Politics Skepticism/critical thinking

President Straw Man

Now here’s something you don’t see every day: a news analysis article pointing out a politician’s love of a logical fallacy:

WASHINGTON – “Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day,” President Bush said recently.

Another time he said, “Some say that if you’re Muslim you can’t be free.”

“There are some really decent people,” the president said earlier this year, “who believe that the federal government ought to be the decider of health care … for all people.”

Of course, hardly anyone in mainstream political debate has made such assertions.

When the president starts a sentence with “some say” or offers up what “some in Washington” believe, as he is doing more often these days, a rhetorical retort almost assuredly follows.

The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents. In describing what they advocate, Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.

He typically then says he “strongly disagrees” — conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making.

Bush routinely is criticized for dressing up events with a too-rosy glow. But experts in political speech say the straw man device, in which the president makes himself appear entirely reasonable by contrast to supposed “critics,” is just as problematic.

My jaw just about hit the floor when I read this. As Chemjerk said, “What amazes me about this article is its mere existence. You often see stories about the tactics of politicians, but you rarely see a news item that dissects a disengenious tactic so boldly.”

As regular readers know, skepticism and critical thinking are major themes of this blog, which means that pointing out straw man fallacies is a frequent activity of mine, whether they are used by creationists, alties, supporters of the paranormal, or other varieties of pseudoscientist or pseudohistorian. Basically, a straw man argument is the refutation of a weaker argument than the one that one’s opponent has actually proposed. Most commonly, it involves either paraphrasing one’s opponent’s argument in highly weakened form or misrepresenting it completely in such a way that it is more radical or less nuanced, attributing that weaker argument to him or her, and then refuting that argument. The weaker argument is the “straw man” that is knocked down in place of one’s opponent’s true argument. The use of the straw man argument can represent either dishonesty or merely sloppy thinking (or a combination of the two), and it is one of the most common logical fallacies I (and most others interested in skepticism and critical thinking) encounter. As Julian Baggini puts it:

Although the misrepresentations characteristic of straw men can be willful, often they simply reflect how little effort people make to understand their opponents’ points of view. We like the world to be clear cut and simple, made up only of black and white. If we attribute hopelessly inadequate or repugnant views to others, the virtues of our own commitments seem obvious. But if we grant that our enemies have an arguable case, then our own views suddenly do not seem so unassailable, and our opponents not so clearly on the side of the devil.

What’s so remarkable about the AP article that I cited above is that misrepresenting an opponent’s argument using a straw man is a time-honored tradition in American politics that dates back to time immemorial, so much so that it is generally hardly ever noticed when politicians engage in this particular logical fallacy. It’s just considered part of the business, something that all politicians do to one degree or another at one time or another. Indeed, the straw man argument is an essential tool of political spinmeisters. Even before I saw this article, I had gotten the impression that this administration had had even more of a tendency than previous ones to use logical fallacies, particularly the straw man argument. Bush was particularly fond of this one during the 2004 election:

Running for re-election against Sen. John Kerry in 2004, Bush frequently used some version of this line to paint his Democratic opponent as weaker in the fight against terrorism: “My opponent and others believe this matter is a matter of intelligence and law enforcement.”

The assertion was called a mischaracterization of Kerry’s views even by a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Of course, Republicans will retort, “Democrats do it too” (or “liberals do it too”), and indeed Democrats and liberal politicians do to some extent. (And, predictably, conservative bloggers are already claiming that Jennifer Loven–the writer of the AP article–does it too.) However, at least to my perception, they do not seem to rely on the straw man nearly as heavily as the President and his flacks do. Indeed, one thing that has never ceased to amaze me is the sheer artlessness and unimaginativeness of most of the straw men arguments that the President likes to keep repeating, making it shocking to me that they seem to have worked so well for so long. This all leads me to ask: Are the President’s straw man arguments intentional misrepresentations designed to deceive or are they an example of such broad oversimplifications that they reveal either a lack of critical thinking skills or perhaps even a contempt for the American people? Or do they represent a mixture of these factors?

Does it really matter which one it is?

And, no, I don’t think I’m using the logical fallacy known as the false dichotomy, either.

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By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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