patients.

There is, perhaps, a point to be made in the subtler argument. But it's an irrelevant one, since the status quo has FAR more pernicious, systematized rationing of health care for terminal care patients via insurance companies' denial of claims for treatment.

So this is a case that even the stronger argument is based on an inherently flawed premise: that a government run option would "lead to" some kind of rationing. The premise is unraveled by the fact that we are already there, and in far worse condition than the putative danger of the proposed change.

Folks in favor of the public option are making this counterargument. But it is gaining no traction because the opponents of the Republicans' "stronger" argument don't respond to it, anyway. The "intellectual" heft of the Republican party is content to ignore the nuanced refutation of their best argument, while the vocal mob of their party continues to shout about death panels. It's a kind of kabuki that we've seen all too many times before and it is not geared to have any kind of resolution, except to confound their opposition.

One is not supposed to ascribe motives to an interlocutor and instead should assume they are arguing in good faith. But when they have shown a pattern of refusing to acknowledge counterarguments made even against their best positions, it seems reasonable to surmise that something other than a search for the truth is motivating their participation in the debate.
posted by darkstar at 1:50 PM on September 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


*But it is gaining no traction because the opponentsadherents of the Republicans' "stronger" argument don't respond to it, anyway.
posted by darkstar at 1:52 PM on September 5, 2009


The "intellectual" heft of the Republican party is content to ignore the nuanced refutation of their best argument.

That's not true.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:33 PM on September 5, 2009


I stand corrected, anotherpanacea. That article, indeed, does not actually ignore the nuanced refutation against their best argument. Sadly, it caricaturizes it and offers quite flawed rebuttal to it.

Just taking one section from the brief column:
If you design a formula to deny granny a pacemaker, knowing that this is the intent of the formula, then you've killed granny just as surely as if you'd ordered the doctor to do it directly. That's the intuition behind the conservative resistance to switching from price rationing to fiat rationing. Using the government's coercive power to decide the price of something, or who ought to get it, is qualitatively different from the same outcome arising out of voluntary actions in the marketplace. Even if you don't share the value judgement, it's not irrational, except in the sense that all human decisions have an element of intuition and emotion baked into them.
I) Sure. "If you design a formula to deny granny a pacemaker, knowing this is the intent of the formula"...and so forth. But is this really the design of the formula, or its intent, from those who are proponents of the public option? Are we seriously to suggest that the idea of providing a government run OPTION - with the intention to rest alongside private market options, with the explicit intent to provide better coverage to folks who don't have or can't seriously count on the private market not to let them fall through the cracks - is intended to deny granny a pacemaker? Is anyone who is making that kind of rebuttal to be taken seriously in the debate?

II) Secondly "Using the government's coercive power to decide the price of something, or who ought to get it, is qualitatively different from the same outcome arising out of voluntary actions in the marketplace." This comment achieves a remarkable trifecta of illogic:

a) it is based on a flawed premise that "Granny" is going to have her insurance coverage shifted from a private coverage to a government run coverage. But the public option is not intended, nor is it expected, to remove the possibility of anyone to get anything. Granny, one presumes, is an elderly woman already covered by Medicare. Introducing a public option is not going to force her or anyone else to leave behind a private insurance coverage to shift to a government run option. And if Granny is not covered by Medicare and is, instead, on a private insurance plan, a public option does not require her to shift to a government run plan. The Public Option is intended to provide just that, an option for people who prefer it - i.e., for those for whom it would provide a better choice than they currently have.

b) It commits the fallacy of argument-by-assertion that the rationing, whatever that might be, is "qualitatively different" than the same outcome from private market pressures. But there's very little "qualitative" difference in the effect, to whatever it might be (we are not told this) to an individual who is dropped through the cracks by a government option as opposed to one that arises from private insurance denial of claims. Indeed, the ostensible result - inaccessibility to treatment - is qualitatively identical to the patient in question.

c) The statement explicitly uses a grossly manipulative emotional hook to obfuscate all of the above by conjuring up the ideas that your Granny is going to be denied a pacemeker, the equivalent of "ordering the doctor to kill her directly." This is not an argument with the intention to calmly and rationally rebut a opponent's position, but explicitly engages in fearmongering. It then relies on this fearmongered anxiety to engage in a circular argumentation by suggesting that it is this "intuition" among opponents of the Public Option that supposedly makes the argument rational. But ginning up and promulgating fear about Granny in one breath and then in the next breath using the result of your fearmongering - that is, the fearful intuitions you've helped to cultivate - as support for your argument is the basest form of argumentation and cannot seriously be considered as based in rational argument.

So, I suppose, if this is the best example we have of the intellectual heft of the Republican party in their most nuanced case, it really goes to illustrate my original point, I think. Namely, the arguments being promulgated really are not intended to arrive at a deeper understanding of the truth, but are instead a kind of tribal kabuki intended to confound political opposition and, concomitantly, to build social cohesion among the like-minded.
posted by darkstar at 3:27 PM on September 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


anotherpanacea's article is a convergence of this from both sides.
-Palin makes a ridiculous argument which gains widespread traction
-Robert Wright points out that it's ridiculous. He provides a simplistic quip to apply to the kind of person who buys into death panels. He points out that current "market" rationing has worse features than the proposed reform.
-Megan McArdle addresses the quip and ignores the discussion of what the system right now looks like, or how health care might be different from other goods.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:45 PM on September 5, 2009


Believe none of what you read and only half of what you see.

I wish I'd heed this advice all the time.
posted by bwg at 4:48 PM on September 5, 2009


The expression that steals over their face in that moment when they realize that, yes, I actually DO understand where they're coming from and still disagree with it on rational grounds is somewhat gratifying, but it doesn't last long. In almost every case, my interlocutor rallies and veers off into some kind of evasion.

That's very common, changing subject entirely or theatrically stand up and go away, claiming that is its impossible to "talk" with you. Also common is compunding multiple arguments and expect you to address them in few words,talking over you or ridiculing your arguments.

Possibly one of the causes of these behaviors is being used to be fed only bit of information at a time, for instance dismissing the whole iraqui war in 2 minutes and the next piece of news are the latest lotto number extracted. Surely one doesn't get used to follow any reasoning for longer than 5 minutes.
posted by elpapacito at 6:57 PM on September 5, 2009


I don't always agree with McArdle, but when she talks about Granny, she's just being ironic, she's not fearmongering. However, McArdle notes what you're denying, which is that the bills on the table all cut Medicare in some way. Seniors have a very good deal in this country right now, and they're likely to lose some of their political power if the IMAC bill is passed.

More to the point, it's not an article, it's a blog post. It doesn't make a full argument, it only responds to a particular point. McArdle has been writing about rationing for a month now, but most progressives refuse to consider her arguments: they'd rather pretend that the conservative bad guys don't understand that the-market-rations-too. In fact, libertarians and economists are quite well aware of this. They simply think the market rations better, and that the best way to deal with the inequality that emerges is through subsidies for the poor.

This is her latest blog post on the matter, which articulates her concerns against a reading of Ronald Dworkin, who's a fairly tough and intelligent progressive voice in the scholarly realm, specifically law and political philosophy. Again, I don't subscribe to these views, but I think they're much stronger than the death panel nonsense:
I don't think that there is "a" regime of social justice to which all right-thinking people subscribe, which [makes] me reluctant to empower technocrats to enforce this mythical consensus.

There's another intuition that at least libertarians have, which is that it is not as bad to have undesirable things result from an impersonal process than from an active decision. It is bad if someone's house burns down and they couldn't afford insurance. It's worse if someone's house burns down, and they were in the class of people deemed unworthy by a bureaucrat of having their house rebuilt.

I think almost all progressives have the opposite intuition. They think it's better to try to produce an optimal result, even if that results in individual injustices (which it will--government rules are very broad brush, and will always involve error at the margins). I'm not sure how to bridge that intuitive gap.
In any case, my only reason for citing her is to point out that, a month after she leapt into the debate, many people on the left still pretend there's no intelligent counterargument on the 'rationing' issue and continue to argue against Sarah Palin's idiotic throwaway line.

It's fine if you disagree with McArdle after a careful reading. I certainly do. But at least have the intellectual honesty to compare your political opinions on the matter to a strong version of the position you oppose. It's just not worth counting coup against Birthers and idiots when there are serious policy matters under discussion, unless your purpose is rhetorical and not the pursuit of the best policies for the best reasons.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:38 PM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Let's take a look at the excerpt you quoted:

There's another intuition that at least libertarians have, which is that it is not as bad to have undesirable things result from an impersonal process than from an active decision.

She makes this statement in support of the idea that it will be government bureaucrats who are actively making decisions to deny care, while the clear implication is that private insurance companies are somehow merely the disembodied and impersonal invisible hand of the economy. But her assertion completely perverts the reality that it is private market denial of care which is explicitly decision-based, with the decisions being made by very real, flesh-and-blood people in the insurance recission departments.

In the next breath, she says:

I think almost all progressives have the opposite intuition. They think it's better to try to produce an optimal result, even if that results in individual injustices (which it will--government rules are very broad brush, and will always involve error at the margins).

But this completely flies in the face of the reality that there are grossly pervasive individual injustices in the private insurance system. Her implied premise is that government options lead to (ostensibly more) individual injustices and her conclusion is therefore that progressives are somehow thus interested in seeking optimal results at the expense of individual protections. But this is also flawed: progressives in this case are interested in reducing the individual injustices by providing another option which can cover those most likely to fall through the cracks, as opposed to providing an optimal result that somehow makes individual injustice a greater problem than it already is.

With an argument that is so transparently both invalid and unsound, one is to assume that she is the cream of the crop in terms of conservative intellectualism on the subject? These are fallacies any undergraduate in an Intro to Formal Logic course should be able to point out. Which again goes to my larger point that even the intellectual heft of the conservative movement seems to be struggling to put together arguments that withstand scrutiny, in favor of following the siren song of demagoguery, however genteel.

And inasmuch as I have been directly and explicitly addressing her points/arguments, I don't really think the admonition to embrace intellectual honesty and eschew simply "counting coup" is really called for in this particular case. Unless you were referring to someone else who isn't in this particular discussion. Of course, I can't answer for them, but then, I wouldn't expect to defend the unsound or invalid arguments of weaker interlocutors, anyway, that being the whole point of this post and thread.
posted by darkstar at 9:20 PM on September 5, 2009


And, for what it's worth, I responded to her blog post because that was the one you linked as counterexample to my position. It may not be a prime example of her argumentation, but it is the one you provided as an example, so it was the one I directly addressed. As you posted another one, I responded to that one, as well. So I don't think I'm avoiding engaging with her strongest arguments, unless the examples you provide aren't them and she has better ones written elsewhere. Which, to be honest, one would strongly hope is the case if she is supposed to be an exemplar of conservative intellectualism on the topic in question.

One presumes that there is something about her arguments that strikes you as "off", as well, since you also disagree with her. I'm curious what that is: is it merely values-based disagreement or do you also find logical/rational reasons to call her argument into question?
posted by darkstar at 9:29 PM on September 5, 2009


Look darkstar, I don't think this is a good place for me to explain how it is that you're misreading McArdle's position. If you're interested in health care policy, you should read the blog. That's all. The fact that you think you've proven something here indicates that you don't know enough about the opposing viewpoint to adequately interpret her statements. You need to immerse yourself in it a bit to understand how the reasons and justifications fit together. Right now, you're not even in weak man territory: the arguments you claim to disprove are real, honest-to-god strawmen.

One presumes that there is something about her arguments that strikes you as "off", as well, since you also disagree with her.

Not all disagreements are logical or 'values' based. Sometimes we disagree on predictions or on the proper intepretation of facts. McArdle's major concern with 'single-payer' style systems is that price controls tend to crowd out innovation. If a drug company knows it can only make a certain amount of profit and no more, it'll adjust its research and development budget to reflect the expected payoffs, and we'll slow the development of future treatments as a result. Thus, future patients who would have been saved by future drugs will suffer so that present patients can more easily afford the drugs presently available.

This is sometimes called 'discounting,' insofar as we treat future benefits as worth less than present benefits. If we have to choose between spending resources to treat a person now or invest those resources into research for a treatment that will cure a currently-untreatable disease, we can calculate the benefits according to a formula. Today's patients have access to better treatments than the patients in the 1960s did, because we left some people untreated and spent the money on innovation, instead. Don't we have an obligation to devote some resources to innovation so that patients in 2060 can have better treatments than we do? That's what our parents' generation did, after all....

But since there will be many more future patients than there are current ones, an undiscounted comparison will always put off benefits until tomorrow. (Compare all the people who will ever have, say, leukemia to the number of at-risk people that currently go without flu shots. If the timeline is long enough, the leukemia sufferers will always win.) So sometimes discount rates can help determine whether it's better to spend the money now or invest it in research for later. But that depends on how badly people suffer for not spending money on treatment, now.

The reason I disagree with McArdle is because I suspect that state-funded research can mimic the private R&D model using public-private partnerships, and I think she's incorrectly valuing present suffering vis-a-vis future suffering. In short, I think it might be possible to have our cake and eat it, too. But I don't know that for sure, not by a long shot, and people like McArdle keep us honest about the difference between what we know and what we hope. These aren't incommensurable value questions, and they're not resolvable by logic alone: basically, they're empirical questions, and we can gather the data and settle the debate. But first we have to understand that there is a real debate!
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:04 PM on September 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Which makes me wonder: what's it called when you set out to prove against The Weak Man Argument (eg, somebody says that Glenn Beck represents conservatives) by providing what you believe is your best example (in turn, you say, "Hey, what about Jonah Goldberg?"), but by providing your best example you have unintentionally proven how weak your argument is. Because I think that's just what happened. It's not exactly being hoisted by your own petard, but it's close.

In lieu of a good Devil's Advocate, this will have to be called a Devil's Public Defender.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:43 PM on September 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


antherpanacea, I appreciate your take on McArdle and why you disagree with her. I think the basis for your disagreeing with her is well-reasoned. I appreciate that you are far more informed on her specific arguments than I am. But the fact that you are more versed in her position than I am does not insulate the statements you have selected from reasoned scrutiny. That is to say, she may have an incredibly rich tapestry of insight on the health care issue, but the statements quoted illustrate some seriously flawed reasoning, nevertheless.

I appreciate that you think I just haven't read enough of her work to understand her, but you know, I'm not completely ignorant about this issue and about what many conservatives think about it. To suggest that I can't spot fallacious argumentation in someone's discourse because I'm not familiar with their whole oeuvre is simply a kind of appeal to authority fallacy: oh, well, you have to be an astronomer in order to legitimately say that the sky is blue. Otherwise, you really aren't informed enough to be able to validly refute an intellectual assertion that the sky is green. I hate analogies, but you get my point, I hope.

As to whether I am committing a "real, honest-to-God strawman" argument in my refutations of her points, I don't think you're using that term accurately. I'll simply note that I am quoting her verbatim, not refuting some made-up positions. And I am responding explicitly to those verbatim statements. And these are statements that you, yourself, have provided as exemplars of her best reasoning. And that these statements have glaring flaws of reasoning in them, which I've already noted. What I am doing cannot fairly be dismissed as "straw man" argumentation.

I'm certainly capable of having a reasoned, respectful, in-depth discussion on the Blue, as I think I'm demonstrating. I find it disappointing when you say don't feel you can do the same.

But, c'est la vie.
posted by darkstar at 11:27 PM on September 5, 2009


What I am doing cannot fairly be dismissed as "straw man" argumentation.

McArdle argues X.

You claim that Y is false, and that therefore X is false.

This is a strawman argument.

Here's where you do it:

the clear implication is that private insurance companies are somehow merely the disembodied and impersonal invisible hand of the economy.
and
Her implied premise is that government options lead to (ostensibly more) individual injustices

Do you see how in both arguments you claim "this is what she really means"? I'm telling you, that's not what she really means. She means what she says, not the words you want to put in her mouth. When you put words in someone's mouth and then argue against them in order to claim that their position is false, you're committing the strawman fallacy. In both cases, she believes and claims the opposite of the position you attribute to her.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:36 AM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just read with dismay that Obama's Green Jobs "Czar" was forced to resign after relentless attack from Beck and the like. They painted him as a revolutionary communist for making statements like "We want a new system!" I don't know if that's a weak man argument, but it sure is disgusting and depressing that it worked.
posted by diogenes at 6:57 AM on September 6, 2009


anotherpanacea, those are the clear implications from the context of the posts you linked, so I think it's kind of handwaving for you to just assert that they aren't what she said. Furthermore, some of the points I made were in response to very explicit text. So if that's not what she means, then she really needs to get a better editor. Because in the context of her blog posts, that's exactly what she says, exactly what I quoted and it's flawed for exactly the reasons I've given above.

If you say that's not what she really means, okay. And if you're saying that I need to read much more of her work to discern that's not really what she means, I accept that. But it's hardly a shining example of her intellectual acumen that a straightforward reading of a couple of her representative writing samples gives one a diametrically opposed understanding of where she stands.

Nor does it do her credit that the other flaws I pointed out (her misattribution of progressives' intents, her misstating of the intent of proposed legislation, her use of intentionally manipulative, fearmongering language and her subsequent reliance on the existence of that cultivated fear to somehow justify her position) remain.
posted by darkstar at 9:33 AM on September 6, 2009


The reverse of this is practiced constantly by Mickey Kaus over at Kausfiles. He frames the opposition's (conservative) argument in the best light, which sometimes results in a better response than what the allies (Democrats) have actually used. An example, I think, is that he identified "Orszagism" as the problem that caused the healthcare debate to become muddled.

I'm not sure there are many other commentators like him. (This also, of course, ignores libertarians and leftists and other non-party-adherents, who often don't support whatever policy is being discussed anyhow.)
posted by FuManchu at 5:40 AM on September 7, 2009


Thanks for the link, FuManchu. It took me a while to untangle the root of 'Orszagism' but once I did it actually helps make sense of the current muddle. I do rather like Orszag, though.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:52 AM on September 7, 2009


I am not as snarky and sarcastic as I may sound at first when I say:

Good luck getting anyone to say Orszagism on TV. It sounds like a portmanteau of orgy, orgasm, and jism.

Regarding the actual content, it seems perfectly reasonable that a more comprehensive centralized solution would have a lower overall cost while providing 100% coverage. This is exactly what much of the developed world has, anyway. Aren't we over that American exceptionalism canard yet?
posted by idiopath at 5:54 AM on September 7, 2009


Heh, yes, I haven't been following the trail of blame closely, but I can definitely see part of the fun of jumping on Orszag is coming up with the term Orszagism.

[I]t seems perfectly reasonable that a more comprehensive centralized solution would have a lower overall cost while providing 100% coverage.

Reasonable, but debatable. Kaus' point was that it should be a 100% coverage bill first, and say there may be savings later. He acknowledged that the savings claim itself is debatable. The problem was that it was initially being sold as a cost containment proposition -- as in, we can't afford to not have government-involved healthcare. And that's what's valuable in Kaus -- he knows that a lot of people won't just accept it as true. He rids the proposal of the "weak man" arguments the opposition will immediately jump on.
posted by FuManchu at 6:32 AM on September 7, 2009


MetaFilter: It sounds like a portmanteau of orgy, orgasm, and jism.
posted by hippybear at 7:31 AM on September 7, 2009


anotherpanacea: What I'm getting at is that there are two debates progressives have to win. First is the smart debate, where policy wonks and the intellectual class figure out what the likely effects of policy decisions are and what the implications are. For example, if the rationing that a government plan does is somehow worse or less moral than the rationing which private insurers conduct currently. But they also have to win the very dumb public relations debate, and the first time you say 'rationing' somebody pops up claiming that you're throwing granny in the basement to die regardless of if you ration better.

It's almost impossible to do both of these debates at once, especially as the value of dumb becomes large. On the internet and in the public sector at large where discourse is visible to everyone, how do you win these debates? Most liberal bloggers / commentators are not arguing against objections as sophisticated as those which could possibly be raised, but most of the people they have to convince do not have those sophisticated objections. The value of winning the dumb debate has gotten much larger than the value of the smart one, especially as our elected representatives find themselves beholden to the soundbite and the 30 second campaign ad. I think this is a big part of why the weak man gets used: it reflects the concerns of the public even if it is much less advanced than the best possible opponent.

Another example would be in the tax debate. A very smart conservative might argue something related to actual economics, but since they're not doing that in congress or the town hall why should the liberals who want policy change?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:47 AM on September 8, 2009


a robot made out of meat: I think you're right, and Julian Sanchez addresses that in the first link. Politics is not public policy scholarship. There are a lot of false assumptions circulating due to voter ignorance, and many of them impact the range of viable policies. Correcting some of those has to be the purpose of political speech. So that means we spend a lot of time distinguishing IMAC rationing from a death panel, or the "public option" from single-payer. So if you're interested in the debate, and you know enough to make those distinctions, you should, of course, correct your ignorant relatives when they send you their crazy email forwards, etc.

But assuming you're interested in the debate and truly want to get the right answer, you can't be satisfied with having defeated the loony fringe. You've got to seek out the smartest opponents you can and try seriously to match your arguments against theirs. This usually involves undermining one's own certitude, embracing fallibilism and forgoing strict pluralism/relativism. But I'd say that if we're not willing to do that, our confidence is unearned.

I think there's a major public choice barrier to having the kinds of debates that really need to be had publicly: that's the draw of the smoky back-room deal, where none of the ignorant masses can intrude with their absurd rhetoric and misplaced fervor. But if we want to be a mature democracy, we've got to hold each other to high standards of civility and public discussion. The costs are what always stick in our craw: putting up with idiots, responding to smugness with a smile and a reiterated request for calm debate, and worse, the necessity of sometimes giving up on a conversation with an opponent who refuses to see reason. I think the rewards are worth it: more public participation, better policy outcomes, less polarization, and more cross-cutting interaction with those with whom we disagree.

Moderates are just so much more interesting than partisans. Activists are all about incommensurable principles and painting the opposition as malefactors. You always know what a partisan is going to say before she says it, and the gaps in their knowledge are usually staggering. With moderates, it's amazing how much you can learn from the moments of surprising disagreement: a principle differently applied, a piece of data which you never considered, or a different sense of how institutions fit together optimally.

Don't get me wrong: there's real evil in the world and it's important to oppose it; but it's rarely particularly interesting. Evil is, by its nature, superficial and uninteresting, and those who oppose it generally have to be fairly single-minded in order to sustain their efforts. But most things that we work on in advanced liberal democracies aren't about pure evil, and treating them as if they are just damages our capacity to get the right answers. (Torture, war, and exclusion are exceptions to this, in my humble opinion: I think of them as holdovers that liberal democracies just haven't mastered yet.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:29 AM on September 8, 2009


Limbaugh and Beck are college dropouts? No wonder they're morons. They're uneducated rubes.

This is utter nonsense. Education beyond high school is neither proof of intellectual or moral superiority, nor infallibility.

Some of this country's (and the world's) greatest minds and most talented creatives were and are autodidacts. They're authors, politicians, poets, actors, philosophers, inventors, journalists and entertainers. Read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Then study up on the life histories of Abe Lincoln, John Rockefeller, Ralph Lauren, Larry Ellison, Walt Disney, Michael Dell, Harry Truman, Steve Wozniak, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, James Cameron and Henry Ford. A lack of education did not stop them from accomplishing great things. It also didn't make them likable or dislikable people. Edison, Disney and Ford were noted antisemites. Lincoln lost four political races for Congress and was despised by half the country during his presidency, yet look at how he is revered today. By all accounts Steve Wozniak is highly liked and respected.

And lest we forget, our last President graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School. Half the planet thought he was a moron.

Seriously, I don't know why nobody's pointing this out. It might actually make them unpopular enough that we sane, educated people can kick their asses.

Perhaps they're smart enough to know that the act of achieving a degree shows very little of the measure of a person. One need look no further than Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski to recognize this.
posted by zarq at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


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